Political stability and the availability of capital led to growth of the Virgin Islands’ plantation economy. On the flat, fertile plain of St. Croix, plantations were set neatly next to each other, windmills dotting the landscape. On the other, more hilly islands, slaves cleared whole hillsides of native forest and terraced the slopes for the cultivation of sugar. The plantation era was one of contradictions and great cruelty. For planters, it was often a gamble; fortunes were won and lost in a single growing season. For the enslaved Africans who produced the wealth, it was brutal and dehumanizing.
Africans who survived the devastating Middle Passage from Africa’s west coast were auctioned in markets at Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted, and Road Town and worked, some to death, on the plantations. Those who survived performed the grueling work of clearing land and planting and harvesting sugarcane.
Danish West Indies
By the end of the 18th century, St. Croix was second only to Jamaica in sugar production per acre. In 1800, the island had the fourth largest sugar product in the Caribbean. The colony’s success meant planters and their families could afford to lead lives of great opulence. Many of the island’s elaborate estate houses date back to the period from 1760 to 1820, the heyday of the plantation period.
On St. John, the plantation era began with Danish settlement. The 1733 slave rebellion caused some planters to pull out of the island, but others remained. Many St. John plantations were owned by absentee planters.
While St. Croix and St. John grew in importance as sugar islands, St. Thomas turned its focus away from agriculture and toward trade. Delegations from the colony to Denmark in the early 18th century led to easing of trade restrictions, which allowed ships of all nations to trade in St. Thomas on payment of fixed import and export duties. Over the coming decades, trade restrictions were further eased, until St. Thomas became a free port in 1764. Denmark’s declared neutrality allowed St. Thomas to flourish even in times of war.
British Virgin Islands
The British islands got off to a slow start with the plantation industry. Uncertainty about the islands’ ownership and future discouraged investment, so while the Danish West Indies were being cultivated with sugar (which required major capital investment), plantations on the British islands continued to produce cotton, indigo, ginger, and coffee—all of which required little investment but yielded much more modest profits.
The plantation era began in earnest in the British Virgin Islands in 1747 when an Englishman named James Purcell was appointed lieutenant governor of the territory. Purcell lobbied for local government and traveled to Liverpool, England, to seek financing for Tortola’s planters. Purcell’s efforts bore fruit. Financing was provided, and plantations all around the island turned to sugar cultivation.
It is during this time that whole hillsides of native timber were cut down to make space for sugar fields and many of the fortifications now in ruin around the island were built. James Purcell died in 1759 and was succeeded by his brother, John Purcell, who continued to govern over peace and prosperity. In 1774, the same year that sugar production reached its peak on Tortola, representative government was established for the first time—another sign of the colony’s growing importance.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition