by Peter Muilenburg
Excerpt from his book, Adrift on a Sea of Blue Light
Late one afternoon in hurricane season, way back in the 30’s, a schooner ghosted into a quiet cove on St. John and dropped anchor. The rattle of its chain caught the attention of a boy in the hills collecting soldier crabs for bait. Looking out, he saw three white men lining the rail and staring hungrily at the land, like they had been a long time at sea.
Early next morning they came ashore and, when they could find someone to talk to, announced they were looking for land to buy -- in Chocolate Hole, the same cove where they were anchored. This was most unusual. It was the depths of the depression; people were leaving the Virgin Islands to seek employment in Curacao, New York, or Santo Domingo. Land was almost worthless -- you could buy an acre for the price of a cow.
St. John was a remote backwater back then -- population of 700, no electricity, no roads to speak of, the only vehicles horse and cart. Most people traveled by sailboat and lived close to the sea in settlements on the east side with names like John’s Folly, Hard Labor and Palestina.
No one lived in Chocolate Hole. Located at the SW corner of the island, its only virtue lay in being easy for a vessel to enter under sail, which also meant it was dangerous in south winds. Additionally it was in the rain shadow, thus hot, arid, sorely molested with mosquitoes and sandflies, and covered with vicious thorny scrub.
After days of doggedly hiking up and down the hills in the briars and the blistering heat, they chose a lot that couldn’t have been worse, close to the boy’s best spot for soldier crabs, in the lee of a prominent boulder, that would be hot and buggy even by Chocolate Hole standards. They refused to be dissuaded. They said they loved the view that conveniently looked down on their boat in the cove below.
Well, white people were already known to buy a piece of land -- be it ever so steep, rocky, and exposed -- solely because it had a great view. The owner pocketed the cash without further demurral and the deal was done.
The newcomers didn’t waste much time. They took the schooner to Charlotte Amalie and returned with a load of lumber. They hired a carpenter, the boy’s uncle, who lived in Cruz Bay, and began framing a house, the white men working hard alongside, with scarcely a break even at noon. They laid out a good-sized house, but didn’t bother with cement foundations or a concrete cistern. Instead they built it on posts of lignum vitae and brought a couple of barrels ashore from the schooner for their water supply -- both were commonly used for small shingle sided cabins, but not for a proper house of this size. The carpenter shook his head
As the days passed the house went up quickly, but the carpenter grew ever more displeased. Island carpenters in those days built boats as well as houses, and they built both to last. But not this house. The continentals, despite his advice, his warnings about hurricanes, were using the cheapest lumber and tacking it together with nails.
At the end of each week’s work the carpenter would hold forth at the rum shop in Cruz Bay on the latest eccentricities of his employment. The house had no first floor windows -- the white men said they would put them in later! Then the floor -- -instead of hardwood, cheap pine! Already it was splintering. And the roof beams -- merely toe nailed instead of the traditional, carefully fitted mortise and tenon joints! The carpenter predicted the first good blow would take it all away. The men nodded and fired back shots of white rum while the boys listened outside.
The walls and roof erected, the continentals declared they would finish the interior themselves. That was just fine with the carpenter who washed his hands of the project and resumed working on a fishing boat he was building, properly, on the beach in Cruz Bay.
A month went by during which there was little apparent progress on the house, though lights burned late into the night. The men were invariably polite, but kept to themselves. They met visitors at a distance from the house; nobody was ever invited in, not even the administrator when he stopped by one sweltering afternoon -- and he was a white man like them. When the boy came near the property to search for soldier crabs he was shooed off without ceremony.
Even for continentals they seemed obsessed with privacy -- but what did three men need such privacy for? It didn’t bear thinking on!
Then, one morning the schooner was gone and the house deserted. Days passed, the boat didn’t return, and the boy felt emboldened to check his favorite spot for crabs, near the back of the house. Nobody came out to chase him away. He told his uncle but the carpenter enjoined him and the other boys to stay away from property that wasn’t theirs.
The schooner had been gone a week when a night of terrible weather brought fearful strokes of lightning, heavy rains and high winds to the island. In the morning the boy, passing by, noticed that the door was open, banging in the wind, so he went to shut it. He took a look inside and went running for his uncle. Before long a knot of dumfounded people stood looking into the house.
The interior was piled with high with dirt. Hillocks of loose earth reached almost to the ceiling. The cheap pine floor was completely ripped up and now braced up the heaps, in between which gaped several deep holes. A wheelbarrow and some work worn picks and shovels leaned against a wall. A stout eyebolt in the roof’s ridge beam held a block and tackle which suspended a large metal bucket over one of the holes. At the bottom of the biggest hole was a smaller one.
It didn’t take anybody more than five seconds to figure out what the continentals had been digging for.
The Spanish conquistadors had ransacked two continents for gold, sending a prodigious river of wealth from the New World to Spain. A rivulet of it had been diverted -- by pirates and hurricanes -- into the Caribbean, of which a tiny trickle had ended up buried in the Virgin Islands, a temptation to the local cutthroats. Fate was fluid for those who lived by canvas and cutlass and many never lived to withdraw the deposit they had banked in the discrete earth. It’s still there today, if only one knew where to look.
How had the continentals known where to dig? A map? A family tradition that some adventurous descendant finally put to the test? Whatever, it had brought three men and a schooner all the way down from...where? No one knew just where they had come from and no one knew to where they had disappeared. So the white people weren’t so crazy after all! Or were they? Did they actually find the treasure? Did the schooner survive the storm? No one ever knew.
Soon all traces of the episode were gone. The house blew away in a gale of wind, and heavy downpours filled in much of the holes and caved in the sides.
It seems all traces of the story are gone too. Nobody I asked about it -- old natives and long time residents alike -- remembered hearing about it. I heard it from an old fisherman, long since dead, who mended his nets on the beach where I landed my dinghy. He was a fount of information about the island and the sea. I’d bring a cold beer or two and he’d talk. His story—--he was the young boy getting soldier crabs -- has stuck in my mind for 30 years. To me it has the hard-edged ring of truth, like a gold coin tossed onto the counter of a Port Royal saloon...
It must be true.