Remembrance and Forgetting

Before they were called the U.S. Virgin Islands, the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John were Danish colonies. Denmark sold them to the U.S. in 1917, after having had possession of them for over 250 years. During their rule, the Danes, like other Europeans, decimated the populations of the Caribbean islands through war, disease and displacement. The Europeans found tropical paradises and turned them into plantations, churning out sugar cane and other crops on an industrial scale.

Like the other islands in the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands had become a part of the Triangular Trade route, that miserable period of human history when European countries sent trinkets, cloth, guns and alcohol to the west coast of Africa, to be traded for human beings, who were sent to the Caribbean to work as slaves, working in the fields to put sugar on European tables. The same trade route brought African people to the future United States, to raise sugar, cotton and tobacco.


The Danes were no better and no worse than any other slave masters. The Middle Passage was a crime against humanity, no matter who was in charge. About 120,000 people were brought over in Danish-flagged ships, and that only counts the ones who survived the journey. Once they arrived, the newly enslaved people were treated the same: separation from family and culture, the indignities and confusions of being sold in a market, back-breaking work in abysmal conditions, disease, beatings, every scrap of their humanity ripped away. It’s no wonder their average life span on the plantations was less than 10 years.

Denmark abolished the slave trade in 1792 and emancipated the enslaved people in 1848. They can take some credit for being the first country to abolish kidnapping people to work the plantations, but that’s a small comfort. The final driver for emancipation was a massive revolt on St. Croix. Out of desperation, the Governor General declared all the people emancipated. As in the U.S., emancipation didn’t end the problems, but created a free but desperately poor underclass, a problem that would continue in various forms to the present day.

This year in Copenhagen, Denmark’s Royal Library has an exhibition of the art and photography of the Virgin Islands, starting with the maps and etchings made by the first Europeans. These brought more colonists, who made watercolor paintings of idyllic landscapes, showing beaches covered in white sand, lined by tall mountains. In the 19th century, the first photographs show portraits of smug plantation masters surrounded by potted plants and exhausted servants.


All of this jarringly displaced by hundreds of black and white photographs, taken when the islands were sold to the U.S. and the first travelers arrived with cameras, few preconceptions, and no need to support the current structure of island society. They took pictures of everything they saw: pretty beach scenes, people living in shacks; white people in clean clothes, black people in rags.


I’d like to report that the effect was devastating and there was an immediate call for aide to the poverty-stricken people of the new territories, but the fact is that in 1917, there wasn’t a lot of difference between poor blacks in the Virgin Islands and poor blacks in rural parts of the mainland U.S. The fact is that those conditions continued for a depressingly long period of time.

More recently, cheap air fare has helped a rise of tourism that has brought money and some relief to the islands, but no more visibility to the plight of the poor. The imagery from the islands has returned to a high tech version of the idyllic watercolors of the 18th century, only now the beaches are lined with high rise hotels and covered with white people lying in the sun, served by the descendants of the people who were brought there years ago. The conditions of the people have greatly improved, but that brief period of honest imagery isn’t even a memory for most. According to the exhibit, Danish schools teach the stories of the white heroes who freed the slaves, with little mention of what went on before.

That ties in pretty well with the current state of the history discussion going on in the U.S., where our attention is on the images of Confederate generals on pedestals, but we try to cover up the living conditions of real people today. We deny the undercurrent of racism that has always plagued the U.S. – not just in the South, but everywhere; not just in rural conservatives, but people who call themselves urban liberals as well. We all bear a part of this history, and pointing fingers doesn’t even begin to solve problems. We only can only begin by looking at ourselves with honesty, and giving others – all others – the respect they deserve.

Remembrance and Forgetting

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