Danish West Indies

Danish West Indies
   Also known as the Danish Virgin Islands, these islands in the northeastern Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles accounted for all the Danish New World colonies. They consisted of settlements on the islands of Saint Thomas (28 square miles), Saint John (20 square miles), and Saint Croix (84 square miles). The Ciboney, an Arawakspeaking people, first inhabited the islands. Around 1300, the Caribs migrated to the islands of the Caribbean Sea from northeastern South America. Caribs had conquered the Lesser Antilles when Christopher Columbus and his crew became the first Europeans to visit the Caribbean.
   During the seventeenth century, the Virgin Islands were divided between Denmark and Britain, although the British occupied the Danish islands from 1801–1802 and 1807–1815. Denmark’s first settlement on Saint Thomas in 1655 failed. In 1670, Christian V ascended to the thrown of Denmark and Norway. The next year, the new king chartered the West India Company in Copenhagen to resettle Saint Thomas. In May 1672, Governor Jorgen Iversen arrived with settlers, many of whom were indentured servants and convicts, and established the town of Charlotte Amalie, named in honor of the wife of King Christian V.
   Company land grants attracted immigrants and a lucrative plantation economy emerged. Most were not Danes, but other Europeans, including Dutch, English, and French settlers. The planters’ labor needs were met by importing African slaves, the first slave ship bringing 103 Africans in 1673. African slaves, who vastly outnumbered Europeans in the Danish West Indies, primarily produced sugar, along with cotton, indigo, and tobacco. In 1674, the company changed its name to the West India and Guinea Company, reflecting merged Danish interests in both West Indian and African colonies. The company claimed Saint John in 1684 but did not settle it with colonists and slaves from Saint Thomas until 1718. Saint Thomas opened its harbor in 1724 to the flags of all nations and subsequently thrived as a free port trading center. Saint John also became a free port 40 years later. Slave-cultivated agricultural commodities remained the basis of the Danish West Indies’ prosperity throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Dependence on slave labor was problematic and authorities brutally suppressed several slave revolts. Newly arrived slaves from the West African kingdom of Akwamu led the most infamous rebellion, which destroyed a quarter of Saint John’s plantations in November 1733. That same year, Denmark purchased Saint Croix from France.
   Convinced by private investors’ arguments that the company monopoly was no longer necessary to colonize the West Indies and was impeding the nation’s economic progress, the Danish government bought out the shareholders and liquidated the company in 1754. The following year, the Danish Crown took over administration of the islands. Crown rule increased economic prosperity. Freed of the company’s monopoly, planters could now sell their products at higher free-market prices. A Lutheran mission under the national church of Denmark was also created after the establishment of Crown rule.
   Slavery in the Danish West Indies accounted for nearly 90 percent of the total population from the 1750s to the 1830s. The slave population peaked at 35,000 in 1802, the year before abolition of the slave trade restricted the slave supply, despite persistent illegal importation. An ordinance in June 1839 provided for free and compulsory education in the islands for both freepersons and slaves. Literacy became a distinctive feature of the Danish West Indies thanks to state support, the Lutheran Church, Moravian missionaries, and black educators.
   Only those considered white could vote and hold office before April 1834, when a royal decree granted all “free people of color” the status of citizens, allowing them full legal and economic rights. In 1847, King Christian VIII issued a decree of free birth and declared the emancipation of all slaves in 12 years. Thousands of impatient slaves gathered in Frederiksted, Saint Croix in July 1848 to demand immediate freedom under the leadership of the slave Moses Gottlieb, also known as General Buddhoe. Consequently, the startled Governor-General Peter von Scholten issued an emancipation proclamation on July 3, 1848, which the Crown soon confirmed; however, financial qualifications continued to restrict the franchise to economically privileged men.
   The Labor Act of 1849, which regulated and restrained the newly freed workers, established a system of yearly contract labor to replace slave labor. Opposition to the system erupted into violence on contract day in Frederiksted on October 1, 1878. Protesters pillaged and burned homes and shops in town, along with plantations and cane fields in the countryside. Mary Thomas, hailed as Queen Mary by her supporters, was one of the leaders of the rebellion, which led authorities to abolish the act and allow contract negotiation. The first labor union in the islands was organized by D. Hamilton Jackson in 1915.
   Profits from plantations, commerce, and shipping dwindled in the Danish West Indies after the mid-nineteenth century. In 1850, Denmark ceded its properties in West Africa to Great Britain. Continuous budget deficits bolstered economic arguments in Denmark for selling the Danish West Indies to the United States, which first became interested in buying them during the American Civil War. Denmark desired to sell the islands for economic reasons, whereas the United States wished to purchase them for strategic purposes. The United States sought the islands as a naval base for controlling the sea lanes between the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914, and southern U.S. ports and Europe. Fearing that Germany would acquire control over the islands during World War I, the United States paid $25 million for the Danish West Indies. Formal transfer of the islands, henceforth known as the United States Virgin Islands, took place in March 1917. The islands have the distinction of being the most expensive land acquisition in the history of the United States.
    Boyer, William W. America’s Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1983;
    Creque, Darwin D. The U.S. Virgins and the Eastern Caribbean. Philadelphia: Whitmore Publishing Company, 1968;
    Dookhan, Isaac. A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States. Epping: Caribbean Universities Press, 1974;
    Hall, Neville A. T. Slave Society in the Danish West Indies: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992;
    Paquette, Robert L., and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. The Lesser Antilles in the Age of European Expansion. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996;
    Taylor, Charles Edwin. Leaflets from the Danish West Indies. Westport, CT: Negro Universities Press, 1970.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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