The American ambassador’s memorandums about the sale

When Denmark finally sold the three West Indian islands to the USA in 1917, it was after many years of negotiation. Handwritten memos from the American ambassador in Denmark tell of the last years of the negotiations and the final sale.
Memorandum of December 1915.
Memorandum of December 1915 offering 20 million dollars. It is written on notepaper from the American embassy in Copenhagen. (Danish National Archives)

There are ten small memos in the archives of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stored in the Danish National Archives about the negotiations leading up to the sale and the sale itself of the Danish West Indies to the USA. The memos are written in Ambassador Maurice Francis Egan’s characteristic script. Egan had been ambassador to Denmark since 1907.

Rejected by Denmark

As early as 1867 and again in 1902, talks had been conducted between Denmark and the USA about a sale – without result on both occasions. However, in 1911, Egan reported to Washington that many in Denmark were prepared to sell the West Indian colony. The price was to be 15 million dollars. In 1913 the American government made a formal approach to Denmark concerning the possibility of purchasing the colony, but once more without result. The American enquiry was dismissed.

From 50 million dollars to 100 million Danish kroner

In May 1915 the Minister of Foreign Affairs Erik Scavenius told Ambassador Egan in confidence that the islands should be sold and preferably to the USA. On 18th August 1915 Egan had yet another secret conversation with Scavenius, who said that the Danes would probably demand 50 million dollars for the islands. After all, he argued, it included St. Thomas’ important harbor, known as the Gibraltar of the Caribbean.

Scavenius later proposed a price of 100 million Danish kroner, corresponding to 30 million dollars. Four months later, in December 1915, the memos reveal that Egan was of the opinion that 20 million should be sufficient, and a month later the parties agreed on a sales price of 25 million dollars.

Medal of Merit

Both parties found the sale satisfactory, and Egan continued as ambassador to Denmark until 1918, when he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog. In addition, before his death in 1924 he was awarded the Danish Medal of Merit in Gold.

Memorandum of January 1916.
Memorandum of January 1916 approving a sales price of 25 million dollars. It reads: “Following recent confidential communication, Mr. Egan is able to say, (cable received this morning,) that, with ’a desire for an early and friendly conclusion of negotiation’ an offer of $25,000,000, – twenty-five millions of dollars, – would be considered, though not finally agreed to.” (Danish National Archives)