The demise of the islands’ first residents, the Indians, was evident when the first Europeans after Columbus arrived in the late 1500s. Many countries expressed interest in the islands in the 1600s, including Holland, France, England, Spain, Denmark, & the Knights of Malta. But it was the Danes who established the first settlement on St. Thomas in 1672, expanding to St. John in 1694. St. Croix was added to the Danish West India Company in 1733, & plantations soon sprung up all over the islands.
A treaty with the Dutch of Brandenburg in 1685 established St. Thomas as a slave-trading post. More than 200,000 slaves, primarily from Africa’s west coast, were forcibly shipped to the islands for the backbreaking work of harvesting cane, cotton, & indigo. St. John & St. Croix maintained a plantation economy, while St. Thomas developed as a trade center. Stripped of their dignity & freedom & fed up with the harsh conditions, in 1733 slaves attacked St. John’s Fort Frederiksvaern in Coral Bay, crippling operations for 6 months. In 1792 Denmark announced the cessation of the trade in humans. Freedom was not granted to slaves until 1848, when Moses “Buddhoe” Gottlieb led a revolution on St. Croix, 17 years before emancipation in the United States.
After the freeing of slaves & the discovery of the sugar beet, agriculture in the islands declined. The industrial revolution ended the need for the islands as a shipping port, thus changing the economic environment. Little was heard of the islands until World War I, when the United States realized their strategic position & negotiated the purchase of the islands from Denmark for $25 million in gold. Although the islands were purchased in 1917, it wasn’t until 1927 that citizenship was granted to Virgin Islanders. The Organic Act of 1936 allowed for the creation of a senate, & from there the political process evolved.
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