Jost Van Dyke
Then and Now, Part 1
Until The 1970s Jost Van Dyke was a sleepy backwater known as a
refuge for pirates and a haven of quiet anchorages.
Story by Julian Putley
Jost Van Dyke is often described as the BVI's ultimate playground. It's blessed with stunning beaches, beautiful outlying cays and interesting underwater diving and snorkeling opportunities. It is also close to the USVI and makes a wonderful day trip for sailors and boaters from both the BVI and the USVI. Local bar and restaurant owners provide services for these ever increasing visitors. But it hasn't always been this way.
Jost Van Dyke is named for a Dutch privateer, one of the first of the BVI's original Dutch settlers, from the early 17th Century. Van Dyke created a small settlement in Soper's Hole and soon began clandestine trading with the Spaniards in Puerto Rico, mostly tobacco and cotton. The Spaniards became somewhat alarmed with Van Dyke's settlement when pirates and their vessels joined forces with the settlers. At this time Van Dyke perceived a threat from the Spaniards so he built the first defenses at what later became Fort Recovery on Tortola.
By 1625 the Spanish garrison in Puerto Rico decided to attack the Dutch settlement and Jost Van Dyke apparently escaped to the island that bears his name to this day. It became known as Jost Van Dyke's Island and many locals today still refer to it as Jost Van Dykes. The Dutch West India Company regarded Van Dyke as the "Patron" of the Virgin Islands and he was instrumental in establishing a second base in Virgin Gorda, which became known as Little Dykes, the now renowned Little Dix.
In subsequent years there was much confusion with regard to ownership of the British Virgin Islands but today it is generally accepted that by 1672 the islands were under British rule.
Evidence of anything of great significance is absent on Jost for the next 50 years. There is the ruin of a sugar works on the ridge above Great Harbour and charcoal pits can be seen in various locales. But it seems that cotton became the enduring crop. In the early 1700s a Quaker couple, Edward Lettsom with his wife, Mary Coakley, acquired a plantation in the BVI, which was comprised of land on Little Jost Van Dyke, Green Cay, Sandy Cay and Tortola's Cane Garden Bay. The couple's son, John Coakley Lettsom is probably Jost Van Dyke's most famous son. The arrival of the Quakers to the Virgin Islands was most propitious in a time of pirates, general debauchery and humanitarian abuses like slavery. The Quakers were a quietly pious group known as "The Friends" and their lifestyle included hard work, peaceful co-existence (no engagement in war), no drinking or gambling, and a respect for one's fellow man regardless of their station in life.
The Lettsom family operated cotton plantations and had a sugar plantation at Cane Garden Bay, the workings of which were assisted greatly by about 50 slaves, who lived in huts on Little Jost, behind the main house. The small plantation was modestly successful and the family owned a shallop which they used to get about to the other islands and to the main harbour of Road Town where the trading ships came to anchor. There are remnants of the estate house and outbuildings still visible today. A fellow Quaker and contemporary of Lettsom's was William Thornton, believed to have been born on Jost Van Dyke and who later went on to design the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
The fortunes of the BVI and Jost Van Dyke waxed and waned according to European economies but for the most part, after emancipation in 1834, Jost survived on subsistence farming and fishing. The population increased to over 1200 souls by the year 1853, while 193 died from a cholera epidemic that swept the region that same year. By now some farm produce, fish, cattle and charcoal were being exported to St Thomas. The BVI became known for the "Tortola Sloop," of which some were built on Jost. These unique sailing vessels had long overhanging booms and short masts with buoyant bows and overhanging sterns low to the water. Cargoes were carried in the hold forward while often a cow or sheep was lashed to the mast.
Jost Van Dyke was a sleepy backwater until the early 1970s. Yacht chartering began in a very small way in the 1950s but it was a decade later before large classic yachts started to sail regularly into British Virgin Islands waters. These yachts were based in St Thomas, and Great Harbour on Jost was an official port of entry, albeit with just a small shack on the beach. It was a perfect first and last stop in the BVI. This fact was not lost on a local fisherman named Philiciano Callwood, fortuitously nicknamed Foxy.
Today, Foxy is synonymous with Jost Van Dyke – he is just that famous. It was at the 1968 harvest festival when Foxy erected a shack near the Methodist church for the one day event. It advertised "Mama's and Foxy's Booth – Drinks 25¢." It was soon after the harvest festival that the crew from a large charter boat suggested to Foxy to start a beach bar with food for the increasing number of boats arriving in Jost; Foxy's Tamarind Bar, at the eastern end of the beach in Great Harbour, had arrived. It soon became popular and when master musician Ruben Chinnery and a band of locals were hired to play, an evening of riotous entertainment and dancing was guaranteed. It became a "must stop" on the fledgling charter cruise circuit.
But it is Foxy himself who has endeared himself and his bar to countless sailors, visitors and day trippers. His special gift is his ability to engage his audience. As he sits barefoot on one side of the bar strumming his guitar, infectious grin radiating and dreadlocks poking out from beneath a well worn cap, he will likely pose a question to a gaping onlooker, "An' where you from?" The answer could well be "New York." From this basic information an instantaneous calypso will unfold, "New York has a place, Times Square; I seen it when I was there; Now you come to Jost Van Dyke; A place I know that you will like…Dah, dah dee, dum dum dee." A joke follows, laughter ensues, more drinks are ordered… Foxy can keep his routine going for hours.
In 2004 the Jost Van Dyke Preservation Society, whose president is Foxy, became an official not-for-profit organization acquiring tax exempt status. The Society had been a casual impromptu organization since the early 90s and was the inspiration of Foxy, whose vision of uncontrollable development in the 21st century was one to be avoided at all costs. The core values of the Society are conservation and preservation; respect for the people's heritage and education of future generations. The recent launching, in November 2013, of a traditionally inspired Tortola sloop, was the culmination of a nine year effort to preserve the maritime heritage of JVD. Susan Zaluski, Director of the Preservation Society, is to be congratulated for patiently steering this project to a successful conclusion. This very worth-while project would not have happened without the many donors, volunteers, shipwrights and helpers who eventually saw this endeavour through to fruition. The sloop, appropriately named Endeavour will serve as an on the water classroom for the islands' youth as well as a daysail vessel.
Today it is hard to imagine the Jost Van Dyke of 50 years ago. There were no roads, no vehicles, no electricity and no ferries; there may have been one telephone. But by 1970 things started to happen. Foxy's was on the map as a fun beach bar, an adventurous couple from the States had just purchased a piece of beach front property on White Bay and this would become the well-known Sandcastle and Soggy Dollar Bar. Tony and Jackie Snell of the Last Resort were planning their first beach bar on Little Jost Van Dyke. Tourism had arrived in the BVI and JVD was not going to be left behind.