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. (January 2017)
The U.S. Virgin Islands were originally inhabited by the Ciboney, Carib, and Arawaks. The islands were named by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493 for Saint Ursula and her virgin followers. Over the next two hundred years, the islands were held by many European powers, including Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Denmark–Norway. In 1927, the inhabitants of the U.S. Virgin Islands were granted American citizenship.
The Danish West India Company settled on St. Thomas in 1672, settled on St. John in 1694, and purchased St. Croix from France in 1733. The islands became royal Danish colonies in 1754, named the Danish West Indian Islands (Danish: De dansk-vestindiske øer). Sugarcane, produced by slave labor, drove the islands' economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries, until the abolition of slavery by Governor Peter von Scholten on July 3, 1848.
The Danish West India and Guinea Company are also credited with naming the island St. John (Danish: Sankt Jan). The Danish crown took full control of St. John in 1754 along with St. Thomas and St. Croix. Sugarcane plantations such as the famous Annaberg Sugar Plantation were established in great numbers on St. John because of the intense heat and fertile terrain that provided ideal growing conditions. The establishment of sugarcane plantations also led to the buying of more slaves from Africa. In 1733, St. John was the site of one of the first significant slave rebellions in the New World when Akwamu slaves from the Gold Coast took over the island for six months.
The Danish were able to defeat the enslaved Africans with help from the French in Martinique. Instead of allowing themselves to be recaptured, more than a dozen of the ringleaders shot themselves before the French forces could capture them and call them to account for their activities during the period of rebel control. It is estimated that by 1775, slaves outnumbered the Danish settlers by a ratio of 5:1. The indigenous Caribs and Arawaks were also used as slave labor to the point of the entire native population being absorbed into the larger groups. Slavery was abolished in the Virgin Islands on July 3, 1848.
Although some plantation owners refused to accept the abolition, some 5,000 Black people were freed while another 17,000 remained enslaved. In that era, slaves labored mainly on sugar plantations. Other crops included cotton and indigo. Over the following years, strict labor laws were implemented several times, leading planters to abandon their estates, causing a significant drop in population and the overall economy. In the late 1800s, numerous natural disasters added to diminish the economy. For the remainder of the period of Danish rule the islands were not economically viable and significant transfers were made from the Danish state budgets to the authorities in the islands. In 1867 a treaty to sell St. Thomas and St. John to the United States was agreed, but the sale was never effected. A number of reforms aimed at reviving the islands' economy were attempted, but none had great success. A second draft treaty to sell the islands to the United States was negotiated in 1902 but was defeated in the upper house of the Danish parliament in a tie vote (because the opposition carried a 97-year-old life member into the chamber).
The onset of World War I brought the reforms to a close and again left the islands isolated and exposed. During the submarine warfare phases of the war, the United States, fearing that the islands might be seized by Germany as a submarine base, again approached Denmark about buying them. After a few months of negotiations, a selling price of $25 million in United States gold coin was agreed, equivalent to $562.23 million in 2017 dollars. At the same time the economics of continued possession weighed heavily on the minds of Danish decision makers, and a consensus in favor of selling emerged in the Danish parliament.
The Treaty of the Danish West Indies was signed in August 1916, with a Danish referendum held in December 1916 to confirm the decision. The deal was finalized on January 17, 1917, when the United States and Denmark exchanged their respective treaty ratifications. The United States took possession of the islands on March 31, 1917 and the territory was renamed the Virgin Islands of the United States. Every year Transfer Day is recognized as a holiday, to commemorate the acquisition of the islands by the United States. US citizenship was granted to the inhabitants of the islands in 1927. The US dollar was adopted in the territory in 1934 and from 1935 to 1939 the islands were a part of the United States customs area.
Water Island, a small island to the south of St. Thomas, was initially administered by the US federal government and did not become a part of the United States Virgin Islands territory until 1996, when 50 acres (20 ha) of land was transferred to the territorial government. The remaining 200 acres (81 ha) of the island were purchased from the United States Department of the Interior in May 2005 for $10, a transaction that marked the official change in jurisdiction.
Hurricane Hugo struck the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1989, causing catastrophic physical and economic damage, particularly on the island of St. Croix. The territory was again struck by Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, killing eight people and causing more than $2 billion in damage. The islands were again struck by Hurricanes Bertha, Georges, Lenny, and Omar in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2008, respectively, but damage was not as severe in those storms. In 2017, Hurricane Irma caused catastrophic damage to St. John and St. Thomas; just days later, Hurricane Maria's eyewall crossed over St. Croix.
Until February 2012, the Hovensa plant located on St. Croix was one of the world's largest petroleum refineries and contributed about 20% of the territory's GDP. The facility stopped exporting petroleum products in 2014. In the final year of full refinery operations, the value of exported petroleum products was $12.7 billion (2011 fiscal year). After being shut down, it has operated as no more than an oil storage facility; the closure had provoked a local economic crisis.
In September 2017, two weeks after Hurricane Irma hit St. Thomas and St. John while a Category 5 hurricane, Hurricane Maria's weaker outer eyewall was reported by the National Hurricane Center to have crossed St. Croix while the hurricane was at Category 5 intensity. Sustained winds at the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge on St. Croix reached 99 to 104 mph (159 to 167 km/h) and gusted to 137 mph (220 km/h). Weather stations on St. Croix recorded 5 and 10 inches of rain from the hurricane, and estimates for St. John and St. Thomas were somewhat less.
The hurricane killed two people, both in their homes: one person drowned and another was trapped by a mudslide. A third person had a fatal heart attack during the hurricane. The hurricane caused extensive and severe damage to St. Croix. After both hurricanes, the office of V.I. congresswoman Stacey Plaskett stated that 90% of buildings in the Virgin Islands were damaged or destroyed and 13,000 of those buildings had lost their roofs. The Luis Hospital suffered roof damage and flooding, but remained operational.