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Op-ed | How The National Park Service Disney-fyies the Past of St. John

How the National Park Service Disney-fyies the past for affluent middle-class tourists

“Oh Marge! look at that cute little bakery! And the ruins of that cool building where they used to make molasses. Let’s take a selfie… Ok, what’s next on our tour, dear?”

Disney-fying a dark and ugly history and making it into profitably palatable entertainment is something to which we’ve become inured. The National Park Service’s take on Annie Hill (Annaberg) is no different and likewise is no less condescending to the survivors of another era’s genocidal holocaust conducted in the name of property and profit.

Reading the NPS’ Annaberg signs, one isn’t confronted with any uncomfortable reality:

“hillsides were cleared … sugar cane grew in rows … cane juice was refined.. . From [the] windmill, rivers of juice came flowing toward boiling kettles…” Sigh, it’s all so picturesque and pollyannish, just like a Disney FrontierLand attraction. And yeah, of course, there’s a sop to that pesky history: “slave labor seemed the only way to make a profit.” Seemed?! Oh dear! Those poor thwarted owners forced into dirtying their propertied pursuit of pure profit by, ugh, slave labor!

Let’s take a step backwards and deconstruct the mythological terms often used to describe that era of rapaciousness.

when you read…think the reality:
plantationindustrial prison labor camp
slaveprisoner in above labor camp; a kidnapped (ie, stolen) human being who is daily coerced by violence, tortured and threatened with capital punishment to labor against one’s will so that the fruits of one’s labor can be stolen.
plantation owner or “master”prison labor entrepreneur who has borrowed capital (usually) to invest in purchasing both colonized land and stolen human beings with the express purpose of keeping them imprisoned and forcing them to labor in order to steal the results of their labor.
enslavement or bondage or chattel slaverya legal system which white Europeans established on an industrial scale; some prison labor camps had sophisticated organizations which could coordinate the labor of 1000+ prisoners in the complex mining and “smelting” (extraction) of cane sugar crystals. The legal system provided a convoluted meta structure for the trade in stolen black African humans, the imprisonment in perpetuity of children born of prisoners, and the conscious stripping of all human rights, and legal standing, of these human beings.
sugarrefined cane sugar; an addictive substance sold in large quantities to first the European upper class, then gradually to all class levels to sweeten coffee, tea, and cocoa (themselves addictive substances) — all luxuries imported from coerced colonies.
growing canemining island topsoil for the raw materials required to process and concentrate into cyrstalized sugar;
chattel, or moveable property (distinct from immovable property such as real estate).the convoluted self-rationalized holy grail of “property” which the prison labor entrepreneur used to justify any savage abuse, including theft and fraud, of another human being.
overseerprison gang line manager, empowered by the entrepreneur to use any and all means — including violence, torture, maiming, ridicule, and capital punishment — to maximize the crop mined and the yield of the finished extracted product: the cash crop.

In this article, I will primarily use terms from the right-hand column.

Next, let’s get more important information about Annaberg, St. John’s largest sugar-mining prison labor camp in the 18th and 19th Centuries. At the same time, we’ll fill in the blanks with known historical information from British sugar-mining prison labor camps in nearby Barbados and Jamaica circa 17th and 18th Centuries.

Most sugar mining entrepreneurs in the Virgin Islands were of British origin (this accounts for the reason why English was the dominant language of the Islands) despite the VI being under Danish rule. The Danes in St. Croix, for example, “faced stiff competition from the British who at one point owned 5 times as many plantations [ie, prison labor camps] as the Danish.”

The transformation of the Caribbean began on British controlled Barbados, in 1642, at the prison labor camp of entrepreneur, James J. Drax, an original settler from the 1620s. Drax had tried mining tobacco (inferior to Virginia crops), indigo, long-fiber cotton (so-so profitable but not gold-rush satisfying), until he finally hit upon cane sugar. By 1645, his mines were so profitable and wealth-aggrandizing that the entire Barbados Island was transformed to mining sugar cane.

The Silicon Valley of Sugar

British sugar mining took off in the late 1640s in Barbados on a hitherto unknown industrial level (what I term, Slavery 2.0), transforming that tiny island into a huge generator of wealth for British interests and catching the attention of many European commercial powers. Barbados was the Silicon Valley of the 17th century fostering innovations in crop, industrial labor organization, refining, transportation, insurance, and finance all of which led to and financed the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. The industrial organization know-how, developed in the sugar prison labor camps, was eventually used in British textile factories and the exploitation of child labor.

The Danish West India Guinea Company — a private incorporated company — took control and ownership of St Thomas and St John in the 1670s, with the express purpose of mimicking the British triangular trade of buying and selling stolen humans from the Guinea Coast of Africa, trading them for mined sugar from entrepreneurs in those islands). Similarly active were ventures from France, The Netherlands, and eventually Spain, and Portugal. “In 1685, the Brandenburgisch-Africanische Compagnie took control of the slave trade on Saint Thomas, and for some time the largest slave auctions in the world were held there.”

Trade in mined sugar from the Caribbean dwarfed any trade with the tiny and quite frankly insignificant Yankee colonies of North America. The Yankees did, however, build up a profitable business of selling their inferior manufactured goods to sugar mining entrepreneurs to feed and clothe the imprisoned laborers (aka slaves) and to provision tools for mining the sugar. The Yankees also bought an unwanted by-product of sugar mining, molasses, and turned it into a profitable rum manufacturer and trading business with Europe. This eventually led to clashes with British commercial interests and eventually spawned restraining regulations and taxation (to recoup Britain’s cost of defending their Sugar Colonies in their wars with France in 1750s) which in turn led to the Yankee colonies’ Declaration of Independence in 1776.

St. John’s Disney-like Attraction

Alas, dear reader, we digress. Shall we return to Annaberg, our picturesque Disney attraction filled with jolly prison laborers baking bread, stirring pots of boiling sugar syrup, or cutting cane in 90-degree, humid weather, whilst whistling jaunty calypso tunes and overseen by bucolic prison gang line managers on horseback smiling contentedly at their happy prison laborers, their whips draped languidly over their laps, their rifles uncocked? (/sarcasm)

We know that a French exile on St Thomas, named Isaac Constantin (a failed cotton entrepreneur), began his venture in 1723 with the acquisition of an estate parcel on St John in what would eventually become Annaberg. It modestly began mining cane sugar with a small prison labor population. Over the years, it was acquired by a Dutchman who expanded the labor camp by purchasing adjacent holdings and initiated construction of the sugar factory at the current location of the ruins of today. By 1780, Annaberg was one of 25 active sugar mining factories in St John.

Source: State of the Territory News

At its peak and after being merged with several other nearby estates in 1803, by James Murphy, a wealthy Irish slave trader, Annaberg prison labor camp had grown to 1600 acres, of which 532 were being mined for cane sugar. Annaberg had a prison-labor population of around 662 humans, plus any of the prison staff required to organize and manage the mining factories. Typically an acre  of cane would produce about a hogshead (barrel of about 1600 pounds) of semi-refined sugar to be exported to Europe for further refining and resell.

Customary Barbadian prison mining practices were to provide their prison laborers with one set of coarsely manufactured clothes annually (typically from the Yankee colonies). Prison laborers were fed a mostly meager maize or barley diet of starvation proportions. In the 18th century, most were not allowed to grow any food for themselves. Most were forced to work in the cane fields, from sunrise to sunset, a 12-hour day, 6 days a week. In Barbados or Jamaica, if starving prisoners were found chewing cane stalks — the entrepreneurs’ profits — they were severely punished by immediately having an ear, hand or arm amputated by the overseer, or worse: death by gibbeting (a cage hung high by roadside and used as a method of execution, with the victim being left to die of exposure, thirst or starvation).

Prices paid for purchasing the right to imprison black African laborers, often translate into the equivalent in today’s buying power of the cost of a pickup truck. The Slave Labor Codes of Barbados (copied and exported throughout the Caribbean as well as the Yankee colonies), forbade teaching the black prisoners to read or religious proselytizing (although Quakers regularly broke this law in Barbados).

Prisoner escapes, uprisings, and insurrections were opposed by militia of freemen landholders whose obligation to the state were to serve, when called, to perform these duties. Prison laborers typically lived for about 8 or 9 years before succumbing to death from overwork, disease, starvation, or capital punishment. Most were literally worked to death in the sugar mines of the Caribbean Islands. It is estimated that the Danes alone bought, transported, and sold about 100,000 kidnapped (stolen) imprisoned black African human beings over the two centuries of their little venture in the Virgin Islands, the Danish share only accounting for about 2% of the total being worked to death in the sugar mines of the Caribbean. In the VI, the ratio of black prisoners to white settlers was about 5 to 1 in the 18th century. So by late 1840s, the population of Danish VI of 41,000 people meant there were about 35,000 black prisoners and their families working in prison labor camps in the three islands.

The mining of sugar in the VI eventually ended due to a variety of economic forces. Despite an unenforced Royal Danish declaration of emancipation of slaves, forced prison labor continued to be employed in the VI prison sugar mines until the mid-19th century. Mining entrepreneurs demanded compensation for the forced liquidation of their prison labor assets (aka emancipation), much as British entrepreneurs had received in the mid-19th century from Parliament. The freed black prison laborers, however, got nothing: no land, no recompense, no recognition.

In fact, the entrepreneurs soon learned about Slavery 3.0 (specifically its variation 3.5) which the Brits used successfully in their colonies in India, China, and Kenya: if you force an entire population into destitution and tax them, then you can easily force them into working for starvation “wages.” You don’t even have to initially invest in a capital prison labor asset to begin with. You use police and para-military forces to control the population, company housing and stores to claw back monies, and you still get laborers to mine your sugar. This is another example of how commercial interests privatized their profit and socialized their costs, risk, and liabilities.

And so it went in the VI until natural disasters, economic changes (beet sugar mining in Europe), and competition (from sugar mines in India and Brazil) led to the abandonment of the VI sugar mines.

Annaberg, we’re told, became a cattle ranch until it was abandoned in 1914. The exhausted soil went wild again, the tropical jungle reclaiming the land and blood. Laurance Rockefeller purchased it and other land at some time before deeding the lot on St John to the US Government as a federally protected preserve (which then surrounded his resort at the edge of the island).

The prison laborers’ descendents have continued living on without any financial inheritance from their forebears’ life-sacrificing labor. The profits from two centuries of mining exploitation also continue living on, invested as assets in various G8 industries, British and Swiss banks, and lavish lifestyles. And the signs at NPS Annaburg have been written to foster a dreamy-eyed nostalgic view of a time of horror so that tourists can take photos without any sense of guilt or social obligation while they trample on sacred ground soiled with the blood of stolen imprisoned laborers.

Source: State of the Territory News

References & Bibliography

  • The Making of New World Slavery, by Robin Blackburn
  • Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775, by Richard B. Sheridan
  • No God but Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States, by  Stephen Chambers
  • Capitalism and Slavery, by Eric Williams
  • The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist

Submitted February 11, 2018: by David Anderson who lives in Oakland, CA and is the founder of DarkFire Photography. David is fluent in Japanese, speaks Swahili, and also does photography for State of the Territory News for special projects.