The Danish West Indes:
Keys to the Caribbean

By T. Lathrop Stoddard

[The American Review of Reviews, September 1916]

The pending treaty for the purchase of the Danish West Indies is a matter of much greater importance than might appear from a hasty dip into statistical tables or a casual glance at the map. As a matter of fact, the $25,000,000 which we are offering for them will be money well spent, for these small islands possess such strategic importance as to be literally keys to the Caribbean Sea and vital links in the chain safeguarding the Panama Canal.

Strategic Value of the West Indies

The Danish West Indies consist of the three islands, St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. They are tiny bits of land, their total area being only 138 square miles. St. Croix and St. John are extremely fertile, the former producing the famous "bay-rum." St. Thomas, though less fortunate in the matter of soil, nevertheless holds within its tiny self a pearl of great price—the deep- landlocked harbor of Charlotte Amalie, the most magnificent natural naval base in the whole West Indies with the exception of the Dominican bay of Samana and the Haitian port of Môle-Saint-Nicolas. I shall not soon forget the impression of strategic power which the place made upon me when I visited Charlotte Amalie in the spring of 1912. Our 16,000-ton liner slipped in through the narrow opening from the sea and came to anchor in a broad sheet of mirror-like blue water guarded by a continuous circuit of lofty hills. First impressions in this case proved correct, for I subsequently learned that military engineers agree in stating that the conformation of these hills is so remarkably adapted to defensive purposes that a very moderate sum expended upon fortifications would render the island absolutely impregnable. In fact, St. Thomas has often been called the Gibraltar of America.

And St. Thomas' natural strength is still further enhanced by its strategic situation. There are only three gateways which deep-draft ships from Europe employ to enter the Caribbean: (1) the Windward Passage, between Cuba and San Domingo; (2) the Mona Passage, between San Domingo and Porto Rico; (3) the Virgin Passage, between Porto Rico and the tangled archipelago of the Lesser Antilles. The first two are already half way under our control; with the acquisition of the Danish West Indies the last great gateway to the Caribbean would fall entirely into our hands, for St. Thomas stands squarely athwart the Virgin Passage and no hostile fleet could safely pass the menace of its guns.

It is indeed a lordly sea to which these water-gates give access. The Caribbean, lying like a huge elongated quadrilateral between the island-chains to north and east and the mainlands to south and west, stretches nearly 2000 miles from the Yucatan Channel at the entrance of the Gulf of Mexico to the eastern barrier-chain of the Windward Islands, while its average breadth from north to south is over 500 miles. The Caribbean thus well deserves its happy title, "The American Mediterranean."

Growth of Our Caribbean Interests

Until the close of the last century, our interests in the Caribbean were more potential than tangible. However keen our solicitude for its destinies may have been, not one of its myriad islands flew our flag or acknowledged our protection. The Spanish War gave us our first territorial foothold in the American Mediterranean. Porto Rico then became American soil, while Cuba, greatest of all the Caribbean Islands and the portal to our exposed Gulf coasts, was definitely safeguarded from all possibility of foreign aggression.

The Spanish War was, however, only the prologue to a still more momentous departure. In 1904 we acquired our rights at the Isthmus of Panama and began the construction of the great interoceanic canal. It is not too much to say that future historians will regard this as one of those few truly great events which change the whole current of world-history. We should do our best to banish from our minds the picture of the Nineteenth Century Caribbean. That depressing vision of ruined islands rising from a lethargic sea has gone to return no more. We have dug the "Big Ditch" at Panama—and have thereby transformed the Caribbean from a dead-end basin into the greatest ocean highway of the world. The results of this transformation are startling in their far-reaching immensity. The mighty currents of world-trade which have so long passed through the old Mediterranean will presently sweep through the new Mediterranean. The Panama Canal will soon be the great sluice-gate for the foaming tides of East and West. But, because of this very fact, the sluice-gate must be well buttressed and the hand of the gate-keeper must be strong. The Panama Canal is the greatest single commercial and strategic prize in the world. It has enormously increased our national responsibilities in the very quarter where they were already so great before.

American Hegemony of the West Indies

From the earliest days of our history we have considered American hegemony of the Caribbean one of the axioms of our foreign policy. Up to the present our claim has encountered no serious opposition. This was due to a series of, to us, undoubtedly fortunate circumstances. During the early decades of the Nineteenth Century the fall in the price of the West Indian staple, sugar, together with the abolition of slavery, brought on an economic collapse all over the Caribbean. The very islands which in the Eighteenth Century were the choicest land-plots on the globe thereby lost all value and became instead annoying burdens on the exchequers of their European owners. Under these circumstances it was perfectly natural that no European power should care to challenge our assertion of paramountcy over a region which had become rather a burden than a benefit. In fact, it is more than probable that if, about the year 1900, we had tactfully approached the various European nations with West Indian possessions, we could have purchased all their holdings at figures which, in view of future possibilities, would have proved very reasonable sums.

However, nothing of the kind was attempted except in the case of those very Danish West Indies for which we are negotiating to-day, and the history of our previous failure to acquire them throws a significant sidelight on the dangers latent in the Caribbean.

History of the Negotiations with Denmark

It was in the year 1901 that the Danish Government offered to sell us the islands for the very moderate sum of $5,000,000. The islands were then (as they still are) in a deplorable economic condition. The population had sunk in fifty years from 45,000 to 32,000, and was kept from complete economic collapse only by the solicitude of the home government, whose subventions were, however, a perceptible drain upon the treasury of the small Danish nation. In 1867 Denmark had already offered us the islands for $7,500,000 and we had declined the offer owing to the strong anti-imperialist sentiment then prevalent in Congress, In 1901, however, American public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of the purchase: the hitch came this time from the European side. The Danish people were, it is true, favorable to the sale, and the Danish Lower House endorsed the treaty by a substantial majority. But in the aristocratic Upper House opposition developed which finally prevented ratification. In part this opposition was due to patriotic pride, but what really caused the rejection of the treaty was undoubtedly pressure from Germany. German activities in the Danish West Indies have for years been distinctly disquieting to our susceptibilities.

Shortly after the failure of the 1901 purchase-treaty, the great Hamburg-Amerika steamship corporation made St. Thomas its West Indian headquarters, constructed extensive docks and coal-depots, and made itself at home in a fashion not at all to the liking of the local Danish authorities. Whether Germany's attitude towards the islands has changed as a result of the present war we do not yet know; we will undoubtedly be able to form a pretty clear idea by watching the attitude toward the present purchase negotiations of those Danish elements which showed themselves amenable to German influence in 1901-03. It is to be hoped that the present purchase treaty will be ratified and that the islands will soon be safe under our flag. No one knows what is going to happen in Europe. It is by no means impossible that Denmark may be dragged into the vortex of the present war, and in such a case the fate of her colonies would be highly problematical. We certainly, could not permit the transfer of the Danish West Indies to any other power whatsoever, nor could we tolerate any veiled protectorate such as would be implied were some European power to compel Denmark to grant an extensive concession to some great corporation; say, an amplification of the present status, of the Hamburg-Amerika at Charlotte Amalie. We have already shown what our attitude would be in such a contingency by the recent "Lodge Resolution" over a proposed Mexican concession to a Japanese corporation at Magdalena Bay.

Holland's Desirable Possessions

The same reasons which give us cause for disquietude regarding the Danish West Indies should make us watch with extreme solicitude the Caribbean possessions of another small European Power—Holland. The Dutch West India islands are divided into two widely scattered groups. The first of these groups, comprising the islands of Saba, St. Eustachius, and St. Martin, are in the Leeward Island archipelago, not very far to the eastward of the Danish West Indies. Little better than rocks, these tiny islets possess no good harbors and are without importance. Far different is the case with the second group, the islands of Curaçao, Bonaire, and Aruba, situated far to the south, just off the coast of Venezuela. Not only are they fairly large islands, with a combined area of nearly 400 square miles and a population of 50,000, but their strategic position is one of great importance. Situated as they are off the Venezuelan coast, their possession by a great power would dominate La Guayra, the port of Caracas, Venezuela's capital. A little money would turn the harbor of Curaçao into a naval base dangerously near the Panama Canal.

Holland, even more than Denmark, is today menaced with engulfment by the European War, in which case no one knows what might be the fate of her colonies. We certainly should permit no European Power to establish itself at Curaçao. Holland is under a frightful financial strain to-day. It is not at all unlikely that the Dutch Government would be willing to part with its West Indian possessions. The price would undoubtedly be large, for Curagao has good commercial possibilities especially since the opening of the Panama Canal. But we could certainty afford to be generous with our old friend Holland, and the money would be well spent if it obviated the grave crisis which would certainly arise from any attempted European transference of the Dutch West Indies.

Britain's Strong Foothold

The bulk of Europe's holdings in the Caribbean are, however, in the hands of two great powers—England and France. Next to our own, Great Britain's position in the Caribbean is indubitably the strongest—-and not so very far behind us, at that. Indeed, in terms of square miles and population, the Stars and Stripes are quite outshadowed by the Union Jack. Our only formal Caribbean colony is Porto Rico, an island of 3600 square miles with a population of 1,100,000, whereas the British West Indies, including the continental foothold of British Honduras, total nearly 21,000 square miles with a population of close on 2,000,000. And their political significance is even greater than these mere statistics would indicate. Nearly every Caribbean waterway is flanked by British territory. The northern coasts of Cuba and San Domingo, and for that matter, the east coast of Florida to boot, are blanketed by the immense Bahama archipelago, though these sandy keys are so low and devoid of deep-water harbors as to offer no chance for the establishment of a first-class naval base.

Quite different is the case within the Caribbean itself. To begin with, just south of the most important of all the entrances to the Caribbean—the Windward Passage between Cuba and San Domingo, lies the great island of Jamaica, squarely blocking the direct road to Panama. Jamaica also flanks the highway from New Orleans to Panama, while just to the westward, on the mainland, British Honduras takes it on the other flank as well. Of the great island-chain known as the Lesser Antilles which curves southeastward from Porto Rico to Venezuela on the South American mainland, the vast majority of the links are red.

Fifteen years ago, as we have said, we might possibly have obtained the British West Indies, either by purchase or by exchange for the Philippines. At that time the islands had sunk to the very nadir of economic misery. Sugar, their universal staple, was a drug in the market, and free-trade England offered them no hope for the future. Their natural market was the United States, and their poverty-stricken populations gazed longingly at the American tariff-wall. England gave them good government, but the white upper-classes were steadily drifting away to other fields while the great negro mass was sinking into apathetic wretchedness.

Since then, however, much has happened to improve the situation. The British West Indies have fairly "turned the corner" and have every prospect of a brighter day ahead. The production of new staples, such as bananas in Jamaica and cocoa in Trinidad has given these largest of the British islands something of their former agricultural prosperity. The demand for black labor at the Panama Canal and the American banana plantations in Central America has relieved the labor congestion in many of the smaller British islands such as Barbados. The winter tourist traffic from the United States is bringing in money. The opening of the Panama Canal is rousing everywhere a new stirring of life and hope. Lastly, the present war is knitting closer the bonds of empire. If England should abandon free trade for "Imperial preference" her West Indian colonies would obtain a market for their sugar sufficient to put them on a paying basis once more. There is also the possibility of tariff arrangements between the British West Indies and Canada, a great market growing in importance with every year. Altogether, it is safe to say that the British West Indies are firmly reknit into the fabric of the Empire and that the possibility of political separation has become a thing of the past.

France's Share in the Caribbean

The possessions of the other great European Power in the Caribbean, France, are in a much less happy situation. The French West Indies consist of the moderately large islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, together with several other islets of slight importance. Their total area is about 1100 square miles with a population of 400,000, nearly all negroes and mulattoes. These islands are extremely fertile, and since they have access to the highly protected French home market one might expect them to be prosperous. Unfortunately their political and social condition is so bad that they are vegetating in misery and backwardness with no signs of a better future. The French West Indies are the, victims of the Jacobin slogan of the French Revolution, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," applied without the least regard to special social and racial circumstances.

The French islands live under the regime known as "assimilation;" that is, they are considered ordinary French Departments, just as though they lay off the French coast and were inhabited by Frenchmen. They have complete local self-government, universal manhood suffrage, and send Senators and Deputies to sit in the French Parliament. The results have been tragically disastrous. The black and colored populations of the West Indies have nowhere shown the political efficiency necessary for the successful working of modern democratic institutions. The other European nations have recognized this fact, and, while welcoming the collaboration of the superior minority of the natives, do not entrust the mass of the population with the full guidance of its political destinies. The French, however, have followed democratic theory to its logical consequences—and the result is a disgraceful state of affairs, threatening the very fabric of civilization and portending a relapse of the French islands into the anarchic barbarism of Haiti.

The French West Indie's to-day groan under the tyranny of corrupt black demagogues backed by the most vicious and violent elements of the native population. The blotting out the city of St. Pierre by the great volcanic eruption of 1902 destroyed the center of culture and intelligence. It is almost impossible for a self-respecting man to do business or even to exist under present conditions. The few remaining whites are leaving the islands as fast as they can, and many of the better-class colored people are getting out as well. So far as we can judge, these unhappy islands have no future. The only bright spot in this gloomy picture is the fact that these islands need give us no uneasiness as regards the general political problem of the Caribbean.

France is a great power and regards these relics of her former American colonial empire with too much sentimental attachment ever to part with them to any other nation. Also France's foreign policy is so entirely divorced from the American hemisphere and France herself is so traditionally friendly to ourselves that we need have no apprehension that the French West Indies will ever be used in ways inimical to our position in the Caribbean.

This survey of the positions occupied by European nations in the Caribbean leads us to a consideration of the West Indian lands not subject to European control. Besides our own colony of Porto Rico, we find the two chief islands of the Caribbean, Cuba and San Domingo, emancipated from all European tutelage.

Conditions in Cuba

Cuba, largest of the West Indies, is an enormous island with an area of 44,000 square miles (almost the size of New York State), and a population of 2,500,000. It stretches no less than 730 miles from east to west, while its average width is 50 miles. Commanding as it does both the main ocean highways to the Panama Canal and the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, and being the seat of immense investments of foreign capital which would not tolerate anarchical conditions, we have safeguarded Cuba from both domestic convulsion and European intervention by the "Platt Amendment" whereby the Cuban Government undertakes to make no treaty with any foreign power endangering its independence, to contract no debts for which the current revenue would not suffice, and to concede to the United States Government a right of intervention on the appearance of revolutionary conditions. Many of the Cubans undoubtedly resent bitterly this American tutelage, but there is no other way out of the situation.

In its brief history the Republic of Cuba has already shown conclusively that it is not yet able to walk alone. The Cubans have displayed the same violence and political instability which have reduced all the other independent Spanish-American republics abutting on the Caribbean save Costa Rica to an appalling abyss of ruin and degradation. It has also an acute black problem which, if left to itself, would almost certainly result in a frightful race-war that might turn the eastern end of the island into a second Haiti. The only way to remedy existing conditions is to keep order and gain time. Every year of peace means fresh development of natural resources by foreign capital and the improvement of the native stock by immigration, especially by the large and exceedingly good Spanish immigration now pouring into the island. Increasing prosperity means more public money for roads, railways and schools. The inevitable result must be a new generation brought up in an atmosphere of peace and prosperity, educated, and with a stake in the country which it will hesitate to squander at the behest of ambitious revolutionary agitators.

Hopeless Haiti

The neighboring island of San Domingo should serve Cuba as the traditional "horrible example." The island is politically divided into two "republics"—French-speaking Haiti and Spanish-speaking Santo Domingo, thus perpetuating its former division between France and Spain. It is a large and beautiful island, naturally the most fertile of all the West Indies, with a total area of 28,000 square miles, about the size of the State of Maine. Its agricultural possibilities can be imagined when we remember that the present Haitian area, though the smaller and perhaps less favored portion of the island, produced enough tropical products under French rule at the close of the eighteenth century to supply the wants not only of France but of the half of Europe as well.

To-day Haiti is the plague-spot of the Caribbean, torn by a wild riot of senseless "revolutions." Every vestige of its former prosperity has vanished, the fabric of civilization is rent to tatters, and Christianity itself is disappearing, the real religion of the people being "Vaudoux," or African serpent-worship, its priests (a depraved clique of "medicine-men") holding the people in a grip of terror by an elaborate system of incantations, spells, and poisoning. The "government" consists of alternate gangs of ignorant black "generals" backed by hordes of blood-thirsty ruffians called "armies." The particular gang in power plunders the people to the limit of human endurance until ousted by a rival gang, greedy for the coveted spoils.

Santo Domingo Politically Convalescent

Across the border, in Spanish-speaking Santo Domingo, while social conditions had never gotten so terrible, politics were in almost as hopeless a condition ten years ago. Santo Domingo is not a black republic like Haiti. Whites, it is true, are not numerous, but neither are negroes. The bulk of the population are mulattoes who never lost the traditions of Spanish civilization, as the Haitian negroes did that of France. However, they showed the same political incapacity as the other Caribbean peoples, and the land sunk steadily into an ever-deepening welter of revolutionary anarchy. By the beginning of the present century, Santo Domingo became quite incapable either of paying interest on its foreign debts or of protecting foreign capital invested in the country. This soon became an alarming matter for ourselves. Several European governments showed plainly that they had no intention of permitting their investors to be ruined by Dominican anarchy, and prepared openly for intervention. Faced by this critical emergency, the American Government acted quickly and decisively.

In 1907, President Roosevelt and the Dominican President Morales signed an agreement by which the Dominican customs passed under American control. An American banking syndicate granted the Dominican Government a $20,000,000 loan with which the outstanding foreign claims were paid off or converted. The payment of this new loan was secured by the customs receipts collected by the American administrators. The result was magical. In these revolution-ruined lands the custom houses are practically the only tangible assets. As soon as the opposition "generals" understood that no more customs looting would be allowed, the main incentive to "revolution" automatically vanished, and five whole years actually elapsed without a single serious political disturbance. Of late, it is true, disorders have again broken out, but the American Government quickly showed that it would stand no nonsense, columns of marines broke up the insurgents, and Santo Domingo's political convalescence was resumed. So richly has nature endowed this fertile land that even the few years of peace since 1907 have wrought amazing changes and laid the foundation of a genuine prosperity. Unfortunately, the development of the Dominican people will probably be much slower than that of their natural resources. A hundred years of anarchy have profoundly demoralized the national character. It will probably be several generations before the Dominicans can be trusted to walk alone.

Haiti as a Cause of European Complications

The wisdom of our Dominican policy has been strikingly proven by recent events in Haiti. Had it not been for the European war, we should have had serious difficulties with at least one European power, and we might possibly have had a diplomatic controversy with a combination of European nations. For several years Haiti has been absolutely bankrupt and in such chronic political convulsions as to jeopardize all foreign interests. These interests are extensive.

They have also been passing into the hands of that European people which has shown itself most aggressive and least regardful of our Caribbean susceptibilities—the Germans. Foreign interests in Haiti used to be predominantly French, but about the close of the last century Germany turned her attention to Haiti, and at the beginning of the European war Haiti had become practically a German commercial sphere.

On the very eve of the war two disquieting events appeared to herald the long-impending European intervention in Haiti. On May 6th, 1914, a British cruiser appeared before the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and the British minister presented an ultimatum regarding certain unsatisfied English damage claims, to which the frightened Haitian government instantly capitulated.

That same day the German minister negotiated the preliminaries of an arrangement with the Haitian government, whereby certain German financiers were to loan Haiti $2,000,000, receiving in return control over certain important customs houses and the right to construct a commercial coaling station at Môle-Saint-Nicolas, the finest natural naval base in the whole West Indies, and the key to the Windward Passage—the high-road to Panama. It is certain that we should never have permitted the Haitian government to grant either of these concessions. Probably our government said as much to Berlin, for the affair was quickly hushed up and nothing ever came of it. Still, it is significant as showing which way the wind was blowing.

An American Protectorate Needed

Still later, in July, 1914, both the French and German governments informed Washington that they desired to have some share in the future control of Haitian customs. The German note was particularly strong. It informed our government that some attention must be paid to German public opinion, and stated categorically that unless Germany were included in a Haitian customs control she would not understand any other arrangement that might be made. This was nothing short of a direct challenge to what all the world knew was a cardinal principle of our foreign policy. Accordingly our government answered France and Germany with the equally categorical statement that no non-American interests could be admitted to any share in the control or administration of any independent American state. Such was the distinctly unpleasant diplomatic deadlock which existed at the outbreak of the European war. We certainly should congratulate ourselves that the matter was then shelved by the pressure of other things.

That the lesson was not lost upon our government seems plain from the subsequent course of events. Affairs in Haiti continuing to go from bad to worse, we at last intervened energetically in August, 1915. Strong forces of sailors and marines occupied Port-au-Prince and other Haitian ports, and a practical ultimatum was presented providing for an American control over the Haitian customs for a period of ten years. Of course, this is only a beginning. Haiti is in such a welter of demoralized anarchy that nothing short of a protectorate will serve to set the country on its feet, and this may mean much trouble and expense. But the thing had got to be done if we are to avoid very serious entanglements after the close of the European war.

Our Obligations Under the Monroe Doctrine

The European war is for our whole Caribbean policy a period of grace which, if used, will probably place us in a secure position, but which, if neglected, may entail the most disastrous consequences. Whatever its outcome, the present struggle will engender an economic keenness and race for markets never known before. One of the world's richest undeveloped markets is the Caribbean area. Europe will certainly fling itself upon this tempting market with unprecedented energy, and will as certainly not tolerate anarchical conditions which would endanger its commercial activities. If we will see to it that law and order are maintained, well and good; our Caribbean hegemony will then probably not be challenged from any quarter. Otherwise there will be trouble, and big trouble. One thing is certain: the old dog-in-the-manger interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, whereby we refused to civilize these islands ourselves or let anyone else do the civilizing has gone, never to return.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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