Personal history

The population trend in the Danish West Indies, 1672-1917

The composition of the population in the Danish West Indies changed a great deal through the colonial era. The trend in the population reveals some of the fundamental problems that characterized the colony, with respect to the excess mortality in the enslaved population, the growing number of free coloreds and the differences between St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John.
Coolie boy.
Coolie boy, i.e. a child of South Asian origin, photographed in the Danish West Indies in 1903. Maritime Museum of Denmark, file no. 000015688.

The most striking feature of the population in the Danish colony in its first century was the rapidly growing enslaved population. As early as 1686 – only fourteen years after colonization – it was larger than the European population (respectively 333 and 300 persons). That trend continued with steadily increasing speed. When the Danish Crown took over the colony in 1755, there were thus 1760 Euro-Caribbeans on the three islands combined, but all of 14,409 enslaved laborers. In other words, the enslaved constituted nearly ninety percent of the population.

The number of enslaved laborers tops out

Around fifty years later, when the prohibition against the Danish slave trade took effect in 1803, the Danish-West Indian enslaved population’s size topped out at just under 36,000 persons. As the Euro-Caribbean population at the same time was just under 3500 persons, the ratio between the two groups was still around 1:10. But the trend since 1755 had been very different on the three islands. Nearly the entire increase in the enslaved population had happened on the sugar island of St. Croix, while it had not really increased much on St. Thomas and St. John.

After 1803: The enslaved population shrinks

After 1803, the picture changed. From then on, the number of enslaved laborers declined up until the abolition of slavery in 1848. The explanation is that the high number of enslaved laborers in 1803 could only be due to importation of enslaved from Africa from 1755 to 1803, for in the same period 0.5 – 1 percent more enslaved laborers died annually than were born. The excess mortality among the enslaved continued after 1803, so the number of enslaved in 1846 had declined to just under 22,000 persons. That corresponds to a decrease of more than one third.

More and more manumissions

The decline in the number of enslaved laborers in the period after the abolition of the slave trade was not only due to deaths, however, but also to a growing number of manumissions. In the beginning of the period up until 1803, the free colored population grew only slowly: from only four “free Negroes” on St. Thomas in 1680 to just under 1500 persons in 1797 on all three islands. After the abolition the growth increased, so the free coloreds in 1835 numbered in all 9000 persons. That corresponds to around twenty percent of the total population in the Danish West Indies, which in the same year reached the highest number of inhabitants in the Danish period, namely a good 43,000. Especially on St. Thomas, there were many free coloreds in 1835: in fact, all of thirty-eight percent of the population – or approximately 5500 persons.

Excess mortality

The excess mortality among the enslaved laborers was a familiar phenomenon in the entire Caribbean, and especially in sugar-producing areas, because the working conditions for sugar production were so extremely harsh. The many dead enslaved laborers became a major problem for the Danish–West Indian planters and colonial officials when the Danish slave trade was done away with in 1803. The sugar production constituted, of course, the basis for the colony’s economy and existence and was entirely dependent on the enslaved laborers’ labor.

The reason for the high mortality was especially the infant mortality. At that time, high infant mortality was not uncommon, but in the Danish West Indies it was particularly high. On St. Croix, up to forty percent of all dead enslaved laborers were under five years of age.

Nutrition, workload and hygiene

The basis for the many deaths among the enslaved was primarily deficient nutrition, the great workload in the sugar production and generally poor hygiene, but not large epidemics or hard punishments. The authorities attempted throughout the period to improve the enslaved laborers’ living conditions. For instance, with regulations about larger rations of food and clothing, shortening of the working hours and allocation of plots of land, while at the same time smallpox vaccination of the entire population was introduced. However, it had no visible effect. Still more enslaved died than were born.

After 1848: Emigration and excess mortality

After the abolition of slavery in 1848, the number of inhabitants in the Danish colony in the West Indies declined considerably up until the sale in 1917. From just under 40,000 persons to 1850 to a good 26,000 in 1917, i.e., a decline of slightly more than one third. However, the numbers conceal great differences among the three islands and between town and country. In St. Croix’s rural districts, the decline was fifty-four percent and in St. John’s rural districts all of fifty-seven percent. On the other hand, the population of the harbor town of Charlotte Amalies grew by thirty-two percent in the same period. It clearly shows the emigration from the crisis-affected agriculture to the harbor town on St. Thomas, where there were more opportunities.

The many deaths continued

The main reasons for the decline in the population were excess mortality and emigration. The excess mortality was a familiar problem from the slave era, but nowhere else in the Caribbean did it continue to have such great importance after the abolition of slavery. The reasons seem generally to have been the same as in the slave era. But great emigration also explains why the population shrank. People immigrated to various places within and without the Caribbean; at the end of the period, for example, they went to New York, Puerto Rico and Cuba. However, a considerable immigration also occurred, especially to St. Croix. The immigrants were overwhelmingly agricultural workers from other Caribbean islands, especially Barbados, but contract workers were also imported from India.


Svend E. Green-Pedersen, “Slave Demography in the Danish West Indies and the Abolition of the Danish Slave Trade.” In David Eltis & James Walvin (eds.): The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Origins and Effects in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. University of Wisconsin Press, 1981 (pp. 231-255).

Neville A. T. Hall, Slave Society in the Danish West Indies. St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. (ed. B.W. Higman). The University of the West Indies Press, Jamaica, 1992. p. 5.

Niklas Thode Jensen, For the Health of the Enslaved: Slaves, Medicine and Power in the Danish West Indies, 1803-1848. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2012.

Peter Hoxcer Jensen, From Serfdom to Fireburn and Strike: The History of Black Labor in the Danish West Indies 1848-1916. Christiansted: Antilles Press, 1998.