• close family • small boat • big world •

Rubble Masonry

March 20, 2015

by Paula
At anchor, St. Thomas, USVI

(from our backlog of posts... we are currently in St. Barts)

Like most of the Caribbean islands, St. Thomas has a varied history that includes native peoples, European settlement and control, a slave trade, and eventual independence. The island was originally settled in the 1500s by the Ciboney people. Eventually, they were replaced by the Arawaks and then the ultra-violent Caribs. The Dutch West Indian Company established a post in 1657. However, the Danish moved in to conquer the island 1666 and established control over the entire island by 1672. The Danes divided the island into large plantations with sugar cane production the primary economic activity. Unfortunately, this initiated the desire for large-scale slave labor. The resulting slave trade on the island was immense, with the largest slave auctions in world held here at one time.

Sugar was already in decline when in 1848 Denmark abolished slavery. Unsurprisingly, this threatened the very existence of the sugar plantations. The lack of slave labor combined with the increasing cultivation of sugar beets in
the US and several ravaging hurricanes put a final end to production here. 

The excellent harbors, however, were still of great importance, and St. Thomas became a free port. St. Thomas’s main settlement, named for Denmark’s King Christian V’s wife Charlotte Amalie, had been established in 1691. Here, numerous warehouse buildings served to hold goods held for trade to and from Europe. These buildings survive today, and most house jewelry stores, restaurants, and souvenir shops that cater to the cruise ship industry.

The warehouse district is built using a technique called rubble masonry. Buildings are constructed with stones of a variety of shapes and sizes that are held together with a mortar of lime, sand, and molasses. The effect is quite beautiful. Ships from Europe arrived empty, with plans to fill up with Caribbean goods before returning. As such, they needed ballast – something heavy to keep the ship balanced. They filled their holds with bricks, which they emptied in Charlotte Amalie before loading on their purchased cargo. Thus, the streets here are paved with different colored and shaped bricks from all over Europe.

The US Navy long ago recognized the strategic value of St Thomas in controlling the Caribbean. During the US Civil War, the North made such extensive use of this harbor that they negotiated a deal to purchase the St Thomas and St John from Denmark. The deal fell through due to US political troubles, but the Navy did not forget. In 1917,  America succeeded in purchasing the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix in 1917, which had become strategically even more important with the opening of the Panama Canal.  U.S. citizenship was granted to the residents in 1927, territorial status established in 1954, and full home rule was achieved in 1970.

Of interesting note: a small Jewish community was established in Charlotte Amalie, who built the synagogue Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim in 1833. It is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the United States.