A Bitesize History of St. Thomas
Ancient History – The Virgin Islands, like their Caribbean neighbors, are formed by undersea volcanoes and shifting plate tectonics. Non-human life reigns supreme for hundreds of thousands of centuries while the islands develop into a tropical paradise.
Less Ancient History – Indigenous peoples like the Ciboney, Taino, and Carib are the islands’ first inhabitants. Thousands of years pass before they’re confronted by strange white men from faraway lands.
1493 – Christopher Columbus meets some indigenous folk when he officially discovers the islands on his 2nd voyage. They express their displeasure at his presence by eliminating two of his crewmembers. Columbus high-tails it shortly thereafter, but not before naming the islands, Las Once Mil Virgenes, after the legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virginal handmaidens killed with her.
European weapons and disease wipe out the islands’ indigenous people during the next two centuries.
1500 & 1600’s – The islands are mostly uninhabited, although St. Thomas becomes home to growing numbers of intrepid settlers from all over Europe. This includes pirates attracted by increased trade in a lawless land. The history of pirates on St. Thomas still finds intrigue among many. Tales of dubious historical merit are well known and oft repeated.
1672 – The Danish West India & Guinea Company establishes control of St. Thomas. The island and outlying keys become known as the Danish West Indies.
1673 – Danish convicts originally shipped in to provide labor for The Company prove to be poor workers on the new sugar plantations. It’s decided that African slaves are necessary for profit.
The town developing around St. Thomas’ harbor becomes known as Taphus, or “Tap House,” for its reputation as an excellent place to stop off for a drink or two… or several. Things haven’t changed much in 300 hundred years. Other than the name.
1691– Taphus is given the far more elegant name Charlotte Amalie, in honor of the King’s wife.
1700’s – The century is a period of rapid growth for St. Thomas, which continues to establish itself as a regional hub for trade and commerce. Goods, including slaves, are brought into St. Thomas, and then dispersed throughout the Caribbean. The Danish crown declares St. Thomas a free port.
1800’s – The slave trade and sugar plantation lifestyle are well established. The Danish West Indies also includes St. John and St. Croix, now considered official royal colonies, not just Company outposts.
1840’s – The slave trade ends and St. Thomas transitions into a refueling port. It turns out that loading the new steam ships with locally-derived coal is considered women’s work.
1848– Denmark finally abolishes slavery in the West Indies more than a decade after slaves are freed in the neighboring British Virgin Islands. On St. Thomas, the news is shared at Emancipation Garden in Charlotte Amalie. The park remains a community gathering spot.
1917 – After years of negotiation, the U.S. buys the Danish West Indies from Denmark for $25 million in gold. The purchase is primarily motivated by military strategy in the onset of WWI.
1927– Virgin Islanders granted U.S. citizenship.
1959 – The U.S. embargo on Cuba creates a tourism boom for St. Thomas. Annual cruise ship numbers increase 15 times in 15 years.
1962– The first commercial plane lands on St. Thomas. Flights from NYC took 18hrs! 10 hrs from Miami!
Do you have more questions (or answers) about the history of St.Thomas? Want to know a little about St.John’s history?
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