Virgin Islands National Park: Confronting History at Annaberg

Transferred to the National Park Service upon the establishment of Virgin Islands National Park in 1956, Annaberg preserves and interprets the legacy of chattel slavery in the Danish West Indies, which supported St. John’s small piece in the Caribbean’s massive and world-altering cane sugar industry. Located on a bluff on the island’s north side, and commanding an astonishing view, the site was unexpectedly our destination on Sunday morning, March 20 [2022], the vernal equinox.

For Sean and me, this was a return. Read about our first visit to Annaberg here.

Pearly-Eyed Thrasher in a Cashew Tree

We were all groggy that Sunday morning, and despite the shrieking of the Pearly-Eyed Thrashers, we mostly slept late.

While we breakfasted on coffee, toast, and fruit, we noted that many folks were leaving Concordia that Sunday morning. Likely they were folks whose vacation week was weekend to weekend.

We decided that it might be a good day to drive over to Lameshur Bay and hike over the ridge to Reef Bay to see the petroglyphs. Jimmy begged off so that he could have an introvert’s rest day of napping, gaming, and hanging out.

Sean, Josh, Nick, and I piled into the car and headed west along the south side of St. John toward the rugged road to the Lameshur Bay area.

The road to Lameshur was an adventure in itself. And Josh and Sean got out and walked down the steepest approach because we were worried the Santa Fe would bottom out, which it did anyway.

At the end of the slope, the road became gravel. Immediately in front of us was a very broad, very deep pothole. We didn’t want to risk trying to cross it. It would have been possible to leave the car there (there was room to pull over) and walk the rest of the way. But we weren’t sure how far it was. Nick went to see what he could see, but reported that the road curved just ahead so you couldn’t see far.

Since we didn’t have cell service, we couldn’t pinpoint exactly how far we were from the trailhead. So we made the call to turn around and do something else. We could check the maps and conditions back at the eco-tent and do Lameshur and Reef Bay another day.

Coral Bay

I suggested that we could get smoothies at a place at the top of the hill above Coral Bay, near where Centerline and North Shore Roads diverge. Then we could go check out Annaberg.

Unfortunately, the smoothie place was closed on Sundays. So we just continued on to Annaberg.

Surprisingly, there were plenty of places to park in the small parking area. We got out and walked along a boardwalk and set of stairs to the entrance to the plantation.

(No idea what this is)

Slave Quarters

Shrewdly and appropriately, the visitor guide and the path around the site take visitors first to the remnants of the foundations of the plantation’s slave quarters. This approach foregrounds the reliance that the entire sugar industry had, for centuries, on chattel slavery. Before visitors see the windmill or learn about molasses and rum, they are confronted with the fact that at its height some 662 enslaved people toiled at the sugar works and in the cane fields of the 1,300-acre plantation.

Slave Quarters

In the distance, in the British Virgin Islands across the channel from the slave quarters of Annaberg, a mega-yacht cruised slowly along. It was a reminder that ever since Columbus invaded the Caribbean in 1492, these islands have been a mix of immense wealth and immense suffering.

Slave Quarters

Cultivation of sugar cane started here about 1721 after Danish settlers on St. Thomas expanded to St. John in 1718. Although located in a Danish colony, Annaberg itself was owned at various times by French, Danish, Dutch, and Irish plantation owners.

Slave Quarters

Chattel slavery was the absolute economic underpinning of sugar cultivation in the Americas. The immense wealth it brought to planters was only possible because of the forced labor of enslaved peoples. Otherwise, the complex and labor-intensive process of refined sugar production would have rendered it too expensive for it to develop a broad appeal in Europe and North America.

Slave Quarters

Enslaved people worked here until 1848, when Denmark abolished slavery.

Slave Quarters

Despite the burgeoning abolitionist movements in Europe and the Americas, the ultimate fall of slavery in the Caribbean was not a change of heart among the governments of the colonial powers. Two specific circumstances hastened the end of slavery in the Caribbean: the Industrial Revolution and the Haitian Revolution.

The mechanization of labor in the Industrial Revolution shifted the production of wealth from highly agrarian to highly industrialized enterprises. The tension that would play out in the United States—as the economy of the industrialized North freed it from having to accept and be beholden to the slaveholding and agrarian South—also played out in European and Latin American economies tied to sugar production.

The Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1804, which established the first free state in the Caribbean and the first successful revolt of enslaved peoples in the Americas was enormously bloody. Shown vividly that enslaved peoples were capable of the violent overthrow of their enslavers, slaveowners throughout the Caribbean were much more wary than they had been in the decades before the establishment of Haiti. Eventually, the threat of successful violent insurrection became too much.

In the wake of the Haitian Revolution, Britain abolished its slave trade in 1807. Then in 1833, it emancipated its slaves. Although it took another fifteen years, Denmark followed suit in 1848.

Mary Point and Mary Creek

Leinster Bay


Upslope from the slave quarters, the ruins of the windmill command the area of the sugar factory at Annaberg.

At the time that it was a plantation, all the surrounding hills, now lushly forested, would have been planted in sugar cane.

Cook and Bake House

The windmill was structurally damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, so we were unable to explore the area behind and beneath it, which includes the haunting dungeon.

Leinster Bay

Leinster Bay

The view from Annaberg is one of the best on St. John, with the British Virgin Islands spread out across the horizon.

British Virgin Islands

Leinster Bay

Leinster Bay

Image: Sean M. Santos

Everything needed to harvest, process, and prepare sugar for export was done onsite. The windmill or the horse mill provided the power to crush the sweet juice out of the cane. It was processed and cooked down in huge copper pots, with the drippings used to make molasses or distilled into rum. Barrels of raw sugar were then exported to Europe and North America for final processing into refined white sugar.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Now plants grow out of crevices in the boiler room.

The building materials for the structures were a mix of stone, brick, and coral.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Painkiller Tree

Painkiller Tree

Annaberg is a solemn place, and everyone there, our little group and a handful of other visitors, was quiet and respectful

Sean described it as “suffused with sadness.”

Mary Creek

We headed back down to the parking area that Annaberg shares with Leinster Bay Trail, the shoreline path to access Waterlemon Cay. Not snorkeling at Waterlemon was my biggest regret from our previous trip. We resolved to return and do it the next day.

Leinster Bay

But for now, we were hungry. Time to find some lunch.

Further Reading

Annaberg Plantation NPS Website

Annaberg Plantation Virtual Exhibit and Tour

Knight, Sr., David W., Understanding Annaberg, Little Nordside Press, 2002.

1 thought on “Virgin Islands National Park: Confronting History at Annaberg

  1. Pingback: Virgin Islands National Park: Hiking to Reef Bay | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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