By Aesha Duval
On March 31, 1917, the Danish West Indies, an archipelago in the Caribbean – consisting of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John — were transferred from Denmark to the United States of America and were renamed the Virgin Islands of the United States. Two actions in the years following the transfer led to the people of the Virgin Islands losing access to their historical records.
That same year, Danish archivists removed most records created during colonial rule – 245 years – and deposited them in the Danish National Archives. In the 1930s through the 1950s, the National Archives of the United States sent archivists to the Virgin Islands to claim most of the remaining records and shipped them to Washington, D.C. These actions left the native population of the Virgin Islands, primarily former colonials whose ancestors were brought from Africa as slaves, without access to the written sources that comprised their history.
If a Virgin Islander wanted to research their ancestry, for example, and the records they seek are in Denmark, they would very likely have to travel to Copenhagen to access them. Since becoming a law librarian six years ago, I have received half a dozen or so requests for federal court records from the 1930s and 1940s. The responses for my requests to the National Archives have ranged from limits on how many pages of those records they could send, to not being able to locate the records at all. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to social distancing protocols, research requests were being prioritized, with researchers being told to expect delays.
Scholars and Virgin Islands historians have long been acutely aware of the problems created by the inaccessibility of records. The writing of Virgin Islands history has suffered the most, according to scholars, educators, and students. Many early writings and texts on the colonial history of the Virgin Islands are authored by outsiders with a slanted viewpoint and do not reflect the voices of the enslaved Africans and their descendants.
These records were created primarily by and for the colonizing Danish bureaucracy even though the enslaved Africans and free colored people made up the majority of the Danish West Indies population. The non-Danish inhabitants were for most part, nonliterate, because of the system of slavery which strictly forbade slaves from learning to read. There was also a language barrier. Those records were written in Danish and the non-Danish inhabitants of the islands spoke English and Dutch creole.
Oral tradition became the means of how enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Virgin Islands preserved and shared their memory and history. Virgin Islands oral tradition is filled with heroic, history-telling songs, such as Queen Mary, a popular favorite with musical groups and school children today, which celebrates the courageous and almost mythical woman, Mary Thomas, who led the “Fireburn,” the St. Croix Labor Revolt of 1878:
Queen Mary, ah where you gon’ go burn?
Queen Mary, ah where you gon’ go burn?
Don’t ask me nothin’ ‘tall
Just geh me de match and oil,
Bassin Jailhouse, ah deh de money dey.
Despite the records being neither created by or for most of the population, that does not make them less important as a means for understanding the history of these islands and reconstructing the identity of its peoples.
Archivist and author Jeanette Allis Bastian, a former director of the Territorial Libraries and Archives of the Virgin Islands, wrote about the challenges Virgin Islanders have with limited access to the primary sources of their history in her book, “Owning Memory – How a Caribbean Community Lost its Archives and Found Its History.” Bastian wrote this lack of access affected Virgin Islanders’ ability to write their own history and construct a collective memory.
There are moral obligations on the part of Denmark and the United States to, at the very least, share this common history and make it more accessible. In 1999, the Virgin Islands government negotiated an agreement with the Danish Ministry of Culture for preserving and sharing its records. In 2002, the National Archives completed a detailed survey and finding aid of its Danish West Indies holdings. You can now search their holdings of Virgin Islands records on its website. More recently in 2017, in commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the 1917 Transfer, the Danish National Archives launched an online database containing 5 million image files of records from the Danish West Indies.
All these are moves in the right direction. However, challenges and questions remain: Who actually owns these records? Who has the moral right to them? Who should have physical custody of them? Whose history do they represent? With no input into the record-creating process, how can the Virgin Islands reclaim their history?
The territory’s ability to even reclaim these records and appropriately protect them can also be called into question. The Virgin Islands has been without a state or territorial archivist for several years. The state and territorial practices for archiving and keeping records is now in a state of flux. The challenge has been attracting trained and professional archivists to work for an imperiled state library and archives system that is woefully underfunded.
According to Bastian, the Virgin Islands is an example of how collective memory draws from all sources of records and illustrates that if records are not available, a community will replace them with something else – myth, legend, and oral tradition.
Bastian, J. A. (2001). A Question of Custody: The Colonial Archives of the United States Virgin Islands. The American Archivist, 64(1), 96–114. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40294161
Bastian, J.A. (2003). Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost Its Archives and Found Its History. Libraries Limited.
Boyer, W. W. (2010). America’s Virgin Islands – A History of Human Rights and Wrongs, 2d ed. Carolina Academic Press.
The Danish West Indies – https://www.virgin-islands-history.org/en/
National Archives – https://www.archives.gov/nyc/finding-aids/us-virgin-islands
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.