Annaberg Sugar Plantation
Tracing the footsteps of slavery on a Danish sugar plantation

Daily Life on a Plantation

Beyond the dichotomy of “owner” and “slave,” society at Annaberg was highly stratified. Laborers were classified according to their skills, which determined their living and working conditions. Unskilled laborers worked in the fields, planting, tending, and harvesting sugar cane. Skilled laborers, such as coopers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and sugar cookers, worked in the sugar factory or industrial shops.

The relative status of laborers is further apparent in the construction of their homes. Slaves were required to build their own housing, utilizing coral, mud, and lime to build wattle and daub houses. Archaeological finds have revealed that when sugar production became more profitable, skilled laborers may have been allowed to incorporate stone within the construction of their housing, setting them apart from the unskilled laborers.

Despite working extremely long hours in sugar production, enslaved laborers were also expected to provide for themselves. A small bake oven preserved in the village speaks of the laborers’ production and use of the low-fired pottery known as “colonoware.” Laborers worked “provision grounds,” small garden plots located on the periphery of cane fields, to produce all of their own food. With the most productive land reserved for sugar cane, the provision grounds were barely sufficient to feed the population of enslaved laborers. Plantation records show that, in times of drought, many starved to death.

Work at the provision grounds was unsupervised, allowing enslaved laborers a small reprieve from the oppressive restrictions of their daily lives. They gathered on the grounds to socialize, carry on cultural traditions, share news, and plan escapes.

The Workday

The workday during the sugar harvest can be traced in the remains of Annaberg’s sugar factory complex. Workers in the fields labored from dawn to dusk, cutting cane and “shooting” it downhill in wooden channels, hoisting it uphill with a windlass or, more often, carting it to either the animal mill or the windmill.

At the mills, teams of men and young boys fed the cane by hand through three cylindrical grinders to extract sugar juice, which flowed through a narrow culvert to the “clarifier” in the factory’s boiling house. There, laborers added a temper to the juice as it was heated and skimmed off the impurities that rose to the surface. They then ladled the juice into a series of “coppers,” pots of diminishing size, where it was boiled and reduced to a thick syrup. One of the most important workers on the plantation was the “sugar cooker” who evaluated when the syrup was ready to crystallize. Overcooking burned the syrup; undercooking produced only molasses. At the critical moment, the sugar cooker ordered the “striking” and laborers rapidly ladled the syrup into cooling pans where it crystallized. They raked the crystals to prevent clumping, then loaded the sugar into barrels, and transported them to the curing house where excess liquid was drained to be used in the distilling of rum.

Working 18 to 20 hour days during the sugar harvest, suffering the relentless heat of the Caribbean sun or the boiling house furnaces, and exposed to dangerous machinery and scalding liquids, the enslaved workers at Annaberg farmed 1,300 acres of sugar cane and produced 100,000 tons of sugar a year.

Repression and Resistance

With enslaved workers outnumbering them by 5 to 1, plantation owners feared resistance, revolts, and escapes. Enslaved workers were subject to constant supervision, severe restrictions on their behavior and movement, and brutal punishments for even minor infractions. A census of the Annaberg plantation in 1835 records that a woman named Venus was accused of “rebellious conduct” and sentenced to “100 lashes with a Tamarind whip and a chain to be worn around her neck for the span of two months and to be locked up at noon and night.”

The “Dungeon” at Annaberg testifies to the frequent use of detention as a deterrent. A small brick cell built into the foundation of the sick house and equipped with leg shackles, its walls were inscribed by jailed slaves with images of clipper ships, perhaps symbolizing freedom and the journey home.

When Joe Popp escaped from the Dungeon in 1839, the full story of his resistance to the conditions of slavery was revealed. Joe worked as the “house boy” at the owners’ manor house. Caught and punished numerous times for acts of rebellion such as stealing food, Joe was publicly flogged by the overseer John Edwards for leaving the plantation for a day without permission. Swearing he would never receive another beating from Edwards, Joe Popp poisoned Edwards’ morning tea with arsenic, an act witnessed by Maria Rosina, the “house girl.” Edwards died that day from what was believed to be a fever. Word of the murder passed from plantation to plantation via a song sung by field workers. A similar song circulated later that year when the overseer who replaced Edwards also died of an unknown illness. Joe Popp was never prosecuted having escaped to freedom on the British island of Tortola and from there to life as a crewman on a steamship.

Escapes, like Joe Popp’s, from Annaberg and the surrounding Danish plantations became especially frequent after Britain abolished slavery in 1833. Lying less than 2 miles from St. John’s shores, the British island of Tortola was only a short boat ride, or a hard swim, away. The Governor of St. John made efforts to curb escapes of enslaved laborers, setting naval frigates to patrol the Narrows that separated the Danish and British islands and building a series of garrisons in the hills guarding the route to Tortola. Remains of the Leinster Bay guardhouse that overlook Annaberg still exist today.

These efforts proved ineffective, as evidenced by the escape of 11 people by boat from the Annaberg and Leinster plantations in 1840. Escapees formed an underground network on Tortola that helped plan and execute further escapes from Danish plantations. In 1848, Denmark abolished slavery in all of its territories, including the Danish West Indies.

Digitally Documenting Annaberg

St. John Island is threatened by hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, like those that devastated the Annaberg Sugar Plantation in 1867, leaving the facilities in ruins and bringing sugar production to an end. CyArk partnered with Trimble Navigation, the Virgin Islands National Park, and Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park to digitally preserve features of the plantation, contributing to the ongoing conservation of the site.

Our partner, Trimble Navigation provided new scanning technologies in ground LIDAR, unmanned aerial systems, and photogrammetry, allowing documentation of features and terrain on a large scale. Trimble also conducted trainings sessions for Park Staff and visiting scholars from the Saxo Institute of the University of Copenhagen in scanning techniques and technologies. The data captured will be used to identify structures hidden beneath dense tropical vegetation, for monitoring erosion of existing structures, and for creating future conservation plans.


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