A Brief History of the Danish West Indies, 1666-1917

The Danish West Indies consisted of three small islands in the Caribbean situated to the east of Puerto Rico, namely Saint Thomas since the 1660s, Saint John since 1718, and Saint Croix from 1733. Altogether these islands make up only 333 square kilometers. The colony was characterized by trade and shipping in Saint Thomas and sugar plantations in Saint Croix, whereas Saint John was considered as just an appendix to the neighbouring Saint Thomas. The three islands stayed a Danish colony until 1917 when they were sold to the United States.

Before 1666

Before the Europeans came to America, the Antilles were inhabited by Indians. Quite a number of excavations have been carried out by Danish archaeologists in order to get an impression of these original inhabitants, especially in Saint Croix around the Salt River area which is today a National Park.

This area was exactly where Christopher Columbus and his men landed in November 1493 during his second voyage from Europe across the Atlantic. The islanders - Tainoes - succeeded in chasing the Spaniards away after an intense fight. Columbus named the archipelago the Virgin Islands after the legend about Saint Ursula and her eleven-thousand virgins.

After a long period of Spanish control, other European powers got involved in trade and shipping to the Caribbean, and from the early seventeenth century they tried to establish colonies of their own which could produce the costly colonial commodities, first and foremost sugar and tobacco.

In the wake of Netherlanders, Englishmen and Frenchmen, the Danes started sailing to the Caribbean. At the beginning as crew members onboard foreign vessels, but from the 1640s under the Danish flag. The Danes were particularly interested in the island of Saint Thomas which was not expressly claimed by any other European nation and which was favoured by an excellent natural harbour.

Danish Settlement

During the first half of the seventeenth century the Danes had established small tropical colonies in Asia at Tranquebar on the Coromandel Coast, and in Guinea at Accra on the Gold Coast. Now, they turned their attention to the West Indies, and in 1666 they settled on Saint Thomas. The island was occupied in the name of the King of Denmark by Erik Smith. However, because of difficulties in cooperating with Englishmen and Netherlanders who were already living in the small island, and because of illness, Smith and most of his compatriots died. After one-and-a-half year the surviving Danes gave up their plans and temporarily left the island.

Activities under the Danish flag in the area became much more effective as from 1671, when the Royal Chartered Danish West India and Guinea Company was founded. The Company was an institution much alike a modern joint-stock company, which the King and other wealthy Danes and foreigners provided with the necessary capital. The Company was given a royal charter, granting it a national monopoly as well as several other favours.

Now, the Danes occupied Saint Thomas and built a fort, called Fort Christian after the King, at the fine natural harbour to protect the town which eventually emerged and was called Charlotte Amalie after the Queen.

For the rest of the decade, efforts centered on the founding of plantations and the establishment of trade links. Allotment of land attracted people of various nationalities. By 1680 there were 156 whites and 175 slaves occupying 47 small plantations on the island. By the first census in 1688 there were 338 free inhabitants on Saint Thomas, while 392 were slaves. As many as 45 per cent declared their nationality to be Dutch, 3 per cent were Flemish, and 13 per cent were Danish.

The only town on Saint Thomas was the center at Charlotte Amalie. The most important products, which at this early time were shipped to Denmark in an annual ship, were tobacco, raw sugar, and small amounts of cotton. Problems for the Danish West Indies developed in the 1680s as a result of the Company’s constant need for extra capital and its stubborn insistence that both imports and exports be carried on its own vessels and handled by its own personnel. In 1708 the Company was forced to grant a long list of concessions to the prosperous plantation owners, including the acceptance of the latter’s right (under license) to ship and trade their produce with North America and Europe.

Because of Denmark’s neutrality during the War of the Spanish Succession, Danish colonial trade flourished in the early eighteenth century. Virtually all the land on Saint Thomas was brought under cultivation. Consequently, the neighbouring small island of Saint John was annexed in 1718.


It had turned out that the Indians were not suitable for the hard work in the plantations, and it was almost impossible to persuade Danes to go to the West Indies in order to work. Therefore, like in the rest of the Americas, Negro slaves were imported from Africa.

Many European vessels at this time went along the triangular route – from Europe to Africa with a wide variety of commodities for trading with the Africans, from Africa to America with black slaves, and from America back to Europe with sugar and supplementary colonial products. The so-called Middle Passage from Africa across the Atlantic was terrifying to the slaves, conditions onboard were dreadful and the mortality high.

The remains of one of the Danish slave ships, the Fredensborg, has been found in our days on the Norwegian coast where it was wrecked in 1768 after having sailed almost all the way along the triangular route. After the wreck of the Fredensborg was located and identified in 1974, one of the main tasks was to research the extensive written materials preserved in Danish and Norwegian archives pertaining to the ship’s journey. These texts, together with the items that were retrieved from the wreck – from exotic goods such as elephant tusks and dyewood to the crew’s tobacco cans and shoes with fine buckles – constitute probably the most thorough documentation of a slave ship found as a wreck anywhere in the world. Thus, it is known that on this voyage the Fredensborg took 265 Negro slaves onboard in Africa, 24 of whom died en route across the Atlantic. The survivors were sold at good prices at an auction in Christiansted on Saint Croix.

Conditions for the enslaved Africans in the West Indies were harsh. Many slaves tried to escape from their masters into the bush, they went maroon. An everlasting source for anxiety among the white population was the imbalance between the number of free and the number of slaves. Thus, on Saint Thomas in 1725 there lived 324 whites as opposed to 4,490 blacks.

The proportion was the same in Saint John where a slave rebellion took place in 1733. The small Danish garrison was killed together with many other whites, while many plantation buildings and sugar fields were burned or destroyed. Most of the rest of the white inhabitants fled from the island which was under control of the slaves for almost a year, until they were killed or defeated and thereupon strongly punished.

St. Croix

At this time the Danes urgently needed a new beginning. Both Saint Thomas and Saint John were totally cultivated, so further expansion had to take place somewhere else. Consequently, in 1733 the Danes bought the island of Saint Croix which is situated around 60 kilometers south of the other two islands.

Saint Croix was larger and more fertile, and the timbered lowlands were quickly cleared and covered with sugar plantations. By 1751 all the fertile land on the island had been claimed, and 64 sugar works were in full operation, worked by Negro slaves. The fortified towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted were established on St. Croix immediately after the Danish takeover.

Trade with the islands was liberalized in 1733. But dissatisfaction with the Company’s right to first claim the principal products of the three islands continued. It was only after the planters appealed directly to the King, however, that the Company was dissolved in 1754. By this time Saint Thomas’s plantation culture had passed its peak. Production and population continued to grow in Saint Croix, however, which quickly became the main Danish island. The population there included at this time 2,000 whites and 14,000 slaves. After the dissolution of the Company, the crown took over administration of the three islands in 1755, and trade was opened to all Danish and Norwegian citizens.


Raw sugar soon became by far the most important product from the Virgin Islands. Thus, in the decades from 1734 to 1754 sugar made up 86 per cent of the total value of goods exported from the islands to Denmark, while the rest of the produce consisted of cotton, rum and tobacco.

The sugar was made from cane, which ripened one year after having been planted and after having been taken good care of in the meantime by the slaves. The cane was harvested and carried to the plantation’s sugar mill where they were crushed, whereupon the sugar juice was led to the boiling-house. Here it was concentrated and thereby transformed into brown raw sugar, called muscovado sugar. An important by-product from this process was rum, which in its young and strong form was called kill-devil.

The raw sugar was shipped in big barrels to Denmark where it was refined and thus transformed into fine white sugar loafs. Around the middle of the eighteenth century, Danish ships were carrying only 3 per cent of Europe’s sugar imports from the Caribbean. Nevertheless, to Denmark this trade was very important as much of the sugar was reexported from Copenhagen to foreign ports in the Baltic, England, France, the Netherlands, etc.


From 1755 the Danish crown took over the colony from the Company. In charge of everything thereafter was the Governor General who ruled the islands assisted by a number of Danish civil and military officials. Thus, priests, customs officers, judges, schoolmasters, clerks, officers, private soldiers, etc. were Danes, and the official language was Danish. By far the most of planters and merchants, on the other hand, were of other nationalities, often immigrated from other islands in the Caribbean to the socially tolerant and politically neutral Danish West Indies, where almost everybody was welcome, who wished to settle there. This meant that the majority of well-to-do people were foreigners and that the everyday language became English, but Dutch and French was also often heard and read in the small cosmopolitan society. The black inhabitants often spoke Creole among themselves.

Among the important planters were men with names such as Beverhout, de Wint, Heyliger, and Uytendaele. Plantations were named as for example Rust up Twist on Saint Croix, Wintberg on Saint Thomas, and Beverhoutberg on Saint Jan.

Palmy Days

The second half of the eighteenth century were palmy days for the Danish West Indies, as Denmark stayed neutral during the many great wars, especially the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. When the crown took over the islands in 1755, the system of local government was reorganized and the administration made more effective. For the sake of Saint Thomas’s trade, the harbour of Charlotte Amalie was opened to ships of all nations a few years later. Because of Denmark’s neutral status, the island became a commercial center for goods from all over the region, which were sent on to Europe in ships under the Danish flag. Until 1807 the boom also depended on Saint Croix’s flourishing sugar production.

The end of these palmy days came when Denmark became involved in war with Great Britain and the three islands in the Caribbean were occupied by the British in 1801-1802 and again 1807-1815.

The occupations were effected without any military resistance from the Danes. The number of Danish soldiers in the colony was always very limited. During the first half of the eighteenth century the force increased slowly to a total of 226 men. From the late eighteenth century until 1872 the number of soldiers was about 400, whereas it was reduced drastically thereafter. All through the Danish presence in the islands, however, the local burgher militia constituted an important supplement to the regular troops.


During the late eighteenth century when some people began to question the slave institution, a new situation developed. The Danes imported about 1,000 Negro slaves annually from Africa. This was necessary to keep up the slave population in the islands, which in 1792 in Saint Croix alone amounted to approximately 22,000, while there lived 1,000 free blacks and 2,000 whites on that island.

In 1792 the King of Denmark established a commission to investigate the slave trade. The commissioners found out that mortality was high and fertility low among the slaves, and the slave population in the Danish West Indies was considered too small to reproduce itself. In 1792 the King resolved that the Danish slave trade across the Atlantic should be abolished as from 1803. The motives behind this very first ban on slave trade were humane, economic and political. Imports of new slaves from Africa was encouraged, however, in the meantime, and until 1802 the slave population of the Danish islands increased from 25,000 to 35,000 persons.


Slavery continued in the Danish West Indies after 1803 and the sugar production of Saint Croix continued to turn a profit until the 1840s. At that time sugar prices fell, as competition was intensified from beet sugar grown in Europe and cane sugar from the larger Caribbean islands with more industrialized ways of production.

Another aspect was that while slavery continued in the Danish West Indies it had been abolished in other colonies, thus in the nearby British islands in 1833. During the 1830s and 1840s discussions were going on in the Danish islands, where the slaveowning planters opposed emancipation, whereas Governor General Peter von Scholten and his allies advocated emancipation. A few small ameliorations for the slaves were carried through, but they still did not win their freedom. At last, unrest broke out in Frederiksted in Saint Croix in 1848, and Peter von Scholten took the opportunity, caused by the danger of a veritable slave rebellion, to declare that slavery was abolished immediately in the Danish West Indies.

Emancipation, however, did not by itself solve the problems of the black population. Living conditions did not improve substantially for the now free labourers, first and foremost because Saint Croix’s small and old-fashioned plantations with their exhausted land were no longer profitable. The Danish colonial authorities sought to smoothen the transition from slave economy to a workforce of free coloured labourers by imposing a complex of very detailed regulations, which were considered as far from satisfying by the labourers. In 1878 a labour riot broke out among the unsatisfied blacks, during which Frederiksted was burned. During most of the second half of the nineteenth century Saint Croix experienced general stagnation and decline followed by numerous social and economic problems.

St. Thomas

Let us turn our attention to Saint Thomas for a moment. After being turned into a free port, the island experienced palmy days during the second half of the eighteenth century as a regional shipping center. Furthermore, a significant amount of exchange of goods took place via the large merchant houses of Charlotte Amalie.

Shipping from Denmark fluctuated heavily along with world economic trends. Between 1755 and 1838 an average of 53 expeditions per year were sent from the home country to the Danish West Indies. Almost every ship took a direct course across the Atlantic, while just a very few sailed along the triangular route.

After the British occupations of the islands were over in 1815, their trade and shipping soon prospered again. Partly thanks to the intense traffic to and from the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America, which achieved freedom around 1820, partly due to the increasing trade and shipping with the United States, further promoted by the commercial treaty which was signed by the two countries in 1826.

However, the decisive breakthrough for the port came when the British post packet boats began to put in to Saint Thomas from 1835. It was simply the most conveniently situated Caribbean harbour for ships coming from Europe, and a very well equipped port with floating dock, repairing shops, lighthouses, bunker facilities, etc. From 1839 onwards steamships made their entry with a vengeance, because the British Royal Mail from that year onwards began to send its many post steamers directly from Southampton to Saint Thomas. The Danish harbour thus became the centre of the Royal Mail’s extensive activities in the Caribbean. Soon, one of the harbour’s most important products became bunker coal.

The total number of vessels that called the port annually from the 1840s to the 1860s was about 2,000-4,000, and the annual tonnage was 200,000-300,000 tons. By far the greatest number of ships had sailed from harbours in the Caribbean, whereas the largest of the ships had crossed the Atlantic. Only a minor part of the tonnage was Danish-owned, the major part being British and American. Shipping reached its peak in the 1860s and 1870s when 4,500 ships, totaling 800,000 tons, arrived each year.

One of the harbour’s and the whole island’s problems was that the place was unhealthy, since it was often plagued by yellow fever and cholera. On top of this, the place was sometimes severely ravaged by hurricanes, for example in 1837, 1867 and 1916 (and again in 1989 by hurricane Hugo).

Technological developments around 1870 also put Saint Thomas at a disadvantage. The advent of the telegraph reduced the need for trading vessels to call at Saint Thomas for news. And the development of better steam engines meant that ships from Europe could reach all destinations in the Caribbean and Central America without the need to take on extra coal along the way. For this reason the big British and French liners moved their headquarters away from Charlotte Amalie. Others, however, primarily the important German Hamburg-America Line, kept their attachment to Saint Thomas. Around 1900, 2,000-3,000 ships a year called at that harbour. The general tendency, nevertheless, was a decline.

Sale Negotiations

During the American Civil War, the North States had needed port facilities for their Navy in the Caribbean. Therefore the United States wanted to take over Saint Thomas and Saint John with the fine natural harbours. The Danish government was willing to sell, and a treaty was agreed upon in 1867 by the two parties. However, due to domestic American political complications the sale was not effected.

From the 1870s and for the rest of the Danish period economic conditions worsened. Each year there was a substantial deficit in the public budgets of Saint Croix, as well as those of Saint Thomas with Saint Jan. The deficits had to be met by the Danish state. At the same time the population decreased slowly but surely from 38,000 in 1870 to only 26,000 in 1917. The decrease was partly caused by high mortality due to illness, bad housing conditions etc., and partly by emigration. While the Danish West Indies in the early nineteenth century had attracted many immigrants from throughout the region, the situation had become the opposite by the close of that century when emigration from the Danish West Indies was predominant as a response to inequitable land distribution and industrial down-sizing. Many Virgin Islanders found work cutting sugar cane in other islands in the Caribbean, or as seamen, or were recruited for work in constructing the Panama Canal.

As social and economic problems in the islands increased, the Danish government opened new negotiations with the Americans. And in 1902 a draft treaty was agreed upon by the two governments. This time, nevertheless, the Danish parliament refused, by the narrowest possible margin, to sell the colony, first and foremost because of strong nationalistic sentiments in Denmark.

New Initiatives

Time had come, therefore, for Denmark to do something essential to improve conditions in the depressed islands. The colony was released from its debt to the Danish state, the colonial administration was reduced and made more effective, and in 1906 a new Colonial Law rendered the right of voting to the colonial councils to a larger part of the population.

More important than these public measures were a number of private initiatives that were taken. An agricultural society was established in Saint Croix where land was bought and experiments were carried out in order to boost and rationalize the sugar and cotton production. Much Danish capital was also invested in new installations and improved facilities in Saint Thomas harbour. Actually, a new large wharf was constructed, the harbour was dredged, a new Danish steamship line was established, etc.

It was all too late, however, as the structural changes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries definitively were against the economy of small possessions in the Caribbean. Saint Thomas experienced a shift from profitable commission trade to less remunerative coaling, provisioning and repair. And the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 turned out, in spite of all Danish hopes, to do the port no good, as steamers just by-passed Saint Thomas but did not stop on their way to the canal.

When the First World War broke out in 1914 conditions in the small Danish colony worsened even more. Agriculture on the islands was in deep crisis, and trade and shipping came almost to a standstill. The ordinary people experienced very hard times, reacting by protests and strikes.


The United States were interested more than ever in buying the Danish West Indies, partly in order to prevent Germany from establishing a naval base there. A sales price of 25 million dollars in gold was offered in 1916 by the United States, and after a hectic public debate and referendum in Denmark, the treaty was ratified by the two parties. The transfer of Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix from Denmark to the United States took place on 31st March 1917. Practically all Danes left the islands and went home to Denmark.

Since 1917

The remaining islanders in what had now become the United States Virgin Islands had been looking forward to improved living conditions under American rule. But the following years turned out to become hard. The much needed reforms within education, health care, and business investments were not carried out. The sugar from Saint Croix had problems in being let in on the American market, while rum was a bad business during the American prohibition period beginning in 1919, and just a few ships called at Saint Thomas.

The islands became known as America’s Poorhouse, but some improvement was experienced when the New Deal program was applied to the Virgin Islands during the 1930s. The three small islands were under Naval rule until 1931, when the first civil administration was appointed by the American President and confirmed by the Congress in Washington. During the early 1930s the economy went from bad to worse as a result of the worldwide great depression, and a considerable number of Virgin Islanders emigrated to the United States. Voting rights were limited to less than six percent of the islanders because of income, sex and property requirements until 1936 when universal suffrage was given.

After the Second World War general conditions began to improve as the beautiful Virgin Islands slowly attracted more and more American tourists, especially after the United States had broken off all relations with Cuba and closed that island to American tourists in 1962. Since 1954, the status of the three islands has been that of an unincorporated territory under the administration of the federal Department of the Interior, but with self-government in a number of fields.

In the early 1960s, industry was boosted by the establishment in Saint Croix of Harvey Aluminium Company and Hess Oil Refinery. Nevertheless, tourism has become the most important source of income. One-and-a-half million tourists visit the islands each year, mostly arriving on cruisers in Saint Thomas for a one-day visit.

Since the 1960s the United States Virgin Islands have developed into a modern American society, today with 110,000 inhabitants, only half of whom are native born Virgin Islanders. They elect their own governor since 1970, a local senate and a delegate to congress.

The Danish heritage is predominant in several ways in the United States Virgin Islands today. Suffice it here to mention the many old buildings such as forts, churches, town houses, sugar mills and plantation houses that are still standing in good shape. Another thing worth mentioning is that the old streetnames in Danish have been kept. The Danish cemeteries are still there. And many Virgin Islanders today wear typically Danish names. So, the Danes has left their stamp on the former Danish West Indies in many ways.



   Danish National Archives