Monday, December 23, 2013

The Virgin Islands at War

Painting of the Bombardment of Copenhagen
As regular readers probably know, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately going through the latest St Croix collection (St Croix Death Records).  There a dozens of collections of records, comprising hundreds of documents.  One of these is a 32-image collection entitled “Free Male Inhabitants 1807”.  This sounds useful (who can’t use a list of Inhabitants from any particular year), but while it isn’t exactly what it seems, the document is actually much more interesting than that.

While Ancestry’s name of the collection certainly appears to be an accurate description (the people listed are free, male, live on St Croix, and it was for the year 1807), this isn’t a document of a census or a complete listing of free people.  The list is only adult males, children aren’t recorded.  Also it doesn’t appear to be comprehensive.  It appears that there are names missing from this document.  As a quick check, I looked at some burgherbriefs issued in 1806 and early 1807, figuring that those people would likely still be on island.  A Charles Ferdinand Wass, born in London, received his brief in December 1806 yet does not appear in the “List of Inhabitants” a year later.  Neither does an Alexander Instant, born in Scotland.  I also couldn't find Stephen Wheeler, born in North America, yet he received his brief in July 1807.

How useful is a “List of Inhabitants” that doesn’t show all the “Inhabitants”?   Well, not very, until you notice what the list really is.  To do that, I need to digress and discuss a bit of Virgin Island history that isn’t as well known as it should be.  It is a time when world events reached across the Atlantic to the little Danish islands and brought significant changes, affecting our families and their lives forever.

The War in Europe Reaches Denmark

If your remember your high-school history, the period 1799-1815 was the time of Napoleon.  The British and the French were locked in a continual war that involved virtually the whole of Europe and as far East as Russia.  Napoleon’s empire grew as he took most of the continent, with the exception of a few countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Portugal, who maintained a strong neutrality (and proceeded to get rich trading with both sides).  As a land force, the Grande Armée of France was virtually invincible.  Britannia, however, ruled the waves.  In October 1805, at Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson soundly defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets, devastating the French navy and leaving Napoleon with insufficient ships to mount an effective invasion of Britain.

Watching the Bombardment
By 1807, Denmark, still formally neutral, had an powerful commercial navy.  As a result, she was feeling pressure from both sides; the French needed ships and the British didn’t want the French to have them. Further, Napoleon had stated his intent to close the continent to British trade, but the neutral ports still allowed British access.  Denmark knew Napoleon would only tolerate it for so long and so moved her army to Holstein in the south to protect from invasion – although it was clear that there could be no real defense from France. In June and July 1807, Napoleon and Alexander I of Russia formalized their alliance with a treaty at Tilsit. 

While the treaty was unexceptional, the real impact to Denmark was from the so-called “Secret Articles”.  These were articles of the treaty agreed to, but not published.  British Foreign Secretary George Canning claimed to have had “secret intelligence” from an undisclosed source that one of these Secret Articles concerned the formation of a Maritime League against Britain, and that Denmark, Sweden, and Portugal, all neutral, would be invited, or forced, to join.  This would have put the naval resources of the three nations in the hands of Napoleon who could then remount an invasion.  This intelligence was from a source that Canning refused to name “for fear that he would be exposed”.  No evidence has ever been found that such Articles existed, and many in Parliament claimed that the “Secret Articles” did not exist and were a fabrication to justify attacking a neutral nation and confiscating their navy.

City of Copenhagen after the Attack
True or not, this was sufficient for Britain to move against Denmark.  In August and September 1807 Admiral Gambier bombarded the city of Copenhagen with rockets until it capitulated.  The British captured or destroyed 17 ships of the line, 12 frigates, 8 brigs, 35 smaller vessels and 81 transport ships.  This left the maritime commercial Scandinavian nation with a devastated capital city and without any means of conducting trade.  Further, since Britain offered no protection to the beleaguered Denmark from the threat of French invasion from the south, and due to the outrage of the unprovoked attack, the Danish felt compelled to ally themselves with Napoleon on 31 October.  That turned out to be a bad decision too, costing them Norway. England formally declared war on Denmark on 4 November.

The Capitulation of the Danish West Indies
(and you thought you were having a rough Christmas)

On 21 December, 1807, British forces commanded by General Henry Bowyer anchored off St. Thomas and compelled Colonel Casimir Wilhelm von Scholten, the governor of St Thomas and St John, to surrender the islands.  Completing this without firing a shot, they moved south to the colonial capital on St Croix.
Col Casimir von Scholten
On December 22, 1807, Bowyer formally requested surrender of the colony from the Governor General of the Danish West Indies, Hans Christopher Lillienskjøld, stating:
“We offer, sir, for your acceptance, such terms as will be honourable for you to receive, and such as may be proper for us to grant.  Being desirous to prevent the unavailing effusion of blood, and probably the confiscation of all property, as we are we are well aware that any resistance on your part to the forces at present under our command could not be effectual.” [The Naval Chronicle for 1808, Vol XIX, pg 160]
Lillienskjøld refused to surrender without knowing the strength of the forces against him and requested to send three officers to count the ships and troops, a request that was easily granted.  Seeing the overwhelming strength of the fleet allayed against is meager force of less than 300 soldiers, Lillienskjøld immediately provided his terms. The negotiations were documented in letters to the Admiralty and published in the London Gazette in early 1808.  These letters record the requested terms and the Bowyer’s responses to those terms.
Lillienskjøld’s  terms included articles to protect crown property (which was not agreed to, all government property was forfeit), protect private property (which was agreed to), preserve the laws of the colony (which was agreed), and several items to preserve the economy of the islands. Only the request of remaining a neutral free port was denied; this had long lasting impacts.
Of the terms treating the rights of the general population, two of these are of interest to us here:
Art. VIII. No inhabitant shall be compelled on any pretense whatever to bear arms against his Danish Majesty, or any other power, or perform any military duty. – The inhabitants are to keep their arms and ammunition; those who wish to remain on the island, shall swear to observe a strict neutrality, and those who may wish to quit it, shall be allowed to dispose of their property, or to appoint attornies for the administration of the same.
Answer. – The inhabitants shall not be compelled to bear arms against his Danish Majesty, but they must take an oath of allegiance, binding themselves to do nothing hostile against the British government, openly or secretly.
They shall keep their arms, but subject to the controul of his Britannic Majesty’s governor.  They may remain on the island, or quit it, as they please.  They may also dispose of their properties, and appoint attornies for the administration of the same.

Art. IX – The free people of colour shall continue to enjoy their freedom and property, and in every respect are to be treated as other inhabitants.
Answer. – Agreed to; they taking the oath of allegiance to the British government.
In essence, the inhabitants were to be allowed to live their lives as they had as Danish subjects, but under a promise not to act against Britain.  This requirement included all free people, both white and coloured. 
The British retained government of the Danish West Indies throughout the years of the War, until 1815, after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.  The islands were returned to Danish control that year and life returned to normal.  Unfortunately, due to the British trade restrictions of the preceding 8 years, St Thomas was no longer the center of commerce in the Caribbean, and the earlier prosperity never returned.  Another lingering effect of the occupation, particularly in St Thomas, was the prevalence of English as the common language, displacing earlier Dutch and the Dutch creole Neggerhollands.  St Croix was already predominantly English speaking as a result of the large population of British, Irish, and Scots planters.

Free Male Inhabitants 1807

This brings us to the document in Ancestry’s collection. 

Title Page of Collection
The document entitled “Free Male Inhabitants 1807” is not, strictly, a recording of the free males on St Croix, but rather a record of those inhabitants who took that oath.  The title page carries this text in English:
An alphabetical List
of those Inhabitants in the
Colony of St Croix
that have taken the Oath of Allegiance
in Consequence of the Capitulation
of said Colony dated the 25th of Decmb 1807
The following pages list some 1,305 names of males who presumably took the oath on behalf of their entire household.  Probably, the oath was not required from those inhabitants who were citizens of nations not at war with Britain.  Those examples cited earlier, of British citizens on St Croix, may not have needed to swear an oath as they were already legal subjects of his Britannic Majesty or were citizens of a nation that was not allied against Britain.  [This creates a minor inconvenience for me, as one of my “Brick Wall” ancestors is the father of Joseph Robson, who was English and about 10 years old at the time of the occupation.  I was hoping to find him listed to show that the family had arrived in St Croix prior to 1824 and tie him to the Robsons I found already on the island. 

Unfortunately, as the Robsons were English they likely would not have had to swear the oath.]
Interestingly, women heads of households are absent from the list.  While British law may have treated men and women differently, by 1807 free women in the Danish colonies had full legal rights and headed many households, both practically and legally.  I’d really like to know how households without adult males were handled.
Detail of "B" page
The listing is not strictly alphabetical, but, as was common in many such “alphabetical” listings, organized into pages according to the first letter of the person’s last name.  Here is an example from the “B” page, showing the record of my great grandfather, Johannes van Beverhoudt Czn (Claudizoon) (1760-1831).
This document appears to be in a single hand; it does not carry signatures.  It isn’t clear if a signed document existed; the people may have simply been required to take an oath orally.  It is also likely that this document was either a local copy or a copy provided to Denmark and not made at the time of the oath taking.  It is possible that other documents exist in British collections.

Documents like this are a treasure to find.  It shows that no matter how far removed we think  we are, world events can affect us all.  Even reaching to three tiny islands so far from home. 

Sourcing Information

The original document is at the Danish Archives in Copenhagen.  That document was copied and the names were numbered by VISHA and the St Croix Landmarks Society as part of their indexing program. VISHA provided the image copy to  The original source information is handwritten on the front page in typical abbreviated form as
RA/VILA/VR/G STX/Diverse soger for den Engeliske Generalguvernør 1801-1812/ #3.57. 

As I posted earlier, you can locate the document through decoding the hierarchical structure of the citation.  Here’s how it breaks down:
Call No.
RA Rigsarkivet Danish State Archives
VILA Vestindiske Lokalarkiver West Indies Local Archive
3. VR/ G STX Den vestindiske Regering / Guvernementets Sankt Croix afdeling West Indian Government / St. Croix Department of Government
3.57 Diverse soger for den Engeliske Generalguvernør 1801-1812 Miscellaneous files relating to the English Governor General 1801 - 1812


  1. The details of your search & documentation gives so much more meaning to genealogy of Virgin Islands. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Love this article! I wonder if this is the origination of the term: "Any resistance will be futile"? Sharing with my fellow novelist/historians on Facebook.