St. Thomas History Lesson: Fact, Fiction and Jewish Grandmas

It’s funny how you learn about the place you live. If you grow up somewhere, perhaps you learn the folktales and history of your home through your parents and grandparents. When you move to somewhere new, you don’t often get to appreciate the people and events that have come before you to their fullest extent. The history of the Caribbean is rich and deep, and we got just a tiny taste of it this past weekend.

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My book club read Alice Hoffman’s “The Marriage of Opposites” and it was fascinating! While the book was fiction, the roots of the story were in the history of impressionist artist Camille Pissarro (born and raised on St. Thomas) and his Jewish family.  It was mostly about his mother, of which very little is known, but Hoffman weaves a compelling love story and island history lesson together to create a beautiful vision of St. Thomas in a bygone era. The St. Thomas Synagogue hosted Alice Hoffman for a presentation and reception featuring some of Pissarro’s work, and some members of my book club and I got to attend. I also got to meet Hoffman and have her sign my book, which is always a treat for this book nerd! The book signing was a bit chaotic; picture a crowded room full of Jewish grandmas all pushing you to get your book signed quickly so they could get their armful of books signed for everyone they knew that couldn’t make it.

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The sand floor of the St. Thomas Synagogue.

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Author Alice Hoffman speaking to a PACKED synagogue.

On Saturday Dan and I got up early, took a little dinghy over to Hassel Island for the “locals” hiking tour. Led by a member of the St. Thomas Historical Trust, we hiked just under three miles and learned about the island’s rich history and connection to St. Thomas.

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Built in the 1840s, this structure at the Creque Marine Railway housed steel equipment used to haul ships out of the water for repair.

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Panoramic view from Hassel Island, looking south into the Caribbean Sea.

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Remains of one of the hundreds of structures the British built while occupying the island in the mid 19th century.

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View of Charlotte Amalie harbor.

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Remains of officer’s quarters.

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Beautiful gardens (or remains thereof) are just feet from the formal naval base.

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British officers and their families would relax in the hidden gardens on Hassel Island

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Very few people live on Hassel Island, but one of these properties belongs to a sail maker. The entire area is littered with artifacts found on the island or washed in from the sea.

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View of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas from Careening Cove on Hassel Island. This bay appears on maps as early as 1687.

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Garrison house of Fort Willoughby. The St. Thomas Historical Trust hopes to one day turn this building into a museum.

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Prince Frederik’s Battery, renamed Fort Willoughby by the British.

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I caught a catamaran sailing out of the harbor through the windows of Prince Frederik’s Battery.

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Hassel Island hikers!

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