The Forgotten History of the Danish West Indies: sugar and slavery

The US Virgin Islands are best known as an offshore tax haven and a luxury getaway for the rich-and-famous. Denmark is known as the land of the Vikings and as one of Europe’s most stable democracies. One would think the two territories have little in common, yet they share an interlinked history of colonization and settlement.

The US Virgin Islands embody Caribbean splendor
The US Virgin Islands embody Caribbean splendor

We are approaching the centenary of the sale of the Danish West Indies to the USA. In 1916, the islands of St Thomas, St John and St Croix were sold by Denmark (after a typically-democratic national referendum had voted 64.2 per cent in favor) to the US. It ended almost two-and-half-centuries of Danish presence in the Caribbean.

Having acquired St Thomas in the 1670s, St John in 1718 and St Croix from the French in 1733, the Danes set about creating a sugar-plantation economy in their West Indian colony. West African slaves were the dominant labor force.

For a country of renowned racial tolerance, this history might sit uncomfortably with Denmark. However, it should be noted that whilst under the control of first the Danish West India and Guinea Company, and subsequently the Danish Crown, the three islands were populated by a plethora of nationalities. Planters came from the Netherlands, England, Ireland; there were also French Huguenots and Sephardic Jews. Perhaps here we see an example of Denmark’s current open stance towards immigration; with such a small population, any labor is appreciated.

There were some 40,000 slaves in the Danish West Indies by the 19th century, the majority confined to wattle-and-daub huts on the perimeter of the plantations. Only some 3,000 white landowners oversaw this considerable production force.

The Danish Government passed a ban on the slave trade in 1792, yet the practice of slavery did not end overnight in Denmark’s overseas territories. Improvements to slave accommodation tried to mitigate the cutting-off of the African slave trade but as the 19th century wore on, sugar production decreased. Unable to entice Europeans to undertake such inhospitable work in the Caribbean, the colony died with the final slave families.

The emancipation of Denmark's Caribbean slaves was finally proclaimed in 1848
The emancipation of Denmark’s Caribbean slaves was finally proclaimed in 1848

Despite the sale to the US in 1916, and the fact that only 0.9% of today’s US Virgin Island population is European-born, the Danish legacy lives on. The capital, Charlotte Amalie, is named after King Christian V‘s consort, whilst Christiansted remains the name of St Croix’s largest settlement. Additionally, many of the later slave houses remain, the small stone structures that replaced the wattle-and-daub hovels in a bid to retain the support of a soon-to-be-free African labour force.

Their presence is a reminder of one of the New World’s oft-overlooked colonizing ventures, one whose unique blend of mass slavery and open immigration provided an important economic boon for the Danish Crown for over 200 years.

A former slave village on St Croix
A former slave village on St Croix

Source

Chapman, W, ‘Slave Villages in the Danish West Indies: Changes of the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries’, Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 4 (1991), pp. 108-120

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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