Sunday, November 29, 2015   

Go on a Whim

Bob Downing

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


The Estate Whim Museum in Frederiksted, St Croix - the largest of the US Virgin Islands - provides a look at what life was like 250 years ago on a sugar-cane island. It includes the plantation house, slave quarters, outlying buildings, a towering windmill and the remains of a factory where sugar cane was processed.

The Great House was built about 1760 and restored several times. Its oval shape came about in 1793. It is 30 meters long and 10m wide with 5m ceilings, and sits next to tamarind trees.

It contains three large rooms, an office gallery and a wing that was originally a separate kitchen. It is flanked by numerous outbuildings. The walls are 76 centimeters thick, made of cut brain coral, limestone and rubble, bonded by a mortar containing molasses.

The tall windows and doors that ring the house provide cross-ventilation, and the windows could be shuttered during hurricanes.

The ground floor of the Great House consists of a dry moat that rings the cellars and was used to cool the building. No original furniture survives, but it is filled with period items from the Caribbean.

It sits on five hectares that remain of a once-thriving estate. Whim was occupied by 12 owner-families from 1743 to 1932.

The oldest sugar plantation museum in the US Virgin Islands, it is typical of the agricultural plantations laid out in the 1730s by the Danish West India and Guinea Company.

Whim is listed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places and the United Nation's Slave Route Sites of Remembrance. It is one of more than 50 sites on St Croix where plantation remains may be found.

The plantation on the southwest corner of the island was surveyed in 1733-35 when it came under Danish rule. St Croix was one of the richest sugar islands in the West Indies from 1760 to 1820, when production was high and sugar prices were stable.

In 1803, St. Croix's population was 30,000, of whom 26,500 were slaves who planted, harvested and processed cane on 218 island plantations. More than 100 windmills and almost as many animal mills ran day and night in season, converting sugar into wealth.

Most plantations were small communities of up to 120 hectares, with sugar cane growing on two-thirds of the land. They were not self-sufficient; food, clothing and equipment had to be imported.

At first, Whim grew cotton, according to records from 1743. In 1754, sugar was introduced and that was grown until the 1920s.

The local economy boomed from 1760 to 1820. The golden age of sugar cane declined with the appearance of beet sugar in the United States and Europe. Slavery was abolished on St Croix in 1848.

At first, animals were used to crush juice from sugar cane. A rebuilt horse- powered replica stands on the grounds of the Estate Whim.

The plantation also features an imposing stone windmill built between 1768 and 1779.

Men lifted and moved a long pole to make the dome turn and move the sails to catch the wind. Slaves fed sugar cane between three rollers, and the juice drained down a sluice to the adjoining factory.

The juice first went to the boiling house, where it was reduced to a moist brown sugar called muscovado. That work was directed by a slave known as the boiling master.

On a wall stood a receiving vat and battery of smaller cauldrons called coppers over furnaces fueled by bagasse, or dried crushed cane stalks. On the opposite wall were shallow cooling pans.

After skimming off impurities and adding lime, workers ladled the juice from copper to copper, stirring and skimming.

At the last copper, the rapidly thickening liquid was carefully watched. If the boiling master could produce a sugary thread between his fingers, the cooking was done. Workers then turned the moist crystals into wooden pans to cool.

This sugar was packed in 725-kilogram barrels, put on racks and the molasses was drained off.

After a few weeks, when the sugar was dry, the barrels were topped off with fresh sugar, sealed and loaded on oxcarts for transport to the wharf.

Molasses was a lucrative by- product; rum was made by fermenting water and molasses with skimmings, oranges and herbs.

Admission is US$10 (HK$78) for adults and hours are 10am to 4 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. For information, go to

Not far from Whim is the 6.5-hectare St George Village Botanical Garden, built around the ruins of another old plantation: the Estate St George.

It, too, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Estate St George at its peak had more than 150 slaves. The slave quarters have been recycled into the Great Hall, a meeting place.

The Water Mill was built around 1830 and destroyed in an 1867 earthquake. Surviving are the blacksmith shop, the village bakery, lime kilns, water flumes and the ruins of the sugar cane factory.

Today the grounds are dominated by more than 1,500 species of native and exotic plants.

Attractions include a tropical rain forest, orchids, cactus gardens, palms, fruit trees and medicinal plants.Admission is US$8 for adults and hours are 9am to 5 pm daily. For information, go to


If you go

Travel notes

st croix is the largest and least-developed of the US Virgin Islands. It covers 214.7 square kilometers and has about 51,500 residents. The western part of the island is rain forest; the eastern end is rocky and arid.

The island is celebrated for its laid-back attitude, diving, beaches like Sandy Point and beach bars.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus landed at Salt River, now a national historic site. He was greeted by spears and arrows from the native Caribs.

Colorful Christiansted on the north coast is the largest city on St Croix. It features a historic district on the waterfront with more than 100 brightly painted buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. An old fortress, Fort Christiansvaern, was completed by the Danes in 1749 to protect the island from pirates and slave uprisings.

Buck Island Reef National Monument off the north coast is one of the premier diving-snorkeling spots in the Caribbean. It covers more than 7,690 hectares, mostly below water, and preserves one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean.

For tourist information, go to

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