Peter Lotharius Oxholm: A “watchful eye” on the West Indies

During the North American secession from the British Empire it was difficult for Denmark to stay out of the conflict. Thus, the Heir Presumptive to the Danish –Norwegian Crown, Frederik, wanted a “watchful eye” on the West Indies. The choice fell on the young Lieutenant Peter Lotharius Oxholm. His unique mapping of the islands is of great importance for posterity.
Map of Christiansted on St. Croix by Peter Lotharius Oxholm.
Map of Christiansted on St. Croix by Peter Lotharius Oxholm, 1779. Fort Christiansværn is situated at the harbor and close by in Company Street the Danish church. Government House was located in Kings Street. The map shows clearly the undulating terrain.

Lieutenant Oxholm was a promising young man of 24 when he was sent to the Danish possessions in The West Indies. Oxholm’s task was to examine the ability of the colony to defend itself against attack and draw new maps of St. Thomas and St. John. But Oxholm was an enterprising man and he also examined a number of issues that he had not been tasked to deal with at all. The political situation of the colony, conditions for soldiers and enslaved laborers, health care and conditions for prisoners and lepers, organization of the sugar trade and the schools were all described. Oxholm became an advocate of slavery that he believed was necessary for the economy of the colony. But he was critical of the miserable living conditions of enslaved laborers, soldiers, and the sick.

Oxholm meets resistance

Oxholm was thorough and effective and in some respects quite modern. For example, he would stand with his timepiece in hand and do real time studies of work processes at the docks in Christiansted. Not surprisingly, he had many suggestions about repairs, improvements, and new installations. But Oxholm’s energetic fashion did not endear him to all. The Governor-General and the West Indian government were annoyed by his rigid and self-assured personality and his interest in topics that were not part of his assignment on the islands. Oxholm also sent reports back home about the situation in the colony – going around the Governor-General. The co-operation with the local authorities reached a deadlock and Oxholm’s expenses soared, and after two years Oxholm was called back home. In August 1780, he was able to hand in a detailed report of no less than 127 pages, including 30 detailed maps and drawings sketching the islands.

Peter Lotharius Oxholm.
Not everyone in the West Indies liked the enterprising Peter Lotharius Oxholm. But the young lieutenant had an impressive career and ended up as General-Governor. His mapping of the islands is quite unique and of great importance to posterity. (Royal Library).

Oxholm becomes Governor-General of the Danish colony in 1814

But Oxholm was by no means finished with the colony in the West Indies. He had married Maria Heyliger – daughter of a prominent planter family – and he soon returned as a plantation owner and later member of the West Indian government. After the death of his wife, he remarried and returned to Denmark in 1797 where he resumed his military career. In 1814, a new man was needed for the powerful position of Governor-General in the Danish colony. Again the choice fell on Peter Lotharius Oxholm, who took office in 1815. But this time, his carrier was cut short. Poor health forced him to resign and return to Denmark after just one year. Here, he died at his country estate near Frederiksdal (near Copenhagen) in 1827, 74 years old.

Unique mapping of the West Indies

Oxholm’s maps were of high quality and impressively accurate. Some have been in use almost up until the present day. Today, his maps and drawings are considered by the Danish Ministry of Culture to be of “unique national importance”. Oxholm also left behind a number of reports and books about conditions in the Danish colony in the West Indies. The most important one is his book on the state of the West Indies, De danske vestindiske Øers Tilstand i Henseende til Population, Cultur og Finance-Forfatning (“The State of the Danish West Indian Islands with Respect to Population, Culture and Financial Condition”) from 1797, containing both descriptions and illustrations of plantation operations in the colony. Oxholm also wrote several debate pieces where, among other things, he defended the slave trade as late as 1806. Oxholm’s energy did not diminish, and right up until his death he continued making maps and drawings and suggesting improvements to conditions in the Danish colony in the West Indies.

Government House in Kings Street in Christiansted, St. Croix.
Government House in Kings Street in Christiansted, St. Croix, drawn by Peter Lotharius Oxholm 1778-1780. At the ground floor was offices and the like, at the first floor meeting rooms and on the second floor the Governor-General’s private apartment. (Danish National Archives)