1884 oil on canvas painting by Danish artist Th. Jessen of the harbor of Christiansted, St Croix (Private collection of Wayne James)
By Wayne James
ST CROIX, USVI -- League for league, square mile for square mile, the Caribbean archipelago is the world’s most international region. There, since the 15th century, the Old and New Worlds have collided and the world’s people -- Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, and Asians -- have intermingled. For centuries, within eyeshot, and sometimes within a stone’s throw, Spain, England, France, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden vied for dominance and sought fabled riches. The region was also a principal site for the unfolding of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. And as such, the Caribbean is today the arena for heated discussions and diplomatic discourse on the ever-elusive reparations.
Wayne James, former senator of the US Virgin Islands and former Senate Liaison to the White House
But if there is one nation that should pay reparations for its active participation in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it is Denmark -- so much so that it could easily qualify as the initiative’s “poster nation.” Here are ten reasons why:
1) Because of excellent Danish record-keeping and archives, many people of the former Danish West Indies (present-day United States Virgin Islands) are able to trace their ancestry -- with uninterrupted documental evidence -- to persons who were enslaved in the Danish West Indies, in some cases even identifying the names of the slaving vessels upon which their ancestors were transported to the colony, and in rarer cases to the African nations whence their ancestors came.
2) When African people were enslaved and brought to the Danish West Indies, they were systematically separated from their African culture, families, belief systems, and self-identities, Denmark becoming the surrogate motherland. So, when Denmark sold the islands to the United States in 1917, the islands’ black population, in effect, became a people doubly displaced and, therefore, doubly traumatized.
3) When Herbert Hoover visited the Virgin Islands of the United States in 1931, a mere 14 years after Transfer, thereby becoming the first US president to visit the Virgin Islands, he described the islands as a veritable “poorhouse” of the United States.
4) Unlike other colonial powers, Denmark -- because it sold its colonies to the United States, the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country -- has never had to contend with “colonial karma” and the repercussions of a colonial past in the form immigration by former colonial subjects seeking employment, social services, education, etc.; has never had to send relief to its former colony in times of natural disaster, epidemic, or economic hardships; has never had to provide military defense in time of conflict; and has never been called upon to lend money or forgive debts.
5) Compared to other slave-trading nations (perhaps with the exception of Sweden, which from 1784 – 1878 colonized and enslaved Africans on the tiny Caribbean island of St Barthélemy [St Barts]) such as Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, France, and the United States, which had large colonies and/or enslaved millions of people, Denmark’s share of the overall trade was relatively small, and its reparation bill would therefore be comparatively miniscule.
6) Because Denmark was politically unified with Norway until 1814, a mere 34 years before the abolition of slavery in the Danish West Indies, Denmark would be significantly justified in requesting that Norway contribute towards reparations, thereby sharing the burden with Denmark.
7) Denmark has long prided itself on being the first nation to end the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade -- on January 1, 1803 (though the institution of Danish slavery continued until 1848). It would therefore be in keeping with Danish precedent -- and a way for Denmark to establish international precedent -- by being the first former slaving-nation to pay Reparations.
8) In a world where “tolerance,” “diversity,” “multi-culturalism,” and “political correctness” have become part of the international lexicon, Denmark, in keeping with its reputation for open-mindedness and social programs, should lead the way by doing “the right thing” to fix a bad thing.
9) The effects of slavery -- psychological, social, and economic -- are still very palpable in the lives of the descendants of the enslaved population of the former Danish West Indies.
10) At the end of slavery in 1848, Denmark, unlike the United States for example, never offered to compensate its formerly enslaved population (approximately 35,000) -- not even with an empty promise of “forty Greenland hectares and a reindeer.”
A Synopsis of the History of the Danish West Indies
From 1671 to 1917 -- for 246 years, a span of time touching upon four centuries -- Denmark engaged in the sordid business of slavery and then colonialism in the country’s far-flung tropical island-possessions in the Caribbean Sea, the islands euphemistically and naïvely referred to by Danish school children as the “sugar islands,” but officially as the “Danish West Indies” (St Croix, St Thomas, and St John).
During that period, all of the things that characterize the infamous Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade occurred: the capture and purchase of men, women, and children all along the West Coast of Africa; the shipping across the Atlantic Ocean’s infamous “Middle Passage” of thousands of people (the official total being 120,000 for the 130-year-long period between 1673 and 1803, which, if accurate, would amount to an annual amount of a mere 923 slaves to be distributed amongst the three Danish islands, at 307 slaves per island, per year
) -- bound and shackled -- in the putrid holds of slaving vessels, those journeys typically enduring three months, with the death toll of the enslaved sometimes reaching 50 percent; a life of toil and misery on the sugar plantations in the islands, the life expectancy of the enslaved population during the 17th,18th, and first decade of the 19th centuries being a mere five years; dehumanizing slave codes that could, at best, be described as draconian; the systematic separation of African peoples from their history, cultures, families, languages, religions, and self-esteem; and the enrichment and, as a result, advancement of Denmark.
By any and every method of measure, Danish slavery was slavery; its intention was to dehumanize the enslaved and maximize profits. And even after the enslaved population, led by Budhoe, demanded and was then begrudgingly granted freedom on July 3, 1848, the Danes persisted with de facto slavery, so much so that 30 years later, in the event that would come to be known as “Fireburn,” four heroines, namely Susannah “Bottom Belly” Abrahamsen, Mathilde McBean, Axeline “Agnes” Elizabeth Salomon, and Mary Leticia Thomas, led a labor insurrection that resulted in the destruction of 51 of St Croix’s plantations.
Then, in the throes of World War I, in a strategic move to keep Germany out of the Western Hemisphere, on March 31, 1917, after unsuccessful attempts in 1867 and 1902, Denmark sold the Danish West Indies to the United States of America for $25 million dollars in gold.
Thus ended Danish colonial history in the New World. And except for nostalgically glancing back at its former colonies from time to time -- on occasions such as the semi-centennial anniversary of Transfer in 1967, or during annual exchanges between the Demark-based Danish West Indies Society and the Virgin Islands-based Friends of Denmark, the post-1917 relationship of Denmark towards its former “sugar islands” could accurately be described as “slam, bam, thank you, ma’am,” or “loved then left.”
In essence, Denmark reaped the benefits of slavery and colonialism, then walked away from it all like a fat, rich cat. (Also, once slavery ended in the middle of the 19th century, thereby causing the decline in plantation profits, the islands’ public and private infrastructure began its decline such that when the United States acquired the islands 69 years later, many of the islands’ buildings were in a state of neglect and disrepair.)
The concept of reparations is neither new nor radical. Union General William T. Sherman, on January 16, 1865, promised the former American slave population the now-proverbial “forty acres and a mule.” The United States, then a young nation of not even 100 years, infamously never delivered on that promise to the vast majority of the former slaves. But the promise acknowledged the consciousness that the formerly enslaved should be compensated in some form -- even if grossly inadequately -- for their lifetimes of free hard labor.
Denmark, on the other hand, by then an old, established country, its first monarch being Gorm the Old (940-958 AD), never saw it fit to even make such a promise -- even if an empty one. [Denmark’s Greenland has enough landmass for Denmark to have offered every newly emancipated man, woman, and child (approximately 35,000) in the Danish West Indies on July 3, 1848, forty acres and a reindeer -- even if Denmark knew that very few Virgin Islanders would have abandoned their warm Caribbean homeland for cold, dark Greenland, regardless of the incentives.]
"The Little Boutique," a 1904 painting of a typical St Croix vendor by Danish socialite Vibeke Barfoed. (Private collection of Wayne James)
But like all other countries directly involved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Denmark has traditionally proffered the standard, rote objections and defenses -- some less inspired than others -- to paying reparations: that the people actually harmed and the people who did the actual harming have already died and therefore cannot be compensated and blamed, respectively; that most present-day black people cannot definitively prove that they descend from enslaved forefathers; that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was authorized by law, albeit, in retrospect, an inhumane law; that the harm occurred in the too-distant past; that Africans, too, are to blame since they participated in and facilitated the slave trade; that Africans had a long history of enslaving each other that preceded the arrival of Europeans in the mid-15th century; that the Arab-run Trans-Saharan slave trade was at least as bad as the Trans-Atlantic, and that if Europeans must pay reparations, so should the Arabs; that present-day Danes did not participate in the slave trade, so why should they have to pay reparations for an institution in which they played no role; that during the era of slavery, most Danish serfs in Denmark were almost as poor and worked almost as hard as slaves; that paying reparation would be too complicated.
(And then, of course, there are the absurd arguments and defenses that are rarely uttered in public: that black people in the New World -- the descendants of slaves -- benefited by being removed from Africa, even if that removal was via slavery; that Danish slavery was more humane than that of other slaving nations; that Danish slaves were happy; etc.).
Danish slavery was so traumatic to Virgin Islanders that it took 120 years after Emancipation for the descendants of the slaves to finally leave the plantations upon which their ancestors were bound. And the exodus, which took place in 1966 when the sugar cane industry on St Croix finally ended, was a forced one: The government, assisted by the plantation owners, physically removed the roofs from the laborers’ dwellings (former slave quarters), thereby exposing the occupants and their belongings to the elements.
It was then, and only then, just one year before the semi-centennial celebrations of Transfer in 1967, that average Virgin Islanders begrudgingly and fearfully took their first steps into onto the path of mental Emancipation. After all, slavery and a post-slavery agrarian life were all that they had known for 295 years (1671-1966).
The displaced former plantation laborers then became the first residents of public housing, pejoratively referred to as “the [housing] projects”, where some remain to this day, 50 years later. Of course, upon Emancipation, some of the newly freed slaves, pledging never again to work in the cane fields -- even for wages -- immediately left the plantations, took up residence in the towns, and made their livings in other professions.
And it is those people who laid the foundation for what would eventually become a thriving black middle class by the 1940s, one century after Emancipation, with a few black families rising to prominence between the late 1800s and the 1920s.
Post-slavery trauma is not unique to the Danish West Indies. Evidence of the damage slavery exacted upon black people throughout the New World is ever-obvious even today: the wealth, education, and social disparities between black people and white people; racism; discrimination; and self-hate and inferiority complexes, for example.
What was particularly egregious about Danish slavery, however, was that Virgin Islanders were twice-traumatized: once when they were ripped from their African way of life and forced into slavery; and once when they were ripped from Danish culture and transferred to American culture.
The result is a cultural schizophrenia that is evidenced by a lingering “colonial mentality” and an unwillingness, after 100 years, to embrace the proverbial “American Dream.” The sugar mill, arguably the quintessential symbol of slavery in the Danish West Indies (but also a testament to ancestral fortitude), persists as a beloved territorial monument.
When Denmark sold the Danish West Indies in 1917, Denmark walked away from centuries of slavery and colonialism like a “fat cat” -- without a worry or care. Once slavery ended in the middle of the 19th century, the islands witnessed a steady economic decline. So, by the time of the sale, Denmark’s interest in the islands had waned. To the Danish government, the sale came as a windfall. And Danes laughed all the way to the bank, losing interest in its principal colonies.
But the Danish zeitgeist is one of social largess. And Denmark has a long record of being on the cutting edge of social reform -- whether by being the first country to recognize same-sex domestic partnerships, to neutrality in time of war, to opening its borders to refugees from all over the world. Denmark however, in some apparent occurrence of colonial amnesia, has overlooked its largest social obligation: to atone for its crimes against humanity committed in its “sugar islands.”
Admittedly, reparations will be a complicated matter. But so was slavery. Furthermore, as compared to countries such as Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, and France that would not know where to begin to resolve their unimaginable reparations claims, Denmark, because it possessed three tiny colonies with relatively few enslaved persons, would have an easier time, especially with the assistance of Norway.
The form those reparations should take, who should be eligible, how much should be paid, etc., will all be matters for major discussion between Denmark and Virgin Islanders who, as a result of excellent Danish archives, can trace their ancestry in the Danish West Indies back to 1848 and earlier. But given the inevitability of reparations -- one way or another -- it would behoove Denmark once again to be the vanguard in correcting what is widely regarded as humanity’s greatest crime against its fellowman.
During a period lasting just shy of 250 years, African people in the Danish West Indies were precluded from developing and utilizing their God-given talents for the benefit of humanity, themselves, and their offspring, and were, instead, relegated to a life of plantation labor.
Under that system, persons otherwise born to have been great artists, orators, writers, inventors, leaders, lawyers, doctors, and philosophers, for example, were forced to cut sugar cane. Then, at the end of their bonsai-like deprived lives, were typically laid into unmarked graves and almost forgotten by time (except for the fact that the Danes kept copious records of everything).
Thus, present-day Virgin Islanders were deprived of 20-plus consecutive generations of accumulated family wealth. And the overall progress of humanity was compromised by having excluded an entire race of people from making its full, proper contribution to humanity.
In 2017, with the awakened consciousness of social correctness, Trans-Atlantic Slavery and its aftermath of colonialism can no longer be explained away as an unrectifiable wrong. If man can unlock the mysteries of the universe and decipher DNA, he can find ways to make reparations a reality, thereby allowing the descendants of enslaved Africans and the rest of humanity to finally turn the page on this dark chapter of human history.
At the foundation of Denmark’s refusal to officially apologize for its 246-year involvement in the Trans-Atlantic Slavery and colonialism are two principal arguments: the popular argument and the political one. The popular argument, inculcated into the national consciousness, is the position that because present-day Danish people did not personally participate in the Danish slave trade, they are under no obligation, ethical or legal, to apologize to present-day Virgin Islanders, none of whom personally experienced the horrors of slavery.
The political argument, though it is never publicly expressed, is that an official Danish apology would be tantamount to an admission of guilt, thereby laying the foundation for claims for reparations. (And the general consensus, even amongst the most intellectual and liberal of Danes, is that Denmark should not pay reparations.)
The popular argument is, at best, uninspired. Present-day Danes routinely claim the triumphs and accomplishments of their long-dead ancestors, so why can’t present-day Danes claim the failures and transgressions of those same ancestors?
Present-day Danes, for example, venerate their forefathers for being the first people to end the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade on January 1, 1803. Present-day Danes also acknowledge and embrace the achievements of 18th- and 19th-century Danes such as world-renowned writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) and internationally famous sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844).
But those same present-day Danes routinely disassociate themselves from slave-trading Danes who were the contemporaries of those national heroes referenced herein. What present-day Danes overlook, however, is the very obvious fact: Had Danish people apologized to the people of the Virgin Islands at the opportune time -- when slavery ended 169 years ago -- this ridiculous discussion about whether Danes should apologize would have been rightfully settled eight generations ago.
Meanwhile, the political argument is also a ticking bomb. At one point or another, in one form or another, the Trans-Atlantic slave-trading nations -- Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, France, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Brazil, (and Brandenburg, today one of the 16 federated states of Germany) -- are going to have to pay reparations. Such is the nature of things: neither good deeds nor bad deeds go unpunished. Whether at the hands of “Karma,” Divine Recompense,” or “Comeuppance,” the world has a way or correcting itself and righting wrongs.
Case in point: For centuries, Denmark went about the world under the banner of colonialism, enriching the nation’s coffers at the expense of its colonies. And though it walked away from its Caribbean colonial experience “scot-free,” Denmark is now -- for the first time in its long, recorded history -- as a result of its membership in the European Union, experiencing the challenges that accompany mass immigration, even though none of those immigrants are Virgin Islanders.
The fact that 169 years after Emancipation and 100 years after Transfer, Virgin Islanders still must “debate,” “engage in discussion,” and “wrestle” with Danish people over an apology for something as obviously and fundamentally wrong as slavery is further insult the people of the Virgin Islands.
Anyone with the slightest degree of human dignity knows instinctively that to enslave another human being and deprive him of his freedom is a corruption of nature. Even school children know wrong from right. School children also know that an “apology” that does not willingly, freely, and genuinely flow from the soul is no apology at all. So, in this day and age, if the average Danish person actually
feels that he or she cannot or should not, on behalf of his ancestors, apologize to the people of the Virgin Islands for slavery, then present-day Danish people need to take their apology (or lack thereof) and shove it
Where else on planet Earth does the person wronged have to beg and plead with the wrongdoer for a genuine apology? In the case of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it was the blond-haired, blue-eyed Dane who was the “barbarian,” and it was the dark-skinned, dark-eyed African who was the victim. Furthermore, for the record, Danes never officially said “thank you” to their enslaved population for 177 years (1671-1848) of free labor either. Should Virgin Islanders also beg and plead for a “thank you”? Maybe Danish people should read the recently released book, Manly Manners: Lifestyle & Modern Etiquette for the Young Man of the 21st Century
On March 26, 2017, the “Moravian Church in Denmark and several citizens of Denmark” issued an official apology to the people of the Virgin Islands for slavery in the Danish West Indies: “Together with several citizens of Denmark, we declare to be deeply troubled about a deeply regrettable past, in which the forefathers of the population of the US Virgin Islands were enslaved and against their will were forced to labor for masters, many of whom came from Denmark. For this, although belated, we apologize in the spirit of love
The declaration then goes further to “ask with respect and humbleness” that the people of the Virgin Islands receive the declaration with the spirit in which it was conveyed: “with openness, love and a will to live in peace and harmony together.”
It is not surprising that the Moravians in Denmark would be the first Danes to issue an official apology -- even if 169 years overdue -- to the people of the Virgin Islands. After all, it was only the Moravians who, when baptizing the enslaved population into the faith, were conscious enough to document the African origins and African names of the converted as declared by the Africans. And it was the Moravians who, from as early as the 1730s in compliance with the doctrine of “Pietism,” began teaching the enslaved population to read the Holy Bible
so as to find their individual paths to God.
And in 1787, when the Danish government decided to establish public schools for the enslaved in the towns of Christiansted, Frederiksted, and Charlotte Amalie, thereby becoming the first nation in the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to provide public education to its enslaved population, it was the Moravians who were called upon by the government to serve as teachers.
(It should be noted, however, that the present-day Moravian congregation in all of Denmark numbers a mere 300 persons -- fewer than the Moravian population of the town of Frederiksted, St Croix, and represents 0.00534% of the Danish population. And as of the time of this writing, only 72 Danes have signed the declaration. But as Virgin Islanders say, “one-one guava full up basket…,” meaning, every little bit counts
Perhaps the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark (also called the “National Church” or “Church of Denmark”), with its membership of 4,368,971 and of which the reigning monarch of Denmark, Her Royal Highness Queen Margrethe II, is the supreme secular authority, will follow the Christian example set by the Moravians in Denmark and issue an official apology, thereby speaking on behalf of 75.9% of the Danish people. And then once the Denmark’s churches have issued their apologies, perhaps politicians will follow suit.
A museum display of Danish West indies colonial antiques, presently on display at the Fort Frederik Museum on St Croix. (Private collection of Wayne James)
The people of the Virgin Islands, despite the atrocities of slavery visited upon their ancestors -- the reverberations of those atrocities still ever-present today -- have unwaveringly maintained warm, loving relations towards Danes and Danish West Indies heritage.
Danish surnames -- worn by black faces -- populate the islands’ telephone directory; Danish West Indies architecture and Danish street names still serve as undeniable evidence of the Danish presence in the islands; Danish West Indies antique furnishings decorate the island’s finest homes and are so cherished that they are oftentimes listed in last wills and testaments; Danish-inspired food partly comprises what is defined as traditional Virgin Islands cuisine; and if, in a raging tempest, a Virgin Islander must offer assistance to a Dane and an American, the average islander is more likely to offer his assistance first to the Dane.
Perhaps the aforementioned is further evidence of the legacy of slavery; or perhaps the islanders’ enduring affinity for Denmark is not at all towards Denmark, but is instead an effort to bind themselves to their ancestral past; or maybe it is a testament to the inherent dignity of the people of the Virgin Islands. It is possibly a combination of all.
But one thing is for certain: What has evolved over the years as Danish-Virgin Islands relations could serve as a 21st-century model for race relations and international diplomacy -- a lesson that could inspire all of humanity.
And another certainty is this: If Virgin Islanders and Danes could have remained amicable despite their shared past, then there is no telling what they could achieve together if at the foundation of their future relationship is the resolution of the “unfinished business” between them -- reparations and apology.