4 August 1916: The United States buys the Danish Virgin Islands

Most of us can only dream of following in the sandy footprints of Sir Richard Branson by buying a slice of paradise in the Virgin Islands. But the Virgin Group founder was by no means the first: 99 years ago, the United States bought a whole bunch of islands in the Caribbean archipelago from Denmark, but for very different reasons.

The Danes had settled the two big islands east of Puerto Rico, Saint Thomas and Saint John, by the 1710s, and bought the larger island to the south, Saint Croix, from France in 1733.

For the rest of the century, the islands flourished by growing tobacco, indigo, cotton, ginger, and, of course, sugar cane, with Saint Croix becoming the sixth most productive sugar island in the Caribbean. In Saint Thomas, Denmark gained a trading post in the Americas, which also, sadly, became a focal point for the slave trade.

But as the decades wore on, the economy declined. Slavery was eventually swept away, and sugar could be grown more cheaply elsewhere, including in Europe, where sugar beet was now produced. By the middle of the 19th century, the Danish Virgin Islands had started to weigh on the exchequer in Copenhagen.

Yet, despite enquiries made by the Americans, Denmark decided to hang on to their islands until 1867, when Denmark accepted an offer from Secretary of State William Seward for $7m. But due to domestic politics back in Washington, the deal fell through.

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 gave the United States another reason to want to get their hands on the islands, believing they would be better able to protect the canal’s approaches. The eruption of the First World War that year made the matter all the more urgent. Washington feared that if Germany invaded Denmark, then the islands would become a base for German submarines in the Caribbean.

This gave the Americans all the leverage they needed. If Denmark wouldn’t sell the islands, they would simply take them. Preferring the first option, the Danes agreed to a price of $25m, the equivalent of just over half a billion dollars in today’s money.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing and the Danish minister to the United States, Constantin Brun, signed the transfer on 4 August 1916 in New York. The following year, on 31 March, the United States took formal possession of the islands.

Also on this day

4 August 1704: Gibraltar is captured by the ‘Grand Alliance’

On this day in 1704 Gibraltar was taken in the name of ‘Charles III of Spain’ by English and Dutch forces as part of the ‘War of the Spanish Succession’. Read more here.