Guns at ancient U.S. island fort fire no more

David C. Henley/LVN photos

David C. Henley/LVN photos

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CHRISTIANSTED, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands – If only the walls of old Ft. Christian could talk...

Constructed by Danish military engineers in the mid-1770s following Denmark’s purchase of this Caribbean island from France, the fort put down bloody slave rebellions, labor riots and civic insurrections for 184 years.

Alexander Hamilton, a military hero during the Revolutionary War, a signer of the U.S. Constitution and whose likeness graces the $10 bill, clerked at a hardware store adjacent to the fort.

And Hamilton’s mother, Rachel who bore him and his brother out of wedlock, was imprisoned in Ft. Christian’s dungeon for six months on charges of committing adultery.

The fort’s dank prison cells incarcerated countless others of lesser historical significance: Rebellious, freedom-seeking slaves captured by Danish sea captions in Africa and shipped here in chains to labor on sugar cane plantations, poorly-paid Danish military conscripts also caught trying to flee the island, and local citizens convicted of theft, rape and other crimes.

Prisoners found guilty of serious offenses were fed bread and water. Many were flogged with cat-o-nine-tails. Still others were thrown in the prison’s notorious “black hole” and executed by hanging or firing squad..

Denmark’s rule of St. Croix and its sister islands St. John and St. Thomas eventually came to an end on March 17, 1917, when Denmark sold them to the United States for $25 million.

The purchase took place three weeks before the U.S. entered World War l against Germany.

Learning that German submarines had already entered Caribbean waters, the United States reinforced Ft. Christian, replaced its ancient cannons with modern U.S. Army coastal batteries, sent Army, Navy and Marine Corps units to the island, and the historic fortress soon became America’s prime military bastion in the Caribbean.

The German subs promptly fled, the European war never reached these shores and the fort was decommissioned in 1929 when the last remaining U.S. troops left their garrisons and sailed home. Today, Ft. Christian serves as a museum and National Historic Site that is administered by the National Park Service.

The 210’ by 226’ bastion that overlooks Christiansted harbor is constructed of hundreds of thousands of bricks imported from Denmark and continues to be painted its original canary-yellow. Visitors may tour the fort’s officer and enlisted quarters, kitchens, mess halls, gun turrets, powder magazines, gun batteries, prison cells and the dreaded “black hole” accessible only by a trap door.

This island, which had been an early colonial outpost of Spain (Christopher Columbus came ashore in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World), and later Great Britain, the Netherlands, the Knights of Malta, France and then Denmark, seethes in history related to the presence here of Alexander Hamilton and his family.

Born on the nearby British island of Nevis in 1755 or 1757 (historians still dispute his birth date), Hamilton, along with his brother, was brought here as a child by his mother, Rachel, who had given birth to the boys whose father was her lover, James Hamilton. But Rachel’s husband, whom she had accused of cruelty, followed her to Christiansted and accused her of unfaithfulness, a crime that caused her to be imprisoned at Ft. Christian.

When he reached the age of 11, Alexander Hamilton began clerking at the hardware store across from the fort. Brushing off cruel taunts from some islanders who called him a “dirty bastard boy” and “bastard brat,” Hamilton worked hard at the store, read every book he could get his hands on, learned French and won a scholarship to Columbia University in New York.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, he became an Army captain and aide to General George Washington, was promoted to major general for his heroism in battle, was one of the nation’s founding fathers, a signer of the Constitution, and named by President Washington as the country’s first treasury secretary. In 1804, Hamilton was killed in New York during a duel with his political opponent, Aaron Burr.

Hamilton wrote in his memoirs that his youthful days working as a bookkeeper and accountant in the store here prepared him for his post as treasury secretary. He also wrote that he hated slavery and hoped it would be abolished someday.

His wish came true more than 40 years following his death. In 1848, slavery was abolished on St. Croix and Denmark’s two other islands, and 15 years later in the United States.

Ft. Christian, named for King Christian VI of Denmark and initially called Ft. Christiansvaern which means “Christian’s Defense” in Danish, has not served as an active military post for nearly a century.

But its ancient cannons are once again in place, pointing out to sea as if still prepared to engage in battle with European enemy navies, pirates and privateers. Cannonballs are stacked high beside the cannons. Muskets stand at the ready in nearby racks.

But these weapons are relics of the past. They will fire no more.


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