I am pleased to include a guest post by Sophie Schiller, author of Transfer Day, a story full of action, adventure and romance set in the Danish West Indies during World War I. Sophie’s post describes how the novel took shape over five years of researching the island of St. Thomas and events leading up to its transfer to the US.
Sometimes the best reason for accomplishing a goal in life is for the simple reason that no one else has ever done it before. That’s how I got involved in a writing project that turned into a full-fledged obsession for five long years.
While growing up in St. Thomas, a single, nagging question returned time and again: Why aren’t there more books illustrating the rich, vibrant history of the Danish West Indies? After all, the islands have been praised for their beauty for centuries. The capital, Charlotte Amalie, possesses one of the most wonderful natural harbors in the world. For inspiration, all a writer has to do is gaze at her rolling green hills dotted with colorful flowers, turquoise blue water, and ubiquitous red-roofed houses. And since no novel yet existed that could satisfy my desire to read about this remarkable, fascinating place, I decided to write my own.
The most momentous event to occur in this former Danish colony was its sale and transfer to the United States in 1917, an episode never tackled by any writer. In my mind, this incident presented a fertile field for suspense, conflict, and drama. After all, it wasn’t every day that a territory was transferred from one hand to another. It seemed only natural that the very act of being bought and sold would introduce significant, uncomfortable changes for the islands’ inhabitants.
I decided to tell the story of the transfer through the eyes of a blossoming young woman. For purposes of cultural exoticism, I made her a member of St. Thomas’ now-extinct Sephardic Jewish community. Located high on a steep hill behind the town is one of the oldest Sephardic synagogues in the Western Hemisphere, a cultural relic of a bygone era when tall-masted sailing ships ruled the seas, when the world hungered for sugar and spices. But who built this synagogue? Why did they disappear? What was the origin of the ubiquitous island surname, Maduro.
Lots of Virgin Islanders are named Maduro but the name always struck me as unusual. Island names such as Maduro, Robles and De Castro had an unmistakable Spanish-sounding ring. How did inhabitants of a former Danish colony wind up with Spanish-sounding names? To my surprise, I learned that the name Maduro was actually a Sephardic Jewish name, brought to the island by 18th and 19th century immigrants with roots in Holland, Portugal and Spain.
The name Maduro was adopted by 16th century Conversos from the Hebrew tribe of Levi who fled the Iberian peninsula for Holland in order keep their Jewish identity intact. Later, these Spanish-Portuguese Jews crossed the Atlantic, settling in tolerant Dutch colonies like Suriname and in Dutch islands like Curaçao, Saba and St. Eustatius. Later, on invitation of a Danish King, the Sephardim established an important trading colony in St. Thomas. Denmark is the only Nordic country to aspire to great maritime power and colonial expansion. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they acquired the three main islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix to obtain precious metals, spices, sugar, tobacco, rum, cotton, indigo, ginger, cacao and coffee, and those Sephardic Jews played an important role in expanding Denmark’s trading ambitions. However, due to natural disasters and the introduction of steamships at the end of the 19th century, the economy of the islands dwindled and those Sephardic Jews emigrated to other, more prosperous shores, such as Panama. I decided to focus on a young girl facing a life of spinsterhood as a result of this out-migration of available men, and the turmoil of the islands’ transfer and the First World War.
Now that I had a main character, I needed an element of danger. From scouring old New York Times articles, I knew that an important office of the Hamburg-America Steamship Line was located on the island of St. Thomas. In fact, German holdings in the Danish West Indies were extensive, consisting of buildings, docks, villas, warehouses and coaling facilities. Thoughts began swirling in my mind over what went on in this operation. Who was behind it all? What was its true purpose? Were the Germans actively engaged in helping the war effort? And if so, how? I was also curious about German contingency plans in case Americans took over and then entered the war. I decided to focus on a character from the Hamburg-America Lines as my antagonist.
To find out more about this Hamburg operation, I turned to a Danish contact with a personal interest in the Danish West Indies. To my good fortune, he put me in touch with a gentleman in Germany, which proved to be a major breakthrough because this man’s grandfather had been in charge of the entire Hamburg-America (HAPAG) operation on St. Thomas since 1913. Not only had he been the Director of the steamship office, but he had also served as the island’s German Consul. Several days after the islands were transferred, and shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany, he was rounded up as an enemy alien, put on a cruiser and taken to the U.S. for military detention.
I turned to the National Archives in Washington to fill in the holes. The name of this gentleman’s grandfather did indeed come up in their records; according to State Dept. records, he had been a WWI German POW. At the soonest possible opportunity, I flew to Washington, D.C. and came home loaded with copies of precious documents about his grandfather’s dramatic last days on the island.
There were hand-written letters, formal memos regarding his dealings with Swiss diplomats and State Department officials, emotional telegrams and missives to his wife and colleagues, documents concerning his internment in Fort Oglethorpe, his protestations of innocence, his hearing, and his inevitable deportation to Europe. The picture that emerged was a dramatic one. After all, war-time espionage is not a risk-free endeavor. Even in this quiet, neutral little Danish enclave, human lives were not exempt from the vagaries of war.
St. Thomas society in the years leading up to and during the Great War contained a well-entrenched, affluent, influential German colony that invested huge sums of money in real estate, docks, warehouses, and a coaling depot. The German captains, officers and engineers who operated the steamships were all reserves in the Kaiserliche Marine. Upper management in the steamship office were German nationals who maintained close contact with Berlin via coded radio transmissions over a Telefunken wireless radio station hidden in at least one of their steamships. Other documents I uncovered showed heated confrontations between HAPAG steamers presumed to be carrying war contraband and American Customs officials on the island of Puerto Rico, confrontations that resulted in cannon fire and seizures that had been ordered from the highest levels of the State Department. This was fascinating stuff! But how do I turn it into a novel?
Slowly, I devised a plot in which an officer from a German U-boat, Leutnant zur See Erich Seibold, deserts his ship in the Azores because he refuses to sink any more passenger ships then talks his way aboard a tramp steamer headed to the Caribbean, and jumps off as soon as he reaches this safe, neutral Danish island. Once there, the deserter enlists the aid of a local girl, Abigail Maduro, who hides him in the basement of her spinster aunt’s house. Things go well for the unlikely pair until the Black Tom incident in July of 1916 (when German saboteurs exploded an ammunition depot in New York harbor) when Abigail is forced to confront Erich about his true mission on the island, if he indeed is a German saboteur sent to wreak havoc on the formerly peaceful Danish islands. Ultimately, Erich reveals that he is a deserter from a German U-boat who left the war of his own accord. However, unbeknownst to them, a twist of fate brings Erich’s true identity to the attention of the Director of the Hamburg-America Steamship Line, Lothar Langsdorff, who uses the information to blackmail Erich into committing sabotage and murder. In my story, Langsdorff has personal ambitions to become the first German governor of the islands, orchestrating a German takeover by first assassinating the Danish governor to scare away the Americans and pave the way for a German invasion.
Once I had my three main characters set, the story flowed naturally. I took my German U-boat character (Erich Seibold), brought him to the Danish West Indies, introduced him to the island girl (Abby Maduro), then added the element of danger when the German spy character (Lothar Langsdorff) discovers Erich’s presence and blackmails him into assassinating the Danish Governor, to cause a riot and scare away the Americans.
To heighten the drama, I introduce some real-life characters such as Governor Helweg-Larsen, Queen Coziah (the legendary leader of the coal carriers), David Hamilton Jackson (a newspaper editor who challenged King Christian X for freedom of the press in the colonies), and Dr. Viggo Christensen, a physician who worked feverishly in the interest of public health.
Above all, authenticity was key. I was determined to portray life in the Danish West Indies during World War I as accurately as possible and spent many hours in exhausting, thorough research. Once I connected with my characters, I let them tell their story in their own words. In the end, a certain magic was created. The magic of bringing the past to life.
If the reader walks away knowing a little more about this forgotten historical event, I will feel that I accomplished more than what I set out to do. When I look back on five years or work, I feel that the characters guided me along this path. I just had to find their stories and write them down.
Thanks for the interesting post, Sophie. The storyline and characters you’ve created sound wonderful. I wish you all sorts of success with Transfer Day.