Living History Relived Along the Fortsberg History Trail

Pictured above: Learning history in a living classroom along the Fortsberg history trail. The annual tour takes place the day after Thanksgiving. 
Photo by Judi Shimel.

ST. JOHN — It’s hard to get bored in history class when you’re zooming through the view on scenic St. John. It’s the day after Thanksgiving and students from the speech class at Charlotte Amalie High School are learning about the events of Nov. 23, 1733.

Their assignment: pay attention. There will be a quiz later, composed by lead tour guide, Dr. Gilbert Sprauve.

On the way there were lessons in geography, architecture, warfare strategy, communication and commerce.

But paying attention is hard. It’s a day off. Blue school uniforms have been left at home and there’s buddy chat from the next seat over.

Every now and then the safari bus pulls over and everyone gets out. Then it’s down the road, up a hill, through the bush.

All the way to Fortsberg.

Sprauve, a retired linguistics teacher from the University of the Virgin Islands and Leba Ola-Niy from the Pan African Support Group have been leading the tour every year since the late 1980s.

In those days there was intrigue and controversy. Sprauve and his UVI comrade, the late Prof. Gene Emmanuel met with resistance from those who feared the Fortsberg story.

But every year they came, got permission from Fred Samuel to lead a tour on the family land near Coral Bay and cap the day off with a libation ceremony, honoring the ancestors. Every year the faithful seekers of local legend, the curious traveller and those who’s teachers led them along showed up.

They hit the history trail and followed the tale of those once called Amina tribesmen as they smuggled machetes up the hill on the backs of donkeys to the Danish garrison at Fortsberg. Once on the scene and overpowering the overlords, they fired a cannon shot to signal other conspirators in other parts of the island.

The six month siege of St. John had begun …

Ola-Niy said he began the yearly visit when he was a student himself. “When I first came I was more like these people here, participating. Eventually I joined the committee, studies and became a presenter.”

This year, on a Friday morning, the history trail started on Cruz Bay Beach with a libation ceremony for the famous, the familiar locals who had passed on, friends and loved ones. Then the students, the faithful, the curious and their guides were on their way.

First stop: the National Park Visitor’s Center the topographical map mounted in the lobby. Here the group gets a sense of where the tour will lead.

Students from Gift Hill School, Addelita Cancryn Junior High and Charlotte Amalie High School hear from retired UVI Professor Gilbert Sprauve at the National Park Visitor’s Center on Friday, November 25. The brief stop was part of the annual Fortsberg History Trail.

Next stop: Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center. From that vantage point, Sprauve explained how 18th century rebels relayed conch horn blasts and cannon shot to coordinate their uprising.

Next stop: Susannaberg and the home of Ronnie Jones. Jones lives in a former great house, surrounded by ruins, patiently cleared away with help from the family. He asks the group if they’d seen the news, then pulls out copies of a publication from 1847 when hardware and Negroes were put up for sale.

That was the news the plantation owners didn’t want the merchandise to see. Had the students been alive in those days, it would have been them. Who could have imagined, he said, that a plantation which once held slaves as property would become the property of the descendant of slaves?

The next stop, Estate Adrian. There were remains of an old stone facade. A different kind of sugar mill, representing the birth of the industrial age on St. John. Attached to it was a great metal wheel, pipes and a large boiler, laying on its side.

Dr. Sprauve explains how the wheel — a giant gear — was imported in eight pieces from Europe and reassembled on St. John. The boiler produced steam, making the gear turn, powering a grinder to crush sugar cane.

It differed from the Susannaberg mill, where wind powered gears extracted juice from the cane, sent it downhill through a channel to the boiling house. When the wind didn’t blow it was up to a team of horses or cows, harnessed to a spoke that turned round and round all day.

“What you see here at Estate Adrian, and what you would see at Reef Bay, you would see the same equipment,” Sprauve explains. “If you look at the wheel, with the gears on it, you could imagine how this came up here in parts, much of it on the backs of beasts of burden and our folks.”

The students took notes, sometimes thrusting iPhones in the air towards the speaker. It was a good opportunity to add a colorful detail about how the operator kept a big axe by the side of the mill. The axe was there in case someone got a limb caught in the gears. There would be no time, he said, to stop the machine.

Next stop: Catherineberg sugar mill, a restoration by St. John residents, some by way of Tortola  and National Park maintenance men Reggie Callwood, Mario Benjamin and Mario Evans. “The three of them worked for the park at a particular time and from what they told us, around the entrance ways were coming apart and they were able to get permission to come up here on their own free time and do some patching,” Sprauve said.

The result of those efforts, he said, were there for visitors to see.

The Friday tour was half over, with many facts for students to gather. Only then did they make the drive towards Fortsberg and the long upward walk to see the remains of the Danish garrison. 

Over the years, through research, writing and presentations, the Fortsberg story grew richer in detail.

The rebels once called the Amina were traced back to the West Coast of Ghana. They came from a state known as the Akwamu Empire. Some were skilled guerrilla fighters and had waged war with Portuguese raiders back home, for years.

They also had a special dislike for the Danes.

From the book, the Rise of the Akwamu Empire, 1650-1710, historian Ivor Wilks said Dutch traders encountered the tribesmen along a stretch known as Africa’s Gold Coast.

The Dutch, the Danish and the English trading companies said the empire ruled from densely forested hills, all the way to the coastline. In ways, the topography was similar to where they landed on St. John.

Other accounts shared with the Akwamu Traditional Council told of slave ships bearing their ancestors attempted a mutiny while being taken towards Copenhagen in 1768.

Of all the things he said he learned about Fortsberg, Ola-Niy said he was impressed by the rebel’s resolve.

“Not about the history of St. John, but the history of our people, there are three things we find. Our people are determined to be free, not only to be free but to define their identity and to exercise their right to self-determination. They will be the master of their destiny,” he said.