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Microregionalism and intercolonial relations: the case of the Danish West Indies, 1730–1830*

  • Jeppe Mulich (a1)


This article proposes a new framework of analysis for studying inter-imperial spaces in global history. The analytical construct developed here – that of the inter-imperial microregion – highlights the density of networks and interactions found in certain areas with multiple competing polities. It provides a relational approach to the study of transnational and inter-polity exchanges that challenges traditional imperial narratives and suggests a more direct engagement between global, regional, and local histories. After discussing the theoretical and historiographical implications of this model, the article goes on to look at empirical evidence from the case of the Danish West Indies. It analyses the role that these Caribbean colonies played within the inter-imperial microregion of the Leeward Islands during the century from 1730 to 1830. The case study is structured around three central elements of colonial life – geography, security, and commerce – showing how these created the conditions for a high level of interdependence between colonies of multiple empires in the region.



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Helpful comments on various incarnations of this article came from Lauren Benton, Jane Burbank, Frederick Cooper, Nadim Bawalsa, and Tony Andersson; from participants at the Configurations of Empires conference at New York University; from two anonymous readers; and from the editors of the Journal of Global History – I am thankful for all of them. Any errors are mine alone.



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14 One has only to look at the contents of the two anthologies referenced above for examples of the breadth of perspectives covered by translocality.

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18 Weber, ‘Objectivity’, p. 97

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19 Nørregård, George, Danish settlements in West Africa, 1658–1850, Boston, MA: Boston University Press, 1966

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29 Lauren Benton, Search for sovereignty, pp. 162–165

30 Heinzelmann, Eva, Robl, Stefanie, and Riis, Thomas, eds., The Oldenburg monarchy: an underestimated empire?, Kiel: Verlag Ludwig, 2006

31 Macmillan, Ken, Sovereignty and possession in the English new world: the legal foundations of empire, 1576–1640, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 204

32 Hall, Neville A. T., Slave society in the Danish West Indies: St Thomas, St John, and St Croix, Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1992, pp. 132

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34 Dookhan, Isaac, A history of the Virgin Islands of the United States, Kingston: Canoe Press, 1994, pp. 181198

35 Rigsarkivet, Copenhagen, Chamber of Customs (henceforth RA, COC), Private Collections, 410, Miscellaneous notes taken by Councillor of State Martfeldt concerning the Danish West Indies, 1765.

36 This view is clearly expressed in reports from the British Leeward Islands, as more and more British colonists travelled to Ste Croix in the mid eighteenth century despite inter-imperial political rivalries at the regional level. Calendar of state papers, colonial (henceforth CSPC), 1734–1735, Governor Matthew to the Council of Trade and Plantations, Montserrat, 19 March 1734.

37 Green-Pedersen, Svend Erik, ‘Slave demography in the Danish West Indies and the abolition of the Danish slave trade’, in David Eltis and James Walvin, eds., The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade: origins and effects in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981, pp. 231258

38 Scott, Julius S., ‘Crisscrossing empires: ships, sailors, and resistance in the Lesser Antilles in the eighteenth century’, in Robert L. Paquette and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., The Lesser Antilles in the age of European expansion, Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996, pp. 128143

39 Green-Pedersen, Svend Erik, ‘The history of the Danish negro slave trade, 1733–1807’, Revue française d'histoire d'outre-mer, 69, 1975, p. 199

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40 Green-Pedersen, Svend Erik, ‘Colonial trade under the Danish flag: a case study of Danish slave trade in Cuba 1790–1807’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 5, 2, 1980, pp. 93120

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Murray, David R., Odious commerce: Britain, Spain, and the abolition of the Cuban slave trade, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 5860

41 Westergaard, Waldemar, ‘Account of the negro rebellion on St Croix, Danish West Indies, 1759’, Journal of Negro History, 11, 1, 1926, p. 56

42 Caron, Aimery P. and Highfield, Arnold R., eds., The French intervention in the St John slave revolt of 1733–34, Christiansted: Bureau of Libraries, Museums and Archaeological Services, 1981, p. 26

43 Letter from Champigny to Gardelin, 12 April 1734, in ibid., p. 34.

44 Letter from Champigny to Longueville, 12 April 1734, in ibid., pp. 27–30. See also letter from d'Orgueville to the French foreign minister, 1 July 1734, in ibid., pp. 48–9.

45 Pannet, Pierre Joseph, Report on the execrable conspiracy carried out by the Amina negroes on the Danish island of St Jan in America 1733, trans. Aimery P. Caron and Arnold R. Highfield, Christiansted: Antilles Press, 1984, p. 17

46 Caron and Highfield, French intervention, p. 34

47 CSPC, 1734–1735, Governor Matthew to Mr Popple, Antigua, 26 November 1734.

48 CSPC, 1734–1735, Governor Matthew to the Council of Trade and Plantations, Montserrat, 19 March 1734.

49 Printed in Westergaard, ‘Account’, p. 58.

50 RA, COC, 400, Miscellaneous Information 1760–1848, VII, ‘Various military accounts’.

51 RA, COC, 533, The British Occupation of the West Indies 1801–1807, ‘Report of Casimir von Scholten’, 11 January 1801.

52 RA, COC, 533, The British Occupation of the West Indies 1801–1807, ‘Further Reports’.

53 Ibid., ‘Proceedings of the St Thomas Burgher Council’, 13 March 1801.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid., ‘Letter from Lieutenant-General Thomas Trigge to the Colonial Government of St Thomas’, 1801.

56 Vibæk, Jens, Vore gamle tropekolonier bind 2: Dansk Vestindien 1755–1848 (Our ancient tropical colonies, volume 2: the Danish West Indies 1755–1848), Copenhagen: Fremad, 1966, pp. 224225

57 Armytage, Frances, The free port system in the British West Indies: a study in commercial policy, 1766–1822, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1953

58 Bro-Jørgensen, J. O., Vore gamle tropekolonier, bind 1: Dansk Vestindien indtil 1755 (Our ancient tropical colonies, volume 1: the Danish West Indies until 1755), Copenhagen: Fremad, 1966

59 RA, COC, 400, Miscellaneous information 1760–1848, VII, ‘Angaaende oen St Thomas som frihavn, og toldvæsenet deri (Concerning the isle of St Thomas as a free port, and the customs associated therewith)’.

60 Hall, Slave society, pp. 21–22

61 Comparison of the volume of incoming ships with the actual tax revenue gained by the colonies seems to confirm this. These documents are located in: RA, COC, 400, Miscellaneous information 1760–1848, VII; RA, COC, 490, Extracts and calculations concerning the West India trade, customs and shipping 1764–1856, ‘Beregning af specification (Calculations of specifications)’.

62 Dookhan, History, pp. 106–119

Westergaard, Waldemar, The Danish West Indies under company rule, 1671–1754, New York: Macmillan, 1917, pp. 4850

63 Karras, Alan L., ‘Custom has the force of law: local officials and contraband in the Bahamas and the Floridas, 1748–1777’, Florida Historical Quarterly, 80, 3, 2002, pp. 281311

Wim Klooster, ‘Inter-imperial smuggling in the Americas, 1600–1800,’ in Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault, eds., Soundings in Atlantic history: latent structures and intellectual currents, 1500–1830, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009, pp. 176180

64 Vibæk, Vore gamle tropekolonier, p. 301

65 RA, COC, 490, Extracts and calculations concerning the West India trade, customs, and shipping, 1764–1856.

66 RA, Government-General, 2.41, Files concerning piracy, 1818–25.

67 On this point in general and its consequences for regional politics in specific, see Blaufarb, ‘Western question’; Lauren Benton, ‘Strange sovereignty: the Provincia Oriental in the Atlantic world’, 20/10, El Mundo Atlántico y la Modernidad Iberoamericano, 1750–1850, forthcoming.

68 Vibæk, Vore gamle tropekolonier, pp. 253–256

69 Some examples of criminal investigations into piracy by local inhabitants can be found in RA, Sheriff of St Thomas, 13.6.3, ‘Proceedings of criminal cases’, 1823–26.

70 RA, Government-General, 2.42, The case against Jean Jayet de Beaupré and others concerning piracy, 1828–1829, ‘Court papers, St Thomas’.

71 Ibid., undated newspaper clippings from the St Kitts Advertiser.

72 On their alleged involvement in the illegal slave trade to Cuba by the Dutch schooner Zee Bloem, see ‘Mr. Secretary George Canning to the right hon. Frederick Lamb, Foreign Office, 4 April 1825, including 15 enclosures’, in British and foreign state papers vol. 12, London: HMSO, 1846, pp. 242–51. It is interesting here to note that the merchant house was seemingly involved with ships sailing under Dutch, French, Danish, and various Latin American flags.

73 harbourmaster, St Thomas, ‘Pilot journals of incoming ships’, 1821–1835

74 Vibæk, Vore gamle tropekolonier, pp. 301–310

Katic, Ulla, ‘The transportation of mules from South America to the West Indies in the 1860s’, Historia Medicinae Veterinariae, 23, 1998, pp. 325

75 Jespersen, Knud J. V., A history of Denmark, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004

Jespersen, Knud J. V. and Feldbæk, Ole, Revanche og neutralitet, 1648–1814 (Revanche and neutrality, 1648–1814), Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2006

* Helpful comments on various incarnations of this article came from Lauren Benton, Jane Burbank, Frederick Cooper, Nadim Bawalsa, and Tony Andersson; from participants at the Configurations of Empires conference at New York University; from two anonymous readers; and from the editors of the Journal of Global History – I am thankful for all of them. Any errors are mine alone.



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