The African Provision Garden at the St. George Village Botanical Garden; Preservation of Crucian History

By: Becca Mendelson Hughson, Director of Administration, Development, Marketing, and Events

The St. George Village Botanical Garden is located on St. Croix, US Virgin Islands.  It has sixteen acres of developed garden space, rainforest walking trails, and historical 18th and 19th century buildings and ruins.  This property was a fully functioning sugar plantation from the 1700s up until the 1940s, and was converted in to a botanical garden in the 1970s by a group of passionate volunteers.  This month, they will be unveiling their much anticipated African Provision Garden.  This garden was created as a tribute to the enslaved African and Creole people who lived, worked, and died on this land.  This garden is incredibly significant to the people of St. Croix, because it provides Crucians a deeper and broader understanding of their cultural past, it gives all St. Croix residents a greater awareness of the antecedents of Crucian culture, it provides Danish visitors a chance to explore the broader context of their culture’s part in enslavement and its meaning for other populations; and offers wider education and appreciation by tourists of St. Croix’s complex history.  They also expect the African Provision Garden, with a balanced and increasingly accurate narrative based on historical research, will draw students and scholars of all ages to the Garden, and enhance teaching and educational opportunities with its sights, smells, and tastes of history.

Prior to emaciation on July 3, 1848, the Estate St. George sugar plantation housed anywhere between 100 to 200 enslaved Africans and Creole people at all times.  Danish overseers attended to the day-to-day growing of sugar cane, and kept the enslaved population in submission.  Rations provided by the slave owners were inadequate under colonial Danish laws.  In order to save time, money, and effort on behalf of the plantation owners and overseers, each slave was allotted a 20’ x 20’ provision garden or “piece.”  They were allowed to work in their gardens on Sunday, which was their only day off during the week.  The main provisions grown were cassava, yams, and taro, supplemented at times by okra, beans, corn, and leafy greens.  Fruit was available seasonally in the “bush,” including sea grape, guava, pineapple, and papaya. The fruit, vegetables, and herbs they grew could be eaten or used at the farmer’s markets to trade for fish or meat. 

The African Provision Garden is modeled after these small garden plots.  It features traditional foods and spices grown in the US Virgin Islands, including: dasheen, turmeric, sweet potato, sweet pepper, banana, sorrel, papaya, calabash, cassava, pigeon peas, arrowroot, rosemary, pineapple, French tarragon, basil, Caribbean oregano, papaloo bush, longevity spinach, okra, ackee, and other culturally significant plants. A tireless team of volunteers led by Nursery Manager, Lucy Cabret have lovingly tucked each plant into the soil, “Farming and gardening is not for the weak.  This experience has taught me to further appreciate human rights and has given me a wider understanding of how life was as a slave.  The perseverance slaves must have had in order to endure the conditions they lived in, are almost unimaginable.  Growing your own food is a rewarding and special experience!  I recommend everyone try it!” 

Lucy Cabret can trace her St. Croix family lineage back many generations.  She lives on land that has been in her family since it was deeded to her great, great grandparents in a program that gave land to families of formerly enslaved peoples after emancipation.

Since assuming her role as Nursery Manager, she is responsible for the development and replanting of the African Provision Garden, and says that working on this project has informed her about slavery and the hardship of the lives of slaves that she knew nothing about.

Through her research while working on the African Provision Garden, she learned that slaves were imported to St. Croix as a main source of labor for the sugar industry here, and calling sugar “the white death” has taken on a double meaning for her in light of what she has discovered about the hardships enslaved people endured.  

Working on the African Provision Garden has provided her with an even greater appreciation of how difficult it is to bring food out of the ground.  Learning that enslaved people were only allowed one day a week to tend their garden allotments astonished her in light of the daily attention the African Provision Garden requires to keep it going.   “Education is everything,” she explained.  Lucy Cabret is eager to explore more of the history of Estate St. George in the primary and secondary sources found in the Garden’s library.  In her official position as St. George Village Botanical Garden’s Nursery and Garden Manager, she will be able to do so.

“We foresee as the African Provision Garden comes to fruition it will motivate similar interest in many who come to view this project,” says Susan Kraeger, member of the St. George Village Botanical Garden’s Board of Directors. 

Alongside of Lucy Cabret, the St. George Village Botanical Garden’s Director of Horticulture and Facilities, Isidor Ruderfer has worked tirelessly on the African Provision Garden.  “Researching the plants we are including in our African Provision Garden has been eye-opening and gut-wrenching for me. When enslaved Africans were growing these crops in the poor soils allotted to them, they were desperately trying to evade death’s grasp just a little longer. At the same time, though, they were maintaining connections to their distant and, undoubtedly, longed-for homelands. On some islands, where the enslaved were eventually allowed to sell their surplus produce, growing these crops was a small glimmer of freedom in the crushing darkness of plantation sugar production. In their book, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World, Judith Carney and Richard Rosomoff describe these “provision grounds” for enslaved Africans as “informal experimental stations for the transfer, establishment, and adaptation of African food crops and dietary preferences.” As such, they “became the botanical gardens of the Atlantic world’s dispossessed.” I get chills every time I read that. Now, when I am in the produce section of a grocery store, I see the modern-day descendants of crops which were first cultivated in the Americas in these “provision grounds” of enslaved Africans,” he states.

Many of the plants and trees were donated by avid gardeners living on St. Croix.  It is truly a community project.  This garden is made possible by a generous grant given to St. George Village Botanical Garden by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands (CFVI), with funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

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