The Danish West Indies Plantation Company: 1903-1916
by Chuck Pishko
In 1902, after the fourth unsuccessful attempt to transfer the Danish West Indies to the United States, the Danes appointed a commission of statesmen, economists and scientists to study the economic, social and racial conditions here and propose reform measures.
The commission conducted 23 meetings in Copenhagen and visited and conferred with several Caribbean islands on their way to Christiansted where they held 50 meetings, Frederiksted where they held four meetings and St. Thomas where they held 16 meetings. It’s also recorded that they “visited” St. John.
One of their proposals called for experimentation in the production of cocoa, tobacco, cotton, lemons (limes), bay oil and various fruits, and in this column I’ll discuss how it affected St. John.
In 1903, John Emmanuel Lindquist sold the Cinnamon Bay estate to the Danish West Indies Plantation Company for their cultivation endeavors. Lindquist was retained by the company as manager. With the money from the sale he was able to purchase Denis Bay, where he began to farm fruits and vegetables.
Under Manager Lindquist’s direction, bananas, pineapples, and cocoa were planted. Onions and cassava were also planted and land was cleared for pasture.
Charcoal was made from the trees cleared as well as hardwood posts for protecting garden plots and firewood.
Lindquist scientifically managed the various planting so that shade was maintained and the fragile soil was not directly exposed to the hot sun and wind. He also encouraged the growth and propagation of bay trees from which the world famous, widely heralded bay rum was produced.
As a result of his work with the West Indies Plantation Company, he was decorated by the King of Denmark with the Silver Cross of the Dannebrog and received the title Dannebrogsman.
At the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1892-1893), Valdemar Riise’s double distilled bay rum received top honors. He soon attracted bay rum competitors including H. Michelson, who opened a New York City office to promote his product.
They both advertised locally. Riise had thousands of professionally designed 6 x 10 cards distributed to ships’ passengers and Michelsen had a huge sign (96 foot long x 9 feet high) on Hassell Island at the entrance to the harbor, much to the chagrin of many residents who were happy when a hurricane in 1932 blew it away.
Bay oil production was a major industry of this period. It did not adversely affect the trees when leaves could be picked up to three times a year. Lindquist oversaw bay tree groves on Bordeaux/Hope, as well as his own plantation at Denis Bay.
Bordeaux/Hope and Lameshur were the plantations of Danish Count Henrik Grevenkop-Castenskjold, who bought the plantations in 1904. The Count built a still for extracting bay oil and another for processing lime juice.
Limes were also an extremely important crop for St. John at this time. The primary grower was Cinnamon Bay plantation, whose limes were made into concentrated lime juice and sold in England. The English were in the lead of curing scurvy with lime juice. This eventually led to the development of the first “soft drink.”
L. Rose & Company offered non-alcoholic sweetened lime juice to the public as Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial which is still popular today in some circles. Also, citric acid and citrate of lime were manufactured and became important additives to the food industry.
Bananas and coconuts were also grown commercially on several estates. Carl Francis grew both, with somewhat limited success with bananas because of soil conditions. Everything was apparently going well, but problems developed in marketing some of the products. For example, contracts to supply limes were not honored when merchants found cheaper prices elsewhere.
In reviewing Steve Edward’s research on agriculture, I found Danish articles by Frederick Borgensen, (1905-1906) and Olaf Linck (1914), casual visitors to St. John. The Linck article was featured in Ruth Low’s book St. John Backtime. Both articles mention that taxes should be imposed on uncultivated land so that absentee owners would sell off their property rather than just holding it in reserve. This is hardly information you’d pick up on a casual visit. Perhaps they were primed by the government. Nothing is new; taxes and land values are still prime topics.
Also, finding farm labor became a problem. But the death knell of the Danish West Indies Plantation Company was the hurricane of 1716 which destroyed all of the crops where they stood in the fields and forests. Neither the commercial enterprises nor the fruit industries were ever the same.
Recently I was given a series of files gathered and researched over a period of 20 years by the late Stephen C. Edwards, one of St. John’s leading historians. Steve had a deep appreciation for the people of St. John and their history. I was extremely honored by his family with this gift.
Also, Steve had studied records in Denmark, Salt Lake City, and the National Archives and Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which resulted in an extensive library of some 80 rolls of microfilm which his family donated to the St. Croix Landmarks Society Research Library and Archives. My wife and I had the privilege of arranging the transfer of films and assisting in their move from St. John to St. Croix. We worked with George Tyson, another outstanding St John historian and the Whim Librarian, Paula Wilson.
George was delighted with the microfilm, which he said would save many trips to examine copies of the records in Denmark. Ms. Wilson immediately added the films to their official collection and they are now available to researchers. I plan to make the written records available, as soon as I uncover their total import, to graduate students and other scholars living and visiting here on a supervised basis. I will also be noting when my column includes information from the files of Stephen C. Edwards, which will probably be more often than not.