In the days leading up to Jost Van Dyke’s infamous New Year’s Eve Party, the vast amount of goods (mostly related to the collective intoxication of thousands of party-goers that is about to occur) is nothing short of impressive. On Jost Van Dyke, nearly everything is imported; much of it brought in on small, locally-owned boats. Activities like purchasing a new refrigerator or taking your pets to the veterinarian become cumbersome, involving a roundtrip boating excursion, and I can attest that a particular boat ride with my motion-sickness prone dog had me questioning the joys derived from pet ownership while living on a small island.
On occasion, I’ve seen a local goat-herder take breeding goats to other islands, loading them into small motorboats with a casual ease that always impresses me. The practice of moving livestock on small boats is nothing new for the island and was once a usual occurrence in the days before Jost Van Dyke’s booming tourism industry, when the island, which it may surprise some to learn, was renowned for its livestock industry.
Along with other goods like ground provisions, pineapple, bananas, charcoal, sheep and goats, the only way to get Jost Van Dyke’s cows to market in St. Thomas was by way of small, locally constructed 18-20ft (6m) sloops distinctive to the British Virgin Islands known as ‘Tortola Boats’.
About twice a month, cows would be loaded onto a sloop, with the main halyard being tied around their bellies. “Then the men would heave-ho, heave-ho. Boy, I wish you could have seen that!” Foxy Callwood says with a grin as he explains the tedious task of exporting cows in those days. “They would sail the cows from [Great Harbour] to Tortola [West End] … haul them back off the vessel to the veterinarian. He would inspect their ears for ticks and weigh them. Then it was back on the sloops again and off they go to St. Thomas.”
After reaching their final destination in St. Thomas, the cows would again be inspected and if ticks were found on any of the cows, the live cargo would be rejected and the sloops were forced to turn around and sail back to the BVI without having made a sale.
In the 1950s, the addition of a scale, cow dip (for removing ticks) and a Customs office in Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke, allowed islanders to export cows directly to St. Thomas. Eventually customers came from elsewhere in the Caribbean – Guadeloupe and St. Barth’s – and larger schooners and eventually motorized vessels would frequent the island to purchase cows directly.
Ivan Chinnery estimates that when he was a youngster there were about 600 people living on Jost Van Dyke with the population of cows, some 800, outnumbering people (with the cow population reaching an estimated peak of probably over 1,000). Ask many of the adults living on Jost Van Dyke about their childhood chores and they will recount a scene of waking before dawn to walk up to the island’s ridge to chase cows down to drink, before chasing them back up the hill, all with the hopes of completing the task before the start of the school day at 9 a.m.
Islanders attribute the decline of the livestock industry to the rise of modern supermarkets on St. Thomas. And the population of cows dwindled until the last cow left the island sometime in the early 1990s. Today, the direction of export has changed the only cows you will see on Jost Van Dyke are the kind served with a bun and a side of fries in one of the island’s many beach bars.
Susan Zaluski lives in Great Harbour, Jost Van Dyke. She is the director of the Jost Van Dyke’s Preservation Society, a local non-profit agency dedicated to the preservation of the history, culture and natural environment of Jost Van Dyke. She can be reached at email@example.com