Caribbean Connection, From the Bay to the Blue Ridge

“America’s Paradise” for One Hundred Years

By Jeff McCord

“America’s Paradise” for One Hundred Years

Down in the islands known as “America’s Paradise,” residents recently observed an important anniversary – one hundred years as part of the United States. On March 31, 1917 the Danish West Indies became the U.S. Virgin Islands following payment to Denmark of $25 million in gold coins. The anniversary is an opportunity to take stock.

To commemorate the “Transfer Day” centennial, the Prime Minister of Denmark and U.S. Secretary of the Interior visited the islands. Secretary Ryan Zinke was gracious: “Today is a testament to the Virgin Islanders whose commitment, vision, expertise, and sacrifice built these islands, enriched our shared history and contributed to our national security.”  Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen acknowledged the dark history of the slave-based sugar plantation days under Danish rule. He ended hopefully: “We can’t undo the past, but can improve the future.”

Aside from speeches, parades and a day off from school for kids, Virgin Islanders also welcomed the Danmark, a 252 foot fully rigged sailing vessel used to train Danish merchant marine cadets. With her three masts and majestic bowsprit, the Danmark brings to mind the age of sail and Caribbean adventures. During World War 11, the Danes sailed her to the U.S. for safekeeping and lent her to our Coast Guard to train our cadets for the duration of hostilities. She inspired the U.S. to buy the fully rigged sailing ship Eagle, following the war.

Despite the Virgin Islands’ rich history and international flavor, too few visitors from the continental U.S. look beyond the more obvious vacation attractions. Certainly, our tropic beaches and bays, singular restaurants, uncommon accommodations and duty-free shopping are enticing. Yet, the islands’ colorful West Indian arts and culture, Danish architecture and multiple U.S. national parks and monuments provide ample rewards for hikers, birders, history lovers and art connoisseurs.

These assets have helped propel substantial economic and social growth in the hundred years since the Danes departed. The population today is 105,000, about 40,000 less than Alexandria, VA. The first U.S. census in 1917 numbered only 26,000 inhabitants spread among the three principal islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. Even by the standards of the day, most lived in poverty. Consider the lives of the 959 residents of St. John as described in the 1917 census:

“With the exception of a few estate owners, the natives of the island of St. John live in small houses, in many instances little more than huts, and raise in small patches potatoes, yams, okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas and pumpkins. They add to their livelihood by fishing and by wages for occasional labor on neighboring estates.”

Although St. Thomas had one road, St. Johnians had none, relying upon horse and donkey trails. The largest industry was cattle raising and fragrant Bay Rum was the biggest export. But, a devastating hurricane in 1916 had killed many bay trees, stripped the leaves off the survivors and posed a serious threat to Bay Rum makers.

With a population of about 200 in 1917, Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas was the largest town in the Virgin Islands. It depended heavily upon its then faltering maritime industries of coaling, provisioning and repairing ships visiting its excellent harbor. Agriculture had been largely abandoned on St. Thomas and most food had to be imported from Puerto Rico and other islands. St. Croix, the largest and most populace Virgin Island, was in 1917 producing sugar, cotton and, of course, rum. Its future, though, was hampered by lack of a protected, deep water harbor and more efficient, mechanized competitors.

A century later, tourism is the Caribbean’s biggest industry. And, with the help of the U.S. government and farsighted Virgin Island and continental businessmen and leaders, the USVI has become a pace setter – particularly, in cruise ship visitation. Each year, about 3 million tourists visit the islands, spending more than a billion dollars.

It’s hardly surprising that the USVI economy does quite well when matched against comparable (in size) Caribbean destinations. With a $36,000 per capita gross domestic product, the USVI tops the list followed by Aruba (with $23,353), the Bahamas ($22,217) and Trinidad and Tobago ($21,323), according to Caribbean Journal magazine. At the bottom are Jamaica ($5,106), Belize ($4,831) and Haiti ($824).

For about 50 years Virgin Islanders have been a self-governing territory, electing their governor and legislature. They introduce, consider and enact laws – including local taxes and budgets – implemented and overseen by local government agencies and courts. Laws are enforced by Virgin Islands police and other security.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of the Interior, through its Office of Insular Affairs, coordinates U.S. policy in the islands. Federal grants and programs annually contribute $241 million (20 percent) of USVI revenue, according to the CIA World Factbook. U.S. District Courts, part of the third judicial circuit seated in Philadelphia, are located in St. Croix and St. Thomas. Federal police and regulatory agencies including the EPA, Coast Guard, Homeland Security and National Park Service have important operations in the USVI.

The area of the Virgin Islands is about twice the size of the District of Columbia, but with only one fifth the population. Like DC residents, Virgin Islanders elect one non-voting Member of Congress. Unlike DC residents, though, Virgin Islanders (like Puerto Rican residents) cannot vote for President.

Despite considerable social and economic progress, Virgin Islanders face challenges similar to many U.S. state and local governments. Government is the largest employer and chronic $100 million annual budget shortfalls have been covered through borrowing. The islands are today more heavily indebted (per capita) than neighboring Puerto Rico, according to Forbes magazine. The USVI delegate to Congress seeks more federal help, a vote in Congress and the right for islanders to vote for President.  Others seek assistance from Denmark and a few even ponder independence.

“Denmark is in our past; our future is with the United States,” a third generation island businessman and artist told me in a discussion about the centennial.

Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and, among other publications. For more than 20 years he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on   “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI.

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