Historical Bits & Pieces by Chuck Pishko


Hassell Island Battery (Fort Willoughby), left, and Denmark Hill, right, 1843.

Notable Military Sites on Hassell Island

Hassell Island captured the headlines with a major volunteer community cleanup on Saturday, December 8. About 200 volunteers, mostly young island people, were on Hassell Island for the first time. Groups from JROTC programs at Charlotte Amalie High School and Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, the V.I. Amateur Boxing Federation, Saints Peter & Paul School, Antilles School and the Civil Air Patrol all volunteered.

Governor John deJongh’s Special Assistant Lesly Comissiong coordinated the effort sponsored by the Office of the Governor and Essence Properties in conjunction with the Virgin Islands National Park, Friends of the National Park, and the St. Thomas Historic Trust. Ricardo and Josefina Charaf of Essence Properties hosted a luncheon for the volunteers at their Hassell Island home. It was a real class act and part of the major cleanup that involves the professional removal of sunken vessels and equipment and the collection of historical artifacts (looks like junk to the non-professional) by the National Park Archaeological staff.  

Many people are confused by the number of different fortifications, batteries and “forts” on this island. Why are there so many and why do some of them have more than one name? Part of the confusion comes from the fact we have been under Danish rule from 1687-1917 but were also occupied by the British during 1801-1802 and 1807-1815.

As part of its effort to blockade France, Britain demanded that Denmark stop all trade with France and seized merchant vessels as prizes of war with cargo intended for France. In retaliation, Denmark formed an alliance with Sweden and Russia, the Armed Neutrality Pact, with the slogan “Free ships, free cargo.” Denmark was entirely dependent on a large fleet and the merchant marines for its economy and for its communications with and administration of its possessions. This fleet, if seized by France, would be a potential threat to Britain.

On January 14, 1801, Britain sent one fleet to the West Indies and somewhat later another fleet to the Baltic with sealed orders. Copenhagen was to be besieged and the Danish West Indies attacked and occupied simultaneously. The British Antillean fleet had 5,000 English troops and 5,000 West Indian troops in reserve. The Danish West Indies could muster a total of 1,500 between all the islands including about 900 civilian militia. Negotiations were initiated and it was agreed that the Danish islands were to be considered as peacefully occupied and not taken in an act of war. Danish law and regulations were to remain in effect and the Danish civil government to continue operating.

Work was immediately initiated on the fortifications of the peninsula. The earlier Danish designed battery on Point Frederik was retained and named Fort Willoughby. Two other batteries were designed and built on the higher elevations of the north and south hill of the peninsula. The responsibility for the construction of these new fortifications were given to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Shipley. The batteries and the cookhouses were of masonry construction but other buildings were wood frame on masonry bases. The battery on the hill to the south was named in honor of Colonel Cowell, who died during the first occupation and was buried on the peninsula. The battery on the north end of the island was named after Shipley and the entire fortification complex was called Fort Shipley. The British occupation ended February, 1802 and they left 36 structures behind on the peninsula.

In 1807 the Danish West Indies were again surrendered to a combined British naval and military force. The former barracks and other military buildings of the post were expanded considerably by additions and supplementary buildings. This was a necessity as the occupying force of the second period consisted of a full regiment of about 1,500 men. For St. Thomas, the British occupation meant a lessening of trade, shortage of supplies and a stagnation of the economy. The harbor was as crowded as ever, for the British used it as a rendezvous port for assembling the convoys leaving for Europe with navy escorts, often more than 400 ships, but since they neither paid harbor dues nor brought trade to the island they provided no real economic benefits equal to the earlier inter-island and free European trade that their presence inhibited. Following the final defeat of Napoleon, the British handed back the Virgin Island to Denmark on April 5, 1815.

“The British fortifications planning of the late eighteenth century and carried into the first decades of the nineteenth century developed along very different lines than the military planning of contemporary French and other European powers,” according to Fred Gjessing’s Historic Structures Report on Hassell Island. “Instead of centralized and massively built-up strongholds that contained all the defenses of the area in question, the British military planners selected strategically important ground and on it placed a few batteries of fairly modest size that commanded the ingress or egress or controlled an anchorage of whatever was the military object and deployed the facilities that were to serve the defense positions of the batteries over a fairly widely scattered area. Fort Charlotte in St. Vincent, Ruppert’s Head in Dominica and Shirley Heights in Antigua to name only a few are of this military planning concept and Hassell Island is a textbook version of the same.”

Fortunately, the late Frederik Gjessing, the extraordinary historical architect, had sorted it all out and left extensive writings on Hassell Island. With all of the current attention, all of the confusion will soon disappear from Hassell Island.