Wednesday, May 29, 2013
In the following you will be presented the story of our internship on St. John in the spring of 2013. We are two Danish students from the SAXO-Institute of the University of Copenhagen; Josefine Damgaards Nielsen is studying European Ethnology and Lise Wulff Vissing Nielsen is studying History. In the present semester we are enrolled in an exciting internship initiated in collaboration between the SAXO-institute and the National Park Service on St. John. Since the beginning of the program in 2007, a changing number of Danish students each year have been enrolled in the program and we would like to share our experience with you.
The program was initiated due to a shared wish of researching the history of St. John during the period of Danish colonization of the U.S. Virgin Islands until the colony was sold to the United States in 1917. The majority of the records depicting the pre-1917 history of the islands are in the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen. This is the single most important reason why the NPS has an interest in the program. Through the program the NPS, and specifically the Cultural Resource Program, gain access to insights and knowledge from the records in the archives that otherwise would be out of reach due to the records being in old gothic Danish writing. The importance of the program in a Danish perspective is the possibility of increasing the knowledge of the important history of Danish involvement in the Caribbean, which is a history which for long has been neglected in Danish research.
The program consists of two parts beginning with two months of research in the Danish National Archives. The records in the archives are exceptionally comprehensive and therefore they represent a grand research potential which the program tries to use in the best possible manner. The comprehensiveness of the sources is due to the fact that the Danes were meticulous when documenting the life in the colony and furthermore taking an interest in preserving the records. Therefore the source materials at hand in the Danish National Archives are historical resources waiting to be used. This year's research is focused upon a specific area in the northern middle part of the island along the Centerline Road. This area consists of three plantation sites and an unidentified historic site. In the archives we gain knowledge of the history of the plantations and the owners in question by researching and transcribing tax records, probates, deeds and so forth which as mentioned are, for the most part, written in gothic Danish. This initial research allows us to know the location of the plantations and thus knowing where to focus our field work which is the second part of the program. The program being in two parts is of utmost significance. One month of field work allows the source material to meet the actual sites they are depicting thus opening up for a greater understanding and therefore enforces our ability to interpret the past in the most thoroughly manner. Combining the archaeological evidence with the historical research makes it possible to paint a fuller picture of the past than any of the disciplines could alone.
We have just returned from our stay on St. John and have the rest of the semester to finish the final report which is the analysis that combines the historical records with the archaeological data collected. The stay at St. John have been a life changing experience for both of us and has helped us obtain a deeper understanding of the conditions on the island. The climate and topography is highly different from that of Denmark and by walking in the old plantation sites one gets an understanding of some of the troubles and hard ships the planters must have faced which could not fully be understood by researching historical records and descriptions alone. Archaeological fieldwork and historical archival research supplement each other well, allowing the historical records meet tangible evidence on the actual sites. The discipline of ethnology in Denmark has a long tradition for an interest in material culture and the relationship between a human world and the world of things thus making ethnology a helpful tool when interpreting the lived lives of people during colonial times and the things people chose to surround themselves with.
During the period of our internship we lived in a campground at Cinnamon Bay. This has contributed positively to the experience of getting to know the island first hand which is of utmost importance when interpreting and understanding the historical period we research. Not only did we meet the local critters, but also the sounds, the smells and the surrounding darkness that sneaks up on the island surprisingly quick in the afternoons contributed to an overall understanding of how life is on the island. Even though we had an ice cooler we experienced how we were forced to throw out food because, if the ants or the donkeys did not get to it, the heat would, and everything went moldy in no time.
Nonetheless the experience was amazing and we are thankful that we were chosen to be part of this program, and would like to take the opportunity to thank the people who made a difference in regards to this internship. Throughout the internship the guidance of our supervisor in Copenhagen, Dr. Niklas Thode Jensen (SAXO-institute), and Cultural Resource Managers/Archaeologists on St. John, Kenneth Wild and Kourtney Donohue, cannot go unmentioned. Without their continuously help we would not be able to complete the program satisfactory, and the program would not be the same. As a closing remark we thank Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park who made the internship possible with their financial support.
Josefine Damgaards Nielsen
Lise Wulff Vissing Nielsen