Virgin Islands, Purchase of (1917)


Caribbean islands purchased from Denmark because of their strategic position en route to the Panama Canal.

The 1917 U.S. acquisition of the Danish part of the Virgin Islands archipelago (Danish West Indies) consisted of the islands of St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas, and some 50 smaller islets and cays, with a total area of 133 square miles and population of 26,000 inhabitants. The story of the purchase demonstrates a complex and multifaceted interplay between economic and budgetary concerns on the one hand and political and strategic considerations on the other.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Danish West Indies became a liability for Copenhagen, mainly because of the progressive decline of sugar plantations after the emancipation of local slaves and disappearance of cheap labor. Despite the evident economic nonprofitability of the colony, the United States became increasingly interested in acquiring the islands as a strategic asset guarding eastern approaches to the Isthmus of Panama and later to the Panama Canal. Additionally, the United States feared the potential annexation of the islands by foreign powers in the 1860s, first by Austria and Prussia and later by Germany. Such an annexation would constitute a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine and establish a foreign military presence in the excellent harbor of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, an ideal site for a naval base. The Danes could not defend the islands from such a threat.

The United States had tried several times to negotiate the purchase of the Danish West Indies. Between 1865 and 1867, Secretary of State William Seward conducted negotiations for the purchase of the islands with the Danish minister in Washington, and Seward agreed to buy the archipelago for $7.5 million. The two countries signed the treaty October 24, 1867. Later that year the Danish Parliament approved the treaty, which the king then ratified. In addition, island residents voted overwhelmingly to transfer the Danish West Indies to U.S. control. Coincidentally, in November 1867, the colony experienced a devastating earthquake, tidal wave, and tropical hurricane, which ravaged much of the local economy. These natural cataclysms reinforced the reluctance of Congress to approve the deal, and suspicions continued about Seward’s annexation schemes following the $7.2 million Alaska purchase, which was highly controversial. Additionally, the U.S. government remained financially preoccupied with the reconstruction of the South and development of the West. In November 1867 the House of Representatives rejected the Virgin Islands Treaty, and the Senate never voted on it.

In 1902, Secretary of State John Hay negotiated a new treaty with the Danes, only to have the agreement rejected by Copenhagen because of the compensation (only $5 million) pledged by the United States. During World War I the fear of German penetration into the Caribbean revived the idea of the purchase. In 1915 the American minister in Copenhagen, Maurice F. Egan, and the U.S. secretary of state arranged the final $25 million deal. Representatives signed the treaty August 4,1916, and Congress approved it January 17,1917. On March 31,1917, the United States officially took possession of the islands and renamed them the Virgin Islands of the United States. Although economically the islands remained unprofitable until the development of the tourist industry, their acquisition proved to be strategically sound, strengthening U.S. control over the Caribbean. Citizens of the U.S. Virgin Islands have U.S. citizenship and have a nonvoting representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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