American interest in the islands
When Denmark had lost the Second Schleswig War in 1864 Prussia and Austria, the Americans feared that Austria would seize control of the Danish West Indies as a kind of war booty. Therefore, the American Secretary of State, William H. Seward, opened negotiations with the Danish diplomatic representative in Washington Waldemar Raasløff. The Americans were keenly interested in acquiring the excellent harbor on St. Thomas for their fleet of warships.
Seward and Raasløff were energetic and result-oriented, and they completed talks on a sales treaty at the beginning of 1867. The treaty was signed at diplomat level on 24th October 1867. The Americans wanted to purchase St. Thomas and St. John for 7.5 million dollars in gold, but they were not particularly interested in the agricultural island of St. Croix.
Referendum or not
Denmark had one firm wish on which the country insisted, even though the Americans found it unnecessary: a referendum on the islands concerning the sale. The first article of the treaty said: ”However, His Majesty the King of Denmark will not force anything on the population and therefore as soon as possible will give it the opportunity to express its wishes regarding this cession”. The result of the referendum, which was held on St. Thomas and St. John on 9th January 1868, was that 1244 voted in favor and 22 against the sale of the two islands to the USA.
Running out of time
Denmark was now ready to ratify the treaty, but concerns were expressed at political level in the USA. Despite Raasløff’s enthusiastic efforts, time was passing without Congress coming to a decision. The deadline for ratification was reached in April 1870 without the Senate having assented to the purchase of the colony. This meant the end of the matter this time around.