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Transfer of Virgin Islands to the United States is History; What Will the Future Hold?

March 31, 2009 – On voyages across the Atlantic, it was a stunningly beautiful luxury liner. The maritime engineers who had conceptualized its design and construction were the genius of the era. A major leap had been made to develop transoceanic cruise ships for the modern tourism industry. The elite strata of Europe, Canada, and the United States were the passengers. The Atlantic trip from New York City to the British Isles was the craze of the day. But on that fateful day, the passengers did not know their destiny was held in the divine balance; many would transition to another existence. Then, there was an explosion, the ship went down! If you are an observant connoisseur of US movies, you will immediately think of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. You are not far off. In the first decade of the 20th century the United States, Britain, and Germany were caught in an intense industrial rivalry, and maritime development was growing in leaps and bounds. But, for the Virgin Islands another ship was struck and its demise has changed our history forever.
The cruise liner that is of greater importance to us was the RMS Lusitania, a British vessel. This luxury liner was built in 1907 and was an extremely popular cruise ship, pioneering in a sector of tourism that is now our lifeblood. The Lusitania made over 200 voyages between New York and the British Isles. However, during World War I, the Lusitania was in the precarious situation of being considered by the German military leadership as a part of the British maritime auxiliary engaged in a punishing naval blockade of Germany. Thus, a U-Boat torpedoed the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. Even more, the British blockade was felt by our ancestors. This caused the price of food staples to increase and it was a major reason for the mobilization of Crucian workers into the St. Croix Labor Union in 1915.
World War I exploded onto the European battlefields and in the beginning the newly emergent great power – the United States – did not seek to become a part of the conflict. A declining mid level power – Denmark – was neutral and nervous as its neighbor – the German Empire took the offensive into France. U.S. isolationism deterred an early involvement in the war, but Britain was determined to encourage U.S. participation. Historians do not agree whether the German military totally supported an unrestricted U-Boat (submarine) strategy to destroy the British blockade, but we know that the Germans used their U-Boats effectively in the North Atlantic and were willing to defeat their enemies using a “total war” concept.
Here, at home, in the Danish West Indies, our people were actually three subgroups, Crucians, St. Thomians and St. Johnians. The Danish practice of required passbooks for internal travel within the Islands had effectively maintained insular segregation and parochialism issues that we are still dealing with. Our ancestors in the Danish West Indies were observant but more concerned with immediate economic issues. In fact, at the eve of World War I many more Danish West Indians were concerned about seeking employment in Panama, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and New York City than worrying about the “Great War.” There was no consensus perspective on the war.
Nonetheless, although the loss of the Titanic was a major maritime disaster in every sense, for the Virgin Islands people the attack on the Lusitania had a greater historical impact. The Titanic disaster was the result of an accidental collision with an iceberg in 1912 due to human error during poor climatic conditions and worse, there was a high fatality rate due to a lack of lifeboats for the number of passengers onboard. On the other hand, the Lusitania was deliberately sunk by torpedo. It was a precipitating event similar to the Japanese naval attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The American people were in shock; it was a day of infamy! The German political leadership went to great lengths to demonstrate that the Lusitania was carrying war materials and engaged in hostile naval activities. President Woodrow Wilson was confronted by the hawkish members of his administration, the United States would now have to intervene and support its historic allies. A serious geopolitical analysis of the war took place and a very small territory with extremely important geostrategic significance was on the table. Yes, these islands were sought twice before in 1867 and 1902, but in 1915, as the German U-Boat strategy proved brutally effective, a superior US military strategy was devised. It included strategic denial, forward projection of naval power, and aerial superiority.
The Danish West Indies became an irreplaceable military asset – it had to be removed from possible German acquisition and no price could become the issue. In August 1916, the sale was announced and by March 1917 the transfer took place. The United States spent the most ever for territorial acquisition when it paid $25 million in gold bullion for the Danish West Indies. Very little thought went into the long term destiny and aspirations of the inhabitants, only a careful analysis of the military needs of the moment. Ninety two years later the military might of the United States is self evident, but the destiny and aspirations of the contemporary inhabitants have yet to be determined.

Editor's note: Malik Sekou teaches history and political science on the University of the Virgin Islands St. Thomas campus.
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