By the turn of the 19th century, doubts were increasing about slavery. Abolitionists in the United States and Europe were gaining strength, and social changes were bringing about a greater awareness of human rights and freedoms. The Haitian revolution of 1804 had forced the issue of slavery and freedom to the forefront. Between 1834 and 1886, slavery would be abolished in the Caribbean.
The end of slavery did not automatically address the social and economic oppression experienced by Africans in the islands, but it was the first in a long series of steps toward equality and empowerment, a process that continues today.
British Virgin Islands
As the plantation industry in the British Virgin Islands grew, doubts were developing in England over slavery. Abolitionists fought for decades against the slave trade and slavery itself, eventually prevailing in 1807 when Parliament ended the transatlantic slave trade. The act meant no more Africans could be brought to the New World as slaves but did not necessarily improve the lives of slaves already in the region. Nor did it end the slave trade within the Caribbean, and many slaves from small, declining territories like the British Virgin Islands were sent to colonies still experiencing growth.
In 1811, the trial and hanging of Tortola planter Arthur Hodge for the murder of his slave, Prosper, further fueled concern over the treatment of slaves in the British West Indian colonies. The case received attention in England and throughout the West Indies, and testimony about Hodge’s brutal treatment of Prosper and other slaves further turned public opinion against slavery.
Also, the slaves themselves were changing. Methodist missionaries arrived on the island in 1789 and were the first Christians to minister directly to the slaves. The Methodists soon had a following of more than 2,000 slaves, and in 1823 the Methodist church opened the first Sunday school on the island, a small but important step toward education.
In 1790 and 1821, slaves at Josiah’s Bay rioted in response to rumors that their owner was withholding freedom from them and that he was going to send them to Trinidad. While both riots were ultimately put down, planters were frightened.
Economic forces also caused planters to lose interest in their plantations. Sugar prices fell during the first half of the 19th century, after the discovery of a way to extract sugar from the sugar beet, which could grow in Europe. At the same time, the cost of maintaining slaves was higher since they could no longer be worked to death and then replaced. Finally, a major hurricane hit the islands on September 22, 1819, destroying 100 of the 104 plantations in cultivation. Many planters decided not to rebuild after the storm.
These factors and others led to the end of slavery in the British West Indian colonies, including the British Virgin Islands, on August 1, 1832. Historians disagree on how the emancipation proclamation was communicated in the British Virgin Islands. Some say it was read aloud at the Sunday Morning Well in Road Town, where a plaque now hangs. Others say it was more likely announced in churches around the territory.
Today, Tortola celebrates its annual Emancipation Festival on the first Monday in August in commemoration of the slaves’ first days of freedom.
Danish West Indies
Slavery persisted in the Danish colonies for 16 years longer than in the British islands. After the British ended slavery in 1832, Denmark knew it had to plan for emancipation in its colonies. In 1840, the Danish king proposed a scheme where slaves would be given an extra day off per week, during which they could work for their owner for wages and eventually buy their freedom. While some planters agreed to giving slaves an additional free day, few agreed to pay them, and the proposal was not accepted.
In 1847 another proposal was made, this one accepted by both Danish officials and planters. Under the plan all babies born to slaves would be free from that date on, but adult slaves would have to wait 12 years before freedom would be granted. While the Danes had consulted extensively with planters on the plan, no one had thought it necessary to consider the opinion of the slaves themselves, a decision that proved to be shortsighted. On July 3, 1848, thousands of slaves on St. Croix rose up, led by a young slave named Buddhoe, to demand their freedom. The disturbance moved through the countryside to Fort Frederik, where the slaves lay down their single demand: freedom. A deadline of noon came and went with no sign of freedom or the governor, Peter von Scholten, who had the authority to grant it. In response, the slaves wrested the hated “justice post,” where many slaves had been beaten and killed, from its position near the fort and threw it in the water. Buddhoe uttered an ultimatum: “Freedom by four o’clock or we burn the town.”
Von Scholten arrived in Frederiksted before 4 p.m. and went into the fort, where he consulted with planters and officials. Von Scholten, faced with a crowd of some 8,000 slaves, rejected their counsel, instead uttering the words that soon became famous: “From this day forward, all unfree in the Danish West Indies shall be free.”
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition