Throughout my home island of St. Croix, as in other islands across the Caribbean, evidence of the region’s colonial past and plantation-based society can be found in the ruins of ancient structures strewn all over the place. They’re so common, in fact, that as a kid growing up around historic relics like the one pictured here, I largely took them for granted. I’d seen a few small hovels like this during my younger days, but never stopped to see what they were about til my last visit home a few weeks ago.
They’re called Watch-Houses, and unlike the iconic Sugar Mills found anywhere and everywhere in the Caribbean that cane was cultivated between the 16th and 19th centuries, these little guys are pretty rare. Research conducted by the St. Croix Landmark’s Society shows them to be a uniquely Danish structure, though surprisingly, you won’t find any in the other islands that comprised the Danish West Indies back in the day (i.e.: St. Thomas and St. John). Watch-Houses are a strictly Crucian thing. Even so, fewer than 10 can be found in St. Croix!
So, what was the purpose of these buildings?
Well, part of the answer certainly lies in the Watch-House name. Maps of colonial-era St. Croix show that the Watch-Houses were located at strategic spots where the fields of several different plantations met. From this shelter, a guard could sound an early warning if there was a crop fire, keep an eye out for thieves, or prevent runaways from getting too far. It’s also reputed that the Watch-Houses were used as makeshift daycare centers, where infant slaves could be cared for within close proximity of their mothers working in the fields.
All these uses seem to make sense, though some have argued that there must be more to these structures. The Watch-Houses are just too majestic in their form for such simple functions.
No one really knows all the ways these buildings were used over the years, or why they’re only found in St. Croix, but it’s just that type of mystery that makes visiting the Watch-Houses more interesting. Step inside, peer through the three narrow window openings, run your hands along the thick stone walls and let your imagination wander…
The Watch-House in the photo, lovingly restored by Texaco and the St. Croix Landmark’s Society in 1989, is located just west of the airport. Take a right at the Tim Duncan sign that greets everyone leaving the terminal and in about two minutes you’ll see it on your left, an unmistakable 8×10 landmark astride the main road.
This particular Watch-House was once part of the Betty’s Hope Plantation Estate, which I’ve recently learned lies in ruins nearby. The estate’s old Sugar Mill, Greathouse and a few other old structures are all still there, accessible after a short hike from the dirt road that leads due south from the Watch-House…and I never knew it!
Something else I once took for granted, but will certainly make sure to discover on my next trip back home.