History of the Virgin Islands’ Newspapers
The Virgin Islands archipelago consists of three larger islands –St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John—and multiple smaller islands and cays. It is located in the Caribbean Sea, 1,000 miles from Florida and south of the larger Caribbean islands. Carib Indians inhabited the islands when Christopher Columbus discovered them in 1493. In 1672, the Danish West India Company and the Danish Crown sponsored the settlement of the islands, which were named the Danish West Indies. By then the native population had disappeared. The economy was based on sugar plantations, and slavery became the source of labor. The location of the islands is extremely strategic. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, the archipelago was the hub of the sea routes from Europe to North America and to south to other Caribbean islands. During the eighteenth century, the French, Dutch, and English fought over control of the islands.
The Virgin Islands are part of the most underrepresented region in the Caribbean: the Lesser Antilles. Although the study of the Caribbean as a whole has been disregarded because of its heterogeneity, insularity, size, and “seemingly” diminished economic importance, Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica have been greatly studied. That is not the case with the Lesser Antilles. Access to the repositories that hold their cultural heritage is difficult. Access to Virgin Islands’ content is even more complex because of its past as a Dutch colony and its present status as a US territory.
As a colony, the Danish West Indies were multicultural. Danes owned the colony but constituted a minority. Although Danish was the government’s official language, the colonized did not speak Danish. On St. Thomas and St. John, African slaves spoke Dutch Creole also known as Negerhollands. At the same time, English became the lingua franca of trade. One of the consequences of this linguistic disparity was the difficulty for the colonized to create records and, later, to access them.
The transfer of the Danish colonies to the United States had even more devastating effects for the preservation and access of the Virgin Islanders’ cultural heritage. In the mid-19th century, when beet replaced sugar cane as a sweetener, the economy of the islands declined; St. Thomas ceased to be the Caribbean’s shipping center, and a series of natural disasters hit the islands. The US offered to purchase the islands. The negotiation ended in 1916 when Denmark sold the Danish West Indies to the US for $25 million. The US named them US Virgin Islands. During the transition, the Danish West Indies’ archives were transferred to Demark and the US. As a result, today Virgin Islanders do not have access to their colonial history as registered in the archives; neither do they have access to early 20th-century records of the US government in the islands. Furthermore, hurricanes constantly threaten its cultural heritage. A grim example is the continuing recovery from the 2017 hurricane season.
The digitization of Virgin Islands’ newspapers is an attempt to challenge the historylessness brought about by colonialism, political transfer, and hurricanes. However, unlike the Puerto Rican case, not much has been written on Virgin Islands’ newspapers. The Library of Congress lists 58 news-papers, including one from the 18th century, 15 from the nineteenth century, and 40 from the 20th century. Two of these newspapers are still published: St. Croix Avis (founded in 1844) and The Virgin Islands Daily News (founded in 1930). Several of the newspapers are multilingual (Danish, English, Spanish), quality that reflects the history of immigration that characterizes the island; for instance, Boricua, published in 1971 probably documents Puerto Rican presence in the island.
The 19th century Virgin Island newspapers are key to understanding the history of the islands, especially slavery. In 1803, Denmark abolished the slave trade but did not emancipate slaves. In 1847, the Free Birth Proclamation granted freedom to slaves born after that date. However, full emancipation was only a promise. This fact originated a slave rebellion in St. Croix that resulted in the immediate emancipation of slaves in the Danish West Indies. The demise of slavery coincided with the decline of the Danish West Indies’ economy, giving way to the Danish crown’s desire to sell the islands.
On the other hand, the 20th century newspapers document the conflicts brought about by the transfer of the territory to the US as well as life under the new jurisdiction. After the completion of the transfer in 1917, a naval governor appointed by the president governed the territory. In 1927, after social unrest the US granted citizenship to the islands’ residents. The Lightbourn’s Mail Notes documented that since the purchase of the territory, Virgin Islanders had hoped and fought for citizenship.
In 1931 unhappiness with a racist naval administration originated a transfer of government to the US Department of the Interior, a civilian administration. Five years later in 1936, through the Organic Act, Congress granted some self-government to the Virgin Islands. Although the president still appointed the governor, people got the right to elect their municipal councils and a legislative assembly. The Organic Act was revised in 1954, and it allowed people to elect “a uni-cameral legislature.” In 1968, Congress’s Elective Governor Act granted Virgin Islanders the right to elect their governor. Today Virgin Islanders elect their local officials and pass local legislation yet they continue to be under the jurisdiction of the Office of Territories in the Department of the Interior.
The Virgin Islands Daily News is the most important US Virgin Islands’ newspaper. It was founded in 1930, and sold in 1978 and 1997. It has received multiple awards such as the American Bar Association Silver Gavel in 2004 and 1982, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1995, and the Associated Press Media Editors Tom Curley First Amendment Sweepstakes Award in 2013. Like other 20th newspapers, The Virgin Islands Daily News documents the conflict between Virgin Islanders and the US government and people, especially in terms of race. For instance, on June 20, 1945 an article narrated the strong protests of Virgin Islands soldiers against the racial discrimination they suffered in New Orleans.