Why U.S. Virgin Islands is different from the rest of the Caribbean and can hold a unique place in women's rights activism
Hidden behind the sandy beach and sunshine of the Caribbean are a brutal slavery history and frequent slave uprisings.
But women's role in the uprisings are rarely discussed. Danish West Indies is perhaps the exception. Danish West Indies, or U.S. Virgin Islands as it is called today, is not only unique in that it was the only Danish colony in the Caribbean, but it is also a land where females were key leaders of slave rebellions, and their roles as rebel queens are celebrated.
Breffu, St. John Rebellion (1733)
Back in the 17th century, European major powers claimed and forcefully took over islands in Caribbean. Denmark, being a major power in the 17th century, also annexed the uninhabited islands of St. Thomas and St. John in 1672 and 1718, respectively. These islands, in addition to Saint Croix, which was purchased from the French in 1733, formed Danish West Indies, which represented the one and only Danish possession in the Caribbean.
Just like colonies on other Caribbean islands, plantations were set up in the Danish West Indies. To man their plantations, Denmark began to import slaves from its establishments in the Gold Coast in Africa. This part of Africa were controlled by the Akwamu state, who had previously sold off many of their enemies as slave. But by 1730, Akwamu state was in turmoil. Many of Akwamu, who were previously rulers, nobles and wealthy merchants, were shipped off to the Caribbean as slaves by their rivals.
The slaves who arrived at Danish West Indies had a particularly tough time. Severe droughts took place in the island of St. John in 1725, 1730, 1731 and 1733. In particular, the drought in 1733 lasted for 5 months from February to June, and this was then followed by a destructive hurricane in July. The Governor, Philip Gardelin, enacted a harsh slave code in September to maintain control. According to the Danish archive Rigsarkviet:
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.
The problem, at least for the Danes, was that on the island of St. John, manpower was lopsided. There were 208 European settlers but 1,087 slaves on the island. Many of the plantation owners resided in St. Thomas instead of St. John, and they relied on others to oversee their plantations. On the island, the Danish West India Company only provided six soldiers, whom were supported by local, Caucasian militia.
The Akwamu, in particular, had a plan. They wanted to chase off the Europeans, take control of St. John and rule it. They would continue to produce sugar by using Africans of other tribes as slaves.
On November 23, 1733, a group of slaves entered Fort Frederiksvaern at Coral Bay, St. John, during pre-dawn hours to deliver wood, as they normally do. But the group hid knives in the bundles. As they entered, they quickly proceeded to kill off the six soldiers stationed at the fort and shot the cannon to alert their compatriots that the fort had fallen. The group thought their job was done, and they hastily left the fort. But they failed to notice one man, Jan Gabriel, a seventh Danish soldier who was drunk under a cot. Jan Gabriel survived and escaped to St. Thomas.
Hearing the cannon, the rest of the 150 Akwamu acted. Breffu, an Akwamu female enslaved at a plantation owned by Pieter Krøyer at Coral Bay, took action and killed both Krøyer and his wife. She took all the gunpowder and ammunition in the house. Along with fellow slave Christian, who were also enslaved by Krøyer, they then went on to kill three members of the Van Stell family, one of the wealthiest families on the island.
Beyond this, little historical records were left behind about Breffu, other than that she was one of the key leaders in the rebellion. Slave masters that escaped the islands asked for reinforcement, but the Akwamu were able to gain control of most of the island. The main exception was Durloe's plantation, where the landowner was largely able to repel the attacks.
Under the leadership of Breffu and others, the plan of taking over the plantations was successful until the early part of 1734, when the French collaborated with the Danes to take back the island. The Europeans' task was made easier as many of the non-Akwamu slaves did not join the rebellion, due to their rivalries and past history with the Akwamu, dating back to their times in Africa.
In late April or early May 1734, with the French and the Danish looming, Breffu committed suicide along with 23 other rebels in order to prevent being captured. Their bodies were found at Browns Bay after the ritual. The rebellion was put down finally in May 1734, making it one of the longest slave rebellions in the Caribbean.
In many accounts, it was revealed that the French military and the slave masters did not know that Breffu, one of the most crucial figures and key leader of the rebellion, was actually a woman.
The Three Rebel Queens of 1878
Even though slavery was abolished, landowners forced slaves to sign tough contracts which tied them to plantations that they worked on. Plantation workers attempted to leave Danish West Indies to seek work elsewhere, but the local government reacted to a shortage of labour by making it difficult to obtain a passport and demanded workers to have health certificate before they can leave.
In Danish West Indies, October 1 of every year was known as Quarter Day - the one day of the year when the workers could change plantations. This day was usually celebrated as the one day when the workers can actually enjoy freedom.
On October 1, 1878, labourers gathered in Frederiksted, St. Croix, to demand higher wage and better working conditions. The peaceful gathering spun out of control after police launched a brutal clamp down. A farm labourer called Henry Trotman was sent to the hospital, and rumours spread that Henry Trotman had died as a result of police brutality. This led to clashes between the police and the labourers, and much of Frederiksted was looted and burnt down.
Among the prominent leaders of the riot were three women, Mary "Queen Mary" Thomas, "Queen Agnes", and "Queen Mathilda". They were chosen as Queens to perform ritual and celebratory functions during the uprising.
Of the three, "Queen Mary" is perhaps the most famous. Queen Mary arrived from Antigua in the 1860s. She had three children, even though she was unwedded. When the 1878 uprising took place, she was about 40. She was active in vandalism and arson on the plantations, and it was said that she referred to herself as the "captain".
On October 4, British, French and American war ships arrived and offered to help stop the riot. This was refused by Danish West Indies Governor-General Janus August Garde. The next day, the Governor ordered all labourers to return to their plantations and they were forbidden to leave without permission from the plantation owners. Anyone violating was declared a "rebel". The plan worked and by mid-October, the riot had died down.
The aftermath of the 1878 Rebellion was harsh. Twelve people were given a death sentence and immediately shot, as compared to three Europeans who lost their lives during the uprising. 39 others were given a death sentence and sent to Copenhagen, although most of them had their sentences reduced to hard labour. This included Queen Mary, Queen Agnes and Queen Mathilda.
Immediately after the rebellion, courts-martial were established in Frederiksted and Christiansted. Twelve people were given a death sentence and immediately shot. Thirty-nine were given a death sentence and sent to Copenhagen. However, 34 of them later had their sentences commuted to hard labour and the last five to imprisonment with hard labour for life. All three Queens, along with a fourth woman called Susanna Abrahamson, served part of their sentence in the Christianhavn women’s prison in Copenhagen in the 1880s. Queen Mary was transferred back to St. Croix in 1887 to serve the remainder of her sentence.
The three queens are well-remembered. In 2018, a statue of "Queen Mary" was put up in Copenhagen, Denmark to remind people of Danish's shameful colonial past. If you visit St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, you will find a plaque that reads:
In 1878 three former slave ladies on St. Croix led an insurrection against the Danish Government for improved working and living conditions. During this action a major portion of Frederiksted was destroyed by fire. This revolt is known today as “FIREBURN” and the ladies are renowned as “Queen Mary, Queen Agnes and Queen Matilda” – The Three Queens of the Virgin Islands.
U.S. Virgin Islands Today
In 1917, after over 200 years of control, Denmark sold the three islands - St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix to the United States, as it was no longer able to sustain its colonial possession financially. In 2017, the islands were hit by two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, within two weeks. It is still struggling to recover. People may need to borrow the fighting spirit of the Rebel Queens.