Arnold R. Highfield

Editor’s Note: Arnold Highfield died on Sept. 8, 2019, at age 79. The Highfield family is working with the National Park Service, Christiansted National Historic Site, St. Croix, to preserve his Virgin Islands/Caribbean research collection.

It was a Monday morning at my office when a colleague told me the sad news of Arnold R. Highfield’s passing.

What a great historian the people of the Virgin Islands and the wider Caribbean region have lost. It is fitting to pay homage to such a great scholar, writer, historian, linguist, poet and good friend who loved these islands and its people. His contributions as a historian and as a scholar translating and editing thousands of documents from different nations that once owned these islands are a tremendous benefit to the people of the Virgin Islands.

Highfield was committed throughout his adult life, along with other scholars and historians, to translating the colonial history of the Virgin Islands to English so that we Virgin Islanders could have a better understanding of our history.

Highfield was born in 1940 in New Boston, Ohio, in the north-central section of the United States. His parents were Arnold Ray Highfield and Hazel Nichols Highfield. He was the older of two children. He lost his father, a steelworker, at an early age due to a vehicle accident. As a result, his mother and grandparents raised him and his brother Terrance.

Despite his father’s death, he was able to do well in college, receiving his doctorate in romance linguistics from Ohio State University. He also studied French at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and Spanish at the University of Madrid in Spain. Highfield loved languages. During his early years he studied at Ohio State University, where he met his wife, Shirley de Chabert, a native of St. Croix. He thus married into a prominent Virgin Islands family.

The history of the de Chabert family goes to the 1800s or earlier in these Virgin Islands. Charles Andrew de Chabert was a well-known merchant and landowner on St. Croix. Ralph de Chabert was part of the labor union on St. Croix along with D. Hamilton Jackson. He was a farmer and member of the Municipal Council, part of the Homestead Commission in the 1930s on St. Croix, and the owner of such estates as Hope, Blessing and Jerusalem on the south shore of the island. In the early 1960s, the late Ansetta Muckle de Chabert sold those estate lands to Leon Hess, where the giant Hess Oil Refinery was developed (today known as Limetree Bay Terminals).

Ironically, Highfield’s brother Terrance also married a native Crucian, Luz Angelica (Tutti) Suarez. This merchant family once had the largest supermarket in Frederiksted Town. The Suarez and Benitez families immigrated to St. Croix from Puerto Rico and Vieques during the Great Depression, looking for a better life. Puerto Rico families or Crucian Puerto Ricans were the predominant merchants on St. Croix until the late 1970s, when the Arab community became players in the St. Croix economy.

Talking about a kallaloo ancestral tree, Tutti Highfield is affectionately known as my son Omar’s and my daughter Olessa’s great aunt. She was a well-known teacher at Central High School on St. Croix and a former member of the board of trustees for the University of the Virgin Islands. Terrance Highfield owned Antilles Press on St. Croix, a local publishing company.

Arnold Highfield and his wife lived in Europe for some years before returning home to St. Croix. He was a teacher at Central High School and a professor of Caribbean history and linguistics at the College of the Virgin Islands, now the University of the Virgin Islands. He also lectured at universities around the world, but his heart was with the people of the Virgin Islands. He became well-loved and was a mentor to thousands of students over the years. His wife also taught Spanish at UVI, making them a great educational team.

What made him so special, I believe, is his publication of many books of Virgin Islands history and culture. One of my favorites is “The Kamina Folk: Slavery and Slave Life in the Danish West Indies,” which translated 18th- and 19th-century printed material on slavery, life and culture in the Danish Caribbean from the original Danish and French sources.

Another book I love is “Sainte Croix 1650-1733: A Plantation Society in the French Antilles.” This book is worth reading to understand the French connection to Virgin Islands history, particularly on St. Croix, the Caribbean’s colonial history, and European dominance in the West Indies slave-based plantation economy, which resulted in the near extinction of Native Americans. (Believe me, if it was not for the Native Americans, the European colonists would not have survived the tropical environment.)

Highfield also translated and edited “Description of the Islands of St. Croix in America in the West Indies,” written by a Dane named Reimert Haagensen in the 1730s. This book, like so many of his others, gives us insight into the personal experiences and lives of planters in the Danish West Indies.

I have gained knowledge of our rich history and culture as a people through these works.

To know your history is to know where you stand in history.

Highfield’s legacy will live on. His books and other publications that he left behind are a treasure trove for the people of the Virgin Islands and the world.

My colleague and good friend, rest in peace!

— Olasee Davis, St. Croix, is an ecologist at the University of the Virgin Islands. He is active in Virgin Islands historical, cultural and environmental preservation, and he leads the St. Croix Hiking Association’s hikes focused on those topics.