The remains of the Danes

Exactly a century ago, the Kingdom of Denmark sold its Caribbean possessions for $25 million to the United States. Commemorated in the US Virgin Islands, the anniversary is little remembered elsewhere — but, as James Ferguson writes, the story behind the event reminds us about the ambitions that drove European colonisation of our region

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

The Caribbean, as we know, is a part of the world with a long, complex, and quite often unpleasant colonial history. We also know who the main colonial powers were, and which islands and mainland territories they controlled. They were, of course, Spain (first to arrive on the scene, courtesy of an Italian navigator named Columbus), England (before union with Scotland created Britain), France, and the Netherlands. These four European nations accounted for the vast majority of Caribbean colonisation, and their West Indian assets changed hands at a regular rate during three centuries of superpower rivalry played out in the region.

But there were other, less known, colonisers. Sweden owned the island of St Barthélemy from 1784 to 1898, while colonists from the now-disappeared Duchy of Courland (in present-day Latvia) had a precarious toehold in Tobago for five years before surrendering to the Dutch (who, in turn, relinquished the island to English forces). And then there were the Knights of Malta (or, to give them their full title, Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta), who between 1651 and 1665 ran St Barth, St Kitts, St Croix, and St Martin. This religious and chivalrous order, born out of the medieval crusading tradition and allied to early French colonisers, understandably favoured islands named after saints.

Among the also-rans of Caribbean colonialism was another unlikely European contender, but this one had greater staying power than those above. From 1672 until 1917, a small part of the Caribbean — the Virgin Islands — was ruled by another Scandinavian nation, Denmark, until in January of that year, exactly one hundred years ago, the Danes decided to sell up and move on.

Back in the seventeenth century, though, every self-respecting European country wanted a tropical colony, mainly because domestic demand for sugar was seemingly insatiable, and the best way to ensure supply was to establish sugarcane plantations and import what they produced. The problem for Denmark, however, was that most of the Caribbean was already colonised. Several exploratory missions ended in failure, but the Danes persevered, and in May 1672 founded a settlement on the island of St Thomas, dislodging a small contingent of Dutch traders (or pirates).

To ensure the commercial viability of the venture, King Christian V had formed the Danish West India Company in 1671, a state-backed business that would manage the settlement and its plantations. It very nearly collapsed even before it had started. Of the 190 people on board the frigate Færøe, which sailed from Denmark — twelve officials, 116 company “employees” and sixty-two released criminals and ex-prostitutes — only 104 made it, seventy-seven dying en route and nine escaping. Another seventy-five died within a year, leaving just twenty-nine souls in the colony.

 

From this unpromising start, the Danish venture not only survived, but even began to expand. In 1675 the neighbouring island of St John was annexed (the third territory, St Croix, would be purchased from the French in 1733, bringing the entire area of the three-island group to 133.73 square miles). But life was still precarious, with frequent pirate raids and inadequate manpower to make the plantation system viable. The solution was slavery, and the Danes initially leased part of St Thomas to a slaving company based in Brandenburg (later Prussia), but in 1693 confiscated all the company’s assets and began importing slaves from Danish trading posts on the west coast of Africa, principally present-day Ghana. This initiated the classic “triangular trade” system, practised by other European powers: manufactured European goods were sent to Africa, where they were exchanged for slaves, who were brought to the Caribbean to produce sugar that was then shipped back to Europe.

The heyday of Denmark’s Caribbean empire was probably at the end of the eighteenth century, when St Croix’s dynamic sugar industry depended on some twenty thousand enslaved Africans. The two-thousand-strong white population consisted of many European nationalities, and English was more widely spoken than Danish. But after a series of slave revolts was met with harsh repression, the French Revolutionary Wars resulted in the British occupying St Thomas for a year from 1801. The subsequent upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars led to another period of British occupation, with St Thomas and St Croix ruled from London between 1807 and 1815.

These events ended the distinctively Danish identity of the islands. Some aspects of Scandinavian culture might have survived in architecture and food, but new settlers, particularly after the abolition of slavery in 1848, included indentured Indian plantation workers and others who made St Croix more cosmopolitan. St Thomas, meanwhile, was almost a British colony, with its bustling free port — “the emporium of the Antilles” — home to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Abolition, however, had effectively crippled the sugar industry, already under pressure from European beet production. Exports and prices plummeted, while the formerly enslaved were forced to work for a pittance as “free” labourers.

What had started as a dream of cheap sugar and prosperity now turned into an economic nightmare, where the Danish government was subsidising its failing and rebellious colonies. Eager to cut its losses, Denmark entered into negotiations with the United States over the islands’ sovereignty in 1867. Several agreements were reached and then abandoned, but the Americans’ desire to increase their presence in the region (Puerto Rico had been acquired from Spain in 1898) was matched by Denmark’s wish to withdraw gracefully.

The tipping point came with the First World War and the sinking by Germany of the Lusitania in May 1915. The US administration was fearful that Germany could use the Danish Virgin Islands as a base for submarine operations in the Caribbean and Atlantic. Secretary of State Robert Lansing made his feelings clear to the Danish authorities: if they were unwilling to agree to a peaceful transition, the US would simply occupy the territories. Not surprisingly, a deal was quickly struck.

Signed by President Woodrow Wilson on 16 January, 1917, the agreement came into force three months later, with the transfer to Denmark of US$25 million in gold coin (nearly US$550 million in current value). Five days later, the United States declared war on Germany.

So began a new chapter in the history of what were now the US Virgin Islands, whose people are technically American citizens but cannot vote in presidential elections. Support for independence is minimal, even though poverty remains stubbornly prevalent. But with the advent of the mass tourism industry, financial services, and a growing high-tech sector, the worst days of these islands are long in the past. And Denmark, today a model of liberal European values, can now also forget its less than glorious foray into empire-building.