West Indian Local Archives

While the general principles were laid down in Copenhagen, much of the practical administration lay with various royal officials in the Danish West Indies. This latter branch of the administration is collectively referred to as the West Indian local administration, and its archives, now at the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen, are referred to as the West Indian local archives. These archives contain almost exclusively material from the period 1755-1917, since the few West Indian local archives of older date are primarily to be found in the West India and Guinea Company’s archives.

The West Indian local archives are traditionally placed together with the audited West Indian and Guinean accounts. In terms of provenance, this large group of West Indian accounts actually belongs with other audited accounts (see Accounting and Auditing), but it will nevertheless be treated together with the West Indian local archives in a sequel to this guide.

The West Indian local archives will be treated in detail and catalogued in that sequel, so a brief survey will suffice here.

In the times of the West India and Guinea Company, i.e. until 1754, the administration on the three islands slowly evolved. Its headquarters were situated on St. Thomas, where the governor resided. He was the supreme authority in civilian and military matters, but he was assisted by the Governor’s Council 1672-1703, the Secret Council (which also served as a court of law) 1703-1754, and a Burgher Council. The most important officials on St. Thomas in this early epoch were the senior merchant, the bookkeeper, the cashier, and the secretary, among others. After the purchase of St. Croix in 1733, a similar administration evolved on this island. St. John was, for all practical administrative purposes, only an appendix to the larger neighbouring island of St. Thomas.

When the Danish Crown took over the local administration of the islands in 1755, a governor-general with wide powers was put in charge, and his residence was moved to St. Croix. The administration was called the West Indian Government, and St. Thomas, with St. John, had a local council. In addition, the Burgher Council was retained. A Superior Court was the supreme judicial authority.

In connection with the political and administrative reforms in Denmark in 1848-1849, the West Indian Government was abolished and its powers assigned to the governor-general. The Colonial Act of 1852 gave rise to a Colonial Council – in part directly elected – that acted in a consultative capacity in legislative matters on the islands. In 1865, the islands were divided into two municipalities with separate colonial councils, which were granted somewhat wider powers. In 1871, the seat of the government was moved back to St. Thomas.

In addition to these agencies of a more general nature, there were various administrations of a more immediately practical nature on the islands, e.g. the West Indian Superior Court, the Sheriff in Christiansted, the Buildings Inspector on St. Croix, the Post Office on St. Thomas, the Harbour Master of St. Thomas, and the Sheriff of St. John.

Archives

Altogether the extant West Indian local archives kept at the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen take up c. 800 running metres or 9,647 boxes and bound volumes. (The audited West Indian accounts take up another c. 150 running metres or 2,099 boxes and volumes, while the Guinean audited accounts take up c. 8 running metres or 77 boxes and volumes).

The local archives are divided into five main sections: material from the period before 1755; papers of the general Danish West Indian authorities; archives of government offices on St. Thomas; archives of offices on St. John; and archives of offices on St. Croix. These main sections’ respective shares of all the West Indian local archives are 1 per cent, 48 per cent, 26 per cent, 2 per cent, and 24 per cent. The main sections including 57 separate archival groups are as follows, the years given indicating the inclusive dates of the period from which archives remain, but not necessarily the period in which the relevant institution existed:

West Indian local archives until 1755

  • West Indian local archives until 1755

General archives

  • Government-General 1716-1882
  • West Indian Government 1723-1849 / St. Croix Department of Government 1850-1912
  • Special Commissioner’s Office 1917-1920
  • West Indian Superior Court 1805-1907
  • Judge Advocate General 1790
  • West Indian Military Forces 1815-1895
  • West Indian Gendarmerie 1903-1917
  • West Indian State Assets Administration 1849-1910
  • West Indian Medical Administration 1753-1854

St. Thomas

  • St. Thomas and St. John Government 1711-1917
  • St. Thomas and St. John Court of Appeal 1747-1809
  • Sheriff of St. Thomas 1717-1909
  • St. Thomas Police Office 1788-1905
  • Upper Guardians’ Administration on St. Thomas and St. John 1809-1850
  • St. Thomas Military Jurisdiction 1769-1914
  • St. Thomas Burgher Council 1776-1865
  • St. Thomas Burgher Council Elections Committee 1852-1865
  • St. Thomas Colonial Council Elections Committee 1852-1896
  • West Indian Debt Liquidation Commission on St. Thomas and St. John 1779-1849
  • Tax Commission on St. Thomas 1843-1864
  • Buildings Inspector and Land Surveyor on St. Thomas 1678-1885
  • Street Commission on St. Thomas 1868-1908
  • Post Office on St. Thomas 1806-1918
  • St. Thomas Harbour Master 1819-1867
  • Broker on St. Thomas 1784-1789
  • Average Adjuster on St. Thomas 1855-1905
  • Quarantine Commission on St. Thomas 1848-1903
  • Hospital Commission on St. Thomas 1862-1900
  • Reports from Religious Congregations regarding Births, Marriages and Deaths on St. Thomas and St. John 1826-1918
  • Government Bookkeeper’s Office on St. Thomas 1746-1875
  • Bank of St. Thomas 1836-1885
  • Plantation Company of St. Thomas and St. John 1903-1908
  • The Agricultural and Industrial Society of Saint Thomas 1891-1909

St. John

  • Sheriff of St. John 1741-1910
  • Militia Commander on St. John 1830-1858

St. Croix

  • St. Croix Court of Appeal 1736-1806
  • Sheriff in Christiansted 1734-1901
  • Sheriff in Frederiksted 1745-1903
  • District Attorney on St. Croix 1771-1798
  • Upper Guardians’ Administration on St. Croix 1755-1879
  • St. Croix Military Jurisdiction 1814-1917
  • St. Croix Military Probate Court 1767-1785
  • Ecclesiastical Probate Court on St. Croix 1776-1778
  • St. Croix Burgher Council 1759-1865
  • West Indian Debt Liquidation Commission on St. Croix 1766-1853
  • Commission of 30 August 1793 for the Financial Assistance of Planters on St. Croix 1792-1819
  • Buildings Inspector and Land Surveyor on St. Croix 1737-1851
  • Buildings Inspectorate on St. Croix 1749-1852
  • Fire Commission in Christiansted 1818-1846
  • Post Office in Christiansted 1883-1917
  • Poor Relief Commission in Christiansted 1821-1843
  • Reports from Religious Congregations regarding Births, Marriages and Deaths on St. Croix 1805-1910
  • St. Croix Provisions Commission of 20 March 1823 1823-1898
  • St. Croix Bookkeeper’s Office. Government Bookkeeper’s Office 1661-1882
  • Government Bookkeeper on St. Croix 1821-1828
  • St. Croix Cooperative Sugar Factory 1874-1903

The most extensive of these archives are those of the West Indian Government, the Governments on St. Thomas and St. Croix, and the sheriffs.

These West Indian local archives were brought home to Denmark from the islands around 1900 – the major part in the years immediately after the sale of the islands in 1917 – as expressly permitted by the treaty transferring the islands to the United States.

Similar archival material is to be found in the National Archives in Washington D.C. and, to a very limited extent, in the United States Virgin Islands. Which material went where appears to have been largely a matter of happenstance. Frequently the documents of an authority are divided between Copenhagen and Washington; in not a few cases, a running series of records, e.g. a series of annual accounts, has been split up so that some volumes are to be found in Copenhagen and others in Washington.

Another problem posed by the West Indian local archives is the physical condition of the documents, which is often poor. The tropical climate in which they were created and formerly kept is very hard on paper, which often suffers from termite or fungal attacks. Some of the damaged archives of the local West Indian authorities have been restored and are available to interested persons, together with the undamaged documents. But some of the records are in such a poor state of preservation that they are unfit for use at present and are thus unavailable to researchers. This applies to 10 per cent of the material, but fortunately 79 per cent is undamaged, and 11 per cent is only slightly damaged. The damage is mainly due to wear and tear, ink acid, fungi, and termites.

It is hoped that it will be possible to restore at least the most essential of these archives for use by researchers in the future. At least a makeshift conservation should be feasible, so that the material can sustain being microfilmed or scanned and subsequently made accessible in copy form to interested persons.

In this connection, it is important to note that certain data in the West Indian local archives are also to be found in the archives of the central authorities in Copenhagen who were parties to the relevant correspondence. For example, it is often possible to find an original letter in the Copenhagen recipient’s archives and a transcript of the same letter in the letter copybook found in the West Indian sender’s archives, and vice versa. Likewise, the originals of many accounts, reports, and other material are to be found among the papers of the recipient institution, while the transcripts are to be found with those of the sender. Documents in the archives of Copenhagen authorities are often in better physical condition than documents in the archives of West Indian institutions. Thus, the problem with West Indian documents in poor condition after a long stay in the tropical climate can sometimes be avoided by searching out exactly the same data in well-preserved archives generated and kept in Copenhagen’s cool climate.

Finding Aids

A detailed catalogue of the West Indian local archives kept at the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen can be accessed on this site

It is important to bear in mind that, owing to the exhaustive recataloguing, repacking, and rearranging of the local archives that have been carried out from 1999 to 2001, all catalogues and references used hitherto are more or less obsolete.

Literature

The sending home of archival material from local Danish West Indian authorities to Copenhagen 1897-1899 and 1919 is treated in Poul Erik Olsen, Negeroprør, termitter og landsarkivar Saxild. Om de dansk-vestindiske lokalarkivers skæbne, in Arkiv, vol. 10, 1985, pp. 156-175. A brief but now partly obsolete survey of the West Indian local archives is to be found in Wilhelm von Rosen, ed., Rigsarkivet og hjælpemidlerne til dets benyttelse, vol. I:2, Copenhagen 1983, pp. 815-832. See also the discussion in Jeannette Allis Bastian, A Question of Custody. The Colonial Archives of the United States Virgin Islands, in The American Archivist, vol. 64, 2001, pp. 96-114.

 

 

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