Cover image - Danish West Indies, 1864
Status: Danish Colony
Area: 133 sq miles
Population: 26,000 (est. 1917)
Currency: 100 cents = 1 rigsdaler
A private Danish trading settlement was established on St. Thomas in 1665. Dogged by attacks from British privateers and a severe hurricane, the settlement was abandoned after 19 months. In 1671, the government stepped in. King Christian V granted a royal charter to the Danish West India Company to develop trade and to supply Denmark with sugar and cotton.
Initially the company profited from the triangular trade – transporting slaves from Africa and shipping sugar and molasses to Denmark. St. Thomas had an excellent port, but was not well suited for agriculture. Seeking better farmland, settlers expanded to St. John in 1718 and the company bought St. Croix in 1733. A major slave insurrection that year on St. John, quashed mid-1734 with help from French and Swiss troops, encouraged Danish settlers to move to St. Croix. The company was not profitable and in 1754, the Danish government bought the islands. A widespread slave rebellion in 1848 led the governor general to abolish slavery.
In the early years, correspondence was carried by ship captains and had no local postal markings. When the British occupied the islands in 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars, they established a postal agency on St. Thomas in cooperation with the Royal Steam Packet Company. When the Danes regained the islands after the war, they asked the British to continue the packet service. In 1855, the Danish king created a separate post office for the Danish West Indies. Distinctive postage stamps were issued for the islands in 1856.
Danish W Indies Scott 2,12 and 25
During the American Civil War, the ports of the Danish West Indies were used by both the North and the South. After the war, Secretary of State William Seward sought to buy the islands to prevent their use by an enemy in a future war. In 1867, while a U.S. military delegation was on St. Thomas to negotiate the purchase, an earthquake struck. The U.S. Congress subsequently declined to appropriate the $7.5 million for the purchase.
St. Thomas became a coaling station for transatlantic steamships. But the agricultural economy continued to decline. The residents appealed to the U.S. for help. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt re-opened negotiations to purchase the islands as part of the defenses for the Panama Canal. This time, the Danish parliament refused the deal, reportedly due to pressure from German shipping interests.
The United States remained concerned about foreign naval activity in the region. In 1904, both German and Russian naval units used Water Island, a small island off St. Thomas, for military maneuvers. The following year, a Danish shipping firm that had close ties with the German Hamburg-American Steamship Company purchased Water Island from the Danish Crown. The United States purchased the other islands in 1917 for $25 million.
Water Island remained the property of the Danish shipping company until 1944, when it was purchased for $10,000 to protect the U.S. submarine base in the Virgin Islands.
Danish W Indies Scott 39 and 51
In 1905, the National Bank introduced new currency units, the bit and the franc. (5 bits equaled 1 cent, 20 bits equaled 1 franc (pegged to the French franc). DWI stamps bore the new currency designations. This DWI currency remained in use until 1934, when the U.S. dollar became the legal currency.
The U.S. flag was raised in the islands on March 31, 1917. U.S. stamps were placed in use on that day. Dutch West Indies stamps remained valid until September 30. Mixed franking is possible during this period.