Today Denmark is rarely associated with a colonial empire. Yet, as Deakin historian Klaus Neumann shows, its colonial past has significant reverberations in the present. That’s particularly obvious 100 years from the day when Denmark relinquished control over its colony in the Caribbean.
‘Denmark’s Unfinished Business’
31 March 2017
Today marks the centenary of Transfer Day, the transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States. On 31 March 1917, the Dansk Vestindien – St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas and a few smaller islands – became the United States Virgin Islands, an unincorporated US territory.
Denmark had long tried to divest itself of its colony in the northeastern Caribbean. It was no longer profitable, and when the United States offered to buy it for US$25 million in gold coins, Denmark agreed. For the United States, about the enter the First World War, the islands were strategically important; it feared the Germans could seize them to establish a submarine base on America’s doorstep.
The islands had become a Danish colony in 1754, several decades after the Danish West India Company had taken control of Saint John and Saint Thomas and purchased Saint Croix from the French West Indies Company. The Caribbean islands became Denmark’s third non-European colonial possession, after Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) in South India, and a colony on the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana) in West Africa.
Image: Last Danish Parade at Saint Croix, 31 March 1917
Most of today’s just over 100,000 inhabitants of the American Virgin Islands are of Afro Caribbean ancestry. They are descended from slaves brought to the Danish West Indies from West Africa to work on the sugar plantations. The importation of slaves continued until 1802, and slavery was abolished only in 1848. Thanks to the digitisation of archival records (an initiative of the Rigsarkivet to mark the transfer’s centenary), Danes and Virgin Islanders now have the opportunity to learn in detail about their shared history.
Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen will be the most prominent guest at today’s centenary commemoration. There has been some speculation about what he’ll say in his speech. Both in Denmark and in the US Virgin Islands, some people have been hoping that he would issue an apology for Denmark’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and acknowledge that the economy of the Danish West Indies was based on slave labour.
Such an apology seems now very unlikely. A speaker of Rasmussen’s ruling centre-right Venstre party has rejected demands for redress. On that issue, Venstre has the support of both the Social Democrats and the right-wing populist Dansk Folkeparti (or Danish People’s Party).
The Folkeparti’s foreign affairs spokesperson Søren Espersen endorsed a statement made almost twenty years ago by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nils Helveg Petersen, in response to demands for an apology made by, of all people, leading Folkeparti politician Peter Skaarup, who is the party’s current parliamentary leader. In 1998 Petersen, who belonged to the centre-left Radikale Venstre party, said:
It makes no sense that people who were not even born at the time of the events, apologise to people who weren’t born at the time either.
Governments in Africa and in the Caribbean have been demanding apologies for slavery for many years, but the leaders of nations that were once responsible for slavery have been reluctant to comply. In 2006 Tony Blair stopped short of issuing a formal apology when he expressed his “deep sorrow” over the “profoundly shameful” slave trade and commented: “It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time.”
Blair’s reluctance to use unequivocal language can be put down to fears that an apology would pave the way for successful reparation claims. When the United States Senate formally apologised for slavery and Jim Crow laws in 2009, it did so with a disclaimer saying “Nothing in this resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States”.
When rejecting demands for a formal apology for the slave trade and slavery in the Danish West Indies, Danish political leaders don’t point to the possible financial repercussions of an apology, but instead refer to the time that has lapsed since the injustices occurred. They thereby echo arguments put forward in other contexts in which descendants of victims and survivors demanded an apology for injustices that took place decades or even centuries ago.
In Australia, for example, John Howard defended his decision not to apologise for the removal of Aboriginal children from their families by saying:
I do not believe, as a matter of principle, that one generation can accept responsibility for the acts of an earlier generation.
Similarly, when German president Roman Herzog visited Namibia in 1998, he refused to apologise for the 1904-07 Herero genocide by claiming that it had happened too long ago and that the laws according to which Germany would be responsible for reparations, were not yet in place at the time. However, that case also suggests that the passage of time may not be a sufficient obstacle to redress for historic wrongs, for more recently Germany has entered negotiations for a formal apology and other reparations for crimes against humanity that happened in the early twentieth century.
In the Danish case, the claim that current generations cannot be responsible for the crimes of their forebears, comes with a particular twist. Danish historian Astrid Nonbo Andersen calls it the “Viking argument”. Those opposed to redress for the Danish role in the slave trade and for slavery in the Danish West Indies regularly refer to the notorious cruelty of Viking raiders. For example, in 1998 the Danish conservative daily Berlingske Tidende wrote in an editorial:
The Vikings did not always act like peaceful compatriots and even the citizens of Denmark risked slave work and other humiliations that would make today’s welfare state Danes cringe. Of course you cannot start apologising left, right and centre for atrocities ancestors have committed.
Similarly, this week Venstre politician Jakob Ellemann-Jensen said that the discussion about an apology was odd; after all, Denmark would not think of apologising to France for the Viking raids.
The Vikings are relevant to this story for another reason. While Denmark sold its last non-European colony one hundred years ago, it kept its European colonial possessions: Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Iceland became fully independent in 1948. The Faroe Islands voted in a 1946 referendum in favour of independence, but were only granted home rule. Greenland has been a self-governing territory since 2009.
Greenlanders too have found the government in Copenhagen to be reluctant to contemplate redressing past wrongs. Four years ago, the Danish government declined an invitation to take part in Saammaateqatigiinnissamut Isumalioqatigiissitaq, Greenland’s reconciliation commission, which is tasked with investigating how the colonial past impinges on the present.
While Danes readily admit that the Dansk Vestindien were once a Danish colony, and some of the 10,000 or so Danish tourists that visit American Virgin Islands every year do so to indulge in colonial nostalgia, many Danes are less ready to acknowledge the extent of their country’s colonial history in the North Atlantic. “In the Danish imaginary”, Danish cultural studies scholar Lars Jensen observed, that part of the world ”was perceived as a national extension through the orchestration of Viking lore”. The Vikings had, of course, about as much to do with the colonisation of Greenland as the Pirates of the Caribbean cast with the plantation economy in the eighteenth-century Antilles.
Greenlanders will watch with interest what the Danish prime minister says when he attends the Transfer Day commemorations in St. Croix and St. Thomas later today. However, Greenlanders and Virgin Islanders should know that they have history on their side. Elsewhere, including in Australia, historic wrongs that were thought to have faded from public memory, became live issues again. While Rasmussen may not issue formal apologies relating to Danish colonial injustices, either on St. Thomas or in Nuuk, one of his successors eventually will.
Klaus Neumann is Professor of History at Deakin University. He writes about issues of historical justice, and is the editor, together with Janna Thompson, of Historical Justice and Memory (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015).