CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands – The Danish owned these tropical islands for centuries but about the only people speaking their language here these days are tourists.
History buffs and sun-seekers are flocking here from Denmark, coming in greater numbers than their colonial forebears ever did as the tiny Scandinavian country revives cultural ties with its old Caribbean possession.
As Danes rediscover the one-time trading hub as a beach haven, some find themselves asking why their government sold the islands to the United States in 1917.
“It was a mistake,” joked Karen Larsen, a 60-year-old teacher from Blokhus, Denmark, as she relaxed at a seaside hotel after taking a Danish-language tour through the lush mountain greenery and colonial architecture of St. Thomas.
When the U.S. Navy took over, the Danish administrators and soldiers abruptly returned to Europe, leaving behind forts and mansions but little of their language in islands where business was done in English or Dutch Creole.
Now, decades later, the former colony is in vogue. Denmark recently agreed to transfer many of its colonial archives to the islands and labour unions are sending craftsmen to teach islanders traditional masonry and painting techniques to help restore two ancient forts.
The soaring value of the kroner against the U.S. dollar, meantime, has enticed Danes to cross the Atlantic to explore the increasingly affordable U.S. territory.
Hotels in the capital named for a 17th-century Danish queen, Charlotte Amalie, fly red flags with white crosses to welcome the return of her countrymen. Over the last two years, at least 9,000 people have visited from Denmark – more than from any other European country.
“We’ve had visits from officials and people from the Senate – primarily because of the good relations, but also because of the nice weather and the sun,” said Danish Consul General Soeren Blak.
Larsen and her husband Jens, 66, said they got interested in the islands after seeing a Danish film about the emancipation of slaves here in 1848.
A highlight of the trip, they said, was climbing the famed “99 steps” – made with bricks used as ballast on Danish ships – that lead to the lavishly restored homes of merchants on a hill overlooking a harbour now packed with cruise ships.
As a free port in the 19th century, St. Thomas generated wealth for traders by remaining open to all major Atlantic powers, regardless of who was at war. During the First World War, the United States bought the territory for $25 million in part to keep Germany from seizing it as a submarine base.
Not all Danish ventures into the past have been welcomed on islands where many associate their rule with the brutal slave trade.
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen planned to unearth Africans’ skeletons from graves found on St. Croix, the largest island, to learn more about their lives. But the project collapsed this year under protests from islanders, including some who alleged the scientists wanted to show slavery wasn’t so bad.
But Danish tourists including Anders Johansen, 55, of Roskilde, said they have been welcomed warmly by locals and also made friends from unexpected places.
“This is the only vacation where there is so many Danes,” Johansen said, sipping a banana daiquiri at a mountaintop bar with about 20 other Danes from his tour bus.