A Brief History
The Virgin Islands of the United States (USVI) have rarely been communities existing in isolation. From their original inhabitants, through the purchase of the territory by the United States, the islands have traditionally played an essential role in maritime activity due to their central location in the Caribbean archipelago (Lewis, 1972, p.3). The history of the Virgin Islands is one that many Caribbean islands know well; it is the tale of indigenous people, slaves, colonizers, and imperialists taking and trading stolen land and the bodies upon them. The following history has been carefully interwoven with these stories to reflect this amalgamation.
Geography, Topography, and Climate
The USVI is situated on the divide between the Greater and Lesser Antilles on the upper arch of the Caribbean archipelago. The islands are located approximately 1106 miles southeast of Miami, Florida and 40-50 miles east of Puerto Rico.
The USVI consists of three primary islands, St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix; a secondary island, Water Island; and a smattering of tertiary islands along the coasts. The islands are of varying size and topography. St. Thomas and St. John follow the mountainous nature of the Windward islands, and St. Croix follows the plateau style of the Leeward islands. St. Thomas is approximately thirteen miles long and two to three miles wide; St. John is approximately nine miles long and five miles wide; and St. Croix is approximately twenty-two miles long and six miles wide (Dookhan, 1995, p.2). The only island with natural waterways is St. Croix which has a few ephemeral streams, and a permanent “Salt River” which is located in the island’s southwest (Dookhan, p.4). Due to their steepness, St. Thomas and St. John rely on gullies or “ghuts” to drain rainwater rather than conserve it (Dookhan, p.4).
The USVI has a tropical climate with average temperatures ranging from 79 – 84 degrees Fahrenheit (VI Now, n.d.). Due to climate change, however, the air and ocean are warming, heavy rainstorms are becoming more severe, sea levels are rising, and the ocean is becoming more acidic which will impact the overall livability of the islands (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2016). This impact was felt in 2017 when two category five hurricanes, Irma and Maria, devastated and destroyed all three islands.
Early Times & the Colonization of the Danish West Indies
The earliest inhabitants of the islands were thought to be the Tainos of the Arawak Indian culture group or the Carib Natives (Lewis, p.3). By the early 1500s, Christopher Columbus arrived and, under his direction, local indigenous populations were subsequently wiped out or enslaved (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016). Subject to a few skirmishes between Spain and France, the Virgin Islands were ultimately left to the Protestant state of Denmark-Norway and the private rule of the Danish West India Company (Lewis, p.4). Once the Danes acquired the islands between 1671 (St. Thomas), 1717 (St. John), and 1733 (St. Croix), they readily welcomed and accepted settlement from people of diverse nations to ensure the islands’ prosperity, and the islands became known as the Danish West Indies (Carsten, p.13). It is thought that one of the Danes primary reasons for establishing permanent settlements in the West Indies was for the development of plantation agriculture whose proceeds would be supplemented with Danish funding and by supplies obtained from trade (Dookhan, p.69).
The main ports of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and, to a lesser extent, St. John, became open ports for trade where residents prospered from the development of commercial houses, mercantile shops, and plantations (Lewis, p.7). Labor for the plantations was concentrated in the slave trade which brought thousands of enslaved people from Africa and would return to Europe with cargoes of sugar (Lewis, p.6). This system was one of Danish mercantilist protectionism, which bore all the marks of Adam Smith’s theory of a state chartered monopoly and was a “system of national power that had, as one of its economic functions, the prevention of the development of the potentialities of overseas colonies so that they would not be able to stand on their own feet and become politically independent” (Heckscher, 1955, p.41; Lewis, p.6). Thus began the islands’ history of importing commodity crops and products, and the exportation of high-value cash crops such as cotton and sugar.
During this time period, slavery upheld the prosperity of the islands, and it became apparent that slave revolts could be detrimental to the territory’s vulnerable economy (Lewis, p.9). In fact, a slave rebellion on St. John in 1733, cost the island a generation’s worth of production when slaves overtook the island for six months (Lewis, p.9; Woolf, 2017). By many accounts, what saved St. Thomas from such disasters was that “it very early became a trading community rather than a plantation economy” due to its topography, and by the early 1700s only 160 plantations remained, many of which were deserted (Lewis, p.9; Carstens, p.104).
Economic Development of the Islands & The Fall of Slavery
By 1755, the islands were transferred to the rule of the public system of Danish royal governance. Agriculture in the territory remained a strong source of economic capital, and the continued development of this New World trading settlement prospered from European capitalism and became notorious for their affiliation with buccaneers and pirates (Lewis, p.4).
The Virgin Islands continued on this journey for the next hundred years, soon realizing that they benefitted from economies of scale. This created a pronounced movement to the monocultures of sugarcane, cotton, and tobacco; with sugarcane becoming the most important agricultural undertaking in the Danish West Indies (Dookhan, p.76-77). As agriculture progressed, land devoted to subsidiary crops, pasture, and woodlands, tended to give way to cane land (Dookhan, p.77) and it became customary by the 17th century onwards, for plantation owners to parcel land for enslaved people to cultivate their own crops. Eventually, “plantation owners [gave] enslaved Africans Sundays off, even though many were not Christian. Enslaved Africans used some of this free time to cultivate garden plots close to their houses, as well as in nearby ‘provision grounds.’ Provision grounds were areas of land often of poor quality, mountainous or stony, and often at some distance from the villages which plantation owners set aside for the enslaved Africans to grow their own food.” (Sloane 1707, lii; cited by Fog Olwig, 1993, p.29).
An enslaved person’s life was brutal and short, and the number of deaths from disease or harsh working conditions far exceeded the number of births (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). Periodically, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and droughts claimed lives and property, and the slave trade strengthened to accommodate these losses. At any point in time, slaves generally accounted for well over half of the population (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). By 1848, several slave revolts, British agitation, high costs of production, market inefficiencies of production, high debt to income ratios, absentee landlordism (which contributed to soil degradation and high volumes of waste), the rise of other global powers, and the decrease/depression of global sugar prices contributed to the abolishment of slavery in the Danish West Indies (Dookhan, p.82-85). While St. Croix remained a predominantly agricultural society, St. Thomas diversified its economy as a trade emporium, and the economy of the islands remained fairly stable immediately following the emancipation of the enslaved people. Soon after, however, revenues began to fall; first revenue from agriculture, then trade and the Danes quickly “sought to get rid of the islands, as they had got[ten] rid of the slave trade” (Dookhan, p.138).
The economy of the islands remained depressed through the nineteenth century and cholera outbreaks, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis in quick succession ruined the territory’s reputation as a safe haven (Dookhan, p.220-221). The invention of steamships further displaced its importance as a port in the Caribbean (Dookhan, p.221). Finally, with the laboring population shifting away from slavery to those employed at low wages, employers sought to use as few laborers as possible (Dookhan, p.223). In agriculture, farmers sought to diversify the agricultural economy by introducing new crops and techniques (Dookhan, p.223). A parcel system was introduced that promoted subsistence farming with small quantities of food being sold in the free market (Dookhan, p.234). Shortfalls of this system included land parcels that needed to be subdivided and leased (which meant a lack of accountability for the soil and the crops produced), and a continuation of problems for urban dwellings (Dookhan, p.234). The cycle of poor economic conditions continued to plague the islands.
The Rise of the Virgin Islands’ Final Imperialist
Unsatisfactory economic conditions encouraged the Danish government to enter into treaty negotiations with the United States in 1902 (Dookhan, p.235). Apparently reinvigorated by the prospects of the islands, the Danish government adopted measures for economic development instead of continuing with the sale, and promoted the growth and production of bay-oil, lime, cattle, cotton, and sugarcane (Dookhan, p.235). In 1910, the Department of Agriculture and an Agricultural Experimentation Station were established on St. Croix as part of an economic stimulus package, and plans were in place to turn St. Thomas’s port into “the best equipped port in the Caribbean” (Dookhan p.235-236). These developments ultimately came too late. Many Virgin Islanders favored emigration in the wake of unfavorable living conditions and the islands’ population was steadily decreasing (Dookhan, p.237). Additionally, with war set on the world stage, it became increasingly evident that the United States required a suitable port in the West Indies to be able to defend approaches to the Panama Canal and to prevent islands from falling under control of hostile nations, especially Germany (Dookhan, p.248-249).
In 1917, Denmark transferred the islands to their final imperialists; selling the islands to the United States (US) for $25 million in return for the possession of the entire Danish West Indies. Under the terms of the Monroe Doctrine, the American acquisition of foreign territory was a concern for some European nations; however, American imperialism, as it was defined at the time, was essentially protective and not acquisitive (Dookhan, p.249). As such, formal transfer celebrations were conducted on March 31, 1917, and the Danish West Indies became the Virgin Islands of the United States (USVI), an unorganized, unincorporated territory.
One week later, the US joined the First World War against Germany, and the Danes had left the USVI, without a viable economy or an efficient system of social services (Dookhan, p.265). With their economic decline and dubious value as a naval asset, the US struggled with the status of the territory (Dookhan, p.265-266). Ultimately, officers within the US Navy were appointed by the president and the territory maintained its status as an unincorporated territory. The Naval administration remained in power for approximately 20 years and created a system of social reforms including schools and hospitals; however, they did not place as much emphasis on the development of the economy (Dookhan, p.268). The economy over-relied on agriculture and trade and the attitude of governance was one of “transferred responsibility” (Dookhan, p.268). The constant parade of governors, six in total from 1917-1927, frustrated the hope of achieving continuity of policy, decreased cultivation and production, and obstructed labor assistance requests (Dookhan, p.269). The integration of the Department of Agriculture into the Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor in 1924 further failed to account for the fundamental economic problems of the USVI and doubled the economic deficit, funded by the federal government by 1931 (Dookhan, p.269-270).
After a visit to the territory in 1931, President Herbert Hoover declared the Virgin Islands the “effective poorhouse” of the United States and replaced the Navy, with the US Department of the Interior as administrator (Dookhan, p.271). Charged with the economic regeneration of the territory, governance returned attention to agriculture and homesteading as a revenue driver which ultimately failed to produce any substantial results (Dookhan, p.274). Throughout this process Virgin Islanders were excluded from the dominion of their own political control and although they were American nationals, they were not American citizens. This created an impatience tempered by the United States’s own ideals of democracy and equality which was quelled by the Organic Act of 1936. The Organic Act of 1936 made the Virgin Islands an organized, unincorporated territory, subject to their own self-government with civil administration (Dookhan, p.281).
With the revitalization of political interests, agriculture remained a focus for economic stimulation. The government began removing barriers to production, offered subsidies for sugar cane, and encouraged the growth of the Agricultural Extension Station (Dookhan, p.286). Ultimately agriculture in the Virgin Islands failed in two key areas: mono cropping and the development of export crops. With sugar cane as the islands’ main crop and the demise of the sugar industry in 1966, the territory never developed alternative means of food production. As money poured in from the United States, the economy began shifting from agriculture around 1954. Along with the development of an oil refinery, an aluminum bauxite refinery, and rum distilleries, the economic swing from a reliance on agriculture to that of tourism and industry manifested the “dynamic growth of the Virgin Islands” over the next two decades (Dookhan, p.287). By 1970, although the Virgin Islands had not achieved complete economic self-sufficiency, the territory was poised to achieve exponential economic growth.
Carty, H.V. (2019, December). Fruitless Endeavors: An examination of the sustainability of agriculture in the Virgin Islands of the United States. Unpublished Manuscript, New York University, NY
Origins of agriculture | World History | Khan Academy
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