Danish West Indies
While emancipation was achieved in 1848, black laborers in the Danish West Indies were still forced to work under slave-like conditions. Immediately after slavery was abolished, the Danish administration enacted rules designed to prevent newly freed slaves from leaving their plantations. Rules required laborers to enter into one-year contracts with their employer at terms set out by law: a five-day work week, and wages of 5, 10, or 15 cents a day, depending on whether the slave was skilled or unskilled. Laborers were told they could apply to change employers only once a year. In addition, passport requirements were designed to limit the number of people who could leave the islands altogether.
Rules or no, many blacks did not remain on the plantations. On St. John, where the sugar industry collapsed almost immediately after the end of slavery, the population of the island fell from 2,228 to 994 between 1850 and 1880. Those people who remained turned to subsistence farming, fishing, and trade to survive.
On St. Croix, while many former slaves were restricted from leaving the island, they did leave the plantations to live in town, where they sought employment as servants, port hands, or artisans. To fill a shortfall of agricultural labor, St. Croix was opened to immigrants from the nearby British islands, Barbados, and St. Eustatius.
Discontent with working conditions and restrictions on free movement came to a head on St. Croix in October 1878, when a riot broke out in Frederiksted, fueled by rumors that the Danes had stopped issuing passports and that police had killed a laborer. A crowd in Frederiksted stormed the fort but was unable to scale the internal gate. They turned instead on the town and nearby plantations, setting fire to town houses, businesses, great houses, sugar mills, and crops. Crowds of laborers roamed the island for days, armed with sticks and fire. Leaders included three Crucian women: Mary Thomas (“Queen Mary”), Rebecca Frederik, and Axelline Saloman.
It took the Danes two weeks to put down the “Fireburn,” as the riots have come to be known. In the final analysis, nearly 900 acres of agricultural land were destroyed, 60 laborers were killed, and three soldiers perished. More than 400 laborers were arrested; 75 of these were sentenced to jail. Mary, Rebecca, and Axelline, the “Queens of the Fireburn,” were sent to Denmark to serve their sentences. They returned to St. Croix and worked as street vendors until their deaths.
The Merchant Island
St. Thomas did not fare much better than its sister islands. Cholera outbreaks there in 1853 and 1866 killed an estimated 3,200 people. A devastating hurricane in 1867, followed by an earthquake and tidal wave in the same year, destroyed the island’s reputation as a safe harbor.
The beginning of the steam age and advances in communications contributed to the island’s decline. St. Thomas’s harbor was too small for the large steam ships of the late 19th century, and the advent of telegraphic connections allowed merchants to acquire market information without making the journey in person. The number of steamships calling on St. Thomas peaked in 1880 and declined ever since.
Meanwhile, the island saw an influx of people. Former slaves left plantations on St. Croix and St. John in high numbers, many of them heading to Charlotte Amalie, where they sought work on the docks and in subsidiary trade businesses.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition