The Danish West Indies, Denmark, The United States Virgin Islands and Transfer Day
If you’re a traveler, especially in the West Indies, you might not be aware of the name, “Danish West Indies”. You will find the name “West Indies” on a contemporary map, but you won’t find the “Danish West Indies”. Why? Simply because on March 31, 1917, Denmark transferred its “Danish West Indies” to the United States of America for the sum of $25 Million. Thus, the collective name for the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, and Water Island henceforth became known as the “Virgin Islands of the United States”, sometimes referred to as “US Virgin Islands”.
For almost 250 years Denmark was a colonial power in the West Indies, from the founding of its colony in 1672 to the sale of the islands to the USA in 1917. This is an introduction to aspects of the history of the Danish West Indies, which will be helpful to you if you would like to know more about the subject or if you want to search the digitized records from the colony.
In 2017 it is 100 years ago Denmark sold the Danish West Indies to the USA. With the support of the A.P. Møller and Chastine Mc-Kinney Møller Foundation for General Purposes and the Danish Ministry of Culture, the Danish National Archives has commemorated the centennial by presenting the original records and the history of the colonial period.
The Danish National Archives’ digitization project “The Danish West Indies – Sources of history” lasted four years and here you can learn more about the structure of this website, the scanning of the archival material, which records from the colony is held at the Danish National Archives and elsewhere, and about volunteers working to transcribe the records and make them searchable.
The structure of Danish colonial power both locally and in the capital (Copenhagen), and how it acted in the colony. For instance about the judicial system and the health services, the Moravian missionaries, and about the central administration in Copenhagen.
Health and the Health Care System
Tropical diseases were a major problem on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. Therefore, the colonial power constructed a comprehensive health care system at an early time. But after the slavery era the system collapsed, because no one wanted to accept the responsibility and pay for it.
So wrote the Danish doctor Carl Adolph Mallerbach in 1745 in his dissertation on the diseases in the Danish colony. Since the early colonization of the Danish West Indies, it was commonly known that it was gambling with one’s life to visit or live in the Danish colony. And in reality that is what it was, in any event until the second half of the nineteenth century.
Diseases and Death
The tropical climate and the mixture of diseases from three continents, America, Africa and Europe, meant that morbidity and mortality were high among both European and African residents of the Caribbean. Thus, health was important for the Danish colonial power, and therefore there were several health care systems in the Danish colony which took care of the needs of various groups.
The Public Health System
During the period 1755-1800, the colonial power constructed a complete health care system based on the Danish model with public, military and private-practicing doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and midwives. In addition, there was a quarantine system as an outer protection. The health care system was structured as a hierarchical pyramid with the royal district doctor, the Landphysicus, at the top. Below him, and subject to his oversight, ranked garrison surgeons, royal midwives and royal pharmacists.
Garrison Surgeons, Midwives, and Pharmacists
The garrison surgeons managed the garrison hospitals in the three towns, which were primarily intended for the military personnel, but also took care of the Danish state’s civilian personnel – for example, the royal slaves. In addition, each town had its own royal midwife, and the pharmacies in the three towns were controlled by the royally privileged pharmacists. Finally, the quarantine commission ensured that ships that arrived in the Danish colony in the West Indies were examined for infectious persons and, if necessary, put in quarantine.
Plantation Doctors for the Enslaved Laborers
The purpose of the public health care system was primarily to take care of the Euro-Caribbean population’s needs, and all employees of the system were normally Danish. On the other hand, the health of the far larger population of enslaved laborers was taken care of by plantation doctors in private practice and by the health care system on the plantations. The doctors in private practice were usually not Danish, like the bulk of the Euro-Caribbean population. However, this part of the health care system was also subject to the oversight of the royal district doctor.
The Planters’ Health Care System
The health care system on the plantations also consisted of a hierarchy, with the Euro-Caribbean plantation doctor at the top and under him the nurse at the plantation hospital and the plantation midwife, who were both enslaved laborers. The doctor was employed on contract and only came to the plantation once or twice a week. The rest of the time it was the nurse that took care of the sick enslaved laborers. When it came to births, the plantation midwife took over.
Obeah, the Enslaved Laborers’ Own Wise Men and Women
Alongside the Euro-Caribbean health care system on the plantation, there existed the enslaved laborers’ own unauthorized health care system. Here the practitioners were experts in the spiritual world who cured with magic, often called “Obeah men“, or wise men and women who cured with herbs.
Practicing Obeah was illegal. In the early colonial period, the colonial power saw it as witchcraft, for which the punishment was execution, but from the beginning of the 1800s the attitude was milder. Obeah was still illegal, not because it was seen as harmful to anyone directly, but because it was perceived as a “superstition” that through fear could give the Obeah man power over other enslaved laborers.
The Euro-Caribbeans did not consider the herbal healers a threat, so long as they did not use poisonous plants. Quite the contrary, it was a known fact that these healers could cure diseases which the doctors had to give up on, and therefore the doctors were very interested in their medications.
After the abolition of slavery
After the emancipation in 1848, the health care service for the population of now free Afro-Caribbean workers did not get better, but worse. Neither the planters, the government nor the workers themselves wanted to pay for the system. The number of doctors therefore declined. And the great medical discoveries that were made in the second half of the 1800s did not reach St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. So the health conditions at the time of the sale of the Danish West Indies were still far from the standard in Denmark.
The Well-being of the Enslaved: Accidents, Self-injury, and Suicide
The enslaved laborers’ daily life was characterized by hard and dangerous work, abuse and tremendous frustration. This is evident from the injuries they suffered, either because of work accidents or because their existence became so unbearable that they chose to injure themselves.
Major and minor work accidents were very common among the enslaved laborers, but it was something that seldom led to death, however. Nor when an enslaved got his hand crushed in the sugar mill – as described here by Dr. Feilberg from St. John in his annual medical report from 1836 to the authorities in Copenhagen:
Among unfortunate occurrences come to my attention, I must note a Negro boy, who on the plantation Annaberg was put to throwing sugar cane in among the cylinders of the windmill, which through his carelessness grabbed his fingers and ground off his right hand. I amputated the arm immediately, and he is now, with the exception of the loss of his hand, quite well.
Nor was it unusual that enslaved laborers chose to do injury to themselves. The desperate objective was to do damage to the plantation owner by damaging his property, i.e., the enslaved himself. In the medical report from 1836, Dr. Feilberg gave this example:
Another Negro on the plantation Vaninisberg [St. John] struck himself in desperation with an axe three times on his left arm, one of which penetrated his wrist, and the two others the Radius and the Ulna [bones in the forearm], so that his hand only hung from his arm by the skin. I also amputated his arm . . .
In the most extreme consequence, frustration and desperation over the lack of control over their own lives could drive the enslaved laborers to suicide. It did not happen daily, but it was not entirely uncommon, either. Drowning was a common method, which is evident from the post-mortem examination certificate of the royal district doctor (Landphysicus) of January 17, 1817, in the form of a message from a plantation overseer on St. Croix:
Sir. I am sorry to inform you a Negro of the name of Johnny who was always a watchman [and a] runaway since Monday last, threw himself into the below well this morning and drowned himself. He is much bruised from the fall. I know no reason for this unfortunate accident. There was [sic] only two fowls missing from the watch house. I have left him here in case it is necessary to call the judge.
Another way to lose one’s life which was in line with self-injury is shown laconically by the district doctor’s accounting ledger for October 28, 1812.
The hospitals were an important part of the health care system on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. There were three types of hospitals: garrison hospitals, plantation hospitals, and hospitals for lepers.
Regardless of which type of hospital was involved, the hospital was not a place anyone wished to be. Until the end of the 1800s, the hospital was a place where the risk of dying was far greater than if you were treated at home. That’s how it was in Europe, and that’s how it was in the Caribbean. Therefore, hospitals were also primarily intended for population groups that did not have a family to take care of them, or which served others. They might be the poor, soldiers or enslaved laborers. All others were treated at home and taken care of by the family.
The Garrison Hospitals
Beginning around the middle of the 1700s, there were three garrison hospitals in the Danish West Indies, one in each of the three towns of Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted and Frederiksted. The first one was established on St. Thomas in 1743, and the others in the period of about 1759 to 1772. The structure of the three government hospitals seems for all essential purposes to have been maintained during the entire Danish period.
Report with Drawing of a Hospital
A report about the garrison hospital in Frederiksted from 1780 provides a rare insight into what this type of hospital looked like, and how it was arranged (see illustration below). The hospital building itself – [on the drawing below called “den gamle bygning” (“the old building”)] – was approximately 25 meters long and approximately 6 meters wide. It was built of pine logs and covered on the roof and walls with pine shingles, which was common in the colony. There were large windows on the building’s long sides, so the wind could keep the temperature down inside. The foundation was brick.
Banana Leaf Pillows
In each of the three sick wards, there were eight beds. The bedclothes were a sheet and a pillow stuffed with dried banana leaves. The staff consisted of the garrison surgeon, the “landlord” and a number of enslaved laborers. The surgeon kept an eye on everything medical, while the landlord was responsible for purchasing food and overseeing food preparation and cleaning. It was the enslaved laborers, however, that were responsible for the majority of the work, i.e., cleaning, food preparation and caring for the sick.
In addition to the hospital building itself, the hospital also had a kitchen, a building for the enslaved laborers and a large kitchen garden, where the enslaved grew food for themselves and herbs for the sick.
The Plantation Hospitals
Most plantations had a hospital or sickroom where the enslaved laborers were admitted if the plantation owner or the overseer thought they were sick enough. The plantation doctor only came by once or twice a week to attend to the sick, or if acute disease broke out. It was the nurse that managed the plantation hospital on a daily basis, and she was also an enslaved laborer.
Plantation hospitals could look very different, but they often had two rooms with beds, one for men and one for women, and a kitchen where the nurse prepared medicine and food for the sick.
Also Penal Institutions
The plantation hospitals also functioned as penal institutions. There was often a “bøie”, i.e., a pillory, in the hospital, where enslaved laborers could be locked up as a milder form of punishment than whipping. In addition, the hospital often had bars on the windows and the door was equipped with a lock. The purpose was to frighten the enslaved away from lying about being sick in order to avoid working.
The Leprosy Hospitals
It is not known when leprosy first appeared in the Danish West Indies, but in any event the disease was present from 1768 onward. Beginning around 1810, there was a desire for a special hospital for the lepers on St. Croix. But the first “leprosarium” (hospital for lepers) in the colony is known from St. Thomas. It was on the peninsula Hassel Island and was in use 1833-1861. It was a very small, poorly-maintained and isolated hospital with about 10-20 regular residents. Subsequently, the lepers were transferred to a specially isolated building at the new municipal hospital in Charlotte Amalie.
Scandalous Hospital on St. Croix
On St. Croix, a hospital for lepers was still sought, but it was first opened in 1888 on estate Richmond outside Christiansted. However, a thorough examination of the hospital in 1903 showed that the conditions were so poor that it was almost scandalous. For that reason, the Order of Odd Fellows in Denmark collected funds for the establishment of a new and satisfactory hospital for lepers, which opened in 1909.
Illness and Death among the Enslaved
Life as an enslaved laborer in the Danish West Indies was not only characterized by hard work, brutal punishment and powerlessness. But also by diseases, incapacitating work injuries and death’s constant presence.
During the entire slave period, more enslaved laborers died in the Danish colony than were born. That is witness to how poor the enslaved laborers’ living conditions were. It was also why it was necessary to continue to import new enslaved laborers to replace the deceased ones. Most of the other Caribbean colonies that produced sugar had the same problem, because the sugar cultivation was particularly taxing for the enslaved.
The reason for the high mortality among the enslaved laborers in the Danish West Indies was especially that many small children died. High infant mortality was more the rule than the exception most places in the 1700s and 1800s, including in Denmark. But among the enslaved it was particularly high, up to forty percent of the dead were under five years of age.
The enslaved children died of many different diseases. One of the major killers was what the doctors at that time described as “fever” and “diarrhea”. Both terms can be symptoms of a great number of diseases, so they do not explain in themselves what was wrong. A frequent cause of death was intestinal worms, and that indicates that hygiene was a major problem in the enslaved laborers’ existence. Intestinal worms enter the digestive system with contaminated food and water.
Poor Hygiene: Dung Heaps and Watercourses
Poor hygiene was not uncommon at the time, but among the enslaved it is seen, for example, in problems with the drinking water. The enslaved laborers in particular got drinking water from watercourses and wells. But latrine pits and dung heaps were often nearby, and during tropical downpours they ran over and contaminated the drinking water. It was not made better by the fact that the watercourses were also used for clothes washing, bathing, and watering the cattle. In contrast, the Euro-Caribbeans’ drinking water was rainwater collected in large cisterns.
Infectious Diseases: Measles and Smallpox
Another cause of death among the enslaved was infectious diseases, for instance, measles epidemics. Prior to 1800, smallpox was also a widespread and feared disease that returned at regular intervals and claimed the lives of many children. However, when smallpox vaccination was introduced in the Danish colony in the first decades of the 1800s, it almost succeeded in stopping the disease entirely, especially on St. Croix. It was a rare success story in an otherwise sad tale of many failed attempts at keeping diseases away and suppressed.
Causes of Death and Work Injuries among Adult Enslaved Laborers
Among the adults and elderly enslaved, the reasons for the high mortality were something else. For example, tuberculosis and lung disease were more frequent causes of death than fever and diarrhea. This is not surprising, despite the tropical climate, because tuberculosis breaks out precisely in people who live close together, are poorly nourished and have a weak immune system. The immune system is weakened with age and particularly through exhausting physical work, such as the enslaved laborers’. Why US want Greenland
The more direct work injuries were also frequent, but they were rarely a cause of death. The injuries could be all forms of muscle pain, sprains, fractures, abscesses, wounds and hernias. The type of injury among the enslaved laborers that caused the greatest problems for the doctors were tropical ulcers on the legs, which ate their way to the bone and would rarely heal. Often the only solution was to amputate the leg.
Special Diseases of the Enslaved Laborers
Finally, there were a number of diseases thought at the time to affect only enslaved laborers and not Europeans. These were, for example, elephantiasis (filariasis), called “elephant foot”, a parasitic disease that causes grotesquely swollen legs or sex organs. Another disease in the same group was yaws (frambesia tropica), a tropical disease in the same family as syphilis that infects by touch and results in large, raspberry-red, weeping sores.
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.
(Transferday of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States 1917)
On the day fix for the formal transfer of the Danish West India Islands to the United States of America the following ceremony will take place at the hour fixed – 4:00 p.m. local time. The transfer takes place at the same time in all three islands.
The formal transfer, mentioned in 4 of the Convention, of all the islands to the Representatives of the United States of America, Commander Edwin T. Pollock, takes place at St. Thomas through the undersigned Governor as Representative of His Majesty Christian, the Tenth, of Denmark.
The formal act of transfer takes place at the premises in front of the military barracks. A guard of honor from the cruiser Valkyrien under the command of an officer and with the band on its right wings draws up in front of the barracks, with their back to the building, and the American guard of honor draws up right opposite facing the Danish guard. The non-commissioned officer in acting charge of the barracks and the gun crew take their stand at the salute-battery, and men designated to lower and hoist the National Flag of their respective countries take their stand at the flag-staff. Facts About Greenland Sharks
The officials or those specially invited to attend the ceremony take their stands as follows, turning their back to the fort:
- Nearest to the Kings Wharf the officials and then the members of the Colonial Council, the Consular body and other parties invited.
- When the Representative of the United States leaves the American man-of-war a salute of 15 guns is fired from the “Valkyrein” flying the United States Flag from her fore-mast, and the same salute is fired from the fort on the landing of the Representative.
On his landing he is received by the Governor and the Colonial Secretary together with whom he passes along the front of the Danish guard-of-honor, pass the officials and those specially invited, before the front of the American guard-of-honor, and thereafter to the barracks officer-quarters, where protocol regarding the transfer is signed.
- This being accomplished the Governor takes his stand in front of the Danish guard-of-honor, the United States Representative in front of the American guard-of-honor. In the name of His Majesty King Christian the Tenth, the Governor proclaims the islands transferred to the United States of America upon which the guards-of-honor present arms, the Danish National Flag is lowered while the Danish band plays the National Anthem, and a salute of 21 guns is fired from the salute battery and all the men-of-war. The guards-of-honor change places.
- The Representative of the United States proclaims the islands taken into possession, the guard-of-honor present arms, the American National Flag is hoisted while the American band plays the American National Anthem and a salute of 21 guns is fire from the battery and all the men-of-war.
- After prayer by Bishop E. C. Greider the Agent for the United States, Commander Edwin T. Pollock, U.S. Navy, announced his being duly appointed Acting Governor of the Virgin Islands of the United States of America.
- The retired Governor having passed the front of the Danish guard-of-honor, the guard marches off.
- The newly appointed Governor then returned to the U.S.S. Hancock, whereupon a salute of 17 guns was fired in his honour as acting Governor of the Virgin Islands of the United States of America.
- At St. Croix the proclamation is read in Christiansted by the Dispatching Secretary, in Frederiksted by the Policemaster and the barracks analogically with the change at St. Thomas takes place under the charge at respectively the Chief of the Gendarmery Corps and the Commanders of the Detachments.
- At St. Jan [sic/ St. John] the proclamation is read by the Policeassistant [sic] whereafter the changing of the flag takes place.
- After the Dannebrog [Danish flag] was lowered over Government House in the Virgin Islands for the last time, the flag was made into several smaller ones. The one pictured was given the Reimund Baumann a former judge and governor of the Danish West Indies. This flag was given to the Danish Consulate of the Virgin Islands, by Solange Baumann wife of Harold Baumann, the son of Reimund. Special thanks to her for her generosity in allowing others to view this historical item.
The official transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States did not occur until 4:00 PM on March 31st, 1917 when a formal ceremony was held in the islands. At the State Department, a U.S. Treasury Warrant for twenty-five million dollars was given to Danish Minister Brun.
If you’d like to learn more about the history, culture, and people of the Virgin Islands before, during, and following Transfer Day, March 31, 1917, 103 years ago, then join Dr. Leonard Richardson; Featured Correspondent, Val Valerie Sims of VINTAGE Virgin Islands; and your truly every Saturday at noon Eastern, 11:00 am Central, 10:00 am Mountain, and 9:00 am Pacific before our podcast, Chatting with Doctor Leonard Richardson. Historic landmarks Resources:Legislature of the Virgin Islands, also on Facebook; Fort Christian in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas.
Author’s Window: Etienne A. Gibbs is a native-born Virgin Islander, having been born on the island of St. Thomas. Throughout his career, he has overnighted to on all islands and stayed longer while on business.
When he retired as a Clinical Social Worker, he decided to write a quasi-memoir narrative about how he and his neighborhood buddies, Tom, Dick, and Larry, played throughout the surrounding neighborhood areas. He changed the names of his childhood-buddies to protect their privacy. His book, It’s My Turn To Be The Hero, is available at Amazon.