The Virgin Islands National Park Service has prepared a self-guided tour of the historic Annaberg sugar mill ruins. The walk through this partially restored old sugar factory provides a great deal of insight to the history and culture of St. John during the plantation and post-emancipation eras.
Annaberg was named for Anna, the baby daughter of the absentee owner of the plantation, Christopher William Gottschalk. Translated from Danish, Annaberg means Anna's Hill. The plantation was first established in 1718.
Most of the Annaberg ruins that you see today were built in the nineteenth century. The wall of the horsemill and the slave house, however, date back to the eighteenth century.
The Moravian missionary, C.G.A. Oldendorp, wrote a report on the progress of the Moravian Church in the Danish West Indies entitled, A History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren, published in 1777. In the following excerpt Oldendorp describes a typical slave dwelling:
The layout and the foundation of their houses rest on four stakes, which are driven into the ground. Fork-shaped on the top end and shaped in such a manner as to form a square; these stakes are linked together at the top by an equal number of horizontal boards. On these rest the rafters of the roof which come together in a crest. A few more vertical stakes are placed between the corner posts, and pliable branches are woven among these. The latter are covered with quicklime and plastered with cow dung. Once the roof rafters have been covered with sugarcane leaves, the entire house is complete. The entryway is so low that a man can not pass through it without bending down. The doorway and a few small openings in the walls allow only a little light to flow into the dwelling during the day. The floor is the bare earth, and the two inclined sides of the roof, which extend almost down to the ground on the outside, make up the ceiling. An interior wall divides the house into two rooms of unequal size, the smaller one serving as a bedroom.
A Typical Day
After lunch the slaves worked the fields until sunset. During the dead season, July to November, when there were no sugarcane crops, the animals were fed again, and the slaves could return home for the evening meal and the preparation of the next day's lunch. At times there would be additional work called "donker work". This was night work, such as hauling manure and water or cleaning up the master's yard. This work could last from about 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.
During crop time the workday was extended further, and women, and even the sick, were put to work cutting cane and bringing it to the mills.
The kaminas, or field slaves, were not given clothes by their masters, and many of them had to perform the laborious fieldwork naked in the heat of the tropical sun. They worked six days a week. On Sundays the slaves tended their garden plots called provision grounds. On some plantations the slaves were also allowed to tend their gardens on Saturday afternoon.
The Elaine Ione Sprauve Library and Museum in Cruz Bay has an excellent
working model of a windmill. This is an extraordinary visual aid demonstrating
the design and operation of the windmills used on St. John during the
When the horsemill was being used, horses, oxen or mules walked around the circular horsemill turning the three crushers. Four slaves were needed to run the animal mill. One drove the animals, two worked the rollers feeding the cane and one took away the left over sugarcane pulp called bagasse.
Sugar and rum production
Rum was produced at the rum still. Sugarcane trash, cane juice drippings and molasses were fed into a fermentation cistern. The fermented liquid was then boiled in a copper still over a slow fire. The alcohol vapors rose up in copper coils that led into the cooling cistern. The cool water of the cistern caused the vapor to condense, and a harsh raw rum called kill devil was formed. More refined rum was produced by aging the kill devil in wooden barrels for several years.
The Provision Ground
Ideally (for the slave owner) food would be brought in from outside the plantation, giving the slave owner complete control of his captives. This was not practical on St. John plantations, which were, at best, only marginally successful. The cost would have been too high for the owners to bear.
Another possibility would be to produce food on the plantation itself, under the supervision and control of the slave owner. On St. John, however, cleared and terraced land came at too high a cost in time and labor to be devoted to food crops.
On the other hand, St. John plantations did have a great deal of land on the periphery of the cultivated areas that, although not suitable for sugarcane production, was appropriate for food crop cultivation. This was the plantation owners' solution for feeding their slaves.
Thus, the slaves produced their own food, unsupervised by the slave masters, on garden plots called provision grounds located on the less productive areas of the plantation and tended these gardens when they were not working elsewhere on the estate.
The slaves were absolutely dependent on their ability to produce their own food. Statistics show that the slave population suffered significant declines after periods of prolonged drought indicating that many slaves must have died when they could not produce sufficient food to feed themselves.
Statistics also show an increase in marooning (slaves running away from their plantations) during prolonged dry spells. A severe drought in the early 1730s was one of the principal causes of the St. John slave rebellion. The drought was so long and so severe that there was widespread starvation among the slaves. Their situation was so desperate that many left the plantations to live in the bush as maroons, despite laws, which prescribed severe and horrible punishments for this offence. An armed insurrection followed in 1733.
After a long drought in the 1770s there were again reports of large population declines and as a result of the starvation caused by the failure of the slave's provision grounds, sixty slaves made the difficult and dangerous decision to run away from the Estate Carolina plantation in Coral Bay.
Although the additional responsibility of providing for their own food was a great hardship for the already overworked slaves, the system did provide the slaves with certain hidden benefits.
Because the provision grounds were unsupervised, the slaves were able to gather and interact out of the sight of their masters. Although often forbidden, slaves from different plantations could meet on the more remote provision grounds. On these occasions cultural traditions could be passed on, news could be disseminated, and conspiracies involving escape and resistance plans could be discussed.
Slaves often worked together on their plots and shared the harvest. Those who were strong and healthy supported the old, weak or infirm. On some plantations the slaves were able to produce a surplus of food, charcoal or crafts and a system of exchange developed along with an underground economy, which even provided some slaves with enough money to buy their freedom.
Moreover, the tradition of an agriculturally based society enabled the slaves to survive on St. John after the failure of the sugar industry and the end of slavery.
A tradition of independence, extended family, cooperation and sharing developed around the provision ground. This spirit is still evident on St. John even in these modern times, which tend to be more orientated toward individualism and self-interest.
Grand Maroonage (escape by sea)
After emancipation, slavery continued on St. John in practice, if not in theory. Other factors, besides legal proclamations, eventually ended this unofficial system of slavery. The price of sugar declined with increased competition from other areas that were better suited to produce sugar than the dry, rocky and steep hills of St. John. The sugar beet was introduced, putting further pressure on the industry. In addition, disgruntled workers began to offer resistance to the unjust labor laws. They brought their grievances to the Danish authorities, organized strikes and work stoppages, and often ran away to Tortola or St. Thomas.
In 1867 a major hurricane, followed by an earthquake, led to the abandonment of Annaberg by the owner. Two hundred laborers on the Annaberg and Leinster Bay Plantations were left to fend for themselves. They asked the authorities' permission to stay on and work the plantations on their own but were refused.
The Twentieth Century
Herbs for medicine and cooking were gathered from the bush or grown in the garden. Maran bush was used for brooms and pot scrubbing (it scrubbed and deodorized as well). Sea fans were used as a whisks and sifters. Baskets were made from hoop vine.
Mr. Francis also built a house on the site of the horsemill. It was rebuilt after the great hurricane in 1924. The family survived by taking refuge in the windmill, which, although it had no roof, provided the necessary protection. (St. John did not experience another major hurricane until Hurricane Hugo in 1989.)
Francis raised cattle on the estate from the early 1900s to about 1935. In 1935 Mr. Francis sold Annaberg to Herman Creque who left it to his wife Emily. In 1955 Annaberg was sold to the Rockefeller controlled Jackson Hole Preserve Inc. and donated to the National Park. When the National Park acquired the land in the 1950s, they dismantled the house. The cookhouse is all that remains.