Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/St Thomas (Danish West India Islands)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

ST THOMAS, one of the Danish West India Islands, lies 36 miles east of Porto Rico (Spanish) and 40 north-north-west of St Croix (Danish), with its principal town (Charlotte Amalie) in 18° 20′ 27″ N. lat. and 64° 55′ 40″ W. long. It is 13 miles long from east to west, with an average breadth of 3, and is estimated to have an area of 33 square miles. The highest point, West Mountain, is 1586 feet above the sea. Previous to the abolition of slavery in 1848 the island was covered with sugar plantations and dotted with substantial mansions; but now a few vegetables, a little fruit, and some guinea grass are all that it produces. Greengroceries are imported from the United States, poultry and eggs from the neighbouring islands. Nor is the exceptional position which St Thomas has hitherto enjoyed as a commercial depot any longer secure; the value of the imports in 1880 was less than one-half of what it was in 1870, and the merchants of Venezuela, Porto Rico, San Domingo, Hayti, &c., who used to purchase in St Thomas, now go direct to the markets of the United States and Europe. The Royal Mail Company, which at an early date chose the island as the principal rendezvous for its steam-packets in that part of the world, and whose example was followed by other important lines, removed its headquarters to Barbados in 1885. The harbour lies about the middle of the south coast and is nearly landlocked; its depth varies from 36 to 18 feet. A floating dock, 250 feet in length, was completed in 1875; there is in addition a steam-slip capable of taking up a vessel of 1200 tons. Along the north side of the harbour lies Charlotte Amalie, popularly known as St Thomas, the only town on the island. In 1880 the inhabitants of the island numbered 14,389 (males 5757, females 8632), of whom about a sixth are white, of various nationalities; the rest have nearly all more or less of Negro blood. English has gradually become almost the exclusive language of the educated classes, and is used in the schools and churches of all the various communities. The curious Creole speech of the Negroes, which contained a mixture of broken Dutch, Danish, English, &c., though it was reduced to writing by the Moravian missionaries subsequent to 1770, is rapidly dying out.[1] About a third of the population are Roman Catholics, and the rest mainly Protestants of the Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Moravian, and English Episcopal Churches. The Jewish community, 500 or 600 strong, has a synagogue. There are in the town two hospitals, a public reading-room and library, a Government college (1877), a Roman Catholic college (St Thomas), a Moravian school, and a small theatre. A quarantine lazaretto is maintained on Lighthouse or Muhlenfeldt Point. The general health of the town is good. The climate varies little all the year round, the thermometer seldom falling below 70 or rising above 90. In the “hurricane” months August, September, and October south-winds, accompanied by sultry heat, rain, and thunder, are not uncommon; throughout the rest of the year the wind blows between east and north. Earthquakes are not unfrequent, but they do little damage in comparison with cyclones, which sometimes sweep over the island.

St Thomas was discovered by Columbus in 1493, and at that

time was inhabited by two tribes, the Caribs and the Arrowauks. In 1657 it was colonized by the Dutch, and after their departure for New York it was held by the English in 1667. The Danish West India and Guinea Company took possession in 1671, and some eight years later began the introduction of slave labour. It was succeeded in 1685 by the so-called Brandenburgh Company, the principal shareholders of which were Dutch. The colony was strengthened by French refugees from St Christopher's after the revocation of the edict of Nantes. The neutrality of Denmark led to the prizes of the various belligerents being brought to its port for sale. In 1754 the king of Denmark took the management of the colony into his own hands, and in 1764 he threw open the port to vessels of all nations. The neutrality of Denmark again favoured it in the war of 1792; and it became the only market in the West Indies from which the products of the colonies could be conveyed to the north of Europe. In 1801 the island was held by the British for ten months, and it was again in their possession from the latter part of 1807 to 1815. At that time the harbour was three or four times a year the rendezvous for homeward-bound English ships, from 200 to 400, as the case might be, which waited there for their convoys. The South American War of Independence led a number of Spaniards to settle at St Thomas. A great but temporary stimulus was given to its commerce during the American Civil War. In 1871 the Danish Government removed the headquarters of their

West India possessions from St Croix to St Thomas.
  1. See specimens and analysis by Dr E. Pontoppidan, in Ztschr. f. Ethnol., Berlin, 1881.