Forts on St. Croix

Fort Christiansværn

Following the acquisition of St. Croix, Frederik Moth founded the town Christiansted in the bay named ‘Bassin’ on the north side of the island. By 1734 colonization was already in full swing. On the remains of a French fort, St. Jean, Moth planted the royal standard and fired a salute, then began building the fort. It was to be named Christiansværn and would be a defence against piracy and guard the colony from rebellious enslaved Africans. It also housed soldiers and served as a prison. In May 1735 the first streets of Christiansted were laid out, 40 foot wide, and the first plot of land was bought by von Plessen, Mr. Kroll and Mr. Løwenørn.

The otherwise excellent harbour had a dangerous reef at the entrance, so a pilot station was built on the tiny island Protestants’ Quay, just north of the fort. It was armed with 12 cannons donated by the King.

Work progressed slowly. In 1744 the fort was only half finished, but by 1740 a warehouse inside the walls had been completed. All the Africans were brought in to this slave station from the slave ships. They were fed and rubbed with oil, exhibited and auctioned into slavery. The warehouse, which belonged to the Company, was presumably partly present as early as 1733, since the central part of the building has a Dutch Renaissance gable, suggesting that it was built in the 1600s. Later the slave station was separated from the Fort and in recent times it was converted into a post office. The slave station is now owned by the National Park Service.

“Even after their arrival at the specific location the consequence of the distressing journey is the start of a general disease, partly due to changes in their entire existence; and during the first few hours after their arrival, in the so-called ‘seasoning’, as many if not more die as on the ships. Likewise, as they are moved ashore, one can expect a number to be as good as dead, even if they are not on the list of those who have died on board. These are sold at the lowest price of a few dollars, mostly to doctors or Jews, who are willing to gamble a small sum against the significant gain should such a sick Negro recover. These facts need no commentary, they speak for themselves. It is hard to admit, and impossible to deny, that the line between an avoidable sacrifice of human life and a real murder, if drawn with an impartial hand, would be very shaky”.

This quotation comes from a statement presented by a commission to King Christian VII in 1792.The commission was headed by Ernst Schimmelmann and the statement was written by Schimmelmann’s secretary Ernst Kirsstein (“Extracts from the Proposal to the King concerning the Abolition of the Negro Trade”).

In front of the fort there were also a primitive weigh-station and a forge. The Company and the King each had their own warehouse. The warehouses, the weigh-station, the customs house and the barracks that can be seen today were built in the 1800s.

In April 1736 the Company sent 33 enslaved Africans from St. Thomas to the plantation La Grande Princesse outside Christiansted. Their primary task was to prepare the plantation for sugar cane cultivation, but some were also sent into Christiansted, where they undoubtedly participated in the construction of the fort and other of the Company’s construction projects works in 1735. Ten rebels from the slave revolt on St. John in 1733 were transferred there to work in chains at the first construction site on St. Croix.

In 1740 the Company only had four slaves living and working in Christiansted: a carpenter named Thomas, a joiner called Acra, a blacksmith named John and a warehouse worker called Quashi. The modest number reflects the stagnation in urban development between 1735 and 1740 and the reluctance of the Company officials on St. Thomas to send labour to St. Croix.

By late 1744 the number of the Company’s enslaved Africans in Christiansted had risen to 24: 5 masons, 3 carpenters, 2 blacksmiths, 1 cooper, and 9 ‘assistants’, all of whom worked on the fort and other buildings. There were also two warehouse workers and two ‘master Negroes’, one a bomba or foreman, the other a barber-surgeon who took care of the sick. 

The great increase in skilled construction workers shows that building activities had finally taken off. The Company had also assigned ten of its enslaved Africans to work with the parcelling-out of the island’s plantations. From 1747 these so-called ‘compass Negroes’ were also required to participate in the work force on St. Croix on Saturdays. 

Over the next decade the Company increased the number of qualified workers in Christiansted. During this time, all the Company’s buildings were completed within the area that today constitutes the Christiansted National Historic Site. 

The Company continued to increase skilled manpower in Christiansted, and by 1747 it had 53 enslaved Africans, including 5 masons and 6 carpenters. In 1751 there were 62 enslaved Africans, of whom 5 were masons, 4 apprentice masons, 7 carpenters, 4 blacksmiths, 3 ‘master Negroes’, 1 cooper, 14 ‘assistants’, who all worked on the fort and other buildings. In addition there were 14 warehouse workers and 3 women who baked bread and tended the sick. Seven other of the Company’s enslaved Africans are described as ‘compass Negroes’. It was reported that 2 ‘compass Negroes’ and 2 carpenters had run off to Puerto Rico between 1747 and 1751.

From 1744 until Fort Christiansværn was completed in 1749 the number of skilled enslaved African craftsman and apprentices increased. It is reasonable to assume that the two skilled masons, called Aquilla and Mingo/David, who were subsequently moved to Frederiksted to build Fort Frederik, also helped to manage the construction of Fort Christiansværn. Abraham, Adam, Claus, Jaque/Simon and Pero were also active during these years of construction. Similarly, we know for sure that the carpenters Abraham, Acra, Andreas and Jamil worked as site managers. 

In 1755 the Company employed 56 enslaved Africans in the city, comprising 9 bricklayers, 7 carpenters, 4 blacksmiths and 12 ‘assistants’, all working on the various buildings. Once all construction had ended and all the functions of government had been provided with appropriate facilities, the colony was taken over by the King and all the Company’s enslaved Africans became the property of the absolute monarch.

Fort Frederik

When the Company purchased St. Croix from France in 1733 they made Frederik Moth the Governor. He landed on the west coast where the remnants of a French fort and the ruins of a plantation called La Grange lay. The Company took possession of La Grange as a benchmark for plantation operations on the island. Moth found the site suitable for building a town, with a port that could ship sugar nine months of the year, but it was too unsafe in the hurricane season. In 1747 Johan Wilhelm Schopen was made the Company factor and given the task of surveying and parcelling out the island. The latter work was conducted by Cronenberg and Jægersberg and in 1750 resulted in a very accurate map which was sent to the Royal Sea Chart Archives, where it was hidden away or forgotten. Jens Michelsen Beck resumed the surveying and the parcelling-out of land on the island, and laid out a town plan for Frederiksted on the west coast of St. Croix.

Frederiksted was laid out as a small town with a neighbourhood on each side of a fort – Fort Frederik. The foundations of the fort were laid in 1752. On Beck’s map from 1754 the town was still shown as symmetrical around the fort, but the northern half was never built. The fort was at first officially named ‘Frederiksværn’; later it was called ‘Frederiksfort’, and now it is known as Fort Frederik. Pomeranian pine, Flensburg brick, nails and many other building materials were sailed over as well as cannons for the defence of the fort.

Behind the fort there are still remnants of a lime kiln, which supplied the lime for building the fort. Seashells and coral were burnt there to make slaked lime and stored in a pit. Eventually it was used for masonry, rendering and whitewashing.

The masons David and Aquila were both enslaved Africans owned by the Company. First they were sent from St. Thomas to St. Croix with the Company’s other enslaved Africans. Later they were posted to Frederiksted to help build Fort Frederik. They were both married and lived on the Company’s plantation at Christiansted, La Grande Princesse. In 1752 they were moved to the Company’s plantation La Grange, where they were to stay while building the fort. On Sundays they visited their families, who remained at La Grande Princesse. The two masons were members of the Moravian community and enjoyed the confidence of the missionaries. They were the first enslaved Afro-Caribbeans to marry, and Aquila was a central figure in the mission.

In the early years the construction of the fort progressed well and the masonry reached a height of 2.5 to 3 metres. In 1755 the walls reached almost 4 metres, and by 1758 the fort was half-finished. After a large-scale rebellion by enslaved Africans was thwarted in 1759, completion was accelerated. In 1760 the fort was finished, and it still bears the monogram of King Frederik V.

The first time the fort can be seen is on Beck’s map, where it is a building approximately 40 x 40 metres square. On each of the two corners towards the coast a bastion was built, offset a few yards from the facade of the fort and formed as the acute-angled point of a star. The bastion thus offers a 360-degree view. On the seaward side a battery of cannon with three bastions was built. The square plan shows that the depth of the building is about 5.5 metres. The cladding is closely spaced timber spanning wall to wall with a further transverse layer laid even closer; a layer of tiles allows water to penetrate, except where it is kept dry by mortar. The bastions and the gunpowder store are covered with a waterproof, brick-lined vaulted roof.

In the courtyard the facade of the main building has been given a round-arched gallery which makes it appear taller and lifts it over the battery with an upper facade equipped with a pitched roof. A symmetrical staircase leads to the roofs and bastions of the fort and the top floor of the main building, where the commandant had a view of the sea.

At the end of the 1700s it was reported that the fort was too small and was decaying too quickly. In 1820 the fort was surveyed and remained unchanged in all essentials, but a large cistern was added in the courtyard. After that Fort Frederik was expanded and changed over the next 140 years. It changed colour from light brown to yellow, then to grey, to blue and finally to dark red after it ceased to have any military significance from the mid-1800s. From that time on the fort was used in succession as a police station, a jail, a courthouse, a telephone exchange and many other functions. In 1976 the fort was restored for permanent use as a museum and monument. This required the entire building to be returned to the form it had in 1820, and all later additions were removed.

Regrettably, knowledge of appropriate building materials no longer existed in the islands in 1976. The new beams, shutters, doors and lintels were made of wood that could not tolerate damp or was not resistant to termites. The original limewash and lime mortar rendering was replaced with a rock-hard concrete plaster that cannot adapt to the wind, humidity and heat conditions. After the above renovations the entire building was painted with a tough acrylic coating that prevents the walls from breathing freely. Fort Frederick was indeed preserved, but the problems of the building in the harsh climate with its hot sun, strong winds and excessive moisture are highly visible and threaten the building’s existence in the longer term.

The fort is a very beautiful and evocative place in its location on the western coast. It is still the backdrop for political and cultural events and is accorded almost mythical respect because it was there that Peter von Scholten had to grant the enslaved Africans their freedom in 1848.