Caribbean Cruise – Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas

We woke on Christmas morning in the bay of Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas.  We had had a faux Christmas prior to departing on vacation but Santa, of course, had still magicked himself down the ship’s funnel to fill the stockings.  The boys opened those and some gifts from their grandparents, then we grabbed a quick breakfast, and headed onto dry land.  Unfortunately our oldest son was stricken with the same truly rotten cold that had felled a few of us in December and did not feel up to exploring so he stayed aboard the ship in order to rest and recuperate.

While my in-laws poked around in the the many shops of Charlotte Amalie, we Picts decided to take in some of the other sights of the town.  Charlotte Amalie is the largest city and the capital of the US Virgin Islands.  As a colonial town, it was founded by the Danish in the 17th Century.  Our first stop, therefore, was Fort Christian, the oldest extant building in the Virgin Islands.  In addition to that, the Fort also houses a museum and is a National Historic Landmark.  Unfortunately, thanks to it being Christmas Day and the midst of a government shutdown, we were unable to visit other than to see the exterior.

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St Thomas has deep harbours and that meant it was an ideal location for pirates and their ships.  We saw lots of nods to this history of pillaging and skullduggery as we milled about the streets.  Everyone loves (old timey) pirates after all.  Some of us grew up with Long John Silver and some grew up with Captain Jack Sparrow but we all enjoy a good pirate tale, whether fiction or history.  Apparently Charlotte Amalie is particularly associated with Bluebeard and Blackbeard (beards compulsory?) and one of the island’s attractions is Blackbeard’s Castle.  We knew it was closed – thanks not only to Christmas and the shutdown but sadly also storm damage from the recent hurricanes – but we thought we would go and have a look see regardless.  It is always useful for us to have a goal in mind when wandering with children.

The climb was steep and the steps took us past Government House.  We stopped to admire its architecture and to have a quick breather before ascending the final flights of steps to reach the peak and Blackbeard’s Castle.  Although its name associates it with the infamous pirate, the structure was actually built as a defensive watchtower by the Danish since Fort Christian was at sea level.  It now houses a pirate museum which the boys would have loved.  Sigh.  Still, we cannot complain about the poor timing of our tourist wanderings given the damage and distress Hurricane Irma caused for the Virgin Islanders.  I wandered the perimeter fence but could not get a decent look at the tower.  I did manage to get a photo of a statue of Edward Teach by poking my camera lens against a rust hole.  We could see something of the tower from the street.  The best view was from the statue of the Three Queens, honouring the enslaved leaders of the Fireburn rebellion.

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We then took the famous 99 steps back down to the main streets.  Apparently the same warehouses that now house jewellery and fashion stores were once where smugglers and pirates stored their booty but I am sure they were used for legit purposes too.  We walked a long stretch of Dronningen’s Gade, ignoring all the banter from shopkeepers, because I was on a mission.  One house on the street was the birthplace of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro.  I had researched the number of the house but the numbering system was confusing.  Furthermore, the rain had started when we were up at Blackbeard’s Castle admiring the views – and watching the precipitation advancing – and it was absolutely hammering down as we pounded the pavements.  When we found ourselves in a decidedly dodgy area, we decided to retreat and I had to give up on my mission.  However, on reviewing my photos later that evening, I realised I had taken a photo of my youngest son beneath a sign that declared the building to be the birthplace of Pissarro.  So I somehow managed to both accomplish and fail my mission.

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While I had always intended to return to the ship after wandering the town in order to check on our oldest son, Mr Pict and the other kids had planned on going to the beach.  However, the boys had a change of heart having become drenched in the rain so we all hopped on a taxi (cars drive on the left incidentally) and they used the ship’s pool instead, taking advantage of the fact most people were away for the day.

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Pirate Day at Fort Mifflin

Knowing that the next few weeks are going to be a slog because of moving house and the kids returning to school, we decided to dedicate yesterday to being a fun family day out.  Fort Mifflin was a place a few people had recommended to us and they happened to be throwing a pirate day so that seemed like a good option to pursue.  Two of our kids even got into the spirit of things by dressing up as pirates for the day.

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Fort Mifflin is sited on an area of land named Mud Island.  Originally called Fort Island Battery, it was built in the 1770s on the Delaware River.  Nowadays that places it right next door to Philadelphia Airport so that large aircraft skim over the top of the Fort and there is a constant thundering, rumbling noise from all the take-offs and landings.  During the War of Independence, the British had bombarded Fort Mifflin following their conquest of Philadelphia – which was then the nation’s capital.  Following Independence, the American Army took over the fort and rebuilt it and it remained a military possession until the middle of the twentieth century when it was handed over to be a historic site.  Something that appealed to Mr Pict about the site was that it had housed prisoners during the Civil War.  However, the only time the Fort was ever involved in any sort of conflict was when it was besieged in 1777.  The American troops, far outnumbered by the British, managed to hold the fort for long enough for the Continental Army to reposition themselves.  I am not confident enough in my knowledge of military history to declare whether that was significant to the ultimate victory of the Americans over the British but clearly that was the most important episode in Fort Mifflin’s own history.

Another famous episode in Fort Mifflin’s history concerns the imprisonment of William Howe.  He was a Union soldier accused of desertion and murder during the Civil War.  While incarcerated at Fort Mifflin, Howe organised the escape of over 200 fellow prisoners.  He failed.  After spells in solitary confinement and at Eastern State Penitentiary, Howe was transferred back to the Fort in order be executed.  People actually paid for tickets to watch him be hanged.

But where are the pirates in this history of the Fort?  Hmmmm.  Well I suppose very vaguely it can be argued that the Fort was built at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers because it was an important trade route that needed to be protected and that, therefore, it might well have had to defend against pirate attacks.  Really though I think it is just a fun event for kids because really what kid (or adult) doesn’t love pirates?

We arrived just in time to watch some reenactors dressed as redcoats and militia men have a battle with some pirates.  The boys enjoyed watching all the skirmishes complete with loud explosions from smoking muskets.  Afterwards we chatted with some of the people portraying the soldiers and it turned out that two of the young men were from Nottingham in England.  One now lives locally and the other was on a two week vacation to visit his friend so had been enlisted to fight for the British and defend the fort.  Their kit was pretty serious and many of them were very immersed in the history, rattling off facts about American military history in great detail.  Mr Pict was in his element.  I rather suspect that if he ever has the time to do so, he might get involved in either a reenactment group or as a docent at some historical site.

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The kids loved exploring all of the tunnels that run into and under the Fort’s incredibly thick stone walls.  Some of the tunnels were fairly large and opened up into rooms that functioned as either stores or casemates.  Other tunnels were narrow and shallow and were for storing explosives.  The boys especially enjoyed the really dark tunnels, especially if we didn’t switch the torches on and were immersed in complete pitch darkness.  We also walked the fort’s walls to get better views of the layout of the various buildings within the walls and also views of the river, which was very busy with cargo ships, and across to New Jersey.  The kids were also able to participate in a lesson on throwing mortars by chucking water balloons at a plastic box representing a defensive position, thus learning that it was more effective to throw over the wall than at it.  We also spent some time in the pirate’s lair listening to them performing sea shanties, one of which was set to the same tune as the traditional Scottish folk song ‘Ye Jacobites by name’.

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The kids had been given a Scavenger hunt sheet to complete.  It listed items that could be found either on soldiers or on pirates and, once identified, the person who possessed each item had to sign the sheet.  All very official for pirates!  This was a great idea as it not only got the kids involved in looking at the detail of the costumes and equipment but also led us into chats with the knowledgeable people portraying the historical characters.  The pirates proved to be very hospitable, inviting us into their den and giving us a tour of their weapons and equipment.  The pirate captain even tried to recruit our youngest son as a crew member.  We also discovered that one of the pirates was originally from Glasgow and he was delighted to have a conversation with a fellow Scot.  Once the list was completed, we popped into the site shop where the kids were each rewarded with a miniature Fort Mifflin flag, which had originally been the flag of the Continental Navy, its thirteen red, white and blue stripes representing the original American colonies.  The kids were delighted with their prizes.

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Therefore, despite the fact that pirates only have a very tangential relationship to the history of the fort, just a sliver of relevance, the kids actually absorbed a lot of learning and new vocabulary without even realising they were doing anything but have fun.  And they always rooted for the pirates.