by Nina York
To a great extent, thanks to a Danish presence in our U.S. Virgin Islands when they for several hundred years until 1917 were known as the Danish West Indies, there was a mingling of Europeans and the large number of blacks that were brought here into slavery; some were able to buy their freedom or received it from the owner on his death; all were emancipated in 1848.
Many Danish government officials and military officers stationed here in former days came to the colony without their wives and children. Most women did not want to leave the social life back in Denmark, so far away, and the health problems that existed here of tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever caused many deaths, with infant mortality particularly high.
As a result, most men dispatched to the islands came here alone, and their desire for female companionship led to a great many extramarital liaisons, in most cases fully condoned. This explains the numerous instances of Virgin Islanders with Danish surnames, having had as an ancestor a Danish soldier or government worker.
Even the Governor General Peter von Scholten, whose wife and children by choice remained in Denmark, was living in a close relationship with Anna Heegaard, a free woman of color. They had no children, but the presence of the family name Netlohcs, (backwards spelling of Scholten) may indicate extramarital offspring of one of the three von Scholten brothers who lived here.
Before emancipation here, some Danish officials and plantation owners returning to Denmark after their tour of duty would bring with them a slave for their Danish household. One such example is shown in a video, part of a 4-segment TV program by the Danish journalist/filmmaker Alex Frank Larsen, with the title :”Slaves in Our Family”(Danish title: “Slavernes Slaegt”) that aired in 2004; an English version is available, and the fascinating stories have also been made into a book.
The stories all derive from St. Croix, and include the amazing fate of Victor Cornelins who as a child was sent to Denmark for an exhibit and remained there; also the successful search by a Danish woman now living here for her black ancestor in the Virgin Islands; another centers on a family spread over Sweden and the US with a common black ancestor from St. Croix.
And lastly, a similar story is even more striking, having to do with the slave Hans Jonathan of Estate Constitution Hill on St. Croix who around 1800 was taken to Denmark by the owner family who had their residence in Copenhagen. At the time, war broke out between England and Denmark, and Hans Jonathan ran away to join the defending Danish forces on a warship in Copenhagen harbor. But the family reclaimed him and had him punished, which resulted in his escape on a ship headed for Iceland, where he settled, married and spent the rest of his life. Recently, a large group of his descendants from Iceland, along with some who had moved to the United States, gathered in St. Croix and visited Constitution Hill at the invitation of the current owners of that handsome historic estate.
by Nina York