CHARLOTTE AMALIE – When it comes to buying a slice of paradise, Sir Richard Branson might be the most prominent name you can think of today, having purchased Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. But the Virgin Group founder was certainly not the first, because 99 years ago today (August 4), the United States bought a whole parcel of islands in the Caribbean archipelago from Denmark, but for very different reasons.
The Danes had settled the two big islands west of Puerto Rico, Saint Thomas and Saint John, by the 1710s, and bought the larger island to the south, Saint Croix, from France in 1733.
For the rest of the century, the islands flourished by growing tobacco, indigo, cotton, ginger, and, of course, sugar cane, with Saint Croix becoming the sixth most productive sugar island in the Caribbean. In Saint Thomas, Denmark gained a trading post in the Americas, which also, sadly, became a focal point for the slave trade.
But as the decades wore on, the economy declined. Slavery was eventually swept away, and sugar could be grown more cheaply elsewhere, including in Europe, where sugar beet was now produced. By the middle of the 19th century, the Danish Virgin Islands had started to weigh on the exchequer in Copenhagen.
Yet, despite inquiries made by the Americans, Denmark decided to hang on to their islands until 1867, when Denmark accepted an offer from Secretary of State William Seward for $7m. But due to domestic politics back in Washington, the deal fell through.
The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 gave the United States another reason to want to get their hands on the islands, believing they would be better able to protect the canal’s approaches. The eruption of the First World War that year made the matter all the more urgent. Washington feared that if Germany invaded Denmark, then the islands would become a base for German submarines in the Caribbean.
This gave the Americans all the leverage they needed. If Denmark wouldn’t sell the islands, they would simply take them. Preferring the first option, the Danes agreed to a price of $25 million, the equivalent of just over half a billion dollars in today’s money.
Secretary of State Robert Lansing and the Danish minister to the United States, Constantin Brun, signed the transfer on August 4, 1916 in New York. The following year, on March 31, the United States took formal possession of the islands.