Virgin Islands (U.s.)
St. Thomas and the U.S. Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands are located between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, about 50 miles east of Puerto Rico. They consist of 50 islets and cays, and 4 main islands—St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas, and Water Island, which is situated in St. Thomas’ main harbor. The USVI capital city and port, Charlotte Amalie, is located on St. Thomas.
The first European to stumble upon the Virgin Islands was Christopher Columbus, who arrived on St. Thomas in 1493 during his second trip to the New World. Oddly, Columbus was rather disinterested in what he saw, and set his sights west on Puerto Rico. It wasn’t until 1671 that the islands received more attention; the Danish West India Company received a charter from King Christian V to sail to St. Thomas, take possession of the island, and prime the land for plantation farming. The Company’s first attempts at establishing a settlement on the island tragically failed when a majority of officials, prisoners and slaves (meant to work the plantations) died either during the voyage or shortly after arrival. Slowly, more and more people, many of them slaves, were transported to St. Thomas; by 1680, the settlement consisted of 156 whites, 175 blacks, one fort, one road, and approximately 50 plantations.
After awhile, officials on St. Thomas began to realize that in order to attract more business on the island, it was necessary to develop the harbor area. The subsequent hub of St. Thomas was named Taphus, meaning beer taverns, which were the area’s most popular attractions for newcomers such as sea traders, businessmen and pirates. As St. Thomas grew, the city was more honorably renamed Charlotte Amalie, after the queen consort to King Christian V. The harbor helped boost the economic success of the island in the slave trade, and in shipping plantation goods. In the first half of the 18th century, the Danish West India Company expanded by claiming nearby island St. John and by purchasing the island of St. Croix from the French.
In the 19th century, the islands became important to the young United States as a coaling station for ships traveling between North and South America, with St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie as the headquarters for many of the shipping lines. Between 1865 and 1917, the United States attempted negotiations with Denmark for the purchase of the islands, and finally secured a deal for $25 million. Although the new “Virgin Islands of America” were no longer necessary in international shipping routes, a new industry developed on St. Thomas beginning in the 1950s—tourism. With modern air travel and the rise of the cruise lines, St. Thomas became a premier tourist destination for those looking for a distinct island getaway. Today the island of St. Thomas maintains its reputation as one of the Caribbean’s most popular vacation spots and the harbor of Charlotte Amalie is a favorite port of call for many cruise ship lines.