National Geographic : 1956 Feb
Virgin Islands: Tropical Playland, U.S.A. Gleaming Beaches, Duty-free Bargains, and a Hint of Old Denmark Lure Vacationers to These Climate-blessed Caribbean Isles BY JOHN SCOFIELD 201 National Geographic Magazine Staff With Illustrations by Charles Allmon, National Geographic Staff BEFORE I went to the American Virgin Islands, a visiting St. Thomian char acterized these easternmost bits of United States territory in one concise sen tence. "You'll never meet three sisters with less in common," he told me. And different indeed are these three Virgins. The island of St. Thomas, to which a plane brought me from near-by Puerto Rico, is urbane and up to date. Most of its 13,813 inhabitants cluster in bustling, commerce-wise Charlotte Amalie. Next door, separated by a channel that shades from leaden gray to the palest of aqua marines, lies nine-mile-long St. John, smallest and least developed of the Virgins, and the proposed site of Uncle Sam's 29th national park. Forty miles away, quiet St. Croix cultivates sugar cane and dreams of the past (map, page 207).* Islands Discovered in 1493 Columbus first sighted the islands on his second trip to the New World. The largest he called Holy Cross-in Spanish, Santa Cruz. The others he named Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgines, in honor of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. "For more than 200 years," an island ac quaintance reminded me, "the islands were known as the Danish West Indies and were Scandinavia's only possessions in the Amer icas. In 1868 William H. Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, tried to buy St. Thomas and St. John. Congress pigeonholed the bill. In 1902 another treaty was negotiated, but the Danish Parliament blocked the sale. "Finally World War I forced the issue; the United States feared that Germany had her eyes on the Virgins. This time both Americans and Danes agreed. On March 31, 1917, the Danish West Indies became a nonselfgoverning United States territory. "They were expensive pieces of real estate," my friend added. "The $25,000,000 price tag works out to almost $300 an acre. Alaska, you know, cost less than two cents an acre." As we walked toward Charlotte Amalie's old Danish fort, a row of rusting cannon caught my eye. "They always remind me of Virgin Islands cockroaches," my companion volunteered. He laughed at my puzzled expression. "I'd classify this one as folklore, not fact. The story is that in Danish times the care taker of a fort on one of the islands was asked to account for some missing cannon. Copen hagen was an ocean away, and the caretaker didn't take the order too seriously. 'Eaten by cockroaches,' he reported testily. Back came another letter. Please, it directed, send us samples of your cockroaches. "The harried caretaker put an end to the affair by asking how they proposed he should send these iron-chewing insects across the Atlantic without their destroying the ships?" Today the three islands are administered by the Department of the Interior; the gov ernor and government secretary are appointed by the President of the United States. Virgin Islanders elect their own legislature of 11 members for the three islands, but they do not vote in presidential elections or send rep resentatives to Congress. Motorists Drive on Left-hand Side As I started across busy Dronningens Gade a sleek European car bore down on me. Just in time I remembered and hopped back onto the curb; left-hand driving is the custom here. From its pedestal in the park, a bust of Denmark's Christian IX gazed seaward through blossom-heavy bougainvillea. A gray donkey jogged an island Frenchman toward the market; behind him strode an erect Ne gress, balancing on her head a tray heaped with golden papayas. *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Carib Cruises the West Indies," by Carleton Mitchell, January, 1948; and "The American Virgins," by DuBose Heyward and Daisy Reck, September, 1940.