It Is Hard To Believe

It is hard to believe… that this very place I adore so much, St Thomas, Virgin Islands, was the home of a burgeoning industry that ended when a hurricane took the island by surprise on October 9, 1916. History shows us that there were some brave West Indian workers who supported this in¬dustry that focused on the physical labor of coaling the large steamers that frequently docked in St. Thomas during that time.

It is hard to believe… that most of these West Indian workers were brave women who would run directly to the steamers with extremely heavy baskets of coal, weighing as much as eighty-five or ninety-five pounds, on their heads, singing the inspirational labor songs of that time. These women were not known as slaves per se, because they were paid one cent for every basket of coal. These were the “ladies with the baskets of coal upon their heads” and they worked hard for their pay.

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Warm Thoughts Poems from St. Thomas Virgin Island

Now it is hard to believe…these strong women carried over 200 baskets during a coaling operation. The industry and the big steamers needed this labor to keep them in operation for close to ten years. Steamers with names like the Calabria and the Wasgenwald were kept afloat by the “ladies with the basket of coal upon their heads.”

It is hard to believe that in his book called, Leaflets from the Danish West Indies, Dr. Charles Edwin Taylor described the coaling operation like this:

“The coaling of a steamer is a sight worth seeing. No sooner it is in port than a horn is blown. This is a signal for the coal carriers to assemble. It is not long before hundreds of them are seen running from shore to the steamer with heavy baskets of coal on their heads. Seen at night, the coaling of a steamer is highly picturesque. Huge torches light up the scene. The dusky figures of the women, many of them of lithe and sharply formed moved along at rapid pace, their ships waying from side to side most gracefully beneath the weight of their burdens.”

These were the “ladies with the basket of coal upon their heads”

So I write in dedication to the “ladies with the basket of coal upon their heads”…

BENEATH THE WEIGHT OF THEIR BURDENS
Beneath the weight of their burdens
Far from the weight of the fuel they carried to the thirsty steamers
Was the hardship of the ladies with the basket of coal upon their heads
Through all kinds of weather… storms and lovely island nights…
They stood bravely together in song and got on with the business at hand.

Beneath the weight of their burdens
Far from their families unknown, they retreated to the “Back of All” that…
Was the small quarters of the ladies with the basket of coal upon their heads
Through the cramped unsanitary conditions and daily petitions…
They eat and sleep together through the day, waiting for the next call to come.

Beneath the weight of their burdens
Far from being in good health, suffering with bodies infested with coal dust…
Were the shortened lives of ladies with the baskets of coal upon their heads
Through the labor years and tears of hard work…
They walked the earth and birthed the dangerous work
And many died with traits of tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases…sadly.

Beneath the weight of their burdens
Far from the time when the steamers use to come like mighty cruise ships of today.
Is the “can do- I will survive spirit” of ladies with the basket of coal upon their heads
Through the remarkable history of St. Thomas, Virgin Island and all its de¬sired beauty…
These ladies shall always be remembered for their bravery and the burdens they bore.

It is hard to believe… not too long ago, the coal depot and wharves of the steamers oc¬cupied about eight acres on the slope of Orkanshullet Island located on the left-hand side of the entrance to St. Thomas Har¬bor. The Lightbourn’s Mail Notes of December 16, 1904 records, “The blasting operations were begun yesterday on that portion of “Orkanshullet” leased by the Danish Steamship Company for the purpose of erecting a coaling dock…”

It is hard to believe… that the same clear blue waters that invited steamers to the St Thomas shores more than 100 years ago now invite huge cruise ships from all over the world and thousands of workers are needed to keep them afloat. We can only hope that the burdens they bear are somewhat lighter. More so, the workers of today exemplify and carry on the legacy of bravery of the “ladies with the baskets of coal upon their heads.”

NOTE: More information on this subject can be obtained by visiting the Divi¬sion of Libraries, Archives and Museums (DLAM), Enid M. Baa Public, St. Thomas USVI 00802

Warm Thoughts Poems from St. Thomas Virgin Islands

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