Before diving in, take a couple of minutes to take this very short U.S. Virgin Islands history quiz, and see how well you do.
Though I am familiar with the vast numbers of Africans who were enslaved and brought to the Caribbean, Brazil, and the U.S., I was unaware that approximately 120,000 Africans were transported to the Caribbean by the Danish West Indies Company, established in 1671. Those who survived the voyage—and many didn’t—faced a cruel future on the sugarcane plantations.
The following brief history is in Danish with English subtitles:
Here’s an English link to the digitized records in the archive that Erik Goebel references. The archive website has a brief page dedicated to the one of the first major slave revolts in the Caribbean:
The enslaved of the islands lived under very harsh conditions. Rules from 1733 stipulated that enslaved who committed grand larceny were to be pinched three times with red-hot tongs and hanged.
If a slave attempted to run away, the punishment was to have a leg amputated or – if forgiven by the master – be given 150 lashes and lose one ear. When the slaves encountered a European, they had to step aside and stand still “with all subservience”. If not, they were given a proper beating.
Interestingly, the U.S. National Park Service, Virgin Islands National Park, has this short video on the revolt.
Chris Woolf noted for The World the importance of St. John:
St. John has a particular place in the pantheon of resistance to slavery: Its enslaved people rebelled against their rulers in 1733 and threw them out. They were free for six months before the Danish could get enough help from their French friends to make a violent comeback.
The Danes did not come to settle in the West Indies, though. There’s a reason why English Creole is today the most common language in the US Virgin Islands. The Danes liked skimming off the profits, but the white settlers in their tropical colony were mostly English, Dutch and Scottish.
Among the latter was the family of US founding father, Alexander Hamilton. He lived on St. Croix for several years.
What I found very interesting when exploring this history was learning about the role played by Breffu, one of the leaders of the rebellion.
What little is known about her is profiled in this story by Holly Norton in The Guardian:
Early one November morning in 1733 on St Jan, a small island in the Danish West Indies, two slaves waited outside a small stone house belonging to a family of plantation owners, the Krøyers. The slaves, Breffu and Christian, were listening for the sound of a cannon to be fired by their compatriots at the island’s fort, signalling the defeat of the fort’s soldiers and the beginning of a slave rebellion. The cannon fired and Breffu entered the house, killing the entire Krøyer family.
In May the following year, as the slave rebellion was collapsing, St Jan’s governor, Phillip Gardelin, noted in his correspondence that he had learned with surprise that “one of the leaders of the rebellion, Baeffu [sic], whom none of us knew, and whom we assumed to be a man having murdered my son Pieter Krøyer and his Wife, is a woman!”
Gardelin’s surprise at Breffu’s sex is puzzling, since her involvement had been known to the Danish authorities since January 1734 from the testimony of other enslaved people questioned about the rebels. Apparently no one thought it important to provide the Danes with the gender of the leaders. And apparently the Danes did not think it important to ask.
Conditions grew harsher post-rebellion, and when a little over 100 years later the British abolished slavery in the Caribbean on Aug. 1, 1834, many enslaved people on the Danish islands attempted to swim to freedom to nearby Tortola. Danish attempts to stop the escapes led to confrontations with the British.
In July of 1848, the enslaved people on St. Croix rose up yet again, and the Danish Gov.-General Peter von Scholten was faced with an unmanageable situation.
Big crowds of enslaved laborers from the town and the plantations took complete control of the small town of Frederiksted. One of the leading men among the rebels was the enslaved laborer John Gottlieb, called General Buddhoe.
The situation was critical. Von Scholten saw no other recourse than taking matters into his own hands in order to ward off avert a devastating rebellion. On July 3, 1848, he drove to Frederiksted, spoke to the rebels and abolished slavery in the Danish possessions in the West Indies effective immediately. It has since been said that von Scholten and John Gottlieb entered into a secret prior agreement, but there is no proof to document this claim.
The Governor-General had no authority to abolish slavery. He came under severe attack for his decision, both by the members of the West Indian government and by slave owners. The owners had lost a large part of their wealth without knowing what compensation to expect. Peter von Scholten suffered a nervous breakdown because of the events and left the islands soon thereafter.
The people of what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands celebrate July 3 as Emancipation Day.
The problems for the Danish colonial overlords and plantation owners did not end with emancipation of the island’s large Black population. In 1878, the free but still oppressed contract workers rebelled. That history is documented in the film The Fireburn:
Although the Fireburn took place in the 1800s, and on an island in the Caribbean, it is globally relevant today. The Fireburn addresses the heart of humanity and shows us what happens when people are robbed of their inalienable rights.The labor revolt of 1878, known as the Fireburn, is but one life-altering event that helped shape people’s lives, as well as the economy of the Danish West Indies, which are now current day US Virgin Islands. The Fireburn documentary explores the inhumane conditions that existed prior to the labor revolt and looks at the women who were called “Queens” due to their leadership. The documentary interviews historians, cultural ambassadors and educators and looks at the folklore, art and history surrounding the Fireburn. The Fireburn is a story that must be told because it is Virgin Islands’ history, African Diaspora history, Danish history, US history, and Caribbean history…as such, it is World history!
Nicola Witcombe, editor at nordics.info, Aarhus University writes on the Fireburn uprising:
On 1st October 1878, on the one day of the year that workers could change their workplace, unrest began that led to the Fireburn uprising. The historical events that day have been little studied and there are differing versions. One popular narrative is that the organisation of the rebellion can be particularly attributed to three women: Mary Thomas, Axeline Elizabeth Salomon (called Agnes), and Mathilda McBean. There is also a narrative that suggests that some women were burned alive by the Danes as revenge against the rebelling slaves. However, there are at the same time witness accounts to suggest that their death was an accident due to the slaves spreading fire. It appears to be clear, though, that about 100 protesters were killed, who were mostly shot when fighting with the military, and two soldiers and one plantation owner lost their lives on the side of the authorities. The protesting workers set fire to Frederiksted (over half of which was burned down), and about 50 plantations, including many sugar mills and crops.
12 men were subsequently given a death sentence and immediately shot. 40 people were later convicted, including three women (who later became known as the ’three queens’). Most were convicted for having participated in an active way in the uprising and around one in four were convicted for having been leaders. They were all given the death sentence, but were pardoned by the Danish King and instead received either life imprisonment or were imprisoned ’on the King’s mercy’. Seven were transported to Denmark, including four women. These were the three ’queens’, along with another woman called Susanna Abrahamson. They were imprisoned in a women’s prison in Christianshavn from 1882-1887, after which they were moved to Christiansted on St. Croix.
The “Three Queens” have been immortalized in Virgin Islands history. However, their story has now been carried to Denmark. I was excited when I saw this video clip posted to Twitter in 2018.
That installation in Denmark was just the beginning of the “I Am Queen Mary” project:
I Am Queen Mary is a transnational public art project created by La Vaughn Belle of the US Virgin Islands and Jeannette Ehlers of Denmark-two artists connected by their shared Caribbean roots and colonial histories. Together they created the first collaborative sculpture to memorialize Denmark’s colonial impact in the Caribbean and those who fought against it. This monumental work debuted in March 2018 in front of the West Indian warehouse in Copenhagen in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the sale and transfer of the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) to the United States. As the first monument to a Black woman in Denmark, I Am Queen Mary made international headlines as a symbol that celebrates and centers the story of people who resisted Danish colonialism in the Caribbean. In 2020 the Danish government granted permission to permanently install I Am Queen Mary in front of a former colonial warehouse in Copenhagen, acknowledging the work’s shift from a temporary artwork to an important landmark in the city. To now build the permanent sculpture, and a twin monument on St. Croix, USVI, an international funding campaign will begin in August 2021.
Meet the two artists, La Vaughn Belle and Jeanette Ehlers:
For those of you who have an interest in documentary films, I suggest you take a look at We Carry It Within Us—Fragments of a Shared Colonial Past, which outlines how Denmark became a wealthy country because of the sugar trade, which was supported by slavery in the Virgin Islands. Amy Roberts reviewed it for The St. Croix Source:
The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, we are unconsciously controlled by it. … History is literally present in all that we do.”
This quotation from writer James Baldwin was projected on the screen prior to the first American screening of the film, “We Carry It Within Us.”
The film outlines how Denmark grew to be a wealthy country on the sugar trade, which depended on slavery in the Virgin Islands. But it goes much further. It explores the degree to which the painful past is acknowledged by Danes, and the many ways the legacy of slavery still resonates in the consciousness of Virgin Islanders.[…]
The film stirs up questions of how to contend with a painful past and continue to move forward.
Here are two trailer clips from the film. The first focuses on Chenoa Lee from the Virgin Islands, who went to Denmark to research the shared culture of the two places:
The second trailer is an interview with writer and professor Tiphanie Yanique, who is also from the Virgin Islands. Yanique speaks of the cruelty of the Danish in their treatment of slaves as compared to other countries and “what it means to be a Caribbean person who has culturally survived slavery and colonialism.”
There is much more to explore in Virgin Islands history, and I’ll try to get to some of it in the comments section below, as well as posting the weekly Caribbean Twitter Roundup. Hope you’ll join me!
You can read the first installment of Caribbean Matters here.