Blind spots Images of the Danish West Indies colony

Folk scenes and swaying palms


1879 - 1993


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The islands viewed through a camera

From around 1900, private homes were not the only settings on the islands that were eagerly photographed. New, portable box cameras were easy to take along on outings. The landscapes and life in the Danish colonies were immortalised by professionals and amateurs alike.

The photographers pointed their cameras at the things they took pride in: shops and street vendors, plantations and field workers. But they also documented things they would like to see changed in e.g. agriculture or health services. Even though many Danish amateur photographers expressed a social responsibility towards the Afro-Caribbean population, their pictures also reflect the widespread racism of the era.

Later a tourist market emerged. Postcards and stereoscopic images of the islands became exotic collector’s items in Denmark. As of the 1950s, thousands of postcards were sent out from the islands, showing a carefree holiday paradise that had now become American territory.


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Social affairs

Alfred Paludan-Müller Eight documentary photographs Originally mounted in album containing private photographs from Saint Croix Between 1879 and 1904, (2017)

Paludan-Müller is interested in social affairs and living conditions on the islands. His photographs reflect his paternalistic view of the local populace.

Alfred Paludan-Müller not only took pictures of his own family and friends; he also recorded the social conditions on the islands. He visited the houses of poor families who worked the land, photographing them in their homes. He entered the little shops in town and the rum booths where many spent part of their leisure hours. The prison, hospital and asylum for the mentally ill also admitted Paludan-Müller and his camera.

Paludan-Müller’s photographs offer insight into the everyday life and conditions of the Afro-Caribbean people around the dawn of the twentieth century. But with their paternalistic affection they also point back to the photographer himself and his racist outlook on the local populace. In an article published in 1916 Paludan-Müller wrote with nostalgic yearning about the era of slavery and the order it represented. He regarded the time after the abolition of slavery as a time of decline: the Europeans had lost control of the Afro-Caribbean people whom Paludan-Müller believed to be of inferior intelligence compared to Europeans, unable to manage a society by themselves.


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“In the background, Hippomane Marcinella”

Frederik Børgesen Beach Silver gelatin print, between 1898 and 1906

Frederik Børgesen is fascinated by the exotic flora of the islands. In his botanical photographic studies human beings serve primarily as indicators of scale.

“In the background, Hippomane Marcinella” is the caption written on the back of this photograph of a man on a beach. The man is shown standing quite far away from the photographer while a tropical vine spreads out decoratively on the sand around him. If you found this photograph while looking for traces of the Afro-Caribbean people of the islands, you might easily think that the name refers to the man standing on the lonely beach.

However, a simple Google search reveals that the name does not refer to the man. The name belongs to the vine on the beach. The photograph was taken by the botanist Frederik Børgesen, who visited the islands on numerous occasions in order to photograph its flora. The man has presumably only been included to indicate its size and scale.

Børgesen’s photographs can be recognised by how their composition, cropping and lighting all aim to highlight the vegetation. They were used in scientific articles about the flora of the Danish West Indies, but also to illustrate more general lectures about the islands. For example, they were a prominent feature of the public slideshow lectures held by the photographer Peter Elfelt throughout Denmark.


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Plantation panoramas

Emilie Langkjær, Axel Ovesen et al. Birthday album for G.A. Hagemann on the occasion of his 70th birthday Silver gelatin prints etc., 1912

The plantation owner Hagemann’s elaborate album about sugar production on Saint Croix is a celebration of modernisation and an attempt at maintaining a public image as a profitable Danish colony.

Around the year 1900 the Danish manufacturer and chemist Gustav Adolph Hagemann purchased five sugar plantations on Saint Croix. Created to celebrate his 70th birthday, this album was presented to him by twenty-five of his employees.

However, the album showcases and celebrates sugar production on Saint Croix at a time when the era of vast profits was long gone. There are photographs of sugar cane fields and harvests, of sugar stores and factories and laboratories.

There are also impressive vistas across the island, often in panoramic formats. Occasionally a small observer, dressed in white, appears in the foreground, taking it all in. The panoramas were presumably taken by Axel Ovesen, who was an established photographer in Frederiksted. Hagemann advocated modernisation. In 1916 he argued against the demands put forward by the spokesman for the island labourers, David Hamilton Jackson, who wanted smallholdings for the rural population. Hagemann believed in large-scale farming and complained that the Danish state had not invested sufficiently in the industrialisation of agriculture and fisheries – or in sewers and infrastructure. His album reflects a firm belief that the Danish colony could still be profitable.


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Postcards from Paradise

Various photographers. Postcards from Saint Croix, Saint Thomas and Saint John. Various techniques. Between 1897 and 1993

A large collection of postcards from the Caribbean islands show how they changed from an agricultural community to a tourist destination – and how the photographers’ focus gradually transitioned from everyday to holiday life.

The Royal Library has 4.000 postcards from Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix in its collections. Some of them have stamps and greetings on the back. Together they relate a story with a global reach about twentieth century communication and tourism.

Illustrated postcards were introduced in the Danish West Indies around 1900. They were used to send brief messages between the islands or as greetings to family and friends in Europe and the USA. They were also collector’s items and were frequently mounted in photo albums. The images on the postcards are partly professional shots, partly private snapshots.

The earliest of these postcards often depict scenes from everyday life: agricultural labourers at work or in front of their cottages with their families, scenes of street life, women doing laundry or selling things at markets. From the 1950s onwards another “tribe” begins to appear: now the cards show the tourists – by the pool, on the beach, shopping. Or cheerfully posing by the ruins of sugar mills from the era of slavery. Mass tourism became increasingly widespread, and sending greeting cards to those at home became common. Recipients could then dream themselves away to the tropical islands.


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Taking 3D journeys at home

Peter Elfelt Six stereoscopes featuring scenes from the Danish West Indies, sold between 1892 and 1931 Silver gelatin prints mounted on stereo cards, ca. 1900

Long before the invention of TV, photographs with 3D effects are a popular way of exploring exotic destinations in the comfort of one’s own home. Peter Elfelt brings images from the colonies back home to Denmark.

See the colonies in 3D! Special double photographs take on a realistic sense of depth when viewed through a so-called stereoscope, which were popular during the last half of the nineteenth century. People collected various motifs, and images of faraway places were highly sought after; at this point in time only very few were able to travel abroad in real life. Stereoscopic images allowed you to let your eyes roam freely and your mind to venture far away – all in the comfort of your own home.

The photographer Peter Elfelt turned a profit from this trend. He equipped travellers with stereo cameras and bought their photographs upon their return to Denmark. Pictures from the West Indies joined other motifs from Greenland and Paris that clients could pick from an extensive catalogue. The images showed landscapes, buildings and so-called folk scenes: Afro-Caribbeans in the street, at market or busy washing clothes. The stereoscopes offered upexotic vistas as a mixture of entertainment and education, allowing Danes to compare themselves to things that seemed foreign and strange to them, reaffirming their own identity.


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Visiting the lepers

Alfred Paludan-Müller Woman suffering from leprosy Silver gelatin mounted in album containing private photographs from Saint Croix Between 1879 and 1904

Paludan-Müller also documents the living conditions for lepers on the islands, and his photographs are used in attempts to convince the Danish government to build a new hospital.

In the late nineteenth century, numerous people on the islands suffered from leprosy. Many had lost limbs or suffered from inflamed body tissue caused by this disease. The apothecary Paludan-Müller photographed them in front of a wall papered in newspaper tissue in a temporary hospital set up at the Richmond plantation on Saint Croix.

We do not know the circumstances in which the photographs were taken. Did the apothecary ask permission to photograph the patients and to use their portraits in various publications? Paludan-Müller placed the photograph of a woman and child in his album, giving it the caption “Lepra mutilans – frog fingers”. The picture also appears in an article on leprosy in the Danish West Indies published by the Danish doctor Edvard Ehlers in 1903.

Ehlers’s article forms part of the West India Commission’s report on living conditions on the island. The report suggests that the Danish state ought to build a hospital and asylum for lepers, but that never happened. Not until 1909 did the Copenhagen-based chapter of the fraternity known as the Order of Odd Fellows enter the scene, donating money for construction materials and furnishings.