Virgin Islands’ Special Celebration : Transfer Day Marks 1917 U.S. Purchase from Denmark

Times Staff Writer

Church bells will echo through the narrow, twisting streets of this quaint 315-year-old capital all day Tuesday, Transfer Day in the Virgin Islands.

Transfer Day is a territorial-wide celebration marking the 70th anniversary of the purchase of the 133-square-mile Caribbean island chain by the United States for $25 million from Denmark. It is an area of lush tropical islands embraced by white sand beaches and calm blue-green seas.

For the 100,000 Americans who live on this unincorporated U.S. territory, Transfer Day is one of the biggest holidays of the year.


A reenactment of the transfer will begin at 4 p.m. Tuesday on the lawns of the 1874 lime-green, white-shuttered Legislature building. That’s the precise time the event originally occurred on March 31, 1917.

The 196-foot-long, three-masted, full-rigged Danish government training ship Danmark has sailed here from Copenhagen especially for the celebration. The Danmark’s 80 cadets and 18 officers will represent the officers and crew of the Danish cruiser Valkyrien which in 1917 carried back to Denmark the last Danish governor and his official party.

Representing the U.S.S. Hancock, the ship that brought the first American governor to the Virgin Islands, will be the destroyer U.S.S. Connolly.

March Through Streets

Sailors from both ships will march in formation through the streets of Charlotte Amalie as sailors did on the original Transfer Day. They will be dressed in military uniforms worn by sailors from both nations in 1917.

“I remember that day so vividly. I saw it all, saw the Danish ship Valkyrien and the American ship Hancock at anchor in the waters off the Legislature building, then the barracks for Danish soldiers. I had a front-row seat,” recalled Geraldo Guirty, 81, local historian.

Guirty, a black West Indian who is a fifth generation Virgin Islanders (85% of the population here is black, 15% white), described members of the consular corps at the original ceremony heavily perspiring in their Prince Albert coats and top hats, and other dignitaries in linen and white drill suits wearing Panama hats. He was 11 at the time.

“I can still see the Dannebrog, the red Danish flag with the white cross, slowly taken down for the last time and the Stars and Stripes being hoisted and sailors aboard the Danish ship and the American ship firing gun salutes. I can still hear the national anthems of both countries played that day,” continued Guirty as he sat on a rock wall beneath the bust of Denmark’s King Christian IX in Charlotte Amalie’s Emancipation Park.

Now on Display

Guirty’s father was a Danish police officer who wore his dark blue serge uniform and white dress helmet with Royal Danish emblem for the last time on Transfer Day in 1917. That helmet is now on display at a local museum. On Transfer Day, his father became an American policeman.

“Among the plain people some were sad. Some were glad. Many wept openly. They were saying: ‘We know what we have but we don’t know what we be gettin’ .’ It was a big moment in our history. It ended 245 years of Danish rule,” said Guirty who is portraying the first American governor of the Virgin Islands in the reenactment pageant. Several Virgin Island senior citizens will take the role of “wailers,” crying as one flag is lowered and the other raised.

Muriel Jackson, 48, with the V.I. Department of Conservation and Cultural Affairs, spent months researching, writing and directing the Transfer Day reenactment as the Virgin Islands principal bicentennial project in 1976. This is the second time the reenactment is being presented and Jackson is presenting and producing the historic program again.

Proclamations made by President Woodrow Wilson and King Christian X of Denmark 70 years ago will be read. Denmark’s Consul General to New York, Villads Villadsen, is flying down to read the King’s words in the reenactment. Alexander A. Farrelly, 62, the Virgin Islands fourth elected governor (governors have been elected here since 1971) and the 70th governor of the island since Joergen Iversen was appointed by Denmark in 1672, will speak.

Local Dishes

Following the ceremony refreshments will be served including island dishes like maube, a local drink from the bark of a tree, johnny cakes, Danish meatballs and soursop, a local ice cream.

“All Danes in Denmark and everywhere else in the world know about the Virgin Islands. Oldtimers remember when St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and the 50 or more smaller islands were a Danish colony,” said Danish Consul General to the Virgin Islands Hans Jahn, 60.

Jahn, a Danish citizen, is also president of the West Indian Co., a major Danish Virgin Island firm that owns shopping centers here and serves as agent for many of the cruise ships that call on local ports.

He told how Danish schoolchildren learn about the Virgin Islands in history classes. “After all we had this part of the world 245 years. The Virgin Islands are a popular vacation destination for hundreds of Danes every year,” he said. Here for Transfer Day from Denmark are 120 members of Dansk Vestindisk Selskab, “The Friends of West Indies.”

Inge Mejer Antosen, curator of the Danish National Museum is here for the celebration. She brought hundreds of photographs never shown before in the Virgin Islands depicting life here at the time of Transfer Day.

Danish heritage is evident everywhere throughout the Virgin Islands, the architecture of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century buildings in the principal towns, the stone ruins of old sugar mills dotting all three major islands.

Motorists still drive on the left side, a leftover from Danish rule. The main streets in Charlotte Amalie, named after the Danish queen in 1691, still carry Danish names--Dronnigens Gade (Main Street), Norre Gade (North Street), Vimmelskafts Gade (Back Street).

Danish Still Spoken

Many elderly residents, both black and white, speak Danish. There are a number of Danish-American families, descendants of families here since the 1600s and 1700s, especially on St. Croix. The present U.S. ambassador to Denmark is Terrence Todman, a black Virgin Islander.

Gov. Farrelly was interviewed at neoclassic Government House, the 1867 two-story white mansion constructed under the direction of a tommermester (master carpenter) of stuccoed-over Danish ballast brick with a second-story iron veranda.

“Last month I was at the national governor’s conference in Washington, D.C., attended by the 50 governors and governors from America’s five territories,” the governor said. “I am America’s only black governor.”

Farrelly recalled the Virgin Islanders have had full American citizenship since 1932. While living in the Virgin Islands they may not vote for President or Vice President, however, but they may vote for them if they are living in any of the 50 states.

“We are Americans. We do not wish to be anything else. We should be permitted to vote for our President,” he said.

The governor said Virgin Islanders are far better off than any of the other Caribbean islanders. “We have the highest per capita income in the Caribbean--$8,000 a year. Transferring control from Denmark proved to be exceptionally good for our people.

Desires Statehood

“Someday we hope to see the Virgin Islands achieve statehood. I do not believe, however, that I will see it in my lifetime,” said the governor who has master’s and law degrees from Yale, served as assistant U.S. attorney for the Virgin Islands, was an island judge and an island senator. He is the island’s first Democratic governor and was inaugurated in January. He ran for governor twice before in 1970 and 1974 and lost.