Residents who spoke with The Daily News after Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen acknowledged Denmark’s past role in propagating slavery within the territory and the suffering it caused said they view the acknowledgement as a first step.
“There is no justification for slavery. It is unforgiveable,” Rasmussen said during his speech at the Transfer Day ceremony on St. Croix on Friday. “And it is a dark and disgraceful part of Danish history.”
Denmark ruled the Danish West Indies until the islands were sold to the United States for $25 million in gold in 1917.
In an emotional speech that was punctuated by frequent applause, Rasmussen struck a conciliatory tone and spoke of a brighter future.
“I would like to commend the prime minister for being the first in the history of his office to take preliminary steps towards a new relationship with the people of the Virgin Islands,” said Shelley Moorhead, an activist and member of the Centennial Commission. Moorhead has headed the local reparations movement and is also a special adviser to Gov. Kenneth Mapp.
Rasmussen spoke of a “touch of common destiny that time cannot erase” that the people of the territory and the people of Denmark share.
“Although we share a common past, we have not always shared the same story about that past,” he said, noting that the popular stories of the former Danish West Indies when he was a child were romantic stories of tropical islands and peaceful coexistence. He said children were told that the Danish king who was the first to ban the slave trade in the 1800s was a hero.
“But most of you were told and lived a very different story, the true story. The story of how slavery continued after the ban,” he said, pointing to the conditions in which enslaved Africans continued to suffer.
The true heroes, he said, “were the men and women who stood up to the injustice.”
“They were not given their freedom. They took it back,” he said.
He spoke of Gen. Buddhoe leading the charge for emancipation in 1848 and of the queens who led the 1878 Fireburn.
Rasmussen also spoke of D. Hamilton Jackson, and said that when Jackson criticized the government, he was called a “dreamer,” which was meant as an insult. Rasmussen suggested instead that it was a “badge of honor.”
He said that Denmark must acknowledge what occurred in the past and how it has affected where the territory is today.
“We can’t undo the past. What we can do is improve the future,” Rasmussen said as he announced a five-year scholarship program at the University of the Virgin Islands.
“It is my sincere hope that this new program will pave the way for further development in both our countries and bring new hope and opportunities to young people in the Virgin Islands,” Rasmussen said. “The youth of our countries are the future. They must keep their dreams alive. They must take destiny into their own hands, just as the heroes of the past did.
“And ladies and gentlemen, this time around we will not hold them back.”
Mapp said he was moved by Rasmussen’s words.
“Your acknowledgements and your admissions this morning of those periods and the effects on Africans of the Danish West Indies are received warmly,” Mapp said. “We thank you for your brutal honesty.”
Moorhead noted that Rasmussen’s speech fell short of an apology, but said it was an important first step.
“His pledge for scholarships at the University of the Virgin Islands I feel are both honorable and sincere and should represent many more reparative issues and projects that must follow,” Moorhead said.
Nikolaj Villumsen, a member of the Danish parliament who is visiting the territory, said he saw some positive aspects to the speech, including the acknowledgement of the suffering that enslavement and colonial rule created here.
“But I would have very much have liked it if he had given an official apology on behalf of Denmark for the atrocities conducted against the people of these islands,” Villumsen said.
He said that the idea of issuing such an apology is gaining wider support in the parliament.
Dodson James, former St. Croix administrator, said he thought Rasmussen was on the verge of issuing an apology.
“I’m looking forward to hearing the offer of the five-year scholarship and the exact benefits,” James said.
Marvis Richards of St. Croix said she sees the scholarship program as a “good gesture,” a way of paying things back.
Sonia Jacobs Dow, executive director of the St. Croix Landmarks Society and a Centennial Commission member, said she was glad to hear the acknowledgement.
“It was good because, in a sense, the people of Denmark have had what I call national amnesia,” Jacobs Dow said. “So it was really good to have the prime minister come and acknowledge our shared history, the good and the bad of it. Because good history, bad history: It’s our history.”
She said she sees it as an important step.
“This process of the centennial is for reflecting, for acknowledging and then for moving forward. So I think that’s an important step in the process,” she said.