Danish PM Mette Frederiksen scoffed when reports emerged that US President Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland, and her concerns echoed down the Danish corridors of power and further afield. You can’t buy a people, many reasoned.
But try telling that to the residents of the Danish West Indies. Christiansborg was similarly bemused when the US first proposed a sale in 1865, but just over half a century later the transfer was completed.
Horrified by the possibility of the islands falling into German hands during World War I, the US would claim it was protecting its borders – and less than 50 years later, the Cuban Missile Crisis would more or less vindicate the handover.
Fast forward another half-century and a Chinese presence is intensifying in Greenland, according to a 2019 US Pentagon report, with Russia also eyeing the economic and geopolitical value of the Arctic island and its access to North Atlantic shipping lanes.
Does history tell us that Trump’s offer was really that absurd?
Nearly 250 years of rule
Like Greenland, the Danish West Indies of Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix were a dependant Danish territory – but with no autonomy.
Fully acquired by Denmark following the purchase of Saint Croix from France in 1733 – the Danish West India Company had settled on Saint Thomas in 1672 and Saint John in 1694 – they quickly became lucrative assets in the cultivation of sugar cane, tobacco and cotton through slave labour.
That same year, Denmark had the French from nearby Martinique to thank for quelling the first of three significant slave rebellions to hit the islands – although the third in 1878 on Saint Croix was technically a workers rebellion, as slavery had been abolished on the islands three decades earlier (17 years before the US).
In 1917, Denmark sold the islands to the US for $25 million in gold coin, after which they were renamed the US Virgin Islands.
Ideal for a US naval base
The US first approached Denmark about a possible sale when its secretary of state, William H Seward, made contact with Waldemar Raasløff, the Danish diplomatic representative in Washington, in 1865 during the closing stages of the American Civil War.
Already sensing victory and eyeing international expansion, Seward and US President Abraham Lincoln agreed that the country needed a naval base in the Caribbean, and later that year, Seward saw first-hand that the main harbour on Saint Thomas would be an ideal haven for American warships. Negotiations with the Dominican Republic also began to buy Samaná Bay, but were ultimately unfruitful.
But was there an ulterior motive for US interest in the islands? When Denmark lost the Second Schleswig War in 1864 to Germany, resulting in the surrender of Southern Jutland, it marked the emergence of another European superpower.
After all, with Denmark on its knees, the Germans could seize control of the whole country, and therefore the Danish West Indies.
Meanwhile, a nearly bankrupt Denmark was failing to cope with some rapidly deteriorating conditions among its own colonies – mainly brought on by the islands’ abolition of slavery, which led to decreasing population density and economic productivity.
These conditions brought Denmark to the table and after a few years of negotiations a treaty was signed in 1867. However, internal American congressional complications aborted a final sale of the islands.
Nevertheless, Denmark continued in its pursuit of selling the islands, but at the second time of asking, defeat came from within. A second draft treaty was negotiated in 1902, but was undone in the upper house of the Danish Parliament by a tied vote.
Fearful of das boot
As tensions intensified across Europe and World War I broke out in 1914, the US was toeing a thin line of non-engagement. The 1915 sinking of the Lusitania propelled American interest in the Danish West Indies as concerns over the potential of Germany occupying Denmark and establishing a naval base on the islands – from which to launch submarine attacks on the US – grew hugely.
Yet again, the US approached Denmark to purchase the islands in 1915, but initially the Danish government turned down the offer. It is believed there were concerns that the civil rights record of the US would have a deleterious impact on the predominantly black population of the Danish West Indies, and accordingly, Denmark demanded US citizenship and free trade for the islanders.
The US secretary of state at the time, Robert Lansing, refused to accept the Danes’ terms, firmly indicating his country would annex the islands to prevent a perceived imminent occupation by Germany.
You have to haggle!
Preferring a peaceful transition to conflict, the Danish government acquiesced and signed a treaty in New York on 4 August 1916. They compromised on a price of 25 million dollars after the US had initially offered 20 million and the Danes demanded 27 million.
The treaty was ratified by both countries’ legislative bodies and signed by King Christian X of Denmark and President Woodrow Wilson shortly afterwards. While the treaty handed over complete possession, it did not affect private property rights, so many Danes held onto their land.
In December, the first ever public referendum in Denmark approved the sale of the colonies. The only people who were unable to vote were the islanders themselves. The referendum revealed that a large majority, around 64 percent, supported the sale.
The formal transfer of the islands occurred on 31 March 1917, which is now annually celebrated as ‘Transfer Day’ by the islanders.
So given the drawn-out nature of the negotiations, is it completely unfeasible to think that in 50 years’ time, Greenlanders might be celebrating their own transfer day?