Blackbeard’s Un-Castle

When I was in St. Thomas recently, I visited the historical complex of “Blackbeard’s Castle,” which is right in the middle of downtown Charlotte Amalie. There’s no castle and very little having to do with Blackbeard, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting.

The “castle” is a lookout tower built in 1679 to spot invaders. You can climb to the top and enjoy a beautiful view of the harbor, but the experience is pretty much equivalent to visiting any lighthouse.

The real treasures of this site are found in the three historical houses nearby, which are filled with incredible collections of West Indian antiques AND a staff of knowledgable and enthusiastic guides. Unfortunately, during my tour, I scribbled so many notes all over my brochure that I can hardly read either the original text or my additions to it.

One highlight (one of the legible ones, anyway) was seeing a “planter’s chair” and a “ladies chair.” The planter’s chair was set low with long wide arms so that a gentleman could sit back, put up his feet, and cool off. It’s also sometimes called a “hammock chair.”

The ladies’ version featured arms that could swing in and out to make room for voluminous skirts.

The houses are all furnished to approximately the time of their construction, which was 1822, 1847 and 1860. Ladies’ skirts were just starting to grow in the early 1820s, and of course we know that by the middle of the century, a lady of fashion could take up as much room as a small bus with her layers of petticoats, crinolines and hoops. What was suprising in this prudish era is that women would be allowed to put up their feet. I assume this could only be done in private!

So, to get back to the picture, I’m obviously not wearing a crinoline or sitting in a ladies’ chair. I am wearing a necklace with a Spanish half real dated 1789. This came from the West Indian Treasure Company, which is also part of the Blackbeard’s complex. The coin is worn and common and therefore not particularly valuable to collectors. Those factors make it all the more valuable to me, however. I find it fascinating to imagine all the hands this coin has passed through over the years. Talk about “living history!”

The most prominent feature of the coin is probably the hole drilled in the top. Dave Wagner, a numismatic authenticator for the American Numismatic Association, assures me that the hole was drilled “in antiquity.” Admittedly, I didn’t talk to him about it, but he signed the certificate that came with the pendant, so I feel empowered to quote him on it. Anyway, my certificate talks more about the practice of drilling holes in coins than about the coin itself. I hadn’t really thought much about it, but it makes a lot of sense. We read about people sewing coins into their clothes – it would make sense to sew them on like buttons rather than just let them jingle loose in a hem where they could make noise and wear through the fabric. Coins with holes can also be strung and worn around the neck for safekeeping or as a charm. Essentially, the practice makes a lot of sense, but I haven’t seen much documentation for it. Thanks to Dave’s blithe assurance, this is something I will look for more closely in the future.

The guidebook that I brought to St. Thomas said that Blackbeard’s Castle was not worth the price ($12) of admission. I heartily disagree. If you want pirates, they have pirate stuff (although admittedly I didn’t look at it too closely to see if it was worth looking at.) If you want beautiful views, gardens, and swimming pools and bars where you can hang out and relax, they have that, too. But most of all, if you want guides who will cheerfully tell you just about anything you’d want to know about the lifestyles of the 19th Century planters in Charlotte Amalie, then this is your place.

Okay, now finally a note about the photo. It’s one of a set of new headshots I had done by a wonderful photographer, Dianne Egrie. The photo has not been retouched in any way and I’m not even sure if it’s one of the ones I will use as an “official” photo. But she did a miraculous job with makeup, didn’t she? She was also wonderful to work with and I couldn’t praise her highly enough. You’ll be seeing more of her work on this site soon!

Until next time…

–K

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