Danish West Indies

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Danish West Indies

Danish West Indies, also known as the Danish Virgin Islands, an island group that includes the islands of Saint Croix, Saint Thomas, and Saint John. Denmark's first settlement on Saint Thomas in 1665 failed. In 1670 King Christian V established the Danish West India Company to resettle Saint Thomas. Settlers arrived in 1672, among them bondmen and convicts. The company claimed Saint John in 1684 but did not occupy it until 1717. Denmark purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733.

A profitable plantation economy developed despite hardships. Generous land grants from the Danish West India Company attracted immigrants. Oddly, most settlers were not Danes but French, German, English, Dutch, and other foreigners. Plantations produced cotton, indigo, tobacco, and especially sugar. Saint Thomas thrived as a trade center. Crown rule came in 1755 and brought increased prosperity. Once free of the Danish West India Company's monopoly, planters could sell their commodities at higher free-market prices.

Bondmen and convicts proved insufficient as plantation laborers, a situation that the colonists resolved by importing African slaves. The first slave ship brought 103 Africans in 1673. The slave population rose steadily and peaked in 1803 at 35,727. Africans soon vastly outnumbered Europeans. Reliance on slave labor, however, had its problems. A slave rebellion, provoked by the harsh slave code of 1733, rocked Saint John in November 1733. The abolition of the slave trade in 1803 restricted the slave supply even though illegal imports continued. Meanwhile, sentiment in Denmark led the government to plan for gradual emancipation. In 1847 authorities passed a law of free birth and decreed the emancipation of all slaves in twelve years. Impatient slaves revolted in early July 1848, took over most of Saint Croix, and demanded immediate freedom. Governor-General Peter von Scholten complied, issuing an emancipation proclamation on 3 July 1848. The crown confirmed the action in September. Modest compensation to slave owners did not come until 1853.

Emancipation did not end labor unrest. To replace slave labor, authorities implemented the Labor Act of 1849, establishing a system of yearly contract labor. Opposition to the contract system led to violence in 1878. Protesters burned homes and shops in Frederiksted, and unrest spread into the countryside. Mary Thomas, dubbed "Queen Mary" by her followers, was one of the leaders of the uprising. The violence, which lasted several days, included the destruction of fifty-three plantations and cane fields. Three Europeans and seventy-four Africans died. Authorities later executed twelve protesters. On 1 October 1879 authorities abolished the Labor Act.

The United States had a long-standing interest in the Danish Virgin Islands. Efforts to purchase the islands failed in 1867 and 1902. Fearful that Germany would gain control over the islands during World War I, the United States forwarded a new proposal that was accepted in 1916. The United States paid $25 million for the islands, the most expensive land acquisition in its history. Formal transfer took place on 31 March 1917.

See alsoLabor Movements; Plantations; Slave Revolts: Spanish America; Slavery: Spanish America; Slavery: Abolition.


Charles C. Tansill, The Purchase of the Danish West Indies (1932).

Darwin D. Creque, The U.S. Virgins and the Eastern Caribbean (1968).

Pearl Varlack, The Virgins: A Descriptive and Historical Profile (1977).

William W. Boyer, America's Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs (1983).

Karen Fog Olwig, Cultural Adaptation and Resistance on St. John: Three Centuries of Afro-Caribbean Life (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Donoghue, Eddie. Black Women/White Men: The Sexual Exploitation of Female Slaves in the Danish West Indies. Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2006.

Tyson, George. Bondmen and Freedmen in the Danish West Indies. St. Thomas: Virgin Islands Humanities Council, 1996.

                                       Steven S. Gillick