St. John USVI Culture: Why is English
the language of the Virgin Islands?
The official language of the United States Virgin Islands is English. At first
this statement seems reasonable, as the language of the United States is English.
Taking a closer look, however, we must remember that until 1917, the United States
Virgin Islands had been a Danish colony for almost 250 years. Why then isn't
the language of the Virgin Islands, Danish?
In fact Danish was never an important language in the Danish West Indies.
Denmark was a latecomer to the European practice of colonization. Lacking
the military power of the other European colonizers, the Danes were
only able to claim St. Thomas and later St. John, because no other European
power really wanted these dry, rocky and hilly islands which were not
particularly suited to sugar production.
Early explorers and settlers sent back tales of extreme hardship and
rampant disease, and the Danes, who were generally comfortable at home,
showed little interest in settling the new territories. Even an attempt
to bring prisoners, promising freedom after six years of labor, was
met with riots, mutinies and other forms of resistance. As a result,
the Danish government and its representative in the colonies, the Danish
West India Company, resorted to inviting foreigners to settle the islands.
The majority of these settlers were Dutch. The African slaves working
on the plantations were taught to speak a Dutch Creole, called Creolsk,
and this became the common language of St. Thomas and St. John. The
Moravian Church, which was influential because it ministered to the
slaves, even translated the Bible into Dutch Creole so that the slaves
would be able to understand it.
The question then becomes “Why isn't Dutch spoken in the Virgin
The Danes purchased St. Croix from France in 1733. The most influential
foreigners in St. Croix were English. In St. Croix, English Creole was
the dominant language and was spoken by most of the slaves. St. Croix
had large areas of flat and fertile land. It received more rainfall
than its neighbors to the north and was more suitable for a plantation
economy. St. Croix's greater wealth and importance enabled it to exert
a strong influence over the other islands of the Danish West Indies,
St. Thomas and St. John.
In the early 1800s, the Danish West Indies were occupied at two different
times by the English, once in 1801, for almost a year and again
from December 1807 until April 15, 1815. The purpose of the occupation
was to secure the harbor at Charlotte Amalie and to prevent the
use of the islands by the enemies of England. During this time,
more than 1,500 English troops were stationed on St. Thomas and
St. John, further exposing the general population to British culture
and the English language.
Newspapers, government proclamations and official documents began
to be written in English. As a result, the use of English and English
Creole became more and more widespread, not only in St. Croix,
but also in St. Thomas and St. John.
In 1839, the Danes passed a law requiring slave children to attend
school. It was decided that the classes would be taught in English.
This greatly accelerated the already established trend toward the
common use of English in the Danish colonies and the Dutch Creole
still spoken in St. Thomas and St. John was gradually phased out
and is no longer spoken in these islands.
The last speaker of Dutch Creole on St. John died in 1991 and with
her passing the language is no longer spoken on the island.
In the book, The West Indies and the Spanish Main, Anthony Trollope
made the following observation concerning the island of St. Thomas
The people that one meets there forms as strange a collection as
may perhaps be found anywhere. In the first place, all languages
seem alike to them. One hears English, French, German and Spanish
spoken all around one. And apparently it is indifferent which. The
waiters seem to speak them all.
Charles E. Taylor in a description of St. John in the late nineteenth
Dutch Creole was once the prevailing language, many of the planters
being of Dutch decent. The population which now numbers about 900,
Driving on the Left
British cultural influence on the Virgin Islands answers yet another
question commonly asked by visitors which is: “Why do Virgin
Islanders drive on the left side of the road?”
Danish Language in Africa
While the Danes were never successful in promoting the use of their
language in their West Indian colonies, they did, however, have
a great effect on their sphere of influence in Africa. Danish forts
were established in the Accra area of the African coast in order
to receive and process slaves bound for the Danish colonies. The
Danes taught the Africans with whom they came in contact to speak
Danish. This language is still spoken by many of the inhabitants
of what is now the modern nation of Ghana and a significant amount
of prominent citizens of Ghana have Danish names and relatives