They hid in the hills, sequestered in the unpredictable security of caves at craggy shores, scratching out a subsistence with stubborn dignity. A presence once, they were all but forgotten in the aftermath of colonial slavery.
Last week they reappeared when Government House announced it is putting its weight behind efforts to create a Maroon Sanctuary Park in St. Croix’s Northwest Quadrant to preserve a swath of undeveloped land as green space and as tribute to the people who sought freedom there.
The history of escaped African slaves – or “maroons” – and their role in emancipation efforts throughout the Americas and the Caribbean became a popular research subject in the latter half of the last century. Much of the study centered on Jamaica, Suriname, and Brazil, all recognized as places where maroons established communities that existed simultaneously with plantations, generally in remote areas.
There were maroons in what is now the Virgin Islands too, and nearly 20 years ago, a small group of residents on St. Croix began an organized effort to educate the public about that heritage. Growing out of that initiative was a desire to preserve a piece of the rugged bushland that served as refuge to many of the maroons.
“It’s a long, long story before the governor even came into it,” said Olasee Davis, a University of the Virgin Islands professor, environmentalist, local columnist, and one of the most prominent advocates for a Maroon Park.
There are many ways the community might be able to establish the preserve, according to Davis.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s approach is to enforce a provision of a 1983 law that rezoned more than half of a 4,140-acre tract of undeveloped land near Annaly Bay in St. Croix’s Northwest Quadrant in anticipation of major development. The provision, which may have been a compromise between environmental and development interests, said that not less than 50 percent of the land must be kept as “open space” and at least 1,000 acres “shall be dedicated to a perpetual scenic and preservation easement.”
At the time of the rezoning and the restriction, the property was owned by a company called Delray Land, Inc., with well-known developer George “Jake” Jacobus at the helm. Jacobus had just bought the land for a reported $10 million from the Rockefeller family, who at one time had tried to convey it to the National Park system.
The 1983 law made it clear that the rezoning condition applied not only to Delray Land, Inc. but to the company’s “successors and assigns.”
Jacobus sold 2,500 acres at the Annaly Bay area in 2005 to a Florida-based company called Throgmartin Co., according to a 2006 story posted on the Virgin Islands MLS website. Throgmartin announced plans for a resort and residential community on the site, but those did not materialize.
The current owner, California-based Sugar Island Associates, Ltd., has approximately 2,377 acres for sale at a list price of $17.5 million. The listing describes two parcels near Frederiksted: “Annaly Bay,” consisting of 1,322 acres, and “Solitude Bay,” consisting of 1,055 acres.
The governor wrote Sugar Island Associates, Ltd. and its registered agent, URS Agents, LLC of Tallahassee, Florida, on Tuesday, informing them that his administration intends to enforce the 1983 covenant and that his office would soon send the owner “a proposed conservation easement” laying out the details.
Government House released the letter Wednesday along with a press release saying Bryan intends to use the easement to create a “Maroon Sanctuary Park.”
In separate interviews, both Davis and April Newland, the longtime V.I. realtor who has the property listing, said they were surprised by the announcement. Both observed that this is an election year.
Newland said she was “100 percent blindsided” and that the sudden move has given a would-be buyer second thoughts because of the uncertainty of the situation.
“It’s not a matter of creating a surprise,” said David Bornn, the governor’s chief legal counsel. Rather, it was a matter of expediency.
“We were told that the property was about to be sold, and if we didn’t move quickly, we might lose the chance” of creating the sanctuary, he said. The “people involved” in the push for a maroon sanctuary “thought this was the last opportunity.”
Bornn said that much of the property is steep terrain featuring rocky cliffs and not really suitable for building in any case.
“It’s extremely tough territory,” he said. The government easement is not only to create a maroon sanctuary park. “It’s a preserve of the natural environment.”
The government has not attempted to enforce the zoning covenant previously. Bryan’s release refers to it as a “dormant” legal provision. Meanwhile, approximately half of the original 4,100 acres to which it applied have changed hands.
Could the government apply the provision retroactively? Is the government looking into that possibility?
“I can’t answer that question right now,” was Bornn’s response to both questions.
Newland said the current owner was unaware of the covenant until Bryan’s announcement that it would be enforced. “They didn’t know,” she said. “They bought the company, and a part of the acquisition was this land.”
But, she added, they aren’t saying that they won’t abide by the covenant.
Whether the situation resolves or turns into a court battle may largely depend on just how the government proposes to carve out its green space and easement.
Bornn said that will be determined “by negotiation.”
Further, he said, “I’ve made it very clear on behalf of the governor that there is room for discussion.”
For Davis, the possibility of enforcing the 1983 zoning covenant to create a nature conserve and maroon sanctuary park is just one of many options.
“There were other alternatives,” he said.
Over the years, he said, advocates have approached and/or worked with a variety of federal and local entities, trying to get support for the purchase of land as a preserve, including the Nature Conservancy and the federal Forestry Stewardship Program (which did provide grants to purchase several smaller parcels including at Estate Northstar and near Annaly).
Recently, Davis said he was contacted by the Trust for Public Land, and he has been working quietly with them for several weeks on the possibility of a purchase. Meanwhile, he’s been talking with someone at Denmark’s Ministry of Culture about the former colonial power investing in the project. There was also some consideration of approaching the U.S. Interior Department to ask for support.
Davis and other advocates have had their eyes on St. Croix’s Northwest Quadrant for years, partly for its pristine beauty and partly for its historical significance.
When Denmark purchased St. Croix from the French in 1733, there already were maroons on the island, according to Davis. A 1791 census lists 953 “free Africans,” 12,096 enslaved Africans, and 1,386 “runaways.”
Small communities of maroons formed in several areas, Davis said, including at Sandy Point and on St. Croix’s East End. But the largest, long-lasting community is believed to have been in the Northwest Quadrant, an area encompassing Maroon Ridge (Maronberg in Danish), the Annaly area, and no fewer than 12 pools.
Davis has led many hikes in the area. To get an inkling of its untamed aesthetic, he recommended watching a video made in 2021 called Maroon Ridge by Forgotten Lands.