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WICO Celebrates 100+ Years of Intertwined History on USVI Transfer Day

Transfer Day 1917 (Submitted photo)

The Virgin Islands has celebrated Transfer Day on March 31 since 1917, commemorating the transfer of the Danish West Indies from Denmark to the United States. At the West Indian Company Limited (WICO), March 31 also marks the date the Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands purchased the West Indian Company Ltd. in 1993.

These two significant events in Virgin Islands history have played a pivotal role in the development of our Virgin Islands.

The 1917 purchase was a calculated military move that concluded almost 50 years of on-again-off-again negotiations between Denmark and the United States. Acquiring the Danish West Indies facilitated U.S. involvement in World War I by giving America a strategic foothold in the Caribbean and preventing Germany from assuming control of the islands it had long coveted.

The United States also recognized the benefits of the Virgin Islands’ proximity to the Panama Canal and the commercial opportunities provided by the impressively deep St. Thomas Harbor.

Years before, in 1912, Danish business leader, Hans Niels Andersen, was also attracted by the deep natural harbor as a promising opportunity for his global shipping interests. Anderson created the West Indian Company on St. Thomas as a subsidiary of his East Asiatic Company. WICO quickly became a lucrative operation, building its own dock and introducing electrical service to downtown Charlotte Amalie.

To protect his interests, when rumors of the islands’ sale to the United States became a reality, Mr. Andersen leveraged his personal relationship with Denmark’s royal family to influence the Danish government’s decision to include WICO and its holdings as one of the concessions in the transfer treaty.

The VI Government’s purchase of the West Indian Company Ltd. in 1993, on the 75th anniversary of Transfer Day, ended decades of legal wrangling and jurisdictional disputes that arose from the creation of a private Danish enclave. Like the U.S. purchase, it was a preemptive move that protected the territory’s largest revenue contributor from sale to another foreign country or from private ownership.

Just as the $25 million purchase of the Danish West Indies was America’s most costly territorial acquisition, the Government of the U.S Virgin Islands’ $54 million purchase of WICO is believed to be its most expensive real estate investment with $22 million coming from the Virgin Islands Public Finance Authority and $32 million from the Government Employees Retirement System.

WICO has continued to partner in the territory’s economic development as a publicly owned but privately managed company. In the early 1960s, WICO abandoned shipping and committed its docking facilities and warehouses, exclusively to cruise tourism, making America’s Paradise the Caribbean’s leading cruise ship destination and the territory’s leading cruise ship berthing facility. More than $20 million was invested in capital projects over the last two decades, to maintain and modernize the dock and port.

Today, as efforts to stabilize continue, after the 2017 hurricane devastation and the global pandemic, WICO and the Virgin Islands are preparing to welcome more mega ships, engage changing visitor expectations and provide increasingly robust and resilient facilities and infrastructure.

Like the territory, which celebrates 107 years under the U.S. flag, WICO is celebrating 111 years of continued operations. WICO is exceedingly proud of its legacy of service and remains committed to a sound vision of the future for the people and economy of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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