Three Small Islands: The Political Economy of Size

No image is more didactic of the plantation experience than the windmill such as this one still found on the Whim estate in St Croix; though it is still intact, the quarters that once housed enslaved Africans is entangled in bush, also speaking eloquently to the neglect that typifies the majority class’ psychosocial and socio-economic security. The plantation was the flashpoint of existential contradictions; for over three centuries, seven European nations that ruled the Virgin Islands’ roost – principally Denmark.

“Since Columbus encountered and named the Virgin Islands (he landed on St Croix on his second trip in 1493 at Salt River), many countries have planted their flags on our shores. St Croix switched hands the most of any of the Virgin Islands and has a rich cultural past having flown seven flags over the island: Spain, England, Holland, France, the Knights of Malta, Denmark, and finally, the United States. In 1733, France sold the islands to the Danish West India Company and Denmark ruled the island colonies for almost 200 years.”

(http://my-stcroix.com/transfer-day-in-the-virgin-islands/).

The question of celebrating or commemorating Transfer Day is a very troubling one; it rubs salt in unassuaged wounds of some Virgin Islanders who consider their neo-colonial status criminal as Denmark usurped the citizenship rights of Africans who had been emancipated for 69 years and those who had never been enslaved and were free were also denied autonomy when in 1917, the so-called three small islands were sold to the United States of America for $25million (over $509 million in today’s money).

I journeyed to St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix to engage with people there to figure out how they defined their identity politics ahead of the 2017 centennial of said sale.  The ethnographic engagement threw up an existential maze; US colonialism has all but trumped (if you’ll pardon the unfortunate expression), memories of Danish (and German) colonialism – those being the penultimate, somewhat double-headed flags to fly. It is very complicated how this duality comes about; Denmark and Germany (then Prussia) fought two seminal wars (and there is a symbolic lion that embodies the exchange of land that resulted although of course, lions do not grow in Europe but the incorporation of such symbolisms into Eurocentric cosmological representation is a whole nother story).

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Anyways, after the decisive 1864 war, much of what used to be Denmark became Germany; a Danish minority was left behind in the South while a German minority remained in the North.  So technically Germany was interested in the transfer and from a self interested point of view too but then the USA took up the offer that by-passed Germany, for strategic geo-political reasons, the most popularly cited being that it provided access to the Panama Canal. The onslaught of the first great European war was then imminent and the alignment against Germany was also important.

So that is how the Virgin Islanders got caught in this mega chess game; people bitterly recall the decade after Transfer when martial law was instituted when people would be brutalized in the streets by army officers who felt entitled to use openly racist tactics to control a bewildered population.  I went searching for memories of Danish colonialism and although I found that, it was so enmeshed in the imperative of US hegemony that it seemed difficult to even discursively detangle this many stranded paradox.

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So I wrote a poem that captured some features of this contradiction.

Two sides of the Coin

Where I come from

We have a proverbial

Saying

What is joke to you

Is death to me and

beyond language barriers, that saying

Is self-explanatory

Celebrating rum wealth

As romantic myth

Of colonial legacy

Denies the mess made

During slavery

Or in politically correct

Terminology

the Holocaust

Of African enslavement

By selling colonized territory

In Ghana in 1850

And Virgin islands in 1917

What Denmark was really bent

On doing

Was historical

Denial of

our common

colonial legacy

in three instances

Europe, Africa

and Caribbean

fantasy

[carried beyond…]

Mistakenly

named West Indies

The post colonial project?

to erase this criminality

from living

memory

and

the collective

cultural psyche

so in Flensburg today

we find people that say

This is Rum City

Nowhere near historical honesty

there is celebration of wealth

while truth exited by stealth

with no thought in mind

of inhuman trafficking

of people

from East, West, North, South

Central and every other part

of the African continent

And the centuries of tortuous plunder

Being dis-connected

To exploitation of limb and labour

To produce the firey liquid

That built the fine houses and

Legacy that made merchant

Families

proud and scornful of the

rebound on the people

Who paid rum’s cost

With blood sweat and tears

While some with fanfare hail

2017’s centennial

Of Denmark-USA-Virgin Islands

sale

of the land and people

for twenty five million US dollars

unrested souls’ wail

rent the silence

of complicit politricks

Reparations advocates say

Denmark and

Nay

Also Germany and USA

Must pay

That transfer value

Is over 509 million today

This is a travesty

Robbery of people labour

And justice

This autohypnosis odyssey

Writ large

Constitutes political psychosis

and involuntary

loss of memory

plus simultaneous

Schizophrenia regarding

Moral responsibility

A plague on rum’s great houses

Adding insult to injury

You feign invisibility

Yet without timidity you

Ask me

Sugar in your tea?

One or two in die koffie?

Drinking colonial

Legacy

While my cup of sorrow

Runneth over

We all desire reconciliation

From clinging horrors still haunting

our present situation

colonialism

Racism

Sexism

Classism

And

All otherisations

And isms

And schisms

But reconciliation

requires the responsibility

Of re-membering

Transitional justice

Now quoting Marcus Garvey

A people with no knowledge of its past

Is like a tree without roots

Sankofa!

We have to go to our roots, bloody as they are

Fetch the memories

And taut as a bow

Shoot revolutionary arrows

To the Future

Next post will pay homage to the people of the three small islands, so called by Flensburgers who do not really know how monumental their significance is in the cheme of things.

Contact: Dr. Imani M. Tafari-Ama

Flensburger Schifffahrtsmuseum

@itafariama

Email: tafari-ama.imani@stadt.flensburg.de

 

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