Il est temps de celebrer! (It's time to celebrate!)
By Carol Bareuther, RD and Patricia Harkins-Pierre
From Frenchtown, just west of Charlotte Amalie's waterfront, to the French enclave on St. Thomas' North Side, the French community - locally known as 'Frenchies' - have played an important role in the settlement and development of our islands. So vive la France!
With dinners, dancing, a fishing tournament and family fun, French Heritage Week celebrates the importance of our French culture and customs.
France once claimed many Caribbean islands, including Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, St. Martin and Haiti. French settlers first came to the Virgin Islands in the 1600s. The French flag flew over St. Croix for many years before the Danish united the Virgin Islands in 1733.
Immigration from the nearby island of St. Barthelemy - commonly called St. Barths - brought an influx of settlers whose descendants remain in the USVI today. Frenchies were mainly cotton farmers, but a failing market forced them to find other means to survive.
On St. Thomas, Frenchies split into two groups. One group went into the North Side hills to be farmers. Because of the steep and rocky terrain, farmland was terraced to keep crops from washing away. These terraces are still in use today.
The second group settled just to the west of Charlotte Amalie in Carenage (now Frenchtown), established in 1835. Land was not suitable for planting, so the men took to the sea in handmade boats to fish, while the women tended chickens and created woven straw hats and brooms for sale. In Frenchtown, the time-honored tradition of open fish markets still thrives. Fishermen set out as early as 4 am with hand-woven nets and fish pots (traps), then sell their catch while it is still morning.
Today, in addition to the original Frenchie community, immigrants from France, Haiti, and other French islands call the Virgin Islands home. It is common to hear French patios (French Creole), a combination of French and English, spoken here.
The French Heritage Museum in Frenchtown, dedicated on July 9, 2004, has given St. Thomas a permanent place to showcase its rich French history. The small stone building, painted a sunny yellow, sits next to the Joseph Aubain Ballpark. The Museum displays over 400 keepsakes and heirlooms donated by the local community, including a magnificent four-poster bed, fishing nets and tools - and even meat hooks once used by the neighborhood butcher. The Museum is open Monday to Friday from 9 am to 6 pm. Admission is free.
July 14, the actual date of Bastille Day, commemorates a day in 1789, the importance of which former Governor Charles Turnbull explained last year: "It is fitting and proper that we pay tribute to those who placed themselves in harm's way to overcome tyranny, culminating in the storming and destruction of the Bastille, the state prison inParis. This significant episode in history led to the establishment of the French Republic. Their heroic efforts are etched forever in the annals of freedom- loving people everywhere."
Frenchtown Civic Organization leader, Henry Richardson, adds, "We raise the French flag and really encourage residents to show their flags and celebrate."
Raise the French flag and Celebrate: VI French Heritage Week