St. Thomas

Charlotte Amalie

In 1671 the Danish West India and Guinea Company sent Jørgen Iversen Dyppel to colonize St. Thomas, because he had been in the Caribbean earlier on and understood the difficult conditions on the island.

In a natural port with shelter from hurricanes and a view of the entrance to the harbour, Dyppel founded a settlement then called Tappus – the name referred to the many tap-houses or taverns. Above the buildings are the foothills called Denmark Hill and Government Hill, both excellent places for lookout posts. Lookout towers were an important part of the town’s topography as the settlement spread into the island and became a city. Fort Christian was one of the first buildings Dyppel constructed, between 1672 and 1679.

Apart from Iversen Dyppel himself, his enslaved Africans and his indentured serves from Denmark, the colony’s first settlers were a motley crew of artisans, planters and traders from several European countries, the majority of Dutch origin. In 1688 there were 37 Europeans – not counting the slaves – and from 1692 the planters began to contribute to trade, merchant shipping and house building. At the same time Tappus was renamed Charlotte Amalie after the Danish King Christian V’s queen. The name of the town was not given a normal city suffix like ‘-castle’, ‘by’ or ‘ton’. Just the name of one woman, as is the tradition for ships.

In 1716 Charlotte Amalie consisted of 82 houses, some of which were stores and warehouses along the waterfront west of Fort Christian. The first 80 years of urban development were not planned; the streets simply followed the features of the town and the topography of the landscape. Only since the 1760s have the districts been planned, with a network of streets at right angles – i.e. a grid.
In 1764 a plan designating the residential areas for the Afro-Caribbean population was produced. This consisted of the Up Street district and the neighbourhoods called Savane and West Savane, both of which got their names because the areas were as flat as the savannah. This was how the socially segregated town was founded.

The socially segregated town

Frifarvede (free coloured) was just one of several names for the few Afro-Caribbeans who were able from the middle of the 1700s either to buy freedom for themselves or family members, or were granted a ‘deed of liberty’ by their owners. Such a deed was frequently included in the last will and testament of a slave owner.
Even though they were no longer slaves, the ‘free coloured’ still constituted an underclass governed by specific laws, who were never granted the same rights as Europeans. However, they could own houses, land and slaves. With the growth of trade and construction in the colony this group of free coloureds expanded. Most were craftsmen, but they could also be traders or women who made a living by taking in washing.

With an increase in the number of children of mixed Afro-European origin – then called mulattos – these ‘illegitimate’ children were likely to be fathered by their owners, who wanted to spare them the slave life by giving them their freedom. However, there are many examples of old, decrepit, worn-out enslaved Africans being given their freedom so that their owners would not have to supply them with food and shelter in the last years of their life. The survival of these freed slaves depended entirely on whether they had a circle of family or friends with resources. Often they did not. These tragic figures were the waste product of slavery, and the Moravian missionaries criticized the practice.

The ‘Free Coloured’ part of town, Savane in Kronprinsens Kvarter, also housed mostly Sephardic Jews from Portugal and the Portuguese colonies. They arrived in particular at the end of the 1700s, fleeing persecution, to enjoy the religious freedom of the colony. A permanent Jewish cemetery from 1792 is still there, and was used by both rich and poor Jews. Gravestones bear names like Lindo, De Sola and Sabhe. The grave of Pardo, who owned a big beautiful house at Kongensgade 1b, is here for example. The neighbourhood around the synagogue in Krystalgade was another area where Jewish immigrants lived.

The social segregation of the town meant that the European population gathered in their own enclaves. The French population always had its own district, Frenchtown or Frenchman’s Creek in the port area to the west of the original town centre.

After 100 years Charlotte Amalie was inhabited by about 2000 people – approximately 40% of the island’s population. By the end of the century in 1800 it was home to half the population. Despite the fact that in the 1800s the town was one of the largest in the Danish Kingdom, Charlotte Amalie was never given city status.

The architecture in Charlotte Amalie

Charlotte Amalie was developed – like Flensburg for example – on the model used in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe. The town consists of long, narrow parcels of land with equally narrow alleys between the long, slender warehouses ending in a town house on the street line. The main street with the big warehouses is called Dronningens Gade, and it continues into Kronprindsens Gade. The hilly town – like most of the island’s other towns – has preserved typical Danish street names like Vimmelskaftets Gade, Krystal Gade, Borgergade, Bjerggade, Pilestræde, Jødegade and Silkegade.

Initially, the warehouses were built of timber, but gradually this building custom changed and walls were built in imported brick and the local hard lava rock called blue-bit. Similarly, at an early stage the roofs were covered with shingle or roof tiles. But hurricanes and terra cotta tiles are a deadly combination. Gradually tiled roofs were replaced by a more flexible roof covered with wooden shingles. Over the last 100 years roofing has changed, and today it consists predominantly of painted metal sheets.
Warehouse walls were originally plastered and whitewashed, giving the townscape the appearance of a harmonious whole. Many warehouses from the middle of the 1800s now appear with stripped walls leaving the imported brick and blue-bit visible. This fashion and the exaggerated shop signs make the townscape look fragmentary and give little impression of the original architecture.

Charlotte Amalie’s urban development began on the foreshore, but only two streets in the terrain rise steeply upward to the north. A special feature of the town is the 40 or so stairways connecting one level of the town with the next. From up on the side of the mountain there is a good overview of the town and its structure. Up there each plot of land slopes so much that it was not possible to build the shady, covered galleries that are so characteristic of the towns on St. Croix.

In Charlotte Amalie the residences of the Europeans were often built high up on the hillside with beautiful stairs leading to a shady house on a high foundation, beneath which one often finds space for a cistern. Behind and separated from the mansion was the ‘cookhouse’ and still farther out on the plot were the outbuildings, the houses of the enslaved Africans and possibly a vegetable garden.

The architectural style changed after the last big fire in 1832. It has classical European features with elegant balconies of cast iron, which were added to many buildings in the last half of the 1800s. The architectural dimensions are familiar to a European. The classic European doctrines formed the background for the training of the Afro-Caribbean craftsmen, since this was what the Europeans wanted. The bulk of the architecture was created by non-professionals but consists of good craftsmanship with beautifully decorated details and stylistic features such as decorative elements above the windows, keystones at corners, columns and curving flights of stairs with their so-called “welcoming arms”.

In Savane in the early decades the houses of the free coloured were built of wood with shingle on facades and roofs, and were either placed on a foundation or directly on the ground. The houses were usually only one or two bays deep, but lengthwise they were built together and grouped around a common courtyard, where all the cooking and baking was done. On the window shutters and the doors of the houses there are wrought iron fittings that are an important element in terms of both function and architecture.

In 1804, a large part of Charlotte Amalie was destroyed by fire. Further fires in 1806 and again in 1826 took other parts of the city, and finally a major fire in 1832 resulted in the virtual disappearance of the original architecture – apart from the eastern most part of the town and Fort Christian.

Three Towns, Copenhagen 1980, Ole Svenson and others
Savaneros, Charlotte Amalia 1994, Edith de Jongh Woods and others
St. Thomas and St. Croix, Kunstakademiets Arkitektskoles Forlag 2004, Thorkell Dahl and Kjeld de Fine Licht

In this chapter

  • St. Thomas
  • St. Croix
  • St. John