USVI Slave Rebellion | St. John Slave Revolt of 1733
Virgin Islands Slave Revolt
While most think of the US Virgin Islands as a vacation paradise, these tropical islands were colonized by Europeans in the early 18th century in order to establish a plantation economy founded on race-based slavery. The plantations were intended to produce sugar, cotton, indigo, and other commercial crops for export back to Europe. While they produced enormous profits for European planters, the entire system was founded on forced, unpaid labor.
The island of St. John was colonized by the Danish in 1718 and, 15 short years later, slaves on the island decided to rise up against their Danish masters. This slave revolt was one of the earliest in the European colonies and took place decades before more famous slave revolts, such as the Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. The slave revolt of 1733 is still commemorated annually in St. John, and visitors can take an all-day informative tour in late November each year.
St. John's Revolt of 1733
The Danes began importing slaves soon after colonizing the Virgin Islands. They colonized the island of St. Thomas in 1672 and St. John in 1618. Neither island had any native inhabitants. At first, they tried to encourage immigration to the islands and attempted to use Danish prisoners as labor on the plantations. These prisoners were used as indentured servants, which meant they gained their freedom after six years. These prisoners were considered the lowest of the low and were even looked down on by enslaved Africans. After experiencing prisoner revolts and general Danish unwillingness to move to the Virgin Islands, plantation owners began importing African slaves.
By 1733, at least 1,000 slaves labored on the island's plantations. Many of these plantations were owned by absentee landlords who lived on St. Thomas, which meant St. John had many more African inhabitants than European ones. Several factors led to the St. John's slave revolt of 1733. Insufficient food and water, rampant disease, and harsh punishments meant the slave population was already restive. Then, in 1733, conditions took a turn for the worst when, all in one year, the island was ravaged by a plague of locusts, crippled by drought, and pounded by a severe hurricane. In response to the difficult times and fear of runaways, the Danish government enacted harsh punishments for any slave caught trying to escape the island. Punishments ranged from the amputation of a leg to whipping and branding for less 'severe' infractions. The scared, outnumbered white population also set up punishments for not informing on other's plots to run away and for insolence or verbal insults to whites.
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Together, the poor living conditions, harsh new laws, and small white population created the perfect conditions for a slave rebellion. The rebellion began on November 23, 1733 and was spearheaded by members of the Akon tribe and its leader, King June. The Akons, also called Akwamu or Aminas, from present-day Ghana, were known for their martial prowess. They concealed cane knives, tools used for cutting cane on sugar plantations, in stacks of wood. The slaves then gained admittance to the Danish fort at Fortsberg and proceeded to murder the sleeping garrison of soldiers. Only one soldier, John Gabriel, survived and escaped to neighboring St. Thomas.
After successfully capturing the fort, the revolting slaves fired the fort's cannon, signaling to the other slaves it was time to rise up, kill their plantation owners, and declare freedom. The rebelling slaves killed as many whites as possible, though many landowners with smaller plantations were able to escape.
Interestingly, the slave revolt was not intended to liberate all slaves on the island. Instead, the Akus wanted to create at Akwam-ruled state and intended to keep Africans from other tribes as slaves for the production of sugar and other crops. African slavery was not invented by Europeans - Africans had been using prisoners of war from other African tribes as slaves for hundreds of years.
Fighting continued on St. Johns for a long time. The Akons were able to capture almost all of the island - only a site known as Durloo's Plantation was able to resist their assaults. The Akons did not loot buildings or destroy crops because they intended to use this infrastructure for their own, new nation. Finally, after receiving assistance from the British, French, and Free Negro Corps, the rebellion was quashed in May, 1734. In the intervening months, the Akons established their own government with elected leaders, and made plans to expand the revolution to St. Thomas and Tortola.
Most of the rebels were executed in gruesome ways. Some were burned alive, but many were impaled or beheaded. A few died in jail and others were 'merely' sent sent to other plantations and worked to death.
This guide contains in-depth information about the 1733 revolt and sites associated with it
Commemorating the St. John Slave Revolt
Since 1983, a commemorative walk each November has celebrated the St. John slave revolt with a day of visiting sites from the revolution, historical reenactments, and information about life on the island in the 18th century. In 1999, the Virgin Islands Legislature passed a bill establishing November 23 as Virgin Islands Freedom Fighters Day.'
Visitors to St. John can tour some of the sites that played a role in the rebellion. Cinnamon Bay Plantation and the restored Catherineberg sugar cane mill are only two of many destinations open throughout the year. If you want to learn more about non-traditional tourist areas on St. John, invest in Gerald Singer's St. John off the Beaten Track. With a newly-revised, 2011 edition, this highly-informative guide tells you all about the best spots to visit for real local flavor and history.