Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Art In the Danish West Indies

View of St. Thomas Harbor
Carl Ludwig Bille 1868

View of Gallows Bay, St. Croix
Hugo Larsen circa 1906

Nanny with Baby
Charlotte Amalie St. Thomas circa 1906

Post Office Square in Front of the Grand Hotel
St. Thomas circa 1906
Hugo Larsen

A Rum Shop
Hugo Larsen circa 1906

Pastoral Scene with Donkey
St. Croix, 1906
Hugo Larsen

Spy Island: The Inspiration (Part Three)

Since the Danish West Indies were transferred to the United States during the middle of
World War I, I thought it would be interesting to put a German character on the island whose life is suddenly turned upside down once the flag changes from Danish to American. He had to be a sympathetic character, one my readers could identify with by the basic fact that he is the ultimate outsider:  a foreign soldier behind enemy lines in the middle of a war.

But who would be my German character? And, more importantly, how would I put this German character in the Danish West Indies in the middle of a war?

Slowly over time, I devised a plot in which an officer from a German U-boat, Leutnant zur See Erich Seibold, deserts his ship because he refuses to sink any more passenger ships and cause the deaths of innocent civilians. He waits for the right moment, when the u-boat is prowling the waters of the Azores. Finally, when no one is on the conning tower to witness him, he dives off the submarine, swims to shore, then gradually talks his way aboard a tramp steamer bound for the Caribbean.

When he arrives in St. Thomas, a safe, neutral Danish island, he disembarks, figuring he'll be safe. Once there, Erich enlists the aid of a local girl, Abigail Maduro, who hides him in the basement of her house. Things go well for the unlikely pair until the Black Tom incident in July of 1916 (when German saboteurs exploded an ammunition depot in New York harbor) and Abigail is forced to confront Erich about his true mission on the island, if he indeed is a German saboteur sent to wreak havoc in these peaceful Danish islands. When pushed to the wall, Erich reveals that he is a deserter from a German U-boat, but has no more connection to the fatherland.

Unbeknownst to Abby and Erich, a twist of fate brings Erich's true identity to the attention of the Director of the Hamburg-America Steamship Line, Lothar Langsdorff, who is also the German Consul. Langsdorff blackmails Erich into committing sabotage, setting the stage for the climax, which occurs when Langsdorff plots an assassination of the Danish Governor, setting the stage for the Germans to invade and install him as the first German governor of a German West Indian territory.

Once I had my three main characters set, the story flowed naturally. I took my German U-boat character (Erich Seibold), brought him to the Danish West Indies, introduced him to the island girl character (Abby Maduro), then added the element of danger when the German spy character (Lothar Langsdorff) discovers his presence and cunningly exploits his tenuous position by blackmailing him into assassinating the Danish Governor, to cause a riot and scare away the Americans from going through with the transfer.         

To heighten the drama and add some local color, I introduce some real-life characters as well, such as Governor Helweg-Larsen, Queen Coziah (the legendary leader of the coal carriers), David Hamilton Jackson (a newspaper editor who challenged King Christian X for freedom of the press in the colonies), and Dr. Viggo Christensen, a physician who worked feverishly in the interest of public health.

Above all, authenticity was key. I was determined to portray life in the Danish West Indies during World War I as accurately as possible and spent many hours in exhausting, thorough research. It was a daunting task; however, once I scratched beneath the surface, I found that it was impossible to capture the captivating atmosphere of the islands, the culture, and the mannerisms, hopes, dreams, and fears of her people. Once I connected with my characters, I let them tell their story in their own words. In the end, a certain magic was created. The magic of bringing the past to life.

If the reader walks away knowing a little more about this forgotten historical event and being entertained and thrilled in the process, I will feel that I have more than accomplished my goal. When I look back on these five long years, I often feel that the characters guided me down this path, and that their story existed somewhere out there. I just had to find it, write it down, and share it with the world.

Spy Island: The Inspiration (Part Two)

Now that I had my main character, I needed to introduce the element of danger. From scouring old New York Times articles, I knew that an important office of the Hamburg-America Steamship Line was located on the island
of St. Thomas. In fact, the German holdings in the Danish West Indies were quite extensive, consisting of modern buildings, docks, villas for the managers, warehouses and coaling facilities. Thoughts began swirling in my mind over what went on in this operation. Who was behind it all? What was its true purpose? Were the Germans there actively engaged in helping the war effort?  And if so, how?  I was also curious to find out if the Germans on St. Thomas had any contingency plans in case the Americans took over and then entered the war. And how the Danish Government viewed the activities of the Germans on their island and if there was an friction between the two groups. I decided to focus on a character from the Hamburg-America Lines as my antagonist.           
To find out more about this Hamburg operation, I turned to a Danish contact of mine who has a personal interest in the Danish West Indies. To my good fortune, he put me in touch with a gentleman in Germany, which proved to be a major breakthrough in this writing project. As it turned out, the gentleman's grandfather was in charge of the entire Hamburg-America (HAPAG) operation on St. Thomas since 1913. Not only had he been the Director of the steamship office, but he had also served as the island's German Consul. Several days after the islands were transferred, and shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany, he was rounded up as an enemy alien along with some other Germans, put on a cruiser and taken to the U.S. for military detention.

I turned to the National Archives in Washington to fill in the holes. The name of this gentleman's grandfather did indeed come up in their records; according to State Dept. records, he had been a WWI German POW. At the soonest possible opportunity, I flew to Washington, D.C.
to analyze the records and photocopy them. By the end of the day, I came home loaded with precious documents about his grandfather's dramatic last days on the island.            

I had uncovered hand-written letters, formal memos and documents written by Swiss diplomats and State Department officials, emotional telegrams where he reaches out to his wife and colleagues, official documents regarding his internment in Fort Oglethorpe, his protestations of innocence, his hearing, and his inevitable deportation to Europe. The picture that emerged was a dramatic one. After all, war-time espionage is not a risk-free endeavor. I discovered that even in this quiet, neutral little Danish enclave, human lives were not exempt from the vagaries of war.

St. Thomas
society in the years leading up to and during the Great War contained a well-entrenched, affluent, influential German colony that invested huge sums of money in real estate,  docks, warehouses, and a coaling depot. The German captains, officers and engineers who operated the steamships were all reserves in the Kaiserliche Marine. The upper management in the steamship office were German nationals as well, maintaining close contact with Berlin via coded radio transmissions over a Telefunken wireless radio station hidden in at least one of their steamships. Other documents I uncovered showed some heated, angry confrontations between HAPAG steamers presumed to be carrying war contraband and American Customs officials on the island of Puerto Rico, confrontations that resulted in cannon fire and seizures that had been ordered from the highest levels of the State Department. This was fascinating stuff! But how do I turn it into a novel?

In my next posting, I will describe how I developed my story.

Spy Island: The Inspiration Behind the Story

  Spy Island by Sophie Schiller is a Historical Novel set in the Danish West Indies. It tells the story of an adventurous young girl during WWI who rescues a German U-boat deserter and teams up with him to rid her tranquil island of a nest of German spies. The story takes place in the island of St. Thomas and is a gift to the people of the islands, the result of a promise I made to myself decades ago.
While I was growing up in St. Thomas, I was always obsessed with a single, nagging question:  Why aren't there more novels depicting the rich, vibrant history of the Danish West Indies and its colorful characters? After all, the islands have been praised for their beauty and natural wonder for centuries. The capital, Charlotte Amalie, possesses one of the most scenic natural harbors in the world. All a writer has to do for inspiration is gaze at her rolling green hills of tropical foliage, colorful array of exotic flowers, shimmering turquoise blue water, and the charming red-roofed houses that dot the hillsides.
Since no novel had yet been written that could satisfy my desire to read about and get lost in this fascinating world, I decided to write my own. Where to start?
The most momentous event to occur in this former Danish sugar colony was its 1917 sale and transfer to the United States in 1917, I decided to start there. Since this episode had never been tackled by any writer previously, I knew I would have to pave the road as I trod it. But in my imagination, this unique time in history presented a fertile field of possibilities for suspense, conflict, and drama. After all, it wasn't every day that a territory was transferred from one hand to another. It seemed only natural that the very act of being buying and selling a territory would introduce significant, uncomfortable changes for the islands' inhabitants.
I decided to tell the story through the eyes of a blossoming young woman. For purposes of cultural exoticism, I made her a member of St. Thomas' now-extinct Sephardic Jewish community. The island of St. Thomas is home to one of the oldest Sephardic synagogues in the Western Hemisphere. Located high on a steep hill behind the town is a cultural relic of a bygone era, an old synagogue that hearkened back to a time when tall-masted sailing ships ruled the seas, when the world hungered for sugar and spices, when ties to the past were stronger than ties to the present. That community of Spanish-Portuguese Jews no longer exists, but where did they go? Why did they just vanish? To write my story, I would have to answer that question.
When I was a child, one of the questions that had often swirled in my head concerned the ubiquitous island name Maduro. Lots of Virgin Islanders are named Maduro. It's almost as common as Smith or Jones are in the States, even belonging to a certain popular Senator. But the name always struck me as unusual, odd even. Island names such as Maduro, Robles, De Castro, and Henriquez exist even today. They are exotic, having an unmistakable Spanish-sounding ring to them.  But where did they come from? How did these West Indian natives of a former Danish colony wind up with Spanish-sounding names?  In my research, I learned that the name Maduro was actually a Sephardic Jewish name, brought to the island by 18th and 9th century immigrants whose roots spread all the way back to Holland, Portugal and Spain. This surprising discovery made my curiosity grow by leaps and bounds. 
The name Maduro was adopted by 16th century Conversos from the Hebrew tribe of Levi who fled the Iberian peninsula for Holland in order keep their Jewish identity intact. Later, these Spanish-Portuguese Jews crossed the Atlantic, settling in tolerant Dutch colonies like Suriname and in Dutch islands like CuraƧao, Saba and St. Eustatius.  Later, on invitation of a Danish King, the Sephardim established an important trading colony in St. Thomas. Denmark is the only Nordic country to aspire to great maritime power and colonial expansion. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they acquired the three main islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix to obtain precious metals, spices, sugar, tobacco, rum, cotton, indigo, ginger, cacao and coffee, and those Sephardic Jews played an important role in expanding Denmark's trading ambitions. However, due to natural disasters and the introduction of steamships at the end of the 19th century, the economy of the islands dwindled and those Sephardic Jews starting emigrating to other, more prosperous shores, such as Panama. I decided to focus on a young girl facing a life of spinsterhood as a result of this out-migration of available men, who faces the resulting turmoil and change from both the transferring of the islands and the First World War. In my next posting, I'll describe how I created my villain.