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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, August 9, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesChristiansted Redrawn as 'African-Danish' Town

Christiansted Redrawn as 'African-Danish' Town

Local historian George Tyson addresses the crowd.As tourists wandered the streets of Christiansted Saturday morning, enjoying the remnants of such Danish colonial landmarks as Fort Christianvaern and the Customs House, inside one of those buildings a different story was being told, one in which not only the hands that built the town but the minds that directed those hands belonged to black men.

More than a hundred people gathered Saturday in Government House – a monument to the Danish colonial era – for the 25th annual meeting of the Society of Virgin Islands Historians. There they heard local historian George Tyson "set the record straight" about the city.

"Since its origin, Christiansted wasn’t a Danish town," Tyson said. "It was an African-Danish town."

The Danes took over St. Croix from the French in 1733 and began using African slave labor to grow sugar to increase their profits. Since the beginning, Tyson said, the population was always more African than Danish. At no time before the 1800s was the population of Christiansted more than 30 percent white, according to records of the times.

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Those records are revealing, he said, and tell a very different story than the one typically told. History, Tyson said, tells that the slaves built the city under the direction of white master craftsmen. But there’s little actual evidence for that, he said, other than the common prejudice that the slaves would have required such supervision.

Master craftsmen were fairly rare, there weren’t that many of them around in the colonies. But records of the Danish East Indies Company show that among its "property" were many well-trained African craftsmen including several who went on to become successful Crucian businessmen in their own right during the early days of the Danish colonial period.

"No one has credited or even mentioned the contributions of these people" Tyson said, but their existence and their stories, are clearly shown in the records.

"We can name them, we know who they are. They were not just part of a group called slaves. They were real people," he said.

Tyson’s talk began to spill over the time limit set for the meeting, but he said he wasn’t going to stop because it was a story that needed to be told. And he said there’s much more work that needs to be done, both in recording and telling the story of these people, and in preserving the African-Danish heritage they left behind, a heritage in brick and stone and plaster that is in danger of being lost to time and neglect.

Also speaking at Saturday’s history conclave were:

  • Poul Olsen of Denmark, who told the story of the creation of the Christiansted Brand Corps, the first fire brigade on the island. According to Olsen, the corps was formed in 1818 in part as a concession to the free Africans on the island, to relieve pressure that would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery. In that it was unsuccessful, of course, but Olsen said the story showed "Good things can come from even the most dubious of motives."
  • Bill Cissel, who talked on "The Military History of Christiansted."
  • Betsy Rezense and Anna Walbom, who presented rare photographs of St. Croix taken between 1860 and 1917.

The meeting concluded with a panel discussion on Christiansted’s past and future, featuring all the morning’s speakers plus Joel Tutein, the National Park Service superintendent on St. Croix.

The Saturday gathering was moderated by society president Edgar O. Lake.

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Local historian George Tyson addresses the crowd.As tourists wandered the streets of Christiansted Saturday morning, enjoying the remnants of such Danish colonial landmarks as Fort Christianvaern and the Customs House, inside one of those buildings a different story was being told, one in which not only the hands that built the town but the minds that directed those hands belonged to black men.

More than a hundred people gathered Saturday in Government House – a monument to the Danish colonial era – for the 25th annual meeting of the Society of Virgin Islands Historians. There they heard local historian George Tyson "set the record straight" about the city.

"Since its origin, Christiansted wasn't a Danish town," Tyson said. "It was an African-Danish town."

The Danes took over St. Croix from the French in 1733 and began using African slave labor to grow sugar to increase their profits. Since the beginning, Tyson said, the population was always more African than Danish. At no time before the 1800s was the population of Christiansted more than 30 percent white, according to records of the times.

Those records are revealing, he said, and tell a very different story than the one typically told. History, Tyson said, tells that the slaves built the city under the direction of white master craftsmen. But there's little actual evidence for that, he said, other than the common prejudice that the slaves would have required such supervision.

Master craftsmen were fairly rare, there weren't that many of them around in the colonies. But records of the Danish East Indies Company show that among its "property" were many well-trained African craftsmen including several who went on to become successful Crucian businessmen in their own right during the early days of the Danish colonial period.

"No one has credited or even mentioned the contributions of these people" Tyson said, but their existence and their stories, are clearly shown in the records.

"We can name them, we know who they are. They were not just part of a group called slaves. They were real people," he said.

Tyson's talk began to spill over the time limit set for the meeting, but he said he wasn't going to stop because it was a story that needed to be told. And he said there's much more work that needs to be done, both in recording and telling the story of these people, and in preserving the African-Danish heritage they left behind, a heritage in brick and stone and plaster that is in danger of being lost to time and neglect.

Also speaking at Saturday's history conclave were:

  • Poul Olsen of Denmark, who told the story of the creation of the Christiansted Brand Corps, the first fire brigade on the island. According to Olsen, the corps was formed in 1818 in part as a concession to the free Africans on the island, to relieve pressure that would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery. In that it was unsuccessful, of course, but Olsen said the story showed "Good things can come from even the most dubious of motives."
  • Bill Cissel, who talked on "The Military History of Christiansted."
  • Betsy Rezense and Anna Walbom, who presented rare photographs of St. Croix taken between 1860 and 1917.

The meeting concluded with a panel discussion on Christiansted's past and future, featuring all the morning's speakers plus Joel Tutein, the National Park Service superintendent on St. Croix.

The Saturday gathering was moderated by society president Edgar O. Lake.