Historian Illuminates Rags to Riches Story of First Danish V.I. Governor

A drawing of Fort Christian from the 1888 book “Leaflets from the Danish West Indies” by Charles Edwin Taylor. (Photo: public domain)

From rags to riches, through shipwrecks and mutinies, facing hostile nations, pirates, and fiercely un-Scandinavian climates, the first governor of what we now call the U.S. Virgin Islands had a rough go of it. An upcoming lecture aims to shed light on the man who arrived on St. Kitts as an indentured servant and rose to lead the Danish West Indies.

Researcher Jens Villumsen will present the governor in a lecture at the Caribbean Genealogy Library Wednesday on St. Thomas, explaining the man in his own words via letters: his daily life, challenges, threats from other islands, personal troubles, and more.

Jorgen Iversen Dybbol may no longer be a household name. But in 1672 he was tasked with transforming a scrubby backwater called St. Thomas from a largely abandoned outpost — bartered and batted around by European colonizers for a century — into a powerhouse Caribbean trade port.

The story of Dybbol is much more than dry dates and figures. He made a fortune by creating his own trading company but had most of it stolen by the British Navy while trying to return to Denmark. The Danish West India Company sent him to St. Thomas to build an organized port. It wasn’t easy. After his improbable rise, the indentured servant-turned-governor was reportedly an eager and harsh slave master. He was also a strict public disciplinarian, instituting mandatory church attendance and barring anyone from leaving island without his permission.

After French forces attacked the island, Dybbol built strong fortifications but his spirit was broken. He asked the Danish West Indian company to appoint a new governor and returned to Denmark. The new governor didn’t work out, however, and Dybbol was sent back. No one wanted to go with him so convicts serving life sentences and 20 convicted prostitutes were loaded on the ship instead of wealthy settlers. Along the way the criminals revolted and threw Dybbol overboard in the Atlantic.

There are endless more twists and turns in the story, including miraculous escapes, brutal savagery, international politics, and the very foundations of Virgin Islands culture under the Danes.

People wishing to attend the lecture can go to the Caribbean Genealogy Library on St. Thomas on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. or attend online by registering at this link. Villumsen will also share photos he’s taken of items from the Havmanden, the ship Dybbol was ejected from, now housed at the Bohuslans Museum in Uddevalla, Sweden.

Villumsen, a member of the Danish West India Society in Denmark, has previously lectured on old Danish cemeteries in the territory and helped transcribe Fireburn records.

Recent events at the Caribbean Genealogy Library have included lectures on the history of Transfer Day, disasters in the Danish West Indies, tips on accessing the Danish National Archives, early migration in the territory, and the dusty history of coal hauling women.