A small ceremony yesterday marked the dedication of a small park at the Grove Place Baobab, “an ancient, living testament to centuries of African presence on St. Croix.” As part of the ceremony, a bronze plaque was placed at the base of the tree, which is now surrounded by a knee-high fence and rope. The area around “the venerable giant” has been freshly cleaned, seeded with grass and strewn with straw.
The Grove Place baobab is considered to be the oldest in the Virgin Islands. “We ran a cord around the tree to determine the age,” said St. Croix herbalist and educator Veronica Gordon, who spearheaded the effort to preserve the tree. “Because baobabs are hollow, you cannot determine the age by counting rings, so the circumference is used instead. On average, its size places it in the range of 300 years old, but as the method is not as precise as counting rings, they conservatively attributed an age of 250 years or so to the tree,” she said. The Grove Place baobab is believed to have been introduced to St. Croix at some point in the 18th century and is, according to John Rasford, either the first tree introduced or perhaps “the last surviving member of the first trees that were established.” St. Croix has more baobabs (around 100) that any other Caribbean island.
Baobabs are native to West Africa and were transported to the Virgin Islands by slaves. AS part of the dedication ceremony Darryle Cyrille and Jahkeil Hodge, Eulalie Rivera students from Glenda Benjamin’s fifth grade class, gave a short talk on the history of the baobab. “Its flowers are hibiscus-like and cream colored,” Cyrille said. “The flowers come out only at night. It blooms from early May to early October,” Hodge said. Benjamin’s class was in the audience for the dedication. Her class last year—now all sixth graders—helped with the park cleanup. Story teller Donna Asheba Samuel recounted, in the style of the Anansi tales, how the baobab came to St. Croix, with a story about a wise man and a prince. “The wise man told the prince, every night when you sleep, put a baobab seed in your mouth,” Samuel said. Not long after, the prince was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He kept the seed with him through all the trials and hardships of the Middle Passage before landing on St. Croix. “When he arrived, to spend the rest of his life on St. Croix, he planted that seed and tended it carefully until it grew tall and strong. And that is how the baobab came to St. Croix,” she said.
The seeds of the Grove Place baobab are indeed believed to have been brought by an enslaved African through the transatlantic journey of a slave ship to Grove Place, the site of an old estate. It stands at a place that has acquired great historical importance in St. Croix. During the 1878 Fireburn labor riots, twelve women rounded up as ringleaders were burned alive beneath the tree, an atrocity memorialized upon the bronze plaque at the base of the tree. In the early 20th century, D. Hamilton Jackson—the labor leader and publisher of the Virgin Island’s first independent newspaper, The Herald—gave speeches in the tree’s shade. On October 15, 1915, to commemorate the first issue of the Herald, a bull was slaughtered for a feast on the land right by the tree, an event commemorated on the site with the Bull and Bread Day feast on Nov. 1. While St. Croix remained a Danish colony, the tree was a rallying place for plantation laborers and union activity. Local legend has it that people have taken shelter within the tree’s room-sized hollow spit during hurricanes and that a woman once gave birth within the trunk of the tree. The Grove Place Baobab is listed in the National Register of Big Trees and highlighted in the book Remarkable Big Trees in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The park and efforts to preserve the tree came about as a result of a partnership among conservationist Veronica Gordon, the staff and children of Eulalie Rivera Elementary School, property owner Magdalene Edney, the State Historic Preservation Office, the St. Croix Historic Preservation Committee, the Water and Power Authority, and the Urban and Community Forestry Program of the Department of Agriculture.
Illustration: The Old Baobab Tree by Michael Durst can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-old-baobab-tree-michael-durst.html