A Brief History of the U.S. Virgin Islands: Background information when reading Land of Love and Drowning

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Land of Love and Drowning

by Tiphanie Yanique

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2014, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2015, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
A Brief History of the U.S. Virgin Islands

Print Review

The U.S. Virgin Islands Land of Love and Drowning opens in the early 1900s when the Virgin Islands were still under the control of Denmark. European powers, namely France, Denmark, and England, had taken an interest in the Virgin Islands since the early 1600s. Denmark settled St. John and St. Thomas by the mid-1600s, and purchased St. Croix from the French in 1733, forming the three islands into the Danish West Indies. The remaining large islands of significance were in British hands. A treaty in 1685 established a trading post for slaves in St. Thomas, allowed the island to develop an economy based on trade, while St. John and St. Croix maintained a plantation economy harvesting cane, cotton, and indigo. Interestingly, pirates, who were viewed as a source of income, were encouraged to hide out in the Islands during this time.

By the 1800s, the slave trade had been outlawed — in 1848, slaves were freed — piracy had disappeared, and the agriculture value of the Islands severely declined. The Danish West Indies had become a backwater. The United States, however, recognized the Islands' strategic position during World War I and purchased them from Denmark for $25 million in gold. However, the Islands' inhabitants were not granted American citizenship until 1927, a delayed decision that caused frustration among the Islanders. Another point of contention was the United States' decision to have the Military and Department of the Interior administer the Islands. Today, USVI is run by an elected governor under the jurisdiction of the United States President.

The transition from the Danish West Indies to the U.S. Virgin Islands — as Yanique explains in her novel — was belabored and not received well. Though the economy improved, and the Islanders were eventually granted American citizenship, the influx of American tourists created a class system that reached a head in the 1970s. As more Americans came to the Islands and purchased beachfront property, many of the beaches that had been enjoyed by native Islanders for generations became off-limits. The Open Shoreline Act of 1971 ensured that all beaches within 50 feet of the tidal zone could be used by the public.

Although the novel focuses primarily on the U.S. Virgin Islands, it also features Anegada, which is under the jurisdiction of the British Virgin Islands.

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This article was originally published in August 2014, and has been updated for the July 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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