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Danish Colonization of the Americas


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Denmark had a colonial empire from the 18th century until the 20th. Large portions of it involved the colonization of the Americas.

Explorers and settlers from Denmark took possession of the Danish West Indies (present-day U.S. Virgin Islands), which Denmark later sold to the United States. Beginning in 1721, they also founded colonies in Greenland, which is now a self-governing part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Denmark started a colony on St Thomas in 1671, St John in 1718, and purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733. During the 18th century, the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea were divided into two territorial units, one British and the other Danish. The Danish islands were run by the Danish West India and Guinea Company until 1755 when the Danish king bought them out. Sugar cane, produced by slave labour, drove the islands’ economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries. A triangular trade existed with Danish manufactures buying African slaves which in turn were sold for West Indies sugar for Denmark. Although the slave trade was abolished in 1803 by the Danes, slavery itself was not abolished until 1848 after several mass slave escapes to the free British islands and a non-violent slave protest. The Danish Virgin Islands were also used as a base for pirates. The Danes encouraged English and Dutch settlers who became the largest non-slave groups on the islands. Their languages predominated with even the Danish government, in 1839, declaring that slave children must attend school in the English language. The colony reached its largest population in the 1840-50s, after which an economic downturn increased emmigration and populations dropped, a trend that continued until after the purchase by the United States. The Danish West Indies had 34,000 people in 1880.

In 1868, the islanders voted to sell the colony to the United States but their offer was rebuffed. In 1902, Denmark rejected an American offer. In 1917 the United States purchased the islands, which had been in economic decline since the abolition of slavery.

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