TU students taking the interdisciplinary class “The Roots of Hamilton: Relics of Resistance in the Black Atlantic World” had the chance to travel to St. Croix. They were able to visit Alexander Hamilton’s boyhood home and see different sites of enslavement and freedom in the Caribbean. History senior Aileen Polanski shares her experience at the Buck Island Reef National Monument.
On our last full day on the island, we spent the morning snorkeling at Buck Island National Monument and spoke to the St. Croix community about our class research and on-island experiences later in the day. Buck Island is a small island off the coast of St. Croix and a small part of the nearly 20,000-acre Buck Island Reef National Monument, most of which is located underwater.
The reef makes up a little over 18,000 acres of the monument. Going there by boat, it was easy to see why people would want to protect this area. The water was the bluest blue I’d ever seen and crystal clear as far as the eye could see. I was impressed by the beauty of the place even before I got in the water, and when I finally jumped in I was blown away.
I was also shocked. Shocked because the effect of the hurricane, something that we had been seeing all over the island, was visible even underwater. The reef, already devastated by a bleaching event a few years prior, looked like a forest after a storm, but instead of trees it was the coral that had been blown down. Even my untrained eye could tell the reef had been broken up by something extremely powerful. Based on the pieces of coral lying on the ocean floor, we guessed that the reef used to be full of much taller corals than we were seeing. But even with all the devastation from the hurricane, the reef was so full of life. Everywhere I looked I was surrounded by fishes of all different sizes and colors, and I allowed them to determine my path through the corals. A school of fish led me to a parrotfish eating coral and algae, and the parrotfish led me to a lobster the size of a small dog who scrambled into the rocks as we drifted by.
The reef, in a way, was a metaphor for the island of St. Croix. Even after being hit by a category five hurricane, the reef and the island were still so full of life, proving that it takes more than a hurricane to keep them down.
We finished our day, fittingly, at the church Alexander Hamilton attended as a child, talking to community members about what we had learned not just during the semester, but during our time on the island as well. One of the best parts about being on St. Croix was getting to speak with local Virgin Islanders and those who consider themselves Crucian first before American, to hear their history from their perspective. It was so personal every time. When we spoke with people they often referred to family members who were on the island before them, and it was the same at this meeting. It seemed as if everyone there had a stake in this island, not just as a home, but as a place of culture and history. Many people had roots on the island going back multiple generations, and they took great pride in their connection.
The pride that Virgin Islanders and Crucians take in their ancestors’ strength and perseverance in the face of the worst treatment you could imagine was something which came up again and again. They have taken ownership of their history, have pride in it, and it shows. To miss this is to miss everything about St. Croix. It is a place of great pride, pride in their family and pride in their island, and I’m so grateful they shared it with us.