The Danish Struggle to Colonize St. John

(By Leif Calundann Larson, summarized by Jan Frey)

Leif Calundann Larsen, author of the 1986 book The Danish Colonization of St. John, 1718 –1733, was the featured speaker at our February meeting at the Bethany Moravian Church. He outlined for the group the early history of the West Indies and Danish efforts in the late 1600s, and early 1700s, to establish a presence on St. Thomas and St. John. He also told of the very real possibility of St. John ultimately falling under either Spanish or English rule. Following is a summary of these struggles as related by Mr. Larsen.

Pope Alexander VI gave sovereignty of all America to Spain, and the 1494 Tordesillas Treaty deeded the West Indies to Spain. However, the reality of the situation was that as other European powers appeared in the Caribbean by the early 1600s, Spain reluctantly accepted their presence, primarily because it was not in any position to stop them. That is not to say that relationships in the West Indies in this period were harmonious, they were not.

Denmark was the last colonial power to establish itself in the West Indies in the late 1600s and was challenged by both the English and the Spanish. However, when the Danish King protested to His British Majesty, he responded by dismissing the governor of the Leeward Islands and replacing him with William Stapleton, with the instructions to extend friendship to the Danish colonists on St. Thomas. Nevertheless, the first attempt by the Danish to settle St. John in 1675 was rejected by the British. This began the initial struggle for St. John, a struggle that would last for almost four decades.

In the 1680s, there was trouble between England and Denmark caused by Danish rule of St. Thomas under the regimes of the Esmit brothers and Gabriel Milan, the former of which openly traded with pirates… something that the British were trying to stop. There was also trouble over Crab Island (Vieques), which both countries claimed. The Danes established a military post there, but soon gave it up after a Scottish expedition landed. Despite strong foreign protest, Denmark maintained her claims on both St. John and Crab Island.

In 1715, the Danish Governor Mikhel Crone informed Copenhagen that he was going to inspect St. John (and Crab Island) before he retired, because soil condition on St. Thomas were deteriorating due to nutrient depletion, and the planters were looking for alternative planting grounds. Also, a drought increased the cost of provisions, and the cane failed and had to be replanted. The Danish Company, however, did not address the issue. The next year a new governor, Governor Bredal reported that many planters from St. Thomas wanted to move to St. John, but feared British reprisals.

In 1717, the British Governor Hamilton arrived on St. Thomas on a man-of-war during a tour of all of the Virgin Islands. He warned the Danes that he would not tolerate their cutting of timber on St. John. Unaware of this tour, the Danish company, after remaining silent for two years, ordered Governor Bredal to colonize St. John. It is felt that the Danes were compelled to act because they had learned that the British had themselves inspected both St. John and Crab Island in the spring of 1716, and the Danes feared that they would soon settle both. Bredel and company failed to take any action in 1717 because of the fear of the English threat related to the cutting of timber, and the fact that the British had indeed occupied Crab Island beginning in September of 1717.

1718 was a critical year for the Danish government to regain control of St. John. In the spring, Governor Hamilton was being pressured by planters from Anguilla, Tortola and Spanish Town to get permission to settle St. Croix, since they too were experiencing the worst drought in memory. Fortunately, St. John was described as a “small barren mountainous island” by these planters. Therefore, the British gave the island a low priority, even though they knew an occupation of St. Croix might cause trouble with the French.

At the same time, and while the Spanish had accepted the Danes on St. Thomas, their relationship was not the most harmonious. The Danes were fishing and catching turtles off Puerto Rico, conducting illegal trade with Puerto Rico, and the Danish Governor Crone was himself illegally trading with the governor of Puerto Rico.

Clearly, the Danes’ relationship with its neighbors in the West Indies was strained. Nevertheless, with some reluctance, Governor Bredal, on behalf of Denmark, took possession of St. John on March 25, 1718. The British responded quickly by sending a man-of-war to St. Thomas, with a demand for the return of St. John, which Governor Bredal rejected. The British Governor was ordered to “obstruct and hinder the Danes from proceeding” but was restricted from using force, therefore no action was taken. London further rejected pleas to expel the Danes in 1722 and 1724, as it deemed St John not worth the conflict.

Interestingly, the English failed to take control of St. John due to the unwillingness of England to support the British colonist’s desires to do so; and, Spain failed to gain control of St. John due to its colonist’s refusal to take action, even after the Spanish Government had ordered them to proceed. Consequently, aside from two brief periods of British occupation during the early nineteenth century, St. John remained a Danish possession until it was purchased by the United States from Denmark in 1917.


Lief Larsen

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