The little known Sephardi history of the West Indies
The Virgin islands is a favorite tourist spot for Caribbean cruises. For Jewish tourists, there is an extra added attraction in the historic synagogues, cemeteries and active Jewish communities. The former Danish West Indies sold to the United States in 1917 has had a fascinating and little known Jewish presence to the point that in the 1830s some visitors coined the expression that the islands should properly be called “The Jewish West Indies.”
Alone of all the Nordic countries, Denmark aspired to become a great maritime power with a colonial empire extending into the tropics. The three islands, of what today are known as the American Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John (called Sankt Thomas, Sankt Croix and Sankt Jan in Danish) were acquired by a Denmark anxious to acquire precious metals, spices, sugar, tobacco, rum, cotton, indigo, ginger, cacao and coffee. No other colonial outpost in the New World proved so hospitable and advantageous for Jews. They played a major role in stimulating trade during the era of sailing ships and contributed greatly to the islands’ development.
Few Danes had been enticed to settle in the West Indies voluntarily. The Danish colonies were nevertheless handicapped in spite of a well developed merchant fleet by the scarcity of manpower at its disposal. Settlers to farm new lands or even administrators to manage the colonies were in short supply. Danish rule was limited to a few forts, plantations and trading posts. Similar footholds in Africa and off the coast of India were given up as simply too remote, dangerous and unpromising.
Jewish contribution to island prosperity
A good deal of the technical expertise for the establishment of the sugar industry was due to Sephardi Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin who had been driven out of Northeastern Brazil when the Portuguese retook the area from the Dutch. Eventually the sugar industry became quite important for Denmark where distilleries turned it into rum. In 1755, all three islands came under direct Danish rule instead of through the offices of the West India Company and were treated as overseas colonies.
Many Sephardi Jews who had already been granted full equality by the Dutch were active in establishing the sugar industry and served as administrators, bankers, merchants and helped established markets for the islands’ products. By 1820, the islands’ population totaled 40,000, about 10% white, 20% “free coloreds” and 70% black slaves. It is estimated that the Jewish population of the islands constituted almost half the white population of Sankt Thomas in the period 1820-30 when the community established a beautiful synagogue with a sand-covered floor. The free white population was divided among English, Scottish, Irish, Danish, Dutch, French and Sephardi settlers.
Every free inhabitant of the Danish possessions in the Caribbean had to belong to a religious community. Thus, the entire Jewish population was organized and they were accorded full citizenship. All male children celebrated their bar-mitzvah and all marriages were performed according to the Orthodox Sephardi rite during the greater part of the 19th century.
By 1837, the port of Charlotte Amalie on Sankt. Thomas had become the second largest city in the Danish “Empire,” second only to Copenhagen. This was largely due to it important crossroads position as a transit harbor. This role was gradually reduced with the construction of larger and faster ships sailing on established routes between Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean ports or Southern United States. Jewish prominence in the Dutch and Danish islands was due to their linguistic abilities and expertise in the cultivation of sugar and in the distilling of rum.
Many Sephardi Jews of the Danish West Indies eventually emigrated to the United States and became eminently successful. Among the prominent Sephardi Jews who were born and spent their formative years in the Danish West Indies wee Judah Benjamin (born on Sankt Croix) who became the Secretary of State of the Confederacy and three others (all born on Sankt Thomas) David Levi Yulee (after whom Levy county in Florida is named), who helped engineer the annexation of Florida, and became the first Jew to serve in the U.S. Senate, the French impressionist painter Camille Pissaro and the renowned physician Jacob Mendes da Costa.
The growth of the port of New Orleans and the development of Florida provided two powerful magnets that attracted many Jews of the small West Indian islands. The lure of the powerful United States and the growth of its own shipping, sugar industry, relations with Cuba and the promise of building a Panama Canal for the newer much larger and faster steamships all pointed to economic decline for the Danish West Indies and the eventual drift away from the islands of the Sephardi element. The economy of the islands had come to depend on slave labor and was thus directly damaged by the slave revolt in 1848 threatening the abolition of slavery.
Sale of the islands to the United States
At a New year’s eve festivity at the White House in 1865, President Lincoln warmly addressed the Danish ambassador Valdamar Rassløff. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Seward spoke to him and made it clear that the United States was interested in purchasing the islands. Since the ambassador had no direct instructions to negotiate, he requested time to communicate with his government. He also reminded Seward that the islands’ population was content with Danish rule. The government, and even more King Christian IX were not happy at the news of the American initiative even though it promised economic relief. In reality, both the government and king felt that there was no need to rush and that time would be their ally and only help to increase the price. In this they were mistaken.
Interest quickly waned following the assassination of President Lincoln. On April 14, 1865. Seward had been seriously wounded in the attempt and took months to recover. Instructions were given to the Danish ambassador in the United States to ask the Americans what price they had in mind. The Danish negotiators hinted that $25 million would be acceptable as a “fair price.” Seward became coy at this stage and expressed the wish to actually visit the islands to see their condition before any further negotiations could take place.
He returned from an inspection trip only to become embroiled in a crisis over Reconstruction, which led to an impeachment trial against the new president, Andrew Johnson. Moreover, Congress was in a sullen mood and had already objected to the purchase of Alaska from Russia that Seward had engineered for the “astronomical” price of $ 7 million! The intended sale fell through and interest lapsed for another thirty years.
Finally, the realization of their strategic importance as a possible German submarine base with the outbreak of World War I stimulated American interest to make sure the Danish colonies did not fall into the wrong hands. In the end, the sales price of $25 million was approved and the U.S. took possession on March 27, 1917. Although the islands have had two Jewish governors under American rule, the memory of the “Jewish West Indies” is a quaint curiosity of Caribbean history.