St. John Slave Rebellion
Excerpted from St. John Off The Beaten Track
The Slave Trade
The Danish colonization of St. John was undertaken in 1718 for the purpose of establishing plantations where tropical products such as sugar, cotton, indigo and other crops could be cultivated. The most profitable of these crops was sugar.
Sugar production in the West Indies was an extremely lucrative affair. The sudden introduction of sugar to Europe created a great demand for this exotic new product. With this high demand and preciously small supply, the price of sugar was high, and the profit potential was enormous. Many of those involved in this new industry were able to accumulate great wealth and power. It has been said that the only present day business comparable to the sugar trade of the colonial days is drug trafficking.
European colonial powers battled fiercely over control of the new colonies. Pirates and privateers infested the seas in an orgy of murder and plunder. Worst of all was the development of slavery as an institution in the Americas. Slave labor was employed for the exploitation, settlement, and development of the new territories.
When the Spanish first invaded and colonized the New World, they attempted to use the indigenous population as a slave labor force. Disease brought by the Europeans, warfare, cruel treatment, and overwork all but wiped out this race within a short time.
When the Danes occupied St. Thomas in 1672 there were no indigenous inhabitants living there, nor were there any on St. John in 1718. Therefore, the possibility of obtaining slave labor from this source was not available to the Danes.
The Danish government and the government-supported and subsidized Danish West India Company tried to encourage young Danes to emigrate to St. Thomas to labor on the plantations. Very few responded. Prisoners were then brought over to work as indentured servants with the stipulation that they would receive their freedom after six years, though few would survive that long. Apart from this, indentured servitude was exactly the same as slavery. They lived, ate and worked with the slaves and were subject to the same arbitrary punishments. Their social position was of the lowest order and they were looked down upon by both Africans and Europeans. The prisoners viewed emigration to the colonies as a death sentence. Their desperation and discontent resulted in mutinies and resistance. In response, the Danes began to place more emphasis on the importation of slave labor from Africa.
The first African slaves were brought to Hispaniola in 1502, and slavery was not completely abolished until the early twentieth century. During this roughly four hundred year span, it has been estimated that as many as 12 million Africans were unwillingly transported to the Americas.
A form of slavery existed within Africa prior to the advent of European colonialism. Tribalism has been a major influence in African political history, and warfare between rival tribes was a common occurrence. Many of the Africans who were sold into slavery were prisoners captured in these tribal wars.
The institution of slavery that developed in the colonization of the Americas was, first and foremost, a business. It was characterized by the profit motive, greed, and lacked morality, compassion and human decency. The Europeans’ need for cheap labor created the demand. The existence of slaves acquired through the persistent warring of African nations provided the supply. Thus, a market and trade for human beings was established.
The captives were brought to the European forts or slave factories. The factors, or buyers, at the fort would buy the slaves using a barter system. The slaves were then chained and stored in warehouses called barrcoons until the slave ships arrived.
The Danes maintained such a fort at Accra on the Guinea Coast called Christianborg. The Danish West India and Guinea Company sent company ships bearing items such as rum, firearms, gunpowder, clothing and other goods, which were bartered for ivory, gold and slaves to the tribal leaders controlling the trade.
The voyage to the New World was known as the Middle Passage. Captives were confined into such small areas that it was impossible to stand or even sit. Inside the ship’s holds, it was dark, dank and stuffy. There was no proper ventilation or sanitary facilities. The ship’s officers and crew were made up of the prisoners, misfits and outcasts of Europe. Women were subjected to rapes and indignities. Disease, desperation and suicide claimed many lives before the ships even reached their final destinations in America or the West Indies.
Upon arrival the slaves were sold at public auction and then marched to the plantations for a period of “seasoning”. One third of these new arrivals from Africa, called bussals, died during the seasoning period.
Early Danish settlement
The Danish West India and Guinea Company was chartered in 1671 and given the right to govern and exploit Denmark’s first colony in the New World – St. Thomas. The company was granted a royal charter to St. John from the King of Denmark in 1717 and St. John was under company rule until King Frederick of Denmark terminated this agreement in 1755.
Twenty five settlers (eleven Dutch, nine Danes and five Frenchmen), sixteen enslaved Africans, and five Danish soldiers, under the command of Axel Dahl, sailed to St. John in the company of the governor of St. Thomas, Erik Bredal. They landed in Coral Bay on the east end of the island.
Seventeenth century Denmark had marginal resources and a relatively small population of approximately one half million people. Moreover, the Danes were reluctant to emigrate to the new colonies and Denmark lacked a sufficient population to effectively occupy their new territories. To compensate for this, foreigners were invited into the population of the colonies.
The largest and most influential of these foreigners to settle in St. Thomas, and later to settle on St. John, were Dutch. By 1721, of the 39 planters on St. John there were 25 Dutchmen and only 9 Danes. The Dutch, more than any other national group, influenced the culture of the Danish colonies, which prior to the acquisition of St. Croix in 1733, consisted only of St. Thomas and St. John. The most important language was Dutch and Dutch Creole became the “lingua franca” of the Danish islands.
By 1733 more than 1,000 slaves labored on 109 plantations on St. John. Twenty-one of these plantations were in the business of planting and processing sugar. The rest grew cotton and other crops. By the end of the century, however, the vast majority of the plantations were dedicated to sugar production, and there were more than 2,500 slaves on the island. On average, one slave was used for the cultivation of each acre of land.
African Background of the Rebellion
As early as the beginning of the seventeenth century, Accra on the Guinea Coast had become a center of economic power. The Accra tribe acted as the middleman in the exchange of slaves, gold and ivory from the interior for manufactured goods such as firearms, powder, lead, rum and cloth from the Europeans who operated out of fortifications on the coast.
The Danes entered the slave trade in 1657 by attacking the Swedes who were already established on the West Coast of Africa. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Danish West India and Guinea Company had consolidated their slave operation to the vicinity of Accra and traded with the Accra tribe.
All travel and transportation from the interior to the coast occurred along narrow forest paths. The Accras used another tribe, the Akwamu, whom the Danes called the Amina, to control the passage of merchants and merchandise along these trails. This was done so that all goods from the interior would have to pass through an Accra-dominated area north of the region’s capital, Great Accra. Thus, direct access to the Europeans was denied to the traders from the interior, and merchants were forced to have the Accras as middlemen. For this unwanted service, the Accras demanded a percentage of the profits of this lucrative trade.
As time went on, the Akwamu, who had been paying tribute to the Accras, became more powerful. They directly controlled the paths leading from the inland centers to the European commanded forts on the coast. Realizing their power, the Akwamu demanded a tribute in gold from the Accras in order to permit traders to pass through Akwamu territory. In the 1670s the Akwamus allied themselves with the Accras’ neighboring tribes, the Agaves to the east and the Agonas to the west. These alliances put further pressure on the Accras.
The Akwamus were excellent warriors. They developed an improved military strategy specific to the conditions imposed by the heavily forested environment. They also emphasized the use of missile weaponry, such as bows and arrows and flintlock rifles, which they obtained from the Europeans.
In 1677 the Akwamus attacked and conquered the Accras. Through a series of violent and bloody military campaigns, the Akwamus became the dominant tribe in the district of Accra, along the lower Gold Coast and the Upper Slave Coast.
Thousands were killed, and many prisoners were taken. The Accras, former allies and trading partners of the Danes, fled to the fort at Christianborg seeking protection. The commanders of the fort chose to remain neutral and did nothing to stop the slaughter and capture of the Accras.
The Akwamus were heavy-handed in dealing with the tribes they had conquered. They forcibly conscripted troops from the conquered tribes, demanded tributes and payments, levied excessive taxes, and resorted to the instigation of disputes and other forms of trickery and unfair tactics to justify the enslavement of peoples from the conquered tribes.
For example, I. Akwamu Wilks in The Rise of the Akwamu Empire, 1650-1710, wrote:
In every town (the Akwamu) took some wives, three or four according to the size of the town, and left them there to stay. Then every year they would travel from place to place, and make these wives eat fetish (That is, swear to tell the truth on pain of death from divine power) so that they would confess what men had had contact with them. These disclosures were made willingly, since the women would get part of the fines, and the gallants might be sold as slaves unless their friends ransomed them.
The Akwamu abuse of power eventually led to resistance and rebellion from the tyrannized peoples. When the Akwamu king died in 1725, a conflict arose over who would take power. This weakened the Akwamus, and the conquered peoples of the area attacked the Akwamu nation. By 1730 the Akwamu were defeated, their capital city destroyed, and their reigning king beheaded.
Once again the oppressed became the oppressors and thousands of Akwamu men and women were sold into slavery. Many of these Akwamus were sold to the Danes at the fort in Christianborg in the early part of the 1730s. They were then placed on ships bound for the slave market in St. Thomas. Many were sold to plantations on St. John.
From the company’s records:
Haabet Galley, Danish registry, Captain A.H. Hammer, came to St. Thomas, February 1731, to sell 21 men 29 women, 5 boys, total of 55 out of Guinea; Cost to company wholesale 70 rigsdalers, cost to planter 120 rigsdalers.
From the company’s records:
Laarburg Galley, Danish registry, Captain Lorenzo Jaeger (replaced by Captain Hammer) May 1733. It carried 443 captives out of Guinea of whom 242 survived (124 men, 64 women, 26, boys, 28 girls); 199 died of dysentery and two were sold to the Portuguese. The ship made an overall profit of 69.5% from the survivors; cost to company; 70 rigsdalers, cost to planters; 120-150 rigsdalers. (From MAPes MONDe Collection)
In 1733 at the time of the slave rebellion there were hundreds of Akwamu men and women among the slave population of St. John. Of the approximately 150 Africans who were involved in the rebellion, all were Akwamus. Africans of other ethnic backgrounds, some of whom had been sold into slavery by the Akwamus, did not support the rebellion. Some even joined the Europeans against the Akwamus.
The Akwamus on St. John did not see themselves as slaves, but rather as slave owners. Many were nobles, wealthy merchants or powerful warriors who were accustomed to large commands.
Information on the African background came from Sandra F. Greene’s research appearing in The Danish West Indian Slave Trade, by George F. Tyson and Arnold R. Highfield.
Causes of the rebellion
Weakness of the Central Government and the Military
As previously mentioned, Denmark, a comparatively weak nation, began their colonization of the New World later than the other European colonial powers. St. Thomas and St. John were rocky, mountainous, and lacked a significant amount of rainfall. The Danes were able to colonize and settle these islands mainly because none of the other Europeans showed much interest in acquiring this territory.
Without a sufficient number of their own citizens to inhabit their new colonies, Denmark invited peoples of other nations to settle them. Thus, foreigners exerted a strong influence on government decisions.
The plantations were only marginally profitable, and the Danish West India Company lacked the motivation and the resources to provide a strong army for the defense of the islands. They relied instead on a citizen’s militia. On St. John this situation bordered on the absurd. Aside from the ineffective civil guard, the number of soldiers stationed on St. John at the time of the slave rebellion numbered six. Moreover, morale was low and the incidence of disease, alcoholism and mortality were high.
Absentee Ownership of Plantations
Many of St. John’s plantations were owned by men and women from St. Thomas who also had estates on that island. The St. Thomians usually hired overseers called Mesterknegte to manage their holdings on St. John. These overseers were not always honest and often failed to act in the best interests of the planters. (Out of sight, out of mind.) The overseers certainly did not give the interests of the slaves much attention.
Low Ratio of European to Africans on St. John
Partly because many of the plantation owners and their families lived in St. Thomas, and partly due to the nature of the plantation system itself, the ratio of European planters to African slaves on St. John became extremely low. The lack of a town or any alternative industries also contributed to this low ratio.
Drought, Starvation and Marooning
On St. John slaves were required to provide the labor necessary to grow the food they ate. They did this on their own plots of land, which were cultivated in their spare time. Because there was no supervision by the owners or overseers, slaves could use the time spent tending these grounds to talk freely among themselves and to make plans.
In 1725 and 1726 and again in 1733, St. John experienced prolonged droughts, and the provision grounds could not yield sufficient food; the slaves faced starvation.
In 1733 much of the land on St. John was not yet cleared and there were still large areas of thick bush and forest. The opportunities provided by this environment, combined with the skills the slaves developed from tending their provision grounds, made it possible for them to run away from the plantation. They were able to disappear into the bush and provide for themselves by tending small gardens, gathering and fishing. The fierce and warlike Akwamu (or Aminas as they were called by the Danes) also demanded the support of slaves still on the plantations.
By 1733 starvation, overwork, and harsh treatment had caused a significant number of slaves from the Amina tribe to maroon.
Slave Code of 1733
The drought of 1733 ended with a severe hurricane in July. This was followed by a plague of insects. Both plantation crops and provision grounds were devastated. Governor Philip Gardelin’s Code of 1733 was written primarily as a response to the problem of marooning. Almost half of the nineteen provisions included in the code provided punishments for various forms and aspects of maroonage.
If slaves ran away to another country, or even contemplated, conspired, or attempted to leave the country, the punishment was torture by red-hot pincers at three separate public locations, followed by execution.
Those running away or conspiring to run away from the plantation, but not involving escape from the Danish islands were to lose a leg. If their masters pardoned them, they were to receive 150 strokes and suffer the loss of an ear.
Punishments of varying severity such as the cutting off of a leg, branding or whipping were prescribed for different degrees of maroonage, such as maroonage lasting over six months, maroonage over two weeks, and failure to inform of plots to run away.
The outnumbered whites also felt it necessary to include in the code, punishments for failure to show proper respect and deference. Menacing gestures or verbal insults to whites could be punishable by hanging, preceded by three applications of glowing pincers. At the discretion of the insulted or menaced victim, the slave’s punishment could alternatively be the amputation of an arm. If a slave met a white person on the street, the slave would have to step aside.
It was prohibited for slaves to wear iron-tipped sticks or knives at their sides, although the carrying of machetes was allowed. The reason for this was that because the slaves were prohibited from owning weapons, they had developed the art of fighting with their walking sticks. This form of fighting reached the sophistication of the advanced martial arts practiced in other areas of the world. Machetes, on the other hand, were perceived as tools.
Theft of property by slaves was punishable by torture followed by hanging. Petty theft and possession of stolen property was punishable by branding on the forehead and up to 150 strokes.
Being out past curfew was punishable by whipping. Dancing, feasts, or funeral rites involving the use of “Negro instruments” as well as the practice of Obeah was prohibited and would be punished by whipping.
Conspiracy to poison, or the use of poison, was punishable by torture with hot pincers, being broken on the wheel and then burnt alive.
The preamble to the code expressed the philosophy that the slave was the property of the owner and had no rights.
The law was written in an effort to control the slaves through intimidation and terror and, thereby to prevent marooning. The passage of the law, however, produced the opposite effect. The slaves, faced with the impossible choice between starvation on one hand and mutilation and execution on the other, realized that their only way out was rebellion.
On November 23, 1733 slaves carrying bundles of wood were let into the fort at Coral Bay. Concealed in the wood were cane knives, which the rebels used to kill the half-asleep and surprised soldiers who were guarding the fort. One soldier, John Gabriel, escaped by hiding under his bed and running away when he had a chance. He was able to get to St. Thomas in a small boat and tell the story to Danish officials there. The rebels raised the flag and fired three cannon shots. This was the signal for slaves on the plantations to kill their masters and take control of the island.
The rebels proceeded to kill many of the whites in the Coral Bay area. The insurgents gained in number as they progressed from plantation to plantation. Some whites were spared, notably the company’s doctor, Cornelius Bödger, because of the good relationship he had with the Africans in treating their medical needs. Also spared were Dr. Bödger’s two stepsons. They were saved from death out of respect for the surgeon, and also to be made into servants for the new rebel leaders.
The stated aim of the rebels was to make St. John an Akwamu ruled state, governed under the Akwamu system. Africans of other tribal origins were to serve as slaves in the production of sugar and other crops.
Many of the small planters on the East End, who had few slaves or possessions, were able to escape to other islands in their family boats. Some of the whites from the western and southern parts of the island were warned by loyal slaves, and they were either able to escape to St. Thomas or to assemble with the other surviving planters at Durloe’s Plantation at Caneel Bay (then known as Klein Caneel Bay). The approach to the plantation was guarded in part by two cannons. Captain Jannis von Beverhaut and Lt. Charles assumed command. Women and children were sent to Henley Cay with the intention that they be picked up later and brought to St. Thomas.
Meanwhile, the rebels attacked Cinnamon Bay (then called Caneel Bay). John and Lieven Jansen and a small group of their slaves resisted the onslaught. The rebel force was overwhelming. Jansen’s loyal slaves fought a rear guard action and held off the advancing rebels with gunfire, thus allowing the Jansens to retreat to their waiting boat and escape to Durloe’s Plantation. Miraculously, the loyal slaves were also able to escape.
The rebels paused to loot the Jansen plantation before pressing onward to confront the white planters at Durloe’s. The attackers became disorganized when faced with the initial cannon and musket fire of the defenders, and the attack on Durloe’s plantation was repulsed.
Meanwhile in St. Thomas, Governor Philip Gardelin, under pressure from former Governor Moth, consented to send a small party of soldiers to St. John to relieve the besieged planters. More troops under the leadership of William Barrens, as well as a detachment consisting mainly of African slaves sent by the Danish West India Company and by St. Thomas planters, arrived on St. John soon afterwards. This well-armed and well-supplied army was able to recapture the fort and scatter the rebels who then took to hiding in the bush to fight a war of attrition.
To regain the status quo, the planters needed to wipe out the last vestiges of resistance. The remaining rebels could continue to survive by looting abandoned plantations and small farms and by living off the land where cattle now ran wild all over the island. The rebels would be a constant harassment to the orderly development and operation of any restored plantations. Furthermore, the Company and the St. Thomas planters feared that the St. John rebellion would inspire uprisings on St. Thomas and wanted to discourage slaves on that island from taking similar action.
The insurgents held their ground, fighting a guerrilla style war and disappearing into the bush when confronted with direct attack by the numerically superior troops led by the planters. This status quo continued for ten weeks.
The British were also concerned that the rebellion might spread to Tortola, and they decided to help the Danes by sending an English Man O’ War from Tortola to St. John. The warship was commanded by a Captain Tallard had a crew of sixty soldiers.
When the British ship landed on St. John, the rebels staged an ambush in which four of Tallard’s men were wounded. Tallard and his men, demoralized by this defeat, sailed back to Tortola.
Meanwhile, the owner of the plantation at Maho Bay, William Vessuup, had abandoned his plantation and fled to Tortola after being implicated in a murder. Maroon slaves had taken up residence at his plantation and had later used it as a headquarters for their troops in the rebellion.
In an attempt to regain favor with the Danes and be exonerated from the criminal charges against him, Vessuup offered a plan to trick the rebels. He was to lure the leaders aboard his ship with the promise of supplying them with badly needed guns and ammunition. He then planned to capture the rebel leaders and turn them over to the Danes. This attempt at treachery, however, proved to be unsuccessful.
In February of 1734 the St. John planters again solicited aid from the English, and shortly afterwards Captain John Maddox, a privateer, sailing from St. Christopher (St. Kitts) arrived on the ship Diamond with 50 volunteers. His motivation was personal gain. He arranged a contract with Danish officials that would have allowed him to keep all rebel slaves captured except for the 10 considered most dangerous. They were to be turned over to the Danes for punishment. For these 10 he demanded a payment of 20 pieces-of-eight each. On their first confrontation with the Africans, the forces of John Maddox suffered a loss of three killed (including one of his sons) and five wounded. Like his predecessor Captain Tollard, Captain Maddox and his men left St. John shortly after their defeat.
English Governor Mathews wrote:
On St. John the Danes at present hardly have possession. Their negroes rose upon them about six months ago. At my first arrival I heard they had quelled their slaves, but it was not so, they have in a manner drove the Danes off, at least they dare not now attempt any more to reduce these Negroes, who have always beaten them, and in a manner are masters of that Island. The governor of St. Thomas, was even modest enough to desire I would send some of H. M. ships to reduce them…and I now learn a rash fellow from St. Christophers, in open defiance of my positive orders to the contrary, having made a compact with the Danish governor, went with his two sons and three or four and twenty more on this errand, that the negroes have killed one if not both his sons, and two or three more of his company, and beaten them off.
In early April of 1734 a group of about forty rebels attacked Durloe’s Plantation. This assault, like the previous one, was almost successful, but was finally repulsed by the defenders. The insurgents managed, though, to set fire to the defenders supply magazine.
Events in far away Europe were to deal a deathblow to the rebel cause. King Louis of France wanted to make his father-in-law, Stanislas Leszcynski the King of Poland. This would mean war with Poland, and France needed to know that Denmark would at least stay neutral. In addition to this, France was in need of money after having suffered severe financial losses in their Mississippi colony.
The Danes had been interested in the island of St. Croix for quite some time. Sensing an opportunity, the Danish West India Company offered the French 750,000 livres for St. Croix and sweetened the deal with the promise of Danish neutrality.
As a gesture of solidarity with their new friends, France offered Denmark help in subduing the slave rebellion on St. John. Monsieur de Champigny, the Governor of the French West Indies, sent Commander Chevalier de Longueville from Martinique to St. John with a force of two hundred soldiers. This included a free colored corps whose specialty was the tracking down, capturing and killing of runaway slaves, an activity they called maroon hunting.
The French detachment arrived on St. John on April 23, 1734 in two vessels, one commanded by Monsieur de Longueville and the other commanded by Monsieur Nadau. Danish Governor Gardelin dispatched a force of about 30 men under the command of Lt. Froling to offer any assistance necessary to the French soldiers. Gardelin also sent attorney Fries who was to mete out justice to captured rebels.
The French troops proceeded to relentlessly pursue the remaining rebels. A rebel encampment of twenty-six huts was found and destroyed. A young severely wounded slave named January was captured and led the soldiers to a point of land (Ram Head Point) where eleven rebels had committed suicide. A few weeks later eight slaves, two of whom were women, surrendered after their master promised them clemency.
From St. John Backtime, “The Raw Truth has Been Reported,” Commander Longueville, from a document discovered and in the Colonies section of the French National Archives by Aimery P. Caron and Arnold R. Highfield:
On Sunday the 16 (May 16, 1734), six Negroes and two negroe women surrendered at the appeal of their master who spared their lives. He then informed me of the matter. I ordered him to bring them to me, since they were identified as rebels. I have them put into chains. Three of them were burned at the stake on three different plantations on St. John. I had previously informed the governor while passing through St. Thomas that should I catch a few of the rebels, I would put most of them to death and send him the rest so that he could make an example of them. The following day I informed him of their capture. He sent a judge who passed sentence for the sake of formality; I sent him the three other rebels along with the two women and requested that he not have them executed until I be present. One was burned to death slowly, another was sawed in half and the third was impaled. The two Negroe women had their hands and heads cut off after all five had been tortured with hot pincers in the town.
One week later twenty-five rebels were found dead on an “outjutting point of land in an unsuspected place” identified later as near Brown Bay. Commander Longueville and his men left St. John a few days later on May 26, 1744 and sailed to St. Thomas.
Unbeknownst to Longueville at the time of this departure, still at large, but hiding in the bush, was one of the leaders of the rebellion and a small group of his followers. He was a former Akwamu noble who was named Prince by his master. Through an intermediary, a deal was arranged whereby Prince and his supporters would be forgiven and allowed to come back to work. Prince and fourteen others surrendered to a Sergeant Øttingen. Prince was summarily shot and killed. His head was cut off as a trophy and his followers were captured. Subsequently four of the followers died in jail in St. Thomas, six were tortured to death and four were sent to St. Croix to be worked to death.
Sergeant Øttingen was given a reward and was promoted to Lieutenant for his bravery. The soldiers under him were also honored and rewarded.
The Danish West India Company reported that their losses in this rebellion amounted to 7,905 Rigsbankdalers.