By Stephanie Hanlon
St. Croix Avis
ST. CROIX – Visiting the Caribbean from the United States in the 1800s was no easy task, the treacherous journey took months while today it takes several hours, but what is similar from then to now is the effect that the warm, sunny weather, flourishing environment and rich culture has on people coming from congested cities and frigid winters.
The recently published “Ode To St. Croix,” gives a unique look into what that travel was like and it provides a look at St. Croix through the eyes of a religious, white, New Yorker landing on the island’s shores in the mid 1800s.
Reverend Henry J. Morton originally wrote the poem/ sketchbook between 1843 and 1844 but the public is just now being exposed to it.
Author Michael Connors put together a near-authentic limited edition publication, which features Morton’s original draft of the poem and the adjoining sketches that illustrate his experiences. Connors wrote the introduction to the poem and he transcribed all of the content from calligraphy to plain print.
The limited edition is bound in fabric with a leather title plate and additional drawings by Morton. Only 500 copies are being published by Eagull International Publications in Paris, France.
Morton was born in 1807 in New York City. He was educated at Columbia University and The General Theological Seminary of New York.
He traveled to what was then the Danish West Indian island of St. Croix with his wife Helen, their young son Henry Jr. and the Reverend’s brother Washington Quincy on a sabbatical to help his brother recover his health. Morton’s host was Anglican minister Flavel Mines and his wife.
History confirms that Morton visited the then Governor of the Danish West Indies Peter von Scholten who proclaimed the abolition of slavery in the islands. Morton sketched the Governor General and his mistress Anna Helgaard at their plantation Bulowsminde. Morton knew the Governor General’s brother Frederick von Scholten and speculation is that both the amateur artists sketched and painted St. Croix scenes together.
During his trip he created the never before published manuscript and drawings, which consists of 25 handwritten pages along with 24 drawings that give an insight into the long forgotten and scarcely recorded island colonial era.
A large majority of the book focuses on the treacherous journey from to St. Croix by sea.
“Have you ever crossed the sea?” he asks. “If not, you have no notion of the bellowing of the storm, and the wailing of the ocean.”
He writes about the very real threat of pirates, crashing into rocks, dangerous storms, seasickness, loneliness, the rank smells and being cramped on a ship. At one point pirates chased his ship but they got away during the night. Another day a ship without a sail drifted upon them, and they were able to save some of the castaways, while others had already passed.
“The thoughts of that ocean I cannot endure – its fathomless deep – and its far-away shore – the shout of its storm, and the din of its roar – O soon may I cross it – to cross it no more!”
It’s no wonder that when he arrived on St. Croix he described it like this: “A more beautiful island no mortal hath seen; Mong the thousands if isles she sits as a queen; She inhales without ceasing the bracing sea-breeze; And water springs gush from the tops of her trees The student may read by the light of her moon- As distinctly, I’ve done it myself, as at noon;”
He talks of the crystal clear water, the wildlife and the fauna. He mentions local fruits like the mango, tamarind, coconut, breadfruit, mamee, gooseberry, genip and guava. But even better than the fruits, he says, are the flowers. He admires a fisherman dive for a conch.
“Oh! This is the land I have seen in my dreams, its climate, its gardens, its hills and its streams – Oh! This is the isle of all isles in the sea – And this of all countries the country for me!”
In his notes he states that he would have liked to write more of the people on St. Croix. But he does give some insight into life St. Croix at that time and he even delves into slavery: “And though, in times gone by, the tear of slaves hath wet, like rain, the selfish white man’s field yet here they point you to some good men’s graves, when prayers long since the isle’s redemption sealed; and rapidly of late the great decree’s revealed.”
Connors first encountered and purchased Morton’s original manuscript three years ago at a small auction in the northeastern United States. He had previously heard of Morton 17 years ago while serving on the Whim Museum Board of Trustees as head of collections. He helped secure one of Morton’s watercolor paintings entitled “Butler’s Bay” for the museum. That same watercolor is featured in the recently published “Ode to St. Croix.”
Connors is the author of seven books about Caribbean architecture, furniture and art – this background along with his connections to the St. Croix Landmarks Society allowed him to navigate through the research fairly easy, he said. He also utilized the Henry Morton Sketchbook, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Art Department and Print and Picture Collection and the Danish West Indies Society in Copenhagen.
The discovery of the 167-year-old manuscript with historically relevant information is very significant, said Connors, for himself and for the island.
“To discover an original manuscript that is in essentially mint condition is a once in a lifetime occurrence,” he said.
He is proud to have found it but he is happy that he can now share it with the world.
The limited edition is available for $125 at Undercover Books Gifts, 5030 Anchor Way, Gallows Bay, St. Croix and Whim Museum. It is also available to view at the territory’s public libraries. For more information, call Undercover Books at 719-1567.