Blind spots Images of the Danish West Indies colony

A view of the empire


1790 - 1856


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Picturesque colonial scenes for domestic use

Once the cartographers had measured and drawn up schematic plans of the colonised islands, artists went on to offer different perspectives on the place. Landscape views presented this cultivated nature as a new paradise.

The fields of sugar canes were celebrated in watercolours and paintings. The harbour towns were another favourite motif: they were depicted as the port of entry to the islands’ riches and as a doorway opening out on the world.

The colony was featured on textiles and faience, and prints of island scenes could be found in many Danish homes. At the court the grandeur of the Danish empire was celebrated in the form of large-scale paintings. Today, these nineteenth-century landscape paintings are still used as illustrations in books about the Danish West Indies. Their idyllic appearance gives the story of Denmark’s colonial rule an aura of nostalgia.


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Imperial greatness

C.A. Lorentzen Rheden ved Christiansted på St. Croix / Anchorage Area at Christiansted on Saint Croix Oil painting, ca. 1823-1825 Courtesy of The Royal House

Grand paintings of the Danish West Indies hang on the walls of monarchs and authorities, promoting Denmark’s self-image as a an imperial power.

A Danish frigate fires a salute near Christiansted on Saint Croix. The harbour is buzzing with activity, and the Danish flag flies from the impressive Fort Christiansværn in the centre of town.

In 1822 the painter Christian August Lorentzen was commissioned to create four large-scale paintings depicting the Danish colonies. The paintings were to hang in the royal staterooms at the newly rebuilt Christiansborg Palace. Featuring scenes from the Caribbean, India, Iceland and Søndermarken north of Copenhagen, they show the Danish empire in all its international glory. No signs of a weakening of the Danish realm are visible here, even though the paintings were created only a few years after the Second Battle of Copenhagen and its attendant loss of the Danish fleet in 1807 and the loss of Norway in 1814.

Lorentzen did not visit he colonies he painted. While his scenes from India and Iceland are obviously imaginary landscapes, his painting of Christiansted is a creative reinterpretation of existing pictures of the town. The function of the series – to showcase the grandeur of the empire – was more important than documentary accuracy.

Today Lorentzen’s paintings hang on the walls of HM Queen Margrethe II’s audience chamber at Amalienborg.


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Stock images of history

P. Seidelin and H. Hansen (E. Westerberg and A. Nay, lithographers) Frederiksted, Christianssted, St. Thomas and St. Thomas. Litographs, 1856 Emil Bærentzen & Co. Lithografisk Institut DANMARK, 1856

A vast tome about the Danish empire from 1856 includes many illustrations from the Danish West Indies. These romantically tinted images are still used as standard illustrations in studies of the history of the islands. The impressive book DANMARK was published in 1856. Containing 77 illustrations with accompanying texts, it offers an overview of the entire Danish realm. The Danish West Indies are strongly represented with no less than six pictures and extensive captions.

These illustrations all belong to the category known as “prospects”: vistas intended to offer a neutral overview of a city or landscape seen from a high vantage point. However, the views presented of the Danish West Indies are far from objective records. While some are based on early photographic depictions, others are based on romanticising oil paintings. Yet in spite of their very different source material, these pictures have come to be considered as standard documentary images of the islands’s history.

The pictures from the Danish West Indies became very popular in Denmark and on the islands alike. They are still commercially available in various hand-tinted versions on the islands, where they also can be found in many of the townhouses and former plantations that have now been converted into museums. The section on the Danish West Indies from the DANMARK book has also recently been published separately in Saint Croix as a slim volume in its own right, with the original captions translated into English.


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Tropical fantasy

Fritz Melbye (A. Nay, lithographer, Emil Bærentzen & Co. Lithografisk Institut) Cruz Bay Battery Lithograph, 1856

The tropical atmosphere lends a dreamlike quality to the architecture of colonial rule in this idealised print.

This romanticized lithograph of Cruz Bay on Saint John is based on an oil painting by the Danish painter Fritz Melbye, who visited the Danish West Indies on numerous occasions in the mid-nineteenth century. Here he painted marines and landscapes alongside his student, Camille Pissarro, who would later become known as one of the great artists of Impressionism in Paris.

The painting differs from the more soberly recording images of the Danish West Indies in the DANMARK series. Melbye chose to depict a corner of Saint John where the countryside appears decidedly tropical. Underneath the criss-crossing coconut palms two people sail in a small rowboat on the calm waters. A shepherd tends to his flock among the rocks in the foreground. Melbye seems to conjure up an exotic paradise that forms a marked contrast to the dispassionate overviews of towns and fields seen in the other lithographs.

And yet. Three mounted figures are riding up towards an elegant white building where the Danish flag is flown. This is the prison and courthouse of Saint John. Known as The Battery, it was built in the 1820s on the foundations of a former Danish fort. Bathed in the Caribbean light and surrounded by tropical flora and fauna, the architecture of colonial rule takes on a dreamlike quality.


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Primeval jungle or vegetable garden?

Fritz Melbye (A. Nay, lithographer, Emil Bærentzen & Co. Lithografisk Institut) St. Jan, Parti af det Indre / Saint John, View of the Interior Lithograph, 1856

Romantic ideas about unspoilt, exotic nature may make us miss the traces of cultivated land in this print from Saint John.

“Then as now Saint John offers the best impression of what the islands’ original vegetation was like”, says the historian Ove Hornby in his 1980 book about the colonies in the West Indies. He refers specifically to this 1850s lithograph based on Fritz Melbye’s painting. The image of lush countryside can easily give us the impression that we are looking at a primeval jungle. But is that actually what the picture is showing?

The 1856 book DANMARK states that the picture shows “a so-called provisions plot or small allotment” given to the Afro-Caribbean workers so that they could grow their own food. The caption was presumably written by the botanist A. S. Ørsted, who identifies a number of crops in the picture. He sees a papaya tree in the foreground to the right, and behind that at least two kinds of banana plants. To the left are coconut palms, sugar cane, gourds and more. Viewed from this perspective Melbye did not paint an untouched landscape, but a vegetable garden. The image can therefore be said to show traces of the declining sugar production on the island after the end of slavery, where plantations were abandoned and the formerly enslaved began to buy their own land.


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The perspective of power

Frederik von Scholten Christiansted paa St. Croix taget fra Bülowsminde / Christiansted on Saint Croix, view from Bülowsminde Coloured drawing, 1834 Courtesy of Maritime Museum of Danmark

Watercolours painted by the younger brother of the Governor-General von Scholten shows the thoroughly cultivated landscape of the colonies as seen from the perspective of those in power.

Frederik von Scholten was the younger brother of Peter von Scholten, the well-known Governor-General of the islands. A trained naval officer, he journeyed far and wide, filling his sketchbooks with drawings and watercolours. Many of his sketches are from the Danish West Indies, where he settled in 1834 as customs inspector in Frederiksted on Saint Croix.

This watercolour shows the view towards Christiansted from his brother’s mansion, Bülowsminde. His brother, Peter von Scholten, appears in the foreground, holding a cane. The man accompanying him is presumably Johannes Søbøtker, the Governor of Saint Thomas and Saint John.

The two powerful men gaze out across the almost entirely cultivated landscape where sugar mills dot the hilltops and the harbour of Christiansted is buzzing with activity. In the road below, enslaved labourers are heading to or from the hard work in the fields of sugar cane, with an overseer riding behind them.


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Colonial landscapes

Frederik von Scholten Frederikssted Coloured drawing, 1837 Courtesy of Maritime Museum of Danmark

The beauty of cultivated fields is emphasised in the romantic landscape watercolours from nineteenth-century Saint Croix.

On a hilltop north of Frederiksted on Saint Croix a man has just dismounted his horse in order to draw the view. An enslaved boy holds a parasol above his head in order to protect him against the strong Caribbean sunlight.

This small, aristocratic scene is typical of the so-called picturesque landscape paintings that became popular in late eighteenth-century Europe. At that time, the term picturesque was understood as “the kind of beauty that looks well in an image”. And Frederik von Scholten certainly calls attention to the picturesque qualities of the landscape by including an artist – perhaps himself? – in the foreground.

Even though von Scholten was an amateur artist he was not blind to the aesthetic movements of the time. The popular picturesque landscapes favoured the beauty of untouched nature. However, von Scholten’s scenes from the colonies focus on the beauty of cultivated, agricultural land.


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Documentary records

Frederik von Scholten Plantasien Constitution Hill paa St. Croix / The Constitution Hill Plantation on Saint Croix Coloured drawing, 1833 Courtesy of Maritime Museum of Danmark

The watercolour of the Constitution Hill plantation shows production facilities and sugar cane fields, the foundations of the plantation.

Frederik von Scholten painted watercolours of many plantations in his sketchbooks. His training as a naval officer had taught him how to draw and record his surroundings. For this reason his sketches have often been read as accurate records of plantation life on the islands, and they appear as illustrations in countless books about the Danish West Indies.

But Frederik von Scholten’s drawings depict reality from the plantation owner’s point of view. Constitution Hill was one of the largest plantations on Saint Croix, and it was owned by the Søbøtker family from Copenhagen. As in many other drawings by von Scholten, the main emphasis is placed on key buildings of the plantation.

In the foreground we see the foundations of the plantation: the tall green sugar canes. Surrounded by an elegant avenue of royal palm trees we find an open rainwater reservoir. The mighty windmill and the large boiling facility reflect the size of the 120-hectare plantation. So too do the many small buildings on the hill behind the boiling facility where the enslaved labourers lived.