1733 slave insurrection on St. John
Coordinates: The 1733 slave insurrection on St. John in the Danish West Indies, (now St. John, United States Virgin Islands) started on November 23, 1733 when African slaves from Akwamu revolted against the owners and managers of the island's plantations. The slave rebellion was one of the earliest and longest slave revolts in the Americas. The Akwamu slaves captured the fort in Coral Bay and took control of most of the island, intending to resume crop production under their own control and use other ethnic Africans as slave labor. The revolt ended in mid-1734 when several hundred French and Swiss troops sent from Martinique defeated the Akwamu.
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When the Spanish first occupied the West Indies, they used the indigenous people as slave labor but disease, overworking, and war wiped out this source of labor. When the Danes claimed Saint John in 1718, there was no available source of labor on the island to work the plantations. Young Danish people could not be persuaded to emigrate to the West Indies in great enough number to provide a reliable source of labor. Attempts to use indentured servants from Danish prisons as plantation workers were not successful. Failure to procure plantation labor from other sources made importing slaves from Africa the main supply of labor on the Danish West Indies islands. Slaves exported from Africa on ships flying under the Danish flag totaled about 85,000 from 1660 to 1806.
The Danes embarked in the African slave trade in 1657, and by the beginning of the 18th century, the Danish West India and Guinea Company had consolidated their slave operation to the vicinity of Accra on the Guinea coast. The Akwamu were a dominant tribe of Akan people in the district of Accra and were known for being "heavy-handed in dealing with the tribes they had conquered."  After the Akwamu king died, rival tribes in the area attacked the weakened Akwamu nation, and by 1730 the Akwamu were defeated. In retaliation for years of oppression, their enemies sold many Akwamu people into slavery to the Danes; they were transported to plantations in the West Indies, including estates on St. John. At the time of the 1733 slave rebellion on St. John, hundreds of Akwamu people were among the slave population on St. John. Approximately 150 Africans were involved in the insurrection, and all of them were Akwamu.
Danish occupation of St. John
In 1718 the Danish made claim of the island of St. John for the purpose of establishing plantations. One hundred nine plantations and more than 1,000 slaves existed on St. John by the time of the 1733 slave rebellion. Many of St. John's plantations were owned by people from St. Thomas, who resided on their estates on that island. The absentee landowners hired overseers to manage their lands and slaves on St. John. The population of African slaves on St. John was more than five times larger than that of the European inhabitants: 1087 slaves and 206 whites. The Danish West India Company did not provide a strong army for the defense of St. John; it had six soldiers stationed on the island to supplement local militia raised from the whites.
In 1733, in response to harsh living conditions from drought, a severe hurricane, and crop failure from insect infestation, slaves in the West Indies, including on St. John, left their plantations to maroon. In October 1733, slaves from the Suhm estate on the eastern part of St. John, from the Company estate, and other plantations around the Coral Bay area went maroon. The Slave Code of 1733 was written to enforce obedience from slaves. Penalties for disobedience were severe public punishment, including whipping, amputation, or death by hanging. A large section of the code intended to prevent marooning and stop slaves from conspiring to set up independent communities.
In their homeland many of the Akwamu were nobles, wealthy merchants or other powerful members of their society; marooning was a natural response to their intolerable living conditions, as they did not accept the status of slaves. (SEE: 1733 St. John's Slave Revolt, Discovery Channel: Moments in Time link title Narrator: James Woods; Actor: Jamall Sprauve; Actress: Jackie Smalls). The Akwamu intended to take control of St. John in the insurrection and rule it, continuing the production of sugar and other crops. They would use other slaves of differing tribal origin as slave laborers in turn. The leader of the revolt was an Akwamu chief, King June, a field slave and foreman on the Sødtmann estate. Other leaders were Kanta, King Bolombo, Prince Aquashie, and Breffu. According to a report by a French planter, Pierre Pannet, the rebel leaders met regularly at night to develop the plan.
Events on November 23, 1733
The 1733 slave insurrection started with open acts of rebellion on November 23, 1733 at the Coral Bay plantation owned by Magistrate Johannes Sødtmann. An hour later, slaves were admitted into the fort at Coral Bay to deliver wood. They had hidden knives in the lots, which they used to kill most of the soldiers at the fort. One soldier, John Gabriel, escaped to St. Thomas and alerted the Danish officials. A group of rebels under the leadership of King June stayed at the fort to maintain control, another group took control of the estates in the Coral Bay area after hearing the signal shots from the fort's cannon. The slaves killed many of the whites on these plantations. The rebel slaves then moved to the north shore of the island. They avoided widespread destruction of property since they intended to take possession of the estates and resume crop production.
Accounts of the rebel attacks
After gaining control of the Suhm, Sødtmann, and Company estates, the rebels began to spread out over the rest of the island. The Akwamus attacked the Cinnamon Bay Plantation located on the central north shore. Landowners John and Lieven Jansen and a group of loyal slaves resisted the attack and held off the advancing rebels with gunfire. The Jansens were able to retreat to their waiting boat and escape to Durloe's Plantation. The loyal Jansen slaves were also able to escape. The rebels looted the Jansen plantation and moved on to confront the whites held up at Durloe's plantations. The attack on Durloe's plantation was repelled, and many of the planters and their families escaped to St. Thomas.
End of the rebellion and the aftermath
Two French ships arrived at St. John on April 23, 1734 with several hundred French and Swiss troops to try to take control from the rebels. With their firepower and troops, by mid-May they had restored planters' rule of the island. The French ships returned to Martinique on June 1, leaving the local militia to track down the remaining rebels. The slave insurrection ended on August 25, 1734  when Sergeant Øttingen captured the remaining maroon rebels. The loss of life and property from the insurrection caused many St. John landowners to move to St. Croix, a nearby island sold to the Danish by the French in 1733.
Franz Claasen, a loyal slave of the van Stell family, was deeded the Mary Point Estate for alerting the family to the rebellion and assisting in their escape to St. Thomas. Franz Claasen's land deed was recorded August 20, 1738 by Jacob van Stell, making Claasen the first 'Free Colored' landowner on St. John.
The slave trade ended in the Danish West Indies on January 1, 1803, but slavery continued on the islands. When the British emancipated their slaves in the British West Indies in 1838, slaves on St. John began escaping to nearby Tortola and other British islands. On May 24, 1840, eleven slaves from St. John stole a boat and escaped to Tortola during the night. The eight men (Charles Bryan, James Jacob, Adam [alias Cato], Big David, Henry Law, Paulus, John Curay), and three women (Kitty, Polly, and Katurah) were from the Annaberg plantation (one) and Leinster Bay (10) estates. Brother Schmitz, the local Moravian missionary, was sent to Tortola by the St. John police to persuade the slaves to return. After meeting with the Tortola officials and the runaway slaves, Schmitz returned to St. John to relay the slaves' resolve to stay away because of abusive treatment by the overseers on the plantations. After the overseers were replaced, Charles Bryan, his wife Katurah, and James Jacobs returned to work at Leinster Bay. Kitty, Paulus, David, and Adam moved to St. Thomas. Henry Law, Petrus, and Polly West Indies on Tortola. John Curry relocated to Trinidad. None of the runaway slaves were punished.
On July 3, 1848, 114 years after the slave insurrection, enslaved Afro-Caribbeans of St. Croix had a non-violent, mass demonstration; the Governor-General declared emancipation throughout the Danish West Indies.
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