Josiah's Bay Plantation
History and museums
The Josiah's Bay plantation is an old plantation house on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) which has been restored from ruins.
Between the mid-18th and 19th centuries, sugarcane plantations covered the hillsides of the British Virgin Islands. Most of these are now totally destroyed or have fallen into such disrepair that restoration is impossible. The exception to this is the Josiah's Bay Plantation which has been restored by its owner, Freddie Freeman. Located on the northern shore of Tortola, close to Josiah's Bay, the plantation houses an art gallery featuring paintings and prints by local and Caribbean artists, a craft & antique furniture shop and an outdoor restaurant.
The history dates from the early 18th century. Developed as a sugar plantation by Isaac Pickering, a British sugar cane planter, al estate comprised some 600 acres (2.4 km2) when combined with Lambert Bay, which was also owned by Pickering. The estate remained under Pickering's ownership until the BVI Emancipation in 1834. At that time indentured servants, slaves who were promoted to overseers and given a portion of land, were given legal title by the first BVI legislative body.
The first private known owner of what is now Josiah's Bay Plantation was David Fonseca, who bought the property as a business and a home in the 1930s. Fonseca, an engineer, converted a portion of the land into a rum distillery, which included a boiler house, around the time of Prohibition. In an interesting history, rum was taken from the distillery at Josiah's and smuggled into the US Virgin Islands, purchased from Denmark in 1915, to be shipped to North America for underground distribution. Boats used for this operation were Island Sloops, hand crafted by local shipwrights, that were both rowed and sailed. The rum aboard was covered with charcoal, also locally made, to disguise the scent of alcohol and thus avoid detection.
Freeman's father, Samuel, bought the property from Fonseca in the mid-1940s to use as a functional rum distillery. It thrived for a while and then ceased due to low profitability. Falling into disrepair since the early 1960s the property became inaccessible, due to bad roads and overgrowth. The young Freeman never had the opportunity to see the distillery in operation, although he had heard about the property during his childhood.
Freeman left to attend university in the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s, where he studied accounting and finance with the intent of returning to the BVI to participate in the family business.
Upon returning to the BVI, Freeman first saw the property and decided to restore the plantation, making it an important scene for current social life and culture in the BVI. Although plans for its conversion had been made as early as 1988, it took over six years before the restoration began in 1994.
It was completely overgrown with thick layers of undergrowth. As I was cutting tracks through the brush I would come upon massive stone walls, ranging in thickness from two to four feet, but I could not discern the outline of the building because the undergrowth was so dense. Realizing how extensive the ruins were, I brought in heavy machinery to help in the clearing - a tedious job because we did not know where the original walls were located. We secured many of the loose buried stones that were excavated for later use and these have helped in accomplishing a charm that is obvious today.
Most of the red clay bricks used in building the structure were brought in as ballast on sailing ships. Great care was taken, during the excavation, not to incur damage so all digging was done manually. The original walls were slowly uncovered and the beauty of stone, brick and coral, held together by local limestone, was apparent from the beginning. Clearing the property took an exhaustive three weeks.
"At that point, I decided that I would use whatever resources I had to restore the plantation. It became my passion. I loved what I saw – it was different, it was unique and I became totally involved in bringing it back to life."
There are four separate buildings on the site. The largest is the foremer Great House - a substantial structure that had largely remained intact through the years and measures approximately 70’ by 30’. The lower area of the building had been buried by decades of sediment, soil from the hillside accumulated on the original first floor burying it completely. When Freeman began the restoration he excavated four feet of dirt (manually) to obtain the headroom for the gable roof and loft that were added at the top. This main building now houses the Art & Furniture Gallery.
The original cookhouse was converted into a curing house under Fonseca's ownership (for the aging of the rum) and now houses the present kitchen for the Secret Garden Restaurant. There are two other small buildings, towards the rear of the property. One was the original bathhouse and the intent of the other is unknown. There is an original stone and brick oven on the premises as well as a small pit where a cauldron was used for cooking. The cauldrons for the furnaces measure approximately seven feet in diameter and are still on the property.
Upon visiting the plantation one can see original equipment including copper pots, a steam engine and a mill displayed on the extensive green lawn. The distillery, which was in full production until the 1960s, utilized the plantation Great House as its boiler house and the cookhouse for curing.
International archaeologists from the United Kingdom have visited the grounds and have helped in researching the property's history. These records are now a permanent part of the BVI archives in London and can be obtained through the Island Studies Department of the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College located at Paraquita Bay in Tortola.