History of St Thomas

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The history of the Virgin Islands has many similarities to other Caribbean islands: first spotted by Columbus during his second voyage in 1493, the islands quickly became sought after by many European countries, who were all trying to find their fortunes in these new lands.

It had all of the dramatic history as well, with pirates and the fortunes of nations hanging in the balance.

Spain, England, France, Holland, Denmark, and the United States all controlled these small jewels at some point, with the US eventually winning out. The first European settlers were the Danes who in 1666 took control of the islands.

The three Virgin Islands had somewhat different backgrounds because of their physical characteristics. St. Croix was well suited for agriculture, so many settled there and a plantation economy developed. Not much would grow on St Thomas so the island became more of a mercantile center because of its fine harbor, and eventually it became a primary slave market for the islands.

When Columbus first came, he named the islands because of their mountainous terrain, Las Islas Virgenes, in honor of St. Ursula and her legion of 11,000 virgins. Because there wasn't much there for them, the Spaniards generally stayed away from the Virgins during these early days. They did find some copper on Virgin Gorda. This allowed the English and Dutch to come in do some early trading. Then in 1665, Copenhagen merchants came to the island and formed the Danish West India Company, and they set up a colony there, however this first attempt was not successful.

It wasn't until 1671, when a new company was chartered, that success was achieved under a company with more financial backing and royal support from home. The first thing they did upon arrival was to build Fort Christian, which today is one of the oldest buildings in St Thomas. The bright red fort was constructed to protect the island from interlopers, as it became an important commercial center.

The colony continued to grow and eventually it took in St. John as well, and finally St. Croix, when more arable land was needed for growing sugar cane. Problems developed on St. John, however, and in 1733, there was a slave revolt that continued for 6 months, and about half of the population of that island were killed, both black and white. Nearly half of the plantations there were damaged.

St. Croix's plantation economy began to flourish beyond that of St Thomas, and the colony's capital was moved from Charlotte Amalie to Christiansted, St. Croix, for a time. Trade boomed in the late 18th C. and Charlotte Amalie again grew because of free trade laws, which made St Thomas the most important harbor in the islands.

The Naploeonic Wars threw a wrench in the economy, and Britian refused to let Denmark trade with France, and Britain took over the three Virgin islands for about a year, when they went back to Danish rule. The takeover occurred again in 1807. And this time, it took its toll on the islands because it coincided with the downfall of the sugar industry, which was facing competition from the sugar beet in Europe. St Thomas was not as negatively affected as the other islands because its mercantile economy was its strong suit. Europeans from all over came to set up shipping businesses there, and when steam took over wind as the power for the ships, St Thomas remained an important fueling point.

The Civil War era showed the US how strategic the islands were to their shores since they were used for shipping in supplies during the war. The US made its first attempt at that time to procure the islands, but did not follow up on this early agreement with the Danes. During the first World War, the US made another attempt to buy the islands, and this time succeeded. The three Virgin Islands were turned over to the US in 1917 at a cost of US$25 million. The islands are now self-governed, but the courts remain under the control of the US government.

Today tourism is the primary source of income for residents of these three islands.