Tour Of The Caribbean – St. Thomas

ANOTHER dawn, another dim island taking shape out of the mist, another blue bay in a circle of hills, and the steamer drops her anchor with a splash in the harbour of St. Thomas.

St. Thomas is a Danish island that has seen better days. It is one of the Virgin Group, a cluster of some hundred islands, rocks and cays. Columbus named them after St. Ursula and her virgins, and would no doubt have given saintly names to the entire hundred, but the buccaneers who haunted these regions have left their mark rather than his in such titles as Rum Island, Dead Man’s Chest, Salt Water Money Rock, Fallen Jerusalem, Flanagan’s Pass, and the like.

They are wild, inhospitable islands, the most savage of which is Anegada, or the Drowned Island, thus called because it is water-logged with lagoons and is so low-lying as to be almost sea-swept in times of storm. Yet this amphibious place has a population of 450. It has been the scene of countless wrecks, since around it is the deadly and much-accursed Horse Shoe Reef.

It was Anegada that brought to an end the sea rovings of that wild, impetuous Don Quixote who was ” like a perpetual motion,” Prince Rupert of the Rhine. He started from Ireland in 1648, with seven ships, to champion the cause of the king in the far west. He sailed in the Swallow and, finding few opportunities for legitimate battle, took to pirating. He was a man who must always be doing something. Even when he was in prison at Linz, in his early days, he managed to learn drawing and make love to the governor’s daughter. After five years on the sea, more full of adventure than has been the life of any corsair before or since, he was caught in a storm off the Virgin Islands one night in September. Here on the dire shore of Anegada his fleet was wrecked. His brother, Prince Maurice, was lost with his ship Defiance ; the Honest Seaman was cast away, and the only survivor of the dare-devil argosy was the Swallow. She crept home sadly crippled, and gained the coast of France in 1653, but ” was too far spent and never put to sea again.” The handsome, clever, wilful prince, who was ever ” very sparkish in his dress,” lived till 1682, to die in his bed in Spring Gardens of a commonplace fever.

Charlotte Amalia, the capital of St. Thomas, is without any question the most picturesque town in the whole sweep of the Windward Islands. Placed within a magnificent harbour, and at the foot of a circle of green hills, Charlotte Amalia makes there a bravery of colour. The town is built about three rounded spurs which jut out from the mountain’s base. It seems, therefore, to be made up of three towns joined along the sea margin, each of the three a cone of bright habitations reared against the dull green of the hill.

The walls of the houses which are thus piled one above the other are, for the most part, a dazzling white. Some are yellow or grey or orange ; certain of them are blue. The roofs are always a generous bright red. Between the houses and overshadowing the roofs are clumps of green trees. Here and there can be seen stone stairs climbing up through the town, gardens with creeper-covered walls, a tufted palm, a many-arched arcade, the balustrades of shady terraces. Viewed from the sea Charlotte Amalia would seem to be a place for those who make holiday—all gaily tinted villas and palaces, where the factory chimney, the warehouse, and the woful suburb are unknown.

Viewed at close quarters it is a little less charming. A long, level street, clean and bright, runs from one end of the settlement to the other. The remaining streets are engaged in clambering up the sides of the three hills. The town contains many handsome buildings, a few of which are dignified by age, together with shops and stores of the colonial type which breathe generally the odour of bay rum: The names of the streets are in Danish, as are also certain official notices, but with these exceptions there is little to suggest a colony of Denmark. The language of the people is English, the newspaper is in English, while the determination of the islanders to profess that tongue is shown in the following tavern wall announcement which faces the stranger on landing :

” Cool sherbert and other such sippinngs.”

The island itself—as surveyed from the summit of the hill above the town—is a little desolate. The country appears to be uninhabited, given up to loneliness and allowed to grow wild. It is covered everywhere with low bushes, as if the land had relapsed again into savagery. At one’s feet, looking northwards, is a most enchanting sandy cove, bordered by a circle of white foam where it meets the sea. This is just such a solitary beach as Robinson Crusoe might have found himself upon, and just such a stretch of sand as that on which he discovered the footprints of Friday. Far away are some rugged islands, which seem to belong to a world from which man has long departed. These are the rocky islets of Tobago, Hans Lollik, and Jost van Dyke.

St. Thomas once had an evil reputation for unhealthiness. The cemetery in the town testifies that this was not unmerited, and that there were some grounds for Kingsley’s description of the place as ” a Dutch oven for cooking fever in.” Now, thanks to enlightened sanitary measures, it can claim to be a quite wholesome settlement.

The hospital of St. Thomas is on the outskirts of the town. It is a hospital of seventy beds, maintained by the Government, but at the same time very generously dowered by the good Queen of Denmark. The majority of patients are negroes of an unsavoury type, who seem to be the subjects of only such disorders as are obtrusively unpleasant. Many are insane or paralysed—for rum is cheap in St. Thomas. Many are the victims of loathsome, long-neglected sores. It is a depressing place, even for a hospital, a dreary yard surrounded by low, one-storied buildings, with corrugated iron roofs. Yet everything is clean and in perfect order, while the care of the sick is above criticism.

Moving busily from hut to hut in the compound is a bright, happy-looking Danish lady. She is the good genius of the dismal square, the matron, the nurse, the friend, the comforter. With the exception of a servant she is the only white woman in this refuge for the miserable. She lives here alone, cut off from all the reasonable joys of life, uncomplaining, undaunted, a rare and heroic figure. The sick people to whom she devotes her life are Danish subjects, fed and housed by Denmark, but they neither speak the language of the country which fosters them, nor have they, it would seem, the least concern in its existence. Dirty for the most part, ill to manage, not free from sordidness, they are ungracious and ungrateful, and yet to their care this noble woman devotes ungrudgingly her sympathy, her motherliness, her con-summate skill.

At Scutari the ” Lady of the Lamp ” moved through grateful wards with the eyes of her country upon her. Here, in an obscure hospital in a far-off island, a sister of mercy ministers to unheroic sick who own her not, who will not call themselves her countrymen, and who see not in her smiling face the graciousness of self-sacrifice.