William Boyer: America's Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs (2Nd Edition)

Article excerpt

William Boyer

America's Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs (2nd edition)

Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2010, xxv + 481 pp.

William Boyer's book is rather ambitious and lengthy, spreading over 400 pages covering 14 themes on Virgin Islands history. The author divides the book into four sequential parts or sections that are accompanied by subthemes, and readers will find this organization very useful. The impressive sources include a number of dissertations rarely used before to analyze Virgin Islands history. However, the usage of Danish archival sources for the Danish period is virtually nonexistent. The reading of Danish language, especially Gothic Danish, has been a major challenge to many contemporary Virgin Islands researchers, and it is certainly the case with the author of this book.

Part 1 documents the Danish West Indian colonial history from the 1620s to 1917. The author shows how the arrival of Europeans brought about the decimation of the indigenous population through enslavement, introduction of new diseases, and constant warfare. However, before the Virgin Islands were colonized by North Europeans starting in the 1620s, there were only a few handful of natives on the islands. They were reduced by Spanish enslavement, raids from Puerto Rico and Cuba, and continuous intra-indigenous warfare. The Virgin Islands attracted the attention of the British, Dutch, French, Knights of Malta, and Danes, mainly for economic gains and religious freedom. By the late 17th century it was primarily Danes who were involved in the settlement and colonization of the islands. Unlike on other Caribbean islands, the Danes allowed other European countries to participate in the colonization of the Virgin Islands. The Danish Crown also allowed the Virgin Islands to be ruled by the Danish West India Company until 1754.

The colonization of the islands led to the arrival of more Europeans, but apparently they were not sufficiently numerous nor sufficiently interested to provide the agricultural labour for their economic pursuits. Without the availability of native labour, the European colonizers turned to Africa and brought slaves to work the plantations. An estimated 53,000 Africans were brought through the infamous African slave trade to the Danish West Indies (47). This influx of Africans not only transformed agriculture from small to large scale but also made Africans the numerical majority. However, they occupied the lowest stratum of Danish West Indian society and were forced to work under the most severe conditions. Not all Africans were subdued by the sins of slavery: some resisted through overt and covert actions. The final blow to slavery came in 1848 when the slaves, believing they were about to be freed by the Danish king, were told by the local government that they had to wait until 1860. They revolted against the plantation system, acquiring total freedom that year. The post-emancipation period up to 1917 was dominated by events such as planters' control over labour, labour resistance, immigration of foreign workers, economic decline, and the eventual transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States.

Part 2 examines US control and the gradual development of domestic political autonomy in the Virgin Islands from 1917 to 1954. The US made little attempt to incorporate or develop the Virgin Islands. The constitutional Danish Colonial Law of 1906 was used by the US Navy Navy to administer the islands, with mixed results. A number of US constitutional rights were extended to Virgin Islanders. The overall infrastructure, especially in health care, sanitation and water supply, improved while the economy and, to a lesser extent, education suffered. Equally troubling were the ambivalence about granting US citizenship to Virgin Islanders, the Americanization of the islands, and the infusion of the American brand of racism into the Virgin Islands. …