Trade and shipping

St. Thomas Harbor

St. Thomas Harbor is one of the most important commercial ports in the West Indies of the 1800s. The harbor in the city of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas was a free port, and the traffic in the harbor was extensive because of its good situation and fine facilities.
Map of St. Thomas harbor and city.
Map of St. Thomas harbor and city, surveyed and drawn in 1778-1780 by Engineering Officer Peter Lotharius Oxholm. Among other things, sea depths and anchorages in the good natural harbor are indicated, where only 17 feet of depth at low water is indicated on the bar marked “G” in the middle of the basin (The Danish National Archives).

The harbor in St. Thomas was popular among merchants and trading companies for its good facilities: the West Indies’ largest floating dock, good machine shops, clear channel marking and inexpensive harbor fees. But it was also notorious for two problems: hurricanes and diseases, particularly yellow fever and cholera. In the 1800s, an average of 2000 – 3000 ships came annually to St. Thomas. In the 1860s, this increased to 4600 annually.

International trade

About half of the tall ships arrived from Caribbean ports and a quarter from European ports. Vessels under the Danish flag made up a smaller and smaller share. In the 1820s, it was twenty-three percent; in the final year before the sale in 1917, it was only thirteen percent. Most ships in the 1820s sailed under an American flag, but in the 1910s British ships had become completely dominant.

More steamships

The vessels in the harbor became larger and larger. In the first half of the 1800s, the average tonnage2 increased from 60 to 100 metric tons. From the 1820s to 1916, the total tonnage increased from 150,000 to 900,000 metric tons annually. In 1823, the first steamship ever put in to St. Thomas – a small North American steamer. From the 1860s onward, steamships came to the fore in earnest, and in 1864 they accounted for ten percent of the tonnage in the port.

The First World War puts a stop to increased shipping traffic

In order to hold their own in international competition, extensive improvements were made to the harbor by the Danes at the start of the 1900s. The basin was deepened, wharves were constructed and conditions were generally improved. There were great expectations for the increased traffic that would pass the Danish colony on the way to and from the newly-opened Panama Canal. However, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 frustrated all expectations, and the colony was sold to the United States in 1917.