Historians document that the first inhabitants, the Ciboneys, arrived on the islands during what is considered the Pre-Ceramic Culture. Arawaks were the next to arrive, establishing sites on St. John and St. Croix around 100 AD. Probably the best-known inhabitants, and those to arrive next, were the savage Caribs and the more peaceful Tainos. Evidence of their time in the islands has been unearthed in recent years, and includes stone griddles, zemis (small carvings depicting the faces of their gods) and petroglyphs which are rock carvings visible on St. John’s Reef Bay Trail.
The Caribs had taken control of St. Croix, then called Ay Ay, when Christopher Columbus sailed into Salt River on his second voyage in 1493, claiming the islands for Spain. The battle between the Indians and Columbus is considered the first insurgence in the New World. After renaming the island Santa Cruz, Columbus headed north where he spotted a chain of islands. He proclaimed they would be called Las Once Mil Virgenes (11,000 virgins) in honor of Ursula, martyred by the Huns for refusing to marry a pagan prince.
The demise of the islands’ first residents, the Indians, was evident when the first Europeans after Columbus arrived in the late 1500s. Many countries expressed interest in the islands in the 1600s, including Holland, France, England, Spain, Denmark and the Knights of Malta. But it was the Danes who established the first settlement on St. Thomas in 1672, expanding to St. John in 1694. St. Croix was added to the Danish West India Company in 1733, and plantations soon sprung up all over the islands.
A treaty with the Dutch of Brandenburg in 1685 established St. Thomas as a slave-trading post. More than 200,000 slaves, primarily from Africa’s west coast, were forcibly shipped to the islands for the backbreaking work of harvesting cane, cotton and indigo. St. John and St. Croix maintained a plantation economy, while St. Thomas developed as a trade center. Stripped of their dignity and freedom and fed up with the harsh conditions, in 1733 slaves attacked St. John’s Fort Frederiksvaern in Coral Bay, crippling operations for six months. In 1792 Denmark announced the cessation of the trade in humans. Freedom was not granted to slaves until 1848, when Moses “Buddhoe” Gottlieb led a revolution on St. Croix, 17 years before emancipation in the United States.
After the freeing of slaves and the discovery of the sugar beet, agriculture in the islands declined. The industrial revolution ended the need for the islands as a shipping port, thus changing the economic environment. Little was heard of the islands until World War I, when the United States realized their strategic position and negotiated the purchase of the islands from Denmark for $25 million in gold. Although the islands were purchased in 1917, it wasn’t until 1927 that citizenship was granted to Virgin Islanders. The Organic Act of 1936 allowed for the creation of a senate, and from there the political process evolved. In 1970, the U.S. Virgin Islands elected its first governor, Melvin H. Evans.
Tourism grew in the destination once the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in 1959. Today, the USVI is a thriving destination for visitors in search of the perfect vacation.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is a paradise with so much more to offer than the traditional beach vacation. Visitors wishing to immerse themselves in a profound cultural experience can enjoy historical tours, culinary encounters, artisan fairs, parades, storytelling and other special presentations.
Walking tours on St. Thomas and St. Croix feature the diverse architecture, evidence of nations that colonized the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries. If you’re feeling energetic, walk one of the many street steps, the most famous being the 99 steps on St. Thomas, a common way of getting to higher ground.
Your cultural journey continues with a look at the life and creations of artisans and crafters who earned a living creating functional and decorative pieces. Restored greathouses now serving as museums, like Haagenson House on St. Thomas and Whim Museum on St. Croix, preserve this past, displaying masterfully created mahogany pieces, delicate linens and original art. Local craft cooperatives, art galleries and artist colonies present the works of today’s tradition-bearers. Annaberg Plantation ruins in St. John’s National Park offers daily cultural demonstrations, including cooking the old-fashioned way – on a coal pot over an open flame.
In 2003, the Legislature passed a bill proclaiming "Quelbe, the vocal and instrumental style of the Virgin Islands' folk music which traces its ancestry to Africa and Europe. Quelbe is a fusion of bamboula rhythms and chants, cariso songs and melodies, and the official traditional music of the Virgin Islands."
Historically speaking, the scratch band sound that is Quelbe was created by slaves, self-taught musicians who made their own instruments and who lived and worked on sugar plantations. Since strict Danish laws forbade drum beating and dancing, slaves incorporated European sounds and dance steps into their practices. The newly created rhythmic styles produced “persuasion bands” that used homemade bamboo flutes, bass drums, steel triangles and squash (a dried gourd, grooved and scraped with a wire prong) to produce the sound. As they evolved musically and instrumentally, a new kind of music was born. Instruments changed through the years, including the addition of a guitar, tambourine, the "pipe" (an old tail pipe) which replaced the bass drum and the ukulele. The music offers commentary on such things as current events, cheating spouses and rum smuggling in ladies pantaloons. Modern-day Quelbe or scratch bands have an additional instrument or two and enjoy more popularity today.
Since African dance was also prohibited by plantation owners, slaves copied and adopted the Europeans' quadrilles, lancers, jigs, mazurkas, schottisches and other dances, giving them their own interpretation. The popular French quadrille was loved because of its hip swaying and rhythmic steps. Today’s dancers wear madras costumes and handmade head ties. Groups like the St. Croix Heritage Dancers, who dance the French form of quadrille, perform with local Quelbe bands at special events and dances.
It's the biggest party of the year, and each island has its own. St. Croix's Christmas Festival starts in December with an adult's parade on Three Kings Day. St. Thomas's carnival culminates in the final week of April. St. John’s celebration is Fourth of July week.
The first carnival was staged in 1912 during the final years of Danish occupation and lapsed during World War I. Revived in 1952, carnival has become the second largest festival in the Caribbean. A month-long series of dazzling pageants and talent shows is held to choose royalty to rein over the festival. Fun events such as a boat race, Greased Pig Contest and Toddlers Derby entertain everyone at the festivities. A series of elimination contests to crown top performers are called Calypso Tents. Calypsonions offer satirical commentary on the state of the islands, oftentimes mocking the shenanigans of politicians. Other popular events held during Carnival is j'ouvert, a morning jump up, a food fair presenting the islands’ best traditional eats and a competition to crown the King and Queen of the parade troupes. A children's and adult’s parade close the lively month with brilliantly costumed and decorated troupes and floats.
Visit one of our local restaurants where recipes are handed down through generations. Some of our favorites include pumpkin fritters, kallaloo (relative of gumbo), potato stuffing (try it for Thanksgiving) and, for a truly different dessert, red grout (a tapioca dish introduced by the Danes).
1 ½ cups mashed pumpkin
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 ¼ cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
Oil for deep frying
Remove seeds and stringy fibers from center of pumpkin. Cut the pumpkin to smaller pieces for quicker boiling. Place in a pot and cover with water. Boil until pumpkin is fork tender. Drain water and scoop out pumpkin from outer shell. Mash with a fork. In a mixing bowl, combine pumpkin, sugar, salt, vanilla, baking powder, milk and flour and stir until ingredients are combined. An electric mixer is not recommended. Drop by the teaspoonfuls into hot oil and fry 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels. Makes 12 fritters. Per fritter: 115 calories, 6 grams fat, 3 milligrams cholesterol and 86 milligrams sodium.
“Kallaloo is for good luck in the New year, especially for lovers”, said Arona Peterson, local food expert and author of Food and Folklore of the Virgin Islands. “The old folks believed that if you served kallaloo to your loved one on Old Year’s night, there would be a wedding by June.”
½ pound salted meat—pigtail or salt beef
Ham bone if available; a common substitute is smoked turkey
1 (10 ox.) package frozen cut okra
½ large onion
Seasoning (thyme, celery, parsley—about 1 teaspoon each)
1 cup boned fish (a white fish with skin is preferable), fried
1 clove garlic
½ hot pepper (scotch bonnet works well)
1 (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach
Soak salted meat in water for a few hours. As with the fritters, your world market may have pig tail. If it isn’t salted, there is no need to soak it. Wash and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook until tender. In the meantime, fry fish and allow to cool. Remove meat from water and set aside. Add water to half full level. Put in the ham bone or smoked turkey and okra. Add onions, seasoning, garlic, hot pepper, boned fish and spinach. Let simmer for an hour until mixture has stew consistency. Return meat to stew and simmer for another ½ hour. This stew is generally served with fungi, a cornmeal dish similar to polenta. I think a round or two of polenta would work just fine. Serves 8. Per one cup serving, 155 calories, 2 grams fat, 43 milligrams cholesterol and 307 milligrams sodium.
This is such a favorite it’s served with everything except fish. It makes a great surprise for your Thanksgiving dinner.
6 large white potatoes
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 small onion, minced
¼ cup sugar
2 stalks celery
1 medium green bell pepper, minced
1 teaspoon hot pepper, minced
¾ cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup raisins
3 sprigs parsley
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons thyme, chopped
Peel and cut potatoes and boil in salted water. When tender, drain water and mash. Add cooking oil to a pan and sauté raisins, onion, green pepper and celery until translucent. Add pepper and sugar. Pour this mixture, in batches, into mashed potatoes. Some oil may remain which can be discarded. Spoon stuffing into a greased baking pan and bake in 350-degree oven for about 25 minutes.
Red Grout (Rodgrod)
There’s no doubt it was inherited from the Danes. Locally, it was traditionally served on Transfer Day (March 31). We enjoy the dish whenever we have a taste for it.
2 pints guavas with skins and seeds
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup quick cooking tapioca
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
Dash of mace
Dash of nutmeg
Dash of cinnamon
Wash fruit. Peel and cut up guava. Place in pan with 1 1/2 cups water. Simmer covered for 20 minutes. Strain. Save shells for later use. Measure liquid, adding enough water to make 2 ½ cups of liquid. Add sugar, salt and bring to a boil. Stir constantly. Mix tapioca in ½ cup of water and add slowly along with spices. Bring to a boil once more, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat when tapioca grains are clear. Add vanilla essence. Pour into a ceramic container or individual ramekins. Serve with heavy cream.