The year was 1857 and the island of St. Thomas was attempting to recover from severe depression and insurrection. As news arrived that the slave revolts on neighboring St. Croix was reaching the island via trading vessels, the Danish – the colonial power – became nervous. As the administrators gathered, at the Danish Consulate (now the Governor’s residence), to ponder a response and perhaps the ramifications of such an insurrection on the island of St. Thomas, they could see the airy glow of the famous fire burns of Fredericksted. The islands were under siege and the nervous merchants were willing to protect their investments at all costs.
Enter rogue personality and former president of Mexico, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, of the Battle of the Alamo fame who was at the time in exile in the Dominican Republic. To the international power elite, the general was regarded as a military genius, statesman, and scoundrel. To the Danes, Santa Anna represented a veteran warrior with an indomitable spirit and ruthless reputation who could serve to protect commercial interest in the island. The Danes encouraged the general’s presence in St. Thomas and, in fact, found no reason to question his construction of a defensive perimeter just below their consulate on Denmark Hill. It is not recorded how the former president of Mexico ended up with the entire 2 ½ acre estate titled 2D Bjerge Gade and when construction actually began on the massive perimeter fortification. The fortress and villa was to be defensible from all sides and armed with small grapeshot cannons.
The villa’s construction was built by extorted Mexican Silver; enough of it that records indicate that Mexican silver was a freely traded currency on the island during the mid-1800s. As Santa Anna’s villa grew, so did his entourage. Needless to say, the general was certainly causing a stir on tiny St. Thomas. It was known that Santa Anna, who lost part of his leg at the defense of Vera Cruz against the French, was addicted to opium, which eased the constant discomfort of a hasty and rather crude field amputation, The General often entertained at his villa and threw lavish parties to which prominent guests would arrive by horse and buggy. The General usually clad in full regalia with his trademark golden sash and jewel encrusted cane, wooed the guests at his magnificent villa. It is said that despite his handicap he remained an amazing dancer. He must have been a quite a spectacle, as he swept women on the dance floor with his peg leg and brilliant Spanish moves.
According to legend, Santa Anna could find no peace and tranquilly because of a crime of passion. Santa Anna had become enamored with a young girl prior to leaving Mexico; the young girl in turn loved an officer who supported the enemy in Valencia. When the General discovered the young lovers he drew his pistol and shot them both. Another young woman Dona Manuela, who was in love with Santa Anna impersonated the dead girl and came to his room during the night while at his villa in St. Thomas. When the hoax was discovered, Dona revealed that the girl was not dead, but happily married in Mexico.
By 1866, St. Thomas was experiencing a renewed prosperity due to a boom in commerce. The Danes who were devoted to commerce and peaceful relations with its international trading partners were no longer impressed by the General's enigmatic and often controversial presence on the small pastoral island. The notorious Ex-General posed an internal threat with his centrally located fortress and Spanish-speaking desperados running a drug and Protection Empire.
Enter U.S. Secretary of State William Steward, who in 1866 came to the West Indies, supposedly for health reasons. In actuality he was in St. Thomas to further investigate the prospects for signing a treaty with Denmark for the purchase of the Danish West Indies. After a day long meeting at the Governor’s Residence, Mr. Steward arrived at Santa Anna’s “Palace of St. Thomas” for a courtesy visit. Santa Anna was obsessed with returning to power in Mexico, and during Steward’s visit such a return was discussed. Santa Anna later wrote “I was extremely curious to know what he had in mind” and it was implied that the U.S. Government would back Santa Anna's venture to expel the French from Mexico.
Soon after this meeting a document bearing Steward’s forged signature arrived at the Villa. It contained an offer of support and pledge of 30 million pesos to back a campaign led by General Santa Anna. Without haste, Santa Anna and his family promptly departed St. Thomas for New York and Washington to build the needed political and financial support for his next venture.
Upon his arrival in the States, Santa Anna grew aware of the forgery and with help of his, then poisoned and dying, secretary he saw through the scam, and was forced to make other arrangements to procure the necessary funds. Untroubled by scandal, Santa Anna, with the help of some rich and powerful friends from Staten Island arranged to sell US $750,000 in mortgage bonds to finance his expedition to reconquer Mexico. The bond was backed by his ever tenuous and inflated holding in Mexico, Colombia and St. Thomas.
On May 6, 1867 Santa Anna left New York, smuggled inside a piano, for Mexico where he was promptly arrested at Port Sisal by the republican forces under Benito Juarez, a French Royalist sympathizer. Bad led to worse for the General as he was jailed, tortured, and tried as a traitor to the revolution. During his year of imprisonment, Santa Anna says word leaked to the world of his death. Furthermore, he claims that his unscrupulous partners in New York then issued the bonds and kept the proceeds. The mortgage was never paid, and Santa Anna disavowed the bonds claiming fraud.
He survived the death sentence at the hands of his clever lawyer and was exiled from Mexico once again for eight years. Santa Anna never returned to St. Thomas. He sold his Palace in St. Thomas in abstencia (ironically to a Frenchman) and left in exile Nov.1 for Nassau. Upon his return to Mexico, Santa Anna died relatively unnoticed in March, 1874.
Today the General’s presence still dominates the harbor of Charlotte Amalie. His palace, which was destroyed in a massive fire in 1985, has been partially rebuilt and restored to the serenity that the General no doubt enjoyed. Villa Santana operated as a Historic Inn since 1969, and placed on the United States Historic Registry, remains one of St. Thomas’ truly intriguing inns.
It is said that Santa Anna wrote much of his memoirs in St.Thomas and today you can walk the grounds where the General recollected his historic past, who knows, you may even sight an aberration of the past while walking on the historic grounds. You can visit the palatial halls of the mansion which served as his study or sleep in his kitchen where Mexican fare was prepared for his affluent guests. Although, most of his personal effects were stolen or sold, the villa’s guest can sleep in his four poster mahogany bed, where he undoubtedly bedded his mistresses and perhaps feel some of the history for themselves.