The website ‘The West Indian Heritage’ tells its story using the buildings as a framework for understanding the structure, function and people of the colony who were either forced to risk their lives producing the coveted goods or benefited from the profits on the goods throughout the first 150 years of the colony’s history.
The period in question ends with the start of the Napoleonic wars and thus does not deal with the emancipation of the slaves, the revolt of the rural workers, the subsequent conditions of sugar production or the sale of the islands to the USA. The early history of the colony is put into perspective by contemporary documentation of sites, buildings and people from the US Virgin Islands.
We focus on the first 150 years, when the colony was established to produce luxury goods for Denmark and the European market. The colony was built with forts, plantations, sugar factories, villages for the enslaved Africans and towns for the European bourgeoisie. The tiny island community grew from 1672 until c. 1820 and became a veritable goldmine for the Danes in the colony and in Denmark, but also for settlers from other European countries and their Caribbean colonies.
It was primarily the Royal family, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie who invested in and created this ‘sugar adventure’ which may well have made vast fortunes for a few and led to bankruptcy for others; but quite certainly led to a life of forced labour for the hundreds of thousands of people who were torn from their homes in Africa and exploited as unpaid labour in the colony’s cotton and sugar plantations. Denmark thus played its part in the global exploitation of the population of Africa as well as the ‘New World’ – America – along with many other countries like Germany, England, Holland, Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal.
However, the Africans brought their culture and ideas with them from their home countries in Africa. Although the Europeans sought to justify slavery with theories about the black man’s racial status, they were unable to wipe out the Africans’ cultural identity and religions. The relationship between the European religious institutions and the beliefs of the enslaved Africans therefore became an important part of the colony’s history right from its inception.
A ‘monument’ is a reminder, and the word is normally used of buildings that have special historic and ethical importance. This website deals with two kinds of monuments – architecture and people. Our claim is that the people of the West Indies are themselves a monument, since by and large they are descendants of the Afro-Caribbeans who were the founders of the colony and the creators of its structure. Despite the inhuman conditions and the legacy they have been forced to bear, the Afro-Caribbeans have managed, stubbornly and hopefully, to build a small community.
Today the West Indian heritage thus consists of the islands’ buildings from the colonial era and the people whose identities and family have roots in colonial slavery. These buildings and people are the living testimony to the historical period one experiences when visiting the islands. The website and the underlying research were done to help spread knowledge of the architecture, landscapes and cities, but also of the people who built the colony. If the concrete and tangible heritage is to be preserved for posterity, it is important both to understand it and to love it. If you wonder how one can love monuments to oppression, well, of course the story somehow requires ‘re-writing’ in the form of a new framework of understanding. We have chosen to foreground the Afro-Caribbeans who built the monuments and created the landscapes, for it is their descendants who bear the heritage and its preservation – if it is to be preserved. For Danes it is important to understand how and why the colony and its values were created. It was because of the colonies that Denmark took an economic leap forward in a globalized world.
Most of the population of the islands today are descendants of Africans brought by the Europeans to the Caribbean. They are now US citizens, after Denmark sold both the islands and their population of Danish citizens124 years after the slave trade was banned. The former Danish West Indies is now called the Virgin Islands and is a territory with partial autonomy under the United States. From the founding of the colony until 1917 the inhabitants of the islands were Danes, so public awareness of their identity and history is inextricably linked to Denmark. That is probably why many Danes experience an unusual courtesy when they visit the US Virgin Islands.
Archives and image ethics
Danish activities in the Caribbean are very well documented by maps, pictures and documents in the extensive archival collections, and the website uses only documents, archive records, primary sources and illustrations from the Danish West Indies and Denmark. On several occasions Danish architects have surveyed, drawn and registered towns and buildings that are characteristic of the West Indian architecture. The main source is the 1961 survey by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, School of architecture, “Program of West Indian Studies of buildings on St. Thomas and St. Croix”, edited by Thorkell Dahl and Kjeld de Fine Licht and published by Kunstakademiets Arkitektskoles Forlag in 2004. There is thus a well documented basis for disseminating knowledge of these built structures.
It is a more complex matter to describe the human beings behind the physical environment. The personal lives of the Danes and Europeans are richly documented, but their relationships with the Afro-Caribbeans are only described in a few cases. This anonymity stands in stark contrast to the fact that the West Indians literally created a substantial part of Danish wealth throughout the 250 years of our shared destiny. As the West Indians are of special historical and ethical importance to Denmark’s development, we see the Caribbean people as a living monument and we hope the website will help to raise people of Afro-Caribbean origin out of this anonymity by associating them with places and buildings that still exist, telling a small story about some individuals to the readers of the greater story of the founding of the colony.
There are unfortunately hardly any pictures of the people this story is about. If there are pictures of Afro-Caribbeans or slaves, they are nameless, anonymous symbols or merely
The period can be compared to the English, Dutch and French colonial history of the Caribbean region and we could justifiably select contemporary artwork from these colonies. But we have chosen not to do so.
In the Danish archives there is hardly any visual evidence of slavery, the hardest labour, punishment and humiliation. ‘Out of sight – out of mind’ is a common saying in Denmark and elsewhere, and it is true in so far as we have no visual representations of the atrocities. There are details, however, in the written records. We have chosen to let Danish sources speak for themselves, using modern documentary photographs to reflect the mood that the stories and sites still evoke.
The illustrations have been made available by the following Danish archives and museums:
Trade and Maritime Museum (HS)
School of Architecture (KA)
National Archives (RA)
The Royal Danish Collections (DKK)
Statens Museum for Kunst/National Gallery of Denmark (SMK)
Postal and Telecommunications Museum (PTT)
The Royal Library (KB)
Map and Cadastre (KMS)
Flensburger Schiffarts Museum (FSM)