Denmark, the colonial power in the U.S. Virgin Islands until 85 years ago, appears to run the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, which it still possesses, with a tighter rein and a more generous purse than the United States does with the U.S.V.I.
My wife and I visited the capital of these cool (but not frigid) islands late in June, and that event plus some earlier research on the British Virgin Islands, provided a comparison on how these three metropolitan nations — the United States, the United Kingdom and Denmark — work with their island possessions today.
No one would confuse the Faroes with either set of Virgin Islands. Halfway between Iceland and Scotland, the Faroes have fewer people than the U.S.V.I., and they are scattered across a much larger area than the U.S.V.I. and B.V.I. combined. (The respective populations are: USVI, 122,000; Faroes, 46,000; and B.V.I., 20,000.) Further, the Faroes look like the steep and rocky fjords of Norway, and experience precipitation of some kind (rain, fog, sleet or snow) on about 80 percent of the days of the year.
Fishing, not tourism, is the principal source of income. The population is virtually all of Viking descent — they are Lutherans, and they speak Faroese, a language closer to Norwegian or Icelandic than anything else. But the use of English is widespread, and Danish is the official language.
While it is an attractive, welcoming and very clean land, it is out in the middle of the Atlantic and does not have the infrastructure to cope with large groups of tourists. We were touring on an expedition cruise ship, the Explorer; it sleeps about 100 passengers and is staffed by more lecturers than dining room stewards. And when we were in the harbor of Torshavn, the capital, ours was the only cruise ship present. In other words, our collective economic impact, while positive, was slight.
On reflection after the trip, it struck me that the Faroes are more important to Copenhagen than the U.S.V.I. is to Washington or the B.V.I. is to London. (I say that with some real regret, as I used to work for the Office of Insular Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior.) Let me count the ways.
First, there are two members of the Danish Parliament with full voting rights elected in the Faroes, as there are from Greenland as well. The U.S.V.I. has one delegate (out of 450 representatives and delegates), and she cannot vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. In contrast, the two Faroese members of parliament sit in a chamber of 179 and have full voting rights. Recently, the Danish Parliament was evenly divided as to who should be prime minister, and one of the Faroese essentially broke the tie (and the islands got some extra concessions as a result.)
Think where the U.S.V.I. would be politically if it had the equivalent representation in the U.S. House — it would have a bloc of five votes there, and would be a force to be considered at all times.
The French, Portuguese, and Spanish islands similarly have voting members in their national parliaments; there is nothing like this in the British system.
Second, there is the manner of how money goes from the metropolitan nation to the islands. Most federal funds are channeled to the U.S.V.I. either to run programs directly (the National Park System properties, the FBI, the Coast Guard) or through highly specific categorical grants. The return of the rum taxes is, however, a block grant to be spent by the U.S.V.I. government as it sees fit.
The Danish block grant to the Faroes, about $79 million a year, is almost three times the size, on a per capita basis, of the transfer of the American rum taxes, currently about $75 million a year.
Most of the Danish money sent to the Faroes is spent as the local legislature decides. Among the British islands, the only one that gets a block grant is tiny, airport-free St. Helena in the South Atlantic. "It really is a basket case, economically," a Foreign Office official told me the last time I was in London.
Finally, there is the level of official presence in the islands of concern.
In the British islands, including the B.V.I., there is an appointed governor, a senior member of the British diplomatic corps, who has a grand house, a professional staff of a dozen or so British civil servants reporting to him, and direct control of some aspects of island government, notably the police. He is in charge of the island's foreign relations and can summon the British armed forces, if need be.
There also is a local elected legislature, and a chief minister chosen through the parliamentary system; the chief minister in the B.V.I. does have real power and is in charge of much of the government, but the London presence is very much felt.
In the Faroes, the ranking Dane is more like an ambassador of the Danish prime minister, a coordinator and observer, rather than a governor. She carries the title of Rigsombudsmanden, or high commissioner, and has a staff of 10 professionals and some clerks, but she is not in charge of the government (except in wartime emergencies). The police force reports separately to Copenhagen, as do the military (primarily the coast guard) and the judges (both of whom are Danes).
My wife and I spent a pleasant hour with the incumbent high commissioner, Birgit Kleis, who is a civil servant and a lawyer. Appointed for a three-year term, she can be re-appointed for additional terms. The Faroes legislature is elected, and it, in turn, chooses a prime minister; a comprehensive system of home rule (but not total independence) was established in 1948. Full independence may come in the future, Ms. Kleis told us.
There is no American high commissioner or appointed governor in the U.S.V.I. and has not been since Dr. Melvin Evans was named to the post in 1969. (He also became the first elected governor, in 1971.) The U.S. Interior Department is the executive branch liaison with the U.S.V.I. and with the island territories in the Pacific, but its Office of Insular Affairs has no full-time staff member in the U.S.V.I. and has not had one for years.
A single, mid-level civil servant in Washington serves as the desk officer for the U.S.V.I. and visits the territory from time to time. The various federal activities in the U.S.V.I. are handled — just as they are in the states on the mainland — by federal employees working in specific federal programs, such as those in agriculture, immigration, customs and the like.
There is another distinction between the U.S.V.I. and the Faroes: While both sets of island governments have been known to spend money unwisely — sometimes money that they did not have, there is nothing in the U.S.V.I. to compare with the bloody annual slaughter of pilot whales (called grind) in the Faroes. This is a real embarrassment to Copenhagen.
The ancient Viking rite is called grindadrap, and it involves large numbers of residents of both sexes and all ages; they drive the whales into shallow waters with their motorboats and then wade into the surf with special knives and kill and butcher the whales. The meat goes to the islanders, including the poor, but environmentalists have raised a hue and cry about the practice. It persists only because of home rule. No event of the kind exists on the Danish mainland. We were told that while the practice is unattractive, it will not endanger the large pilot whale population.
The Faroes government sent a local official with a video to our ship, which was loaded with American and British nature lovers, in an effort to defend the practice. He made a fairly good presentation of what I regarded as a very difficult case — but never mentioned the governmental framework (i.e. home rule) that allows the practice to continue.
There is yet another, more clearly political difference between the Faroes and the U.S.V.I. In the American jurisdiction (as the Source records regularly), there are many efforts to get more money from Washington — grants, tax breaks, new loans and forgiveness of old (e.g. Federal Emergency Management Agency) l
It is different in the Faroes. The major political party that works for full independence wants smaller annual grants from Denmark, and the grants have shrunk recently as a result. The Independence Party wants the world to know that the Faroes can stand on their own two feet financially, and hence that independence for the islands is a plausible option.
Editor's note: David S. North, a frequent Source contributor, was Washington correspondent for the former Fiji-based news magazine Pacific Islands Monthly. He has followed the imperial-islands relationship since doing his Fulbright study in New Zealand in the 1950s.
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