Project Title: “Paradise” Doomed by “Prosperity” – “Slow Violence” in St. Thomas Harbor, circa 1867-1917
Author Biography: I am graduate student in History. My research explores how and why, despite its vagueness, the idea of “development” persists and is deemed to be lacking in people and places outside of Europe and North America. Related to this, I am interested in the historical evolution of ideas about “progress” and “success” in American culture, and their seemingly inextricable association with money and property.
Project Site Description: One of the three United States Virgin Islands territories St. Thomas is a 32 square mile speck on the map, located 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, in the eastern Caribbean Sea. The island stands out for its relatively long, uninterrupted beach coastlines and protected central harbor on its southern shore.
My research focuses on St. Thomas Harbor as a site of environmental injustice at the turn of the twentieth century. For most of the second half of the nineteenth century, St. Thomas was the principal hub for offloading coal from New Castle, Northern England and North America and refueling for a global (mainly European) network of chartered shipping companies. In the early twentieth century the United States acquired the Danish West Indies to convert St. Thomas harbor into a military outpost during World War I.
Using Rob Nixon’s theory of “slow violence” as an analytical tool, I will examine how alterations to St. Thomas Harbor, which were undertaken to accommodate commercial and military vessels and advance the perceived economic and geopolitical interests of Denmark and the United States, undermined the wellbeing of racialized black islanders and, ultimately, every segment of the island’s residential population.
Historical questions: My research analysis entails examining newspaper reports, travelers’ dairies, and analyzing accounts of historians, to answer questions such as: How did Danish and American commercial and political elites understand or rationalize, and talk about both: 1) the poor health, labor, and housing conditions experienced St. Thomas “natives;” and 2) the ecological impacts of coaling and dredging in St. Thomas Harbor? Did St. Thomas’s reputation as an island “paradise” emerge as an afterthought, or was it coterminous with perceptions of the island’s commercial and military usefulness, whether as a Danish colony or U.S territory? To what extent were the enslaved and “free” black women and men, renowned for performing the heavy labor at the St. Thomas coaling station, viewed on the one hand, as part of the natural landscape to be controlled and manipulated along with the shoreline and, on the other, as integral to European notions of idyllic Eden? Reading against the grain of archival sources, I hope to also uncover (or hypothesize) how “ordinary” St. Thomians— who are seldom represented in their own voice—felt about the impact of coaling and dredging on the natural environment, as a way of gleaning whether and how local peoples’ conceptions of island prosperity squared with dominant imperial (Danish and American) positions, and possibly identifying contesting visions.