This photo is from the U.S. Naval Military archive which includes the collection of John H. Boesch, a Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve Force who served in World War I. The image is a view of the fuel ship under Boesch’s command—the United States Ship (USS) Orion—photographed while offloading coal at St. Thomas Harbor in the U.S. Virgin Islands, circa 1918 – 1919. This kind of vessel, often referred to in the literature as a “collier,” was used for long distance transport of bulk shiploads of coal—in the case of the Orion, to refuel battleships of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.
I argue that this image is evidence of how, at the turn of the 20th century, the United States government, like the Danish government before it, valued the Virgin Island territories and the people who inhabited them instrumentally. The Danish intended for the islands to serve as a source of profit for the metropole, while mainstream America viewed the islands, and St. Thomas Harbor in particular, as a means of strengthening U.S. wartime capacity.
One of the three United States territories in the Caribbean, the island of St. Thomas is a 32 square mile speck on the map, located 40 miles east of Puerto Rico. The northern shoreline of the island faces the Atlantic Ocean, while St. Thomas Harbor, which is part of the southern shoreline, faces the Caribbean Sea. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the island’s central location within the archipelago expanse of Caribbean islands between North and South America—and the protected central harbor on its southern shore—made it a major attraction for European imperial expansionists and global trading companies, and pirates and adventurers.
An immediately striking aspect of the image in the USS Orion photograph is the massive superstructure on top of the ship’s hull. Alternating between giant looping cables, the long cranes form a series of gargantuan Vs, which jut sharply forward so that the sky and hilly landscape are obscured in the receding background.
The Caribbean Sea in which the fuel ship is afloat is all but absent from view, except for a small patch to the right of the ship’s stern, visible to the far right of the photograph.
Down on the ground, along the entire dock, lie huge conical heaps of coal that peak as high as midship. Hanging from several cranes above the heaps (toward the center of the dock and the ship’s stern on the right) are two giant mechanical clamshell buckets that appear ready to dump additional loads of bituminous cargo.
Completely dwarfed by the Orion, in the lower half of the photograph, are clusters of human beings with indecipherable dark faces, who appear to be Lilliputian zombies, wandering around in an industrial maritime tableaux.
Visible in the foreground of the lower right-hand corner are several women in motion—some heading toward, and others walking away from, the Orion. Most of the women in this corner are balancing baskets on their heads. But even the female figure facing front who is most visible, is completely shadowed so that her facial characteristics and expression are unreadable. She is heading away from the ship with her arms stretched up to steady the basket load on her head. In the same visual plane, but walking in the opposite direction of the woman with up-stretched arms, another woman is walking toward the ship with her head tilted down, and an empty basket resting in one hand at her hip. Her body posture suggests fatigue and weariness.
Back again toward the dock’s edge, a group of trousered figures standing beneath the mechanical clamshell toward the left appear to be weighing something, perhaps a basketful of coal to be placed on a woman’s head. Standing off to the right and alone is a figure attired in white with a white hat, who appears to be observing, or somehow documenting, the scene.
In one way or another, most of the people on the ground—especially the women with baskets—are there to accommodate the Orion. The dwarfed bodies with blank faces, mostly women milling around the coal heaps on the dock while carrying baskets, pose slight, insubstantial images, in stark to the massively commanding shipping vessel.
The light and shadows on the the Orion’s cranes and cable mechanisms depict angularity, solidity, and technological precision. The light and shadows on the human bodies depict anonymity, coal dust, and drudgery.
Toward the left side of the photograph, on the ship’s main deck, one solitary sailor stands with his foot leaning on the ship’s edge as he casually surveys activity on the ground below. Toward the right end a couple other barely distinguishable figures— likely also members of the ship’s crew—are also surveying the activity below from up high, far above the dusty dirty coal heaps.
The person who took the photo, perhaps Commander Boesch himself, positioned the camera to capture the way the USS Orion commanded the entire scene, while anonymous figures toiled manually at its service.
In April, 1917, Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, and just the month before, the United States government had concluded the purchase of the former Danish West Indian colonies—the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. With its well-suited natural harbor, St. Thomas was to serve as a defensive naval outpost to prevent the Germans from seizing control of region during the war.
After peaking as an entrepôt free port for vigorous trade and commerce of all kinds in the late1800s, St. Thomas Harbor was operated as a major coaling station by three European trading companies: the Danish West Indian Company, the British Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, and the German Hamburg-American Steamship Company.
By the time of the Danish sold the territory in 1917, St. Thomas had lost its competitive edge as a major shipping hub and had fallen on hard times. But the coaling station that serviced the Orion remained operational.
WHERE TO GO NEXT:
“United States Naval Collier Orion: Built in Record Time,” International Marine Engineering (1906-1920); Oct 1, 1912; 1; ProQuest pg. 418
Adams, Alton A., and Mark Clague. The memoirs of Alton Augustus Adams, Sr.: first black bandmaster of the United States Navy. Berkeley:University of California Press, 2009.
Moya Pons, Frank. History of the Caribbean. Plantations, trade, and war in the Atlantic world. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2007.
Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, Sam. L. Rogers, Director, Census of the Virgin Island of the United States, November 1, 1917 Prepared under the Supervision of Eugene F. Hartley at the request of the Secretary of the Navy.