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History of Watchhouses on St. Croix Virgin Islands

from "Watchhouses on St. Croix" St. Croix Landmarks Society

Watchhouses, or slavevagterbusene as they are called in estate inventories of the 18th and 19th centuries, seem to be a Danish West Indian (U.S. Virgin Islands) phenomenon. Even so, old maps and inventories do not show them to be as common as we once thought. Today, there are none extant on St. Thomas and St. John, and on St. Croix only seven can easily be spotted, though probably a few more still exist in the "bush" or less accessible areas. Of these seven, three are in the area of Estate Betty's Hope. near the airport, one was moved from Estate Little Princess and reconstructed at Whim Museum, and a few more remain at the edge of roads across the middle of the island. The primary purpose of these buildings is evident from the Danish nomenclature slavebagterhus, which translates as guard house. Each stood alone at the juncture of several fields or not far from the "villages." Fear of fire, natural or set, was a common concern among the planters of sugar cane. Rapidly spreading fire could result in devastation to a planter dependent on this one crop which matures only every eighteen months. Even today, during the dry months, we are reminded of this fear while watching much of the island's fields burn, often started by spontaneous combustion.

One can only suppose that fires were not the only concern for the slaves who were assigned to guard in the Watchhouses. Runaways, or other disobedients, could be spotted or, as legend holds, newborns could be fed and cared for close to the fields, so as not to interrupt their mothers' work. Another logical usage would have been as a tool shed, though if so, this is undoubtedly a fairly modern application.

The architecture of these small structures averaging 8' x 10' in size, certainly belies the simple uses that are attributed to it. The two foot thickness of the walls, the three slit openings for light, the gracefully arched door and, above all, the handsome barrel-vaulted ceiling, together form a design which suggests a loftier function than research has revealed. However, it may just be that, during Danish times, "good architecture," that elusive combination of useful and beautiful, became a prerequisite for all buildings. From the largest most important state buildings to the smallest, humblest huts, all structures seemed to have been both practical and handsome with a classical simplicity still admired by the antiquarian and modernist alike. The plantation watchhouse, probably the humblest of huts epitomizes the attention given to detail of design and skilled craftsmanship by the former Europeans and Africans who now call the West Indies home.

One of these remarkable structures has been restored at Estate Betty's Hope through the joint efforts of Texaco Caribbean Inc. and the St. Croix Landmarks Society. With this project, one step was taken toward preserving a link to the past as a bridge to the future and a greater understanding of St. Croix's history.

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