On the 31st March 2017, the Danish prime minister, together with other senior Danish politicians, visited the U.S. Virgin Islands to mark the 100th anniversary of Denmark’s sale of the islands to the United States. In his speech – which made a big impression on his hosts – Lars Løkke Rasmussen acknowledged that the story he had heard as a child about the ending of slavery on the islands was false. In reality, the decision to release the oppressed enslaved population was not a noble and gracious gesture by Governor-General Peter von Scholten. Instead, it was a move to avoid losing power (and life) during a slave revolt in 1848, when their leader, General Buddhoe, had, in advance, exchanged the gunpowder in the forts of St. Croix with sand to disarm the Danish forces. Thus, the enslaved in the Virgin Islands are the only people in the Caribbean, besides the people of Haiti, who managed to emancipate themselves entirely by their own effort.
In addition to the Prime Minister’s visit to the islands, hundreds of events, exhibitions, etc. were held throughout Denmark in 2017 to mark the 100th anniversary of the sale of the islands. Like the Prime Minister’s speech, history was told with a new voice, most recently with the unveiling of the monumental statue on Copenhagen’s waterfront, “I am Queen Mary,” to honor an enslaved woman and freedom fighter from the islands. The Danes’ own perception of their colonial history shifted – as mentioned in the Prime Minister’s speech – during that year.
This impressive effort to remember Denmark’s former ties to the islands is unlikely to be repeated; on the 200th anniversary, the event will be so distant in the country’s history that it will only have minimal importance for future generations. Therefore, it is important for us now to do what we can to close this chapter of the nation’s past, while it is still relevant to us.
The reality we must recognize is that many people on the islands think that Denmark has done them – and here they mean their ancestors – a huge wrong, and that they still suffer from the consequences. They require an acknowledgment that these wrongs have taken place.
For some people in Denmark, it is hard to understand why the nation should apologize to the population of the Virgin Islands. For example, Danish politician Bertel Haarder wrote in the paper Altinget on the 3rd March 2017: “[my] objection is that there are no perpetrators who can apologize, just as there is no one to apologize to; they have all died more than a hundred years ago.” To this argument it should be added that Danish slavery was carried out by a very small group of Danes, and the majority of the population in the Danish Kingdom were at that time poor and non-free peasants. Feudalism in Denmark was abolished as late as 1799, and the absolute monarch retained his total power until January 1848 – that is, only six months before the end of Danish slavery. It is therefore a misconception, as perceived among some of the Virgin Islands’ residents – to label all Danes as descendants of slave owners. Most Danes at that time were also oppressed by the same elite who oppressed the enslaved on the islands, although not with daily whippings as on the sugar plantations.
The issue of an apology and reparations for slavery is therefore extremely complex and will not be dealt with further in this article. Instead, I will focus on the recently commemorated event, namely the 100th anniversary of Denmark’s sale of the Virgin Islands, when the population there was subjected to an extra injustice by Denmark. They were sold to another country by a democratic Denmark after a referendum when the entire adult population of the country had the opportunity to vote together for the first time. Women in Denmark had just received the right to vote, and the question of the future of the islands was the first occasion for them to go to the ballot box.
The consequence was that the Danish West Indies and its people were sold without the inhabitants of the islands having a say. According to the newspapers at that time, most of them would have preferred to become part of the United States than stay with Denmark, but they have continued thereafter to live as colonial subjects without the right to vote for U.S. presidential elections. The US$ 25 million purchase price, reflecting the island’s estimated economic value, did not benefit the islanders, as the money went into the Danish treasury. It was a decent sum, which according to Denmark’s National Bank, was equivalent to 2 percent of Denmark’s net national income in 1917.
Did Denmark have the right to accept this money? The Americans’ interest in buying the islands was mainly due to the port of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, one of the best in the Caribbean. This is evident from the fact that the mutually agreed purchase price for the islands in 1902 was only 5 million dollars, which was at that time rejected by the Danish parliament due to lobbying by a group of parliamentarians with strong pro-German interests, who had connections to the German navy. During the First World War, the U.S. offered a five-times higher price because they wanted to prevent the Germans from taking over Charlotte Amalie and creating a submarine base there. The German Hamburg-America Line, which was then the world’s largest shipping company, was already present and had invested two million dollars shortly before the war in expanding the port facility to receive larger ships and refuel them with coal for the onward journey through the newly-opened Panama Canal.
During the slavery era, the port of Charlotte Amalie was equally an important part of the islands’ total economy. Besides being a landing place for the enslaved, and for exporting the goods from their toil (sugar, rum, mahogany), it was also a free port, which became one of the largest in the Caribbean. The economic value of this harbor continues until today – it has subsequently attracted many cruise ships in recent years and has provided a solid income to the islands from tourists, most of whom only visit the island of St. Thomas. By contrast, St. Croix receives far fewer tourists (mostly Danes) despite the beautifully preserved city of Christiansted and Peter von Scholten’s governor-general residence, as it lacks a good port for large ships.
When Denmark sold its West Indian colony, the Danish kingdom lost an important natural harbor, which it had taken in 1672 as part of the deserted island of St. Thomas. There is a solid argument that Denmark has the right to be compensated for this loss. The remaining economic value of the islands was due to its agriculture, towns, and infrastructure, including port facilities, all of which were created by the enslaved. Therefore, it is only reasonable that their descendants also receive compensation for the forced and unpaid effort of their ancestors. Both parties are thus entitled to a portion of the proceedings from the sale of the islands. But how should this be divided?
Since it is impossible to make a precise estimate of how much each side is entitled to that both parties can agree on, it is easiest to share the amount fifty-fifty. This means US$ 12.5 million for each in the money of that time, equivalent to both parties receiving one percent of the Danish net national income. The half belonging to the islanders can be regarded as an investment made by their ancestors in the Danish economy – an investment that has produced a decent return and is now to be matured after over 100 years. One percent of US$ 258 billion (World Bank figures for Denmark’s net national income for 2015) equals US$ 2.6 billion, or 15.5 billion DKK.
It sounds like an excessive amount, but its accuracy can be cross-checked as follows: 25 million dollars in 1917 was equivalent to almost 48 tons of gold, and the sale price was actually paid by the U.S. to Denmark in gold coins shipped across the Atlantic. Half of that – 24 tons of gold – has a current value of 42 million dollars per ton, that is, one billion dollars in total. This represents the minimum amount owed to the population of the Virgin Islands from the Danish treasury. However, a higher US$ 2.6 billion is more reasonable, as it has not been possible for them to cash in this investment until now. The US$ 2.6 billion figure corresponds to one-quarter of the estimated cost for the coming Fehmarn bridge/tunnel to Germany.
What should the money be used for? Here I would suggest setting up a US$ 2.6 billion special fund – the Ancestors Foundation – for education grants to the Virgin Islands’ population. It could be run by the Danish International Development Agency DANIDA and possibly governed by an equal number of members from Denmark as from the Virgin Islands, so there is no risk that the money will disappear in nepotism. Grants should be awarded according to merit and should not be conditional to what or where the recipients want to study. After all that the Virgin Islanders’ ancestors have been through, it would be wrong if Danes would decide that for them.
Denmark has proven – despite its few natural resources – that it is possible to achieve economic prosperity based on a knowledge-based society. An education fund will give the Virgin Islanders, who are among the poorest in the United States, the same opportunity. It will be a fitting end to Denmark’s grim and shameful past as a colonial and slaving power, because it will demonstrate that we are not only capable of changing our attitudes but also of turning attitude to action.
A US$ 2.6 billion pool corresponds to 18,000 4-year fellowships that would fund education fees, board and lodging for students who do not study in their own state in the U.S. If this were to finance approximately 1,300 islanders each year, the fund could provide 50 years of tertiary education for the same 29 percent of a year group who receive tertiary education in Denmark, and it will give the Virgin Islanders a sense and possibility that they can finally let go of the curses of the past.
Therefore, let us Danes, as a nation, gather together to repay in good faith to the people of the Virgin Islands what belongs to them. It is only fair that we do so, and it will demonstrate that our current society has both the ability and the will to treat fellow human beings properly and that we can leave the norms of slavery and the colonial period to the past.
Editor’s note: Phil Clarke is an engineer and former director of the Danish section of the international humanitarian aid charity Doctors Without Borders.
This article is translated by the author from the original text, which appeared in the Danish broadsheet newspaper Weekendavisen on the 3rd May 2018. Note that it was written to the people of Denmark, so its logic and argumentation are therefore nuanced for this target group. It only deals with the issue of the sale of the islands, and not of reparations for slavery, as this will be dealt with in future articles. A few extra words have been added to improve clarity.