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U.S. Virgin Islands, United States resort colony, bought for $25 million; 2nd in a 21st Century American Colonies series

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Christopher Columbus claimed the Virgin Islands for Spain in November 1493 when he landed on St. Croix where the Salt River joins the sea.  Despite a heroic fight against the Spanish by the indigenous Tainoes the island fell under loose Spanish colonial rule.  English and Dutch claims were soon made and battling over the island ensued.  Briefly, the Knights of Malta controlled the island.  Finally, in 1674, the French took control of St. Croix.


Danish traders, looking for a port, settled on the island of St. Thomas in 1666 but were unable to maintain the settlement.  Five years later the Royal Chartered Danish West India and Guinea Company was founded and a fort was built.  Charlotte Amalie was named for the Queen of Denmark. 


Slaves were imported to work the newly established plantations.  The first census in 1688 listed 338 free inhabitants and 392 slaves.  Slavery continued to populate St. Thomas until by 1725 slaves outnumbered the rest of the population by over ten to one.  In 1733, a slave rebellion on St. John left the slaves in charge of the island for a year until French troops retook control.  That same year the France sold St. Croix to Denmark.


The trading company was eventually dissolved and the Danish monarchy took direct control over the archipelago.  Denmark's neutrality during the various European wars allowed the island colonial rulers to prosper.  However, brief English control in the early 1800's helped fuel a growing debate over slavery.  Finally, on the verge of another slave revolt, the King of Denmark abolished slavery in 1848 in what was now called the Danish West Indies.

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Hurricanes, the decline of the plantation system, disease, and world events which influenced trade left the islands in economic stagnation for the next half-century.  The American Civil War triggered interest in the islands as Union ships sought safe ports and a proposed treaty in 1867 almost led to U.S. purchase for $7.5 million.


Hard times continued for the island group and the completion of the Panama Canal virtually ended shipping traffic.  The outbreak of World War I generated fear in America that Germany would establish a naval base and negotiations began to buy the islands from Denmark.  On March 31, 1917, the Danish West Indies became the U.S. Virgin Islands for $25 million.


The new American colony continued to suffer economic hard times while under U.S. military rule by the Navy until 1931.  A civilian administration, appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress, was unable to stem the hardships exacerbated by  the Great Depression and our Caribbean colony continued to suffer.  U.S. citizenship was granted in 1927, followed by limited local voting rights in 1936.  But the right to vote for President or have a representative in Congress continues to be denied residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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The original inhabitants of the Virgin Islands were almost all killed off by the various invaders.  The harsh European colonial rulers introduced slavery on a massive scale and the residents of the islands today only enjoy limited U.S. citizenship in America's resort colony.

 21st Century American Colonies is a series of articles that explore the acquisition, control and status of modern-day colonies of the United States.  Although the colonies are now called "unincorporated territories", the second-class nature of U.S. citizenship of residents of the territories continues to define the colonial status.  Permission granted to reprint.


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Michael Richardson is a freelance writer based in Boston. Richardson writes about politics, law, nutrition, ethics, and music. Richardson is also a political consultant.

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