Home Commentary Op-ed 2017 Will Be Our Centenary of the Transfer: Where Are We Going?

2017 Will Be Our Centenary of the Transfer: Where Are We Going?

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April 4, 2008 – During the waning years of the 1890s, my paternal great-grand parents were eye witnesses to a fundamental reformulation of the world they knew it. They were not intellectuals but like everyone else who lived in that era they saw major changes in the world, the Caribbean basin, and of course their home – the Danish West Indies.
Since they lived on St. John and St. Croix, they lived through the end of the hated Labor Codes. These laws continued a coercive labor system or a form of servitude for three decades; they were abolished in 1878 after the massive uprising on St. Croix that we call the “Firebun” My great grand parents were not plantation workers or even the most oppressed working people. However, during this post-Firebun period, they had to pull up their shirt/blouse sleeves and work hard to put bread on their tables.
During the 1890s, a tectonic shift in world politics had begun: former great powers were the “sick men” of European politics i.e. Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire, and the Spanish Empire and new great powers were in ascension Germany, Japan, and the United States. The Danish kingdom was confronting nationalists within Iceland who wanted power and German expansionists across its borders who looked closely at the Danes for additional territory. My ancestors and many Virgin Islanders whose family roots are nourished in the Danish West Indies era knew that distant political decisions weighed heavily on whether the Danish West Indies would remain a European colonial outpost or a U.S. colony. Our ancestors were very conscious of the importance of a transfer of sovereignty from Denmark to the United States.
Their children, my paternal grand parents, left the newly renamed U.S. Virgin Islands just after the transfer due to the abject poverty of the territory and their profound believe that the new colonial power would at least offer a much better standard of living within the most developed metropolitan area – New York City. In 1920, they were optimistic, and they sailed on steam ships to the north. Be they Americans or not, these Virgin Islanders saw the same unforgettable landmarks that millions of immigrants from around the world have seen – Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. In the beginning, U.S .citizenship was not necessarily an automatic right but racism and social discrimination were facts of life. This period of ambivalence was resolved with a valiant struggle for full citizenship rights within the mainland and in the U.S. Virgin Islands by Virgin Islanders who lived on the mainland and in the territory.
My family’s memories of the pre-transfer days are inspiring but not without pain. From the perspective of African Virgin Islanders, the Danish West Indies era resembles the rest of the Caribbean basin with its experiences of chattel slavery, colonialism, and underdevelopment. I do not look back at the Danish era with nostalgia nor do I expend too much energy dwelling on the pain of the past. As Edward Wilmot Blyden once said, “some things we have to simply forget.” We will have to purge the reactionary traits and tendencies of the Danish era, and create a new Virgin Islands personality and character today.
From 1878 until fairly recently – 1960, our people were leaving these islands in droves. Within the Caribbean Basin, Danish West Indians/Virgin Islanders went to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Panama, and of course, neighboring islands such as the British Virgin Islands. So great was the immigration to the Dominican Republic that many residents of San Pedro de Macoris, La Romana, and Puerto Plata have Virgin Islands heritage. More than a handful of the so called “illegal Santos” who some of us discriminate against are actually “cousin family.” Ironically, the movement to the Dominican Republic was made possible by contradictory policies of Dominican President Ulises Heureaux who was of partial Danish West Indian heritage.
As the plantation economy of the Danish West Indies declined in the 1880s, President Heureaux granted favorable investment packages to American companies to establish sugarcane plantations in the country. Since many Danish West Indians spoke English and were hard working like other Anglophone Caribbean plantation workers, they sought jobs wherever they existed. Thus, many went where there was employment.
Yet, an even larger group of Danish West Indians had their sights on the United States. Much earlier a trickle of outstanding sons and daughters of the soil had immigrated north. Do you recall Denmark Vesey, William Alexander Leidesdorff, and Edward Wilmoth Blyden? Before and especially after the Transfer, Virgin Islanders were sailing to New York City by the thousands. In fact by 1935, there were approximately 8,000 Virgin Islanders in New York City! During the 1920s-1940s, our people who were once the benignly neglected of Copenhagen, had become some of the most divinely inspired to produce great personalities at home in the islands and abroad. Again, I refresh your memory of the famous ones who lived abroad. Do you recall Casper Holstein, Hubert Harrison, Arturo Schomburg, Ashley Totten, Elizabeth Hendrickson, Frank Crosswaith, and Austin Hansen?
A pillar of the contemporary Virgin Islands society is the antecedent Danish West Indian society. It laid a foundation that the current culture rests on. Similar to the logic of Jose Luis Gonzalez, who defined Puerto Rican society as a four story house, we can view the U.S. Virgin Islands society as also being a four-story house. The lower two stories are:
1 – The initial mixed society that emerged during slavery but here the West African majority population was dominant with heavily influences by Western European culture and society (1671-1848). Some scholars call this “Danish creole society.”
2 – The reformulated traditional Caribbean society (1849-1916). In the Virgin Islands context, this period allowed the entrance of “new” ethnic groups such as the French Caribbean people on St. Thomas, and sizeable Eastern Caribbean workers on St. Croix.
These two stories form the social base of the early U.S. Virgin Islands (1917-1959). As my grandparents were heading north, other Caribbean people were heading to the Virgin Islands. As is true today, while many Virgin Islanders left, many more new residents have moved here. This in-migration picked up tempo in the 1960s and the Virgin Islands have become a very different society than the one my fore parents lived in. This territory is struggling to come to terms with its identity. Within a decade, the centenary of the Transfer will take place – 2017 – many of us will be great-grandparents and grandparents. We too will be eyewitnesses of major changes in the world, Caribbean basin and territory. The United States is now in decline, the Chinese are in ascension, and entire world is a global village. In the territory, we have a new set of societal dynamics. What new story will we add to our multi-story house that we call our home, the Virgin Islands?
Editor’s note: Dr. Malík Sékou is dean of Division of Humanities and Social Sciences and Associate Professor of Political Science-History, University of the Virgin Islands. He was born and raised on St. Thomas.

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