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Plantation Life

18th Century Grandueur ¬†from “St. Croix Under Seven Flags” by Florence Lewisohn¬† 1970 Florence Lewisohn Reprinted 1991 by St. Croix Landmarks Society with permission from Florence Lewisohn Poking around among the ruined Greathouses and the crumbling old sugar factories on St. Croix, one wonders how they looked and functioned when peopled by an aristocratic family and their many slaves. Plantation life on the island was only superficially like that of the American South, for there were peculiarities unique to island existence. It is these differences which set apart life on the sugar plantations of St. Croix. Daily life revolved in two overlapping orbits – around the Greathouse, where the Mistress reigned in the midst of all the splendor she could muster in a far off colony, and around the sugar factory, where the Master was responsible for a mighty work force and a business inevitably subject to strange vicissitudes. Sugar created all this, and sugar paid for it. However, in times of drought, hurricane, war or plague, not even the income from the golden brown muscovado could prevent the disasters. A sugar plantation was a calculated risk and took a huge investment. In good years, it paid off handsomely, but at other times, it sank the planter in enormous debt. There were few halfway stages. Good planters worked hard, stayed home, worried a great deal (with good reason) and scarcely had energy left to enjoy the luxuries sugar provided for them. In this Golden Age, the huge Greathouses were built with loving care and lavishly outfitted with the finest of mahogany furniture, imported porcelains and glassware, heirloom silver and Madeira linens There was nothing makeshift about the construction of the manor house. It was often a copy of some admired European mansion or followed the neo-classic style with tropical modifications. The architectural designs show varying influences, but the construction methods were almost all uniform. Great limestone blocks were hewn out of the wet sea coral or taken from a quarry, hauled to the site and used in the two- to three-foot thick walls. Local stone and ballast brick supplemented the coral blocks, held together with lime mortar made in the plantation kiln, then plastered over and usually painted. Skilled artisans were brought from Europe to oversee the more talented of the slave apprentices. The Greathouse was almost always put on a knoll or side hill to catch the tradewinds, but the all-important windmill placement had first choice of the windiest spot. If there were not a good breezy place for the house, then the first floor was a storage and utility area, with the living quarters above to catch the wind. The largest houses usually used both floors for living quarters, with the storage buildings put elsewhere. If money were no object, both floors would be of stone, otherwise the second floor was of a good hardwood to resist weather and insects. The rooms were large and high of ceiling, often vaulted or tray style, there being a theory that an uneven ceiling was less vulnerable in a hurricane. The windows had deep sills recessed into the two-foot thick walls, … Continue reading Plantation Life