Blind spots Images of the Danish West Indies colony

Taming the landscape

1636 - 1799

J Mikkelsen Beck, Kort over St Croix1.jpg

Mapping the colonies

Like the other monarchs of Europe, the kings of Denmark collected maps of the lands and seas they commanded in splendid atlases. They wanted colonies in the New World too, and in the seventeenth century that ambition was fulfilled in the West Indies.

The Danish trading and colonising enterprise known as the West India and Guinea Company took possession of Saint Thomas in 1672 and Saint John in 1718. The company purchased Saint Croix in 1733 from a French company. Colonisation was well underway, and the islands were divided into separate plots of land on detailed maps. The cartographers drew straight lines across wild vegetation, bays and promontories in order to pave the way for cultivation. Paradise became a plantation and people were erased from the landscape.

Drafts for towns, cities and military defences came later. The islands were valuable and required protection against enemies. Plans and drawings testify to how prisons and forts were designed to keep rebels incarcerated and attackers at bay.


Dreams of world domination

Johann Baptist Homann Title page for Atlas novus terrarum orbis imperia regna et status exactis tabulis geographice demonstrans. Engraving. From Frederik den Femtes Atlas (Atlas of King Frederic V). Vol. 50, ca. 1710

Mythology, science and dreams of world domination interweave in the frontispiece for the atlas that King Frederic V received as a christening present.

Two figures from mythology, Atlas and Hercules, are holding up the heavens. Below them diurnal and nocturnal birds flit to and fro, lit by the sun and the moon. The entire universe is represented here. Poseidon, god of the seas, is flanked by a woman with a ship, perhaps an allegory of navigation. The deities Mercury and Cybele symbolise trade and agriculture. The picture is a celebration of the arts of map-making, science and agriculture. It reflects a European dream of world domination, a dream that was closely associated with seafaring and trade at the time.

The print is the frontispiece of the fiftieth volume of Frederic V’s Atlas, a huge collection of maps that the Danish king received around the time of his birth. The vast royal atlas exemplifies the eighteenth-century eagerness to map out and gather information about everything. Perhaps it also testifies to the European monarchs’ will to rule and exploit the entire world.


The riches of the Gold Coast

Joannes Janssonius Kort over Guinea / Map of Guinea Engraving with hand-drawn sketch. From Frederik den Femtes Atlas. Vol. 49. Ca. 1660

This map of the west coast of Africa is illustrated by a drawing showing the goods that Danes and other Europeans fetch from the area: gold, ivory and enslaved Africans.

In this print from the seventeenth century, the West African coastline at the Gulf of Guinea looks idyllic at first glance: elephants, lions and apes amble about peacefully. But the many ships testify to heavy seafaring traffic in the area. The Europeans called this coast the Gold Coast, and they were eager to claim the riches of the place. The lower part of the map shows what they went to West Africa to get: gold, ivory and, importantly, enslaved Africans.

Danes took part in this profitable trade too. This map is taken from Frederic V’s Atlas. During his reign trade with the Gold Coast and the Danish West Indies was brought under the control of the Danish-Norwegian crown so that the state took over the administration. The king and his closest advisors all made tidy personal profits from the colonies. The triangular trade brought weapons and processed goods from Europe to Africa, enslaved people from Africa to America, and finally goods such as sugar, tobacco and cotton from there to Europe. This system prospered greatly during Frederic V’s reign.


The first Danish map

Johan Cronenberg and Johann Christopher Jæger von Jægersberg Charte over Eilandet St. Croix / Map of Saint Croix Copy drawn by C. V. Holten Drawing, ca. 1750 Courtesy of the Danish Geodata Agency

The first Danish map of Saint Croix soon grows obsolete, but its many details make it a unique historical source.

At the beginning of Danish colonial rule of Saint Croix, no detailed map of the island existed. An accurate map was required in order to manage the sales of land and taxation of the plantations. But the mapping process was expensive and time-consuming. As a result, no Danish map of Saint Croix became available until 1750.

Drawn by Lieutenant Johan Cronenberg with assistance from Johann Jægersberg, the 1750 map offers excellent documentation for the evolution of plantation farming on the island: it includes the main farmsteads, mills and the huts of the enslaved workers. The cultivated land is colour coded, indicating whether it is used for sugar cane or cotton crops, and forests and shrubberies are included, too. The rich detail of this map makes it unique source material for historians, but as an administrative map of a colony undergoing rapid economic growth it soon became obsolete. A stylishly simple map created by Cronenberg’s successor, Jens Michelsen Beck, ended up becoming the main point of reference for the colonial administration and for later records of the island.


Controlling nature

Jens Michelsen Beck Tilforladelig Kort over Eylandet St. Croix udi America / An Accurate Map of the Island of Saint Croix in the Americas Hand-tinted engraving, ca. 1754

A 1754 map focuses on providing an overview of the financial potentials of Saint Croix, making plantation administration easier.

In 1754 the West India and Guinea Company was dismantled and the Danish king took ownership of the colonies. This new, Danish map of Saint Croix was printed in Copenhagen that same year. The map was drawn by the civil servant and surveyor Jens Michelsen Beck, who owned a plantation on the island himself. Beck used the map created by Cronenberg and Jægersberg as the basis for his work while also finishing their incomplete records of the very hilly northern parts of the island.

Beck’s stylish, pared-back map does not offer the same level of documentary detail as its 1750 predecessor. The company’s stringent division of the land dominates the document: A straight-angled grid of plantations divided into nine overall areas and two carefully planned towns. Little topographical data is included; the main emphasis lies on the administrative control of the landscape.

Beck’s map lent itself well to easy, low-cost printing. Its simplicity also made it more useful for administrative purposes. The numbering of the plantations made it easy to keep track of new owners and tax information in updated versions such as this hand-coloured copy.


Defending the islands’ crops

Peter Lotharius Oxholm Grundriss og Profiler af Kielderne og Horizontal Batterierne paa Christians Fort paa Øen St. Thomas: No. 3 / Floor Plans and Profile Views of the Cellars and Horizontal Batteries at Christians Fort on the Island of Saint Thomas: No. 3. Drawing, 1778–80

Sugar production is a blossoming industry, and it becomes necessary to defend the crops from outside attackers. An officer is sent out to map the islands’ defences.

In 1776 the authorities in Copenhagen realised that the ongoing War of Independence in North America might also threaten territories in the Danish West Indies. To counteract this, they launched a major review of the defences at the valuable colonies.

Peter Lotharius Oxholm, an officer and cartographer, was sent out to draw up plans of the existing fortifications, artillery and harbours so that the authorities in Copenhagen could assess the state and strength of the defences. When Oxholm arrived at the islands in 1778 he was shocked at the poor quality of the defences. Hence, his regular letters back to Copenhagen were full of recommendations for extensions and remodelling. This made him unpopular with the administration.

Oxholm’s drawing of the cellars of the fortification in Charlotte Amalie shows the position of Christiansfort, which is surrounded by water on three sides. Located at a safe fire separation distance away from the fort are the royal smithy and bakery. In the cellars of the fort we find ammunition stores, rainwater reservoirs and many “dungeons for negroes”. The profile view of the building demonstrates the stark contrast between the cells below and the first lieutenant’s luxurious accommodation one floor above, filled with exquisite furniture and pictures on the walls.


Military overview and efficient production

Peter Lotharius Oxholm Charte over den Danske Øe St. Croix i America / Map of the Danish Island of Saint Croix in America Engraving, 1799

Peter Lotharius Oxholm’s map of Saint Croix can be used in the struggle against rebels and enemies and to optimise farming on the island.

The talented and meticulous cartographer, Peter Lotharius Oxholm was sent out to chart the islands on several occasions. He published this large map of Saint Croix at his own behest in 1799. While Oxholm worked on the map, the enslaved workers on the island of Hispaniola northwest of the Danish West Indies rebelled. The fear of uprisings must have been intense in all the colonies of the region. Oxholm’s map reflects a military angle: unlike previous maps it offers a thorough overview of harbours and the terrain of the island, including details about its hills, mountains and vegetation. Such information would be important if the need to crush a rebellion arose.

The map also reflects Oxholm’s keen interest in optimising the utilisation of the island’s resources, and he included information about its population and agriculture. For in addition to his work on charting the island Oxholm was also an industrious plantation owner himself. He was later appointed Governor-General of the islands.

The small title picture shows efficiently organised slavery: strong men are working the fields, overseen by a man on horseback. While older children bring in the crops, a single woman tends to the youngest ones.