One hundred years ago today, Denmark handed over ownership of three beautiful tropical islands and received gold worth US$25 million, or the equivalent value today of a paltry $1.5 billion. The U.S. added these Danish West Indies – St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix – to its cluster of smaller territories and named them all the Virgin Islands. Today, all that is left from the “Danish days” are a few buildings, street and place names, and some lingering Danish-sounding surnames among the population.
What was the government of Denmark thinking, to relinquish these exotic lands, with their turquoise waters, white-sand beaches and multi-hued corals reefs – which annually attract close to 3 million visitors?
The reason, historians tell us, was pragmatism. By the end of the 19th century, the islands were a huge money sink for the Danish coffers and, more importantly, were at high risk of being seized by a larger nation for military strategic reasons.
Economically, the islands were struggling. Once-thriving sugar plantations struggled to find workers after slavery ended; the overworked soil produced smaller crops; and Europe favored a new, locally grown source of sweetness: sugar beets. Income from shipping, for instance from coal sales, declined as larger vessels carried all the fuel they needed for long-distance voyages. And tourism was way in the future. Without much of a tax base, Denmark had to cover most of the costs of administering and supporting the territories.
On the political front, the U.S. had long sought to expand its foothold in the Caribbean and first tried to buy two of the Danish islands in 1867 – an attempt thwarted by congressional politics. Then World War 1 brought an urgent need for the U.S. to monitor Germany’s powerful submarine activities and prevent that country from commandeering the Danish islands. U.S. negotiations with Denmark began in earnest.
On 31 March 1917, the Danish islands became American. Perhaps on hindsight, the Danish government could have engineered a different outcome – the Netherlands, France and Britain continue to administer distant island territories, to say nothing of the United States. But today, Danes are at liberty to fly to their old islands for tropical vacations and remember that, once upon a time, the land was administered, guarded and supported in part by taxes paid by their Danish ancestors!
Drawing of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, previously owned by Denmark
— Drawing of St. Croix by Frederik von Scholten, 1846. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
— Drawing of St. Thomas by Andreas Riis Carstensen (1844-1906). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
— U.S. Department of State Archives 2001-2009: Purchase of the United States Virgin Islands, 1917
— Library of Congress: America’s Story website: U.S. took ownership of the Virgin Islands
— New World Encyclopedia: U.S. Virgin Islands
— A brief history of the Danish West Indies, 1666-1917
— U.S. Virgin Islands annual tourism indicators (through 2014)