Chronicle of Slave rebellions in the Americas.
All societies practicing slavery will have to deal with slave revolts because there is that desire for Freedom in any human being. One can express it in their songs or their story-telling nights. It becomes part of their culture and an art in knowing how to implant it to others with the same background.
History is full of examples of such revolts. When a Roman slave named Spartacus (73-71 BC) rose against abuses committed by the Roman Empire or a Scandinavian Slave Tunni, in the 9th century, revolted against the Swedish Monarchy, you can also understand well how the slaves of Santo Domingo, Bookman, Dessalines and others may have felt in the 18th century (1791) against the French Imperialism of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French revolution indeed bought to us the words of Liberty and Equality for all.
I have taken that task to bring to light the most distinctive slave revolutions in the Americas and chose to review some of the most epic African slave revolts which have marked forever the new world in this “Chronicle of African Slave revolts in the Americas”. I am sure you will find time to appreciate what our ancestors have done to make Haiti a free Nation for the Haitians.
This month, we will talk about the insurrection of the slaves against the Danish colonists in 1733-1734. It is amazing to feel how the sense of history is silent among people of all ages on this land of St Croix that I have been covering as an orthopedic surgeon for the last 6 months in a locum assignment. So many majestic sugar mills are standing abandoned, falling in ruins. There may be an effort to attract the tourist to at least acknowledge the existence of a past with slavery and the need to be conscious of their presence, but few are aware that the slaves were forced to build those structures and work in the production of sugar and cotton. The older you are, the more value you give to those structures and it is not too sure that the younger understand what conditions of life their ancestors were imposed to while working in these sugar mills to enrich the Empire of Denmark. I may one day talk more about the sugar mills, but today we will address the 1733 Slave revolt in St John (Sankt Jan) in the Virgin Islands.
B) 1733 St John Slave Revolt
Danish Saint John
The 1733 slave insurrection in St John (Sankt Jan), Virgin Islands
23 November 1733- 25 August 1734
The island was then a possession of the Danish Empire. 150 African slaves originated from Ghana (AKWAMU) revolted against the owners and managers of the island’s plantations on November 23, 1733. This is believed to be one of the earliest slave revolt in the Americas which lasted until August 1734.
The Akwamu slaves captured the fort in Coral bay and took control of the island in the goal of resuming crop production under their own control while using other African slaves for manpower and slave labor. The planters did not give up and kept fighting until they re-gained back control of the island in May 1734 when the Akwamu slaves were defeated by hundreds of better–armed French and Swiss soldiers from the French colony of Martinique. They hunt down the maroons and put an end to the rebellion in August 1734.
The Spanish expanded their conquest to the Americas and occupied the West Indies. They enslaved the indigenous Arawak’s and used them as slave labor until Bartholomew took their cause in pity and suggested to Queen Isabelle De Castille to use in replacement of the native Indians, African slaves. The Indians died as a result of atrocity by the Spaniards, infectious diseases, war and over working as slaves. By the late 17th century, the British, French and the Danes shared with them the islands. But in St John, the British won out before the Dane claimed St John in 1718 although numerous planters stayed behind as settlers, there was not enough laborers. Young Danish were not interested in emigrating to the West Indies to provide a reliable source of labor. They tried to interest prisoners to come to the plantation unsuccessfully. It became obvious like for the other imperial powers that the best way to populate the plantation with laborers, was to import African slaves. Danish ships transported 85,000 African slaves to the New World between 1660 and 1806.
The African trade started around 1657 by mainly the Danish west Indies and Guinea Company in the vicinity of Accra, presently Ghana on the Guinea coast.
The Akwamu became the dominant tribe of the Akan people in the district of Accra They established dominance on trading routes, fought other tribes and conquered them, taking many captives and selling them as slaves. They spared many women as concubines in different villages to enhance their population. Once the Akwamu king died, rival tribes took their revenge and after years of oppression, they fought and defeated the Akwamu. They took the Akwamu people as prisoners to sell then as slaves to the Danes. Soon, the prisoners would be loaded on boats (Negriers) in route to the west Indies plantation of St John.
At the time of the revolution of 1733, 150 Akwamu slaves participated in the insurrection while other members of different tribes played a role of observatory and more, many remained supportive of their masters. and did not participated in the revolt.
The Danes claimed the island of St John in 1718 to develop their sugar plantations and crops as indigo and cotton. A high demand in sugar responding to the European demand forced the Dutch planters to get involved in the production of sugar. By 1733, there were 109 plantations with around 1087 African slaves and 206 white planters on the island of St John. Only, six soldiers were responsible for the protection of the island.
In response to harsh living conditions from drought and crop failure, many slaves left their plantation to become maroon, hiding in the woods. A slave code was passed in 1733 to enforce obedience from slaves imposing severe punishments from whipping to amputation of limb or death by hanging. The code was intended to prevent the slaves from escaping.
Many in the Akwamu tribe were nobles or healthy merchants, powerful members of their society back in Africa. So they met and plan to instigate an insurrection in the goal to take over the island of St John. Their desire to control the production of sugar and crop was the idea behind the revolution. King June, a field slave and member of the tribe, led the rebellion. Other leaders like Kanta, King Bolombo, Prince Aquashie and Breffu were meeting at night to develop plans.
The insurrection started on November 23, 1733 at the Coral Bay plantation with slaves bearing hidden cane knives on the plantation own by Magistrate Johannes Sodtmann while other delivered wood like usual. They took the opportunity to kill most of the soldiers in the fort until soldier John Gabriel escaped to St Thomas and alerted the Danish Officials. Soon the rebels gained control of the estates and moved along the north shore of the island. Many of the whites were killed but they avoided a widespread destruction of the properties because they intended to resume crop production for themselves.
In taking control of the estates, the rebels spread out over the entire island to attack other plantations like the Cinnamon Bay Plantation of the Jansen’s. There they met a fierce resistance when a group of loyal slaves resisted the attack with gunfire allowing the Jansen’s to retreat to their boats and escape to Durloe’s plantation. They finally escaped with their families and loyal slaves to St Thomas around 9 miles by sea.
Danish official requested help from the colonist at Martinique (324 Miles) away and two French ships arrived at St John on April 23, 1734 with several hundreds of French and Swiss troops to take control of the rebels. By Mid-May, the soldiers were able to restore the planter’s rules of the island. They cracked down the maroons and by August 25, 1734 the slave insurrection was ended. Many moved to Ste Croix which become Danish property in 1733 when the Danes purchased it from France.
Franz Claasen a loyal slave who defended the family in the revolt was deeded Mary Point Estate for defending and assisting in their escape to St Thomas The deed was officially recorded on August 20, 1738 making him the first free Colored land owner of St John. Denmark ended the African slave trade in Danish West Indies on Jan 1, 1803 but slavery continued on the islands.
The British emancipated their slaves in the British West Indies in 1838 and slaves on St John began escaping to the nearby Tortola and other British Islands. On May 24, 1840, eleven (11) slaves from St John stole a boat and escaped to Tortola during the night. 8 men and 3 women from the Annenberg habitation and ten Leinster Bay estates. The local Moravian Missionary went to the island of Tortola to persuade the slaves to return to St John at the request of the St John Police. The slaves decided to stay away because of abusive treatment on the plantations. The conditions changed and some slaves returned to work at Leinster Bay, others moved St Thomas and Tortola. Others re-located to Trinidad. None of the runaway slaves were punished.
Slaves and Free blacks sent a petition to the colonial government and Denmark to abolish slavery. On July 3, 1848 (114 years after the slave revolution, enslaved Afro-Caribbean’s of St Croix held a non-violent demonstration seeking for abolition of slavery. The Governor-General Peter von Scholten declared an emancipation through the Danish Indies.
Maxime Coles MD
1- “St John Slave Rebellion”, Sombrero Publishing Co 2000.
2- Appiah, Anthony; Gates Henry Louis (1999). Africana: The Encyclopedia of African American Experience, New York: Basic Civitas Books.
3- A.T. Hall, Naville; B.W. Higman (1994). Slave Society in The Danish West Indies: St Thomas, St John and St Croix. University Press of the west Indies.
4- David Knight (November 2001). “St John’s Other Revolt: The Desertions of 1840. St John Historical Society Newsletter. St John Historical Society, July 28, 2011.