The Forts in the former Danish Westindies

Forts were the most important buildings for the organization of the colony. 
The Danes had several forts in the Danish West Indies – Fort Christian on St. Thomas (1680), Fortsberg and Christians Fort on St. John (1720), Fort Christiansværn in Christiansted (1743) and Fort Frederik in Frederiksted (1760), both on St. Croix. There were also several fortified bastions, watchtowers with cannons and outposts on the outermost rocks as part of the fortifications of the three islands.

It was the Danish King Christian V who granted the Danish West India and Guinea Company permission to establish the colonies under the Danish flag. The King put money into the company and the fort was named after him. He also granted the Company rights to do the things they did. The bourgeoisie and nobles put in the big money investments and risked their ships and men. From 1670 until 1755 the West India and Guinea Company ruled the colony under the Danish flag. From 1755 the King and the Danish-Norwegian United Monarchy took over. From 1849 until 1917 the sovereignty was held by the Danish nation and state.

Forts were also built on the west coast of Africa, where the captured Africans were kept before boarding the slave ships to the West Indies. From 1685 until 1715 the Brandenburg African Company had the right to operate the slave trade from St. Thomas because the Danish West India and Guinea Company was not making a profit. From around 1700 the Danish company began to make a profit, paying a dividend of 12% to shareholders in 1714. The Brandenburg Company’s contract was therefore not renewed.
Apart from the forts, the slave station in Christiansted is the most important building associated with the organization of the colony. It is still there, representing the early period of colonial history.

The slave station was part of Fort Christiansværn, but in P.L. Oxholm’s drawings it stands separately from the fort with a thoroughfare into Christiansted. The oldest parts of the slave station are contemporary with the fort. The slaves were held there and later sold at auction. After emancipation, the building became the post office. Today it is owned by the National Park Service.
As the sugar boom grew, weigh-stations and customs houses were built. The colony’s government building in Christiansted is one of the most important monuments there. In 1750 the Company factor, Johan Wilhelm Schopen, bought a large plot of land in Kongensgade, where he built a magnificent house in the Baroque style. This was his private town dwelling and its generous proportions and rich detail demonstrated his skill as an architect and builder. After Schopen’s death the property was purchased by the local government and refurbished as Government House.

(See section on Christiansted – Town)

The architecture of the forts

A fort signalled clearly to other colonists that the island had already been taken and showed smugglers and pirates that the island had a judge and armaments of cannon and other guns to enforce the law. There were prisons and torture chambers, churches and infermeries. The Governor and magistrates were housed together with armed soldiers. Inside the colony the forts were also important symbols of the power that deterred disobedient or rebellious slaves.

The architecture of these forts is European. Based on geometrical shapes such as the circle, the square and the triangle; the fort was built as a deterrent. It had to appear large and impregnable – the bigger the better. In 1676 Fort Christian withstood an attack by French ships from St. Croix, but compared with contemporary European military structures the buildings were already outdated in architectural and military respects when they were built. By Danish standards Fort Christian was large and met the requirements of the colonization. In comparison with the forts on Puerto Rico, which were much more formidable, the forts reflect the fact that the Spanish colony was many times more powerful than the Danish one.

Functionality is the dominant trait of the fortress. A fort needs bastions for guns, a powder room that is dry and dark, a cistern to collect water and a secure prison. It is equally important that the fort is pleasing in form and is decorated with beautiful stairs, portals and inner courtyards; including exquisite, cool reception rooms overlooking the sea. The fort thus epitomized architectural skills, functionality and pride in craftsmanship. It also had to have an aesthetic design that reflected the status of the building as the domain of the absolute monarch’s representative, the Governor. As such, the building should be perceived as a local palace.

Formerly the forts were whitewashed. Today Fort Christian and Fort Frederick are painted red. Hurricanes and the hot sun are hard on masonry, so the large buildings required constant repairs and regular maintenance.
Fort Christian was rebuilt in 1874 and a neo-Gothic tower was added on the landward side of the building. At the same time the fort lost its military significance and became a police station – it was also given the present red colour. Fort Christiansværn and Fort Frederik on St. Croix were both painted the same dark red colour which is based on iron oxide and is unfortunately an inadequate material in the tropical sun. The colour fades and the walls become dull orange. One can always see the repairs, as it is impossible to recreate the exact colour. The white limewash was much better, but the red paint symbolized the power of the forts and the justice system of the community.