U.S. Virgin Islands
Meanwhile, the Danes grew interested in establishing a Caribbean colony. St. Thomas, still unsettled and possessing a good natural harbor, caught their eye.
The Danes’ first attempt at colonizing St. Thomas came in 1665, under the leadership of Captain Erik Nielson Smith. Settlers of a number of different nationalities were recruited and began to establish trading facilities and clear the land for plantations. The colony weathered attacks from English privateers, sickness, and even a hurricane before it was abandoned 19 months later.
The Danes’ second attempt at colonization took place in 1672, when the Faero set sail for the West Indies with 190 people on board. The Danes had recruited a diverse bunch of settlers for St. Thomas. The 128 Danish West India Company employees were indentured servants, contracted to work for the company for between three and five years. The remaining 62 people were recruited from prisons and poorhouses in Denmark.
When the Faero arrived on St. Thomas in May 1672, their numbers had declined to just 104—nine had escaped and 77 died. During the first seven months of the colony’s life, another 75 people died, leaving a bare 29 people in the nascent colony. Dutch, German, English, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Scottish, Irish, Flemish, and Jewish settlers arrived and grew the colony. By 1680 there were 156 whites and 175 slaves on the island.
An eight-year tax holiday announced in 1688 drew even more settlers, including French Huguenots and many more Dutch. By 1715 the island’s population had increased to 547 whites and more than 3,000 slaves. St. Thomas’s plantation economy grew in tandem with its population. In 1688 there were 90 surveyed plantations on the island; by 1720 there were 164. Cultivation on the island peaked in 1725, with 177 plantations.
St. Croix’s early years were a time of shifting alliances and uncertainty. Although Columbus claimed St. Croix for the Spanish when he sailed by in 1493, the Spaniards made no attempt to colonize the island, probably because of the continued presence of hostile indigenous people there. Early European settlers on St. Croix were English, French, and Dutch adventurers who established tentative settlements under constant threat of attack. By 1650, the French had the upper hand on the island and developed a small-scale plantation colony, where they produced indigo, cotton, and sugar.
The French abandoned St. Croix in 1696 in favor of Haiti, and the island was virtually unoccupied until 1733, when it was sold to the Danes. It was the first time title to a West Indian island had been exchanged by means other than warfare. Denmark sent its first shipment of materials and men to St. Croix in August 1734, under the command of Frederik Moth, who had been named governor of the island. About 150 British people, who were living on the island with about 450 slaves, were allowed to stay if they pledged allegiance to the king of Denmark. The island was promptly surveyed and subdivided into 400 estates, which were sold to aspiring planters from Europe and the surrounding Caribbean colonies. The opportunity attracted Danes, Scots, English, Dutch, Irish, and Sephardic Jews.
St. John was the last of the Virgin Islands to be substantially settled by Europeans. Danish attempts to settle the island in 1675 and again in 1684 failed, in part because of disturbances by the English, who had claimed nearby Tortola in 1672, and in part because the Danes were preoccupied with establishing their colony on St. Thomas. By the early 1700s, St. Thomas was thriving and its harbor was one of the busiest in the Caribbean. Agriculture had taken a backseat to commerce, and planters were looking for an island that could serve as the plantation headquarters of the colony. St. John fit the bill.
In 1718, the Danish West India Company sent 20 planters, five soldiers and 16 slaves to St. John to begin dividing, settling, and cultivating the island. To lure settlers, the Danes offered a seven-year tax hiatus and welcomed all nationalities. The deal attracted a number of established St. Thomas planters, who remained on St. Thomas but hired overseers to manage their St. John plantations. The opportunity also drew a number of poor settlers who started by cultivating cotton, indigo, and tobacco in the hopes of raising the capital required to set up a sugar plantation.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition