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This Day in Labor History: August 25, 1734

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On August 25, 1734, a slave insurrection in St. John was put down with maximum violence, ending nine months of hard-won freedom from slaves and concluding possibly the most important slave rebellion before the Haitian Revolution in the eighteenth-century Caribbean. However, this story is not necessarily the kind of freedom struggle that might appeal to contemporary liberals, as the slaves revolting wanted to take over the island and enslave all the other Africans there.

By 1733, the slave system of the Caribbean was fully established. Early attempts to use indigenous slaves mostly failed due to violence, disease, and the relatively small numbers of Native people in these islands. White indentured servitude proved too unstable as whites didn’t want to work for other whites in these conditions. African slavery had risen by 1700 to dominate the slave holdings. St. John was at this time part of the Danish West Indies, though it is today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. We rarely think of Danish colonization because Denmark was at best a minor player, but despite its general failures to become a global colonial power, there was nothing particularly different about the exploitation here than with other colonizing powers. The point was to pull out as much profit from sugar (or whatever the economic engine of a given colony was) by exploiting slave labor to the maximum potential possible.

One thing the Danes had not figured out yet–something that the U.S. colonies mostly had figured out by now–was that mixing the ethnic background of the slaves was a good idea if you wanted to maintain labor control. Many of the slaves on the island were Akwamu, in modern-day Ghana. This had not long before been the dominant tribe in that region of Africa, supplying the slave trade themselves. But the death of a powerful ruler led to changing military fortunes and now the other tribes were revenging themselves on the Akwamu, with a total defeat for that tribe in 1730 and rounding up as many of them as possible to sell to Europeans. What that meant for St. John is a steady supply of slaves, yes, but also a military hardened group of warrior people with a lot of pride.

By 1733, a serious drought in that region of the Caribbean destabilized the plantations, exacerbated by a hurricane. Drought meant even less food and it meant less control for the planters. Moreover, as was common in much of the Caribbean, the plantations had absentee landlords who didn’t have much clue what was going on. During that year, many slaves had fled and entered into marronage, which means that they were living in swamps and other difficult places to be found and creating their own communities based on freedom and survival. The colony responded by trying to increase discipline and created the Slave Code of 1733, which enacted extremely harsh punishments for resistance, not only include public whippings, but amputation of limbs or hanging. Usually, under this, if you ran away and were caught, you lost an ear, but sometimes it was an arm or leg.

Some of the Awakmu slaves were former leaders of the people, both militarily and economically. They thought that they might be able to rebel, take control of St. John, and rule it themselves, almost certainly using the slave labor of the other tribes. The terrible punishments they now received only made these plans seem more appealing. A former chief known to the Danes as King June working as a foreman on an estate, led the rebellion. On November 23, 1733, they launched their rebellion, when they were allowed into a fort to deliver wood. But they had hidden knives in the wood and they managed to kill almost all the soldiers in the fort. But not all of them. One escaped and alerted the authorities.

The slaves had guns and they had their cane knives and they were not messing around. The soon moved to the island’s north shore as a base. They went after the plantations, but did not want to destroy them. After all, the goal here was to place themselves as the slave masters and enslave other Africans to grow sugar. So you had to keep the infrastructure intact. And they managed to control their part of the island for several months.

The Danes sent word to the French colony of Martinique for help and in April, the French sent a couple of ships. This managed to get control of the island again, though many of the leaders were hiding, being now in marronage. The French removed their troops in June, leaving the Danes to finish the job. The last of the rebels were caught on August 25. Most were killed.

This slave rebellion did not succeed of course, but it did change the course of St. John’s history, as many of the leading planters bailed on the island in the aftermath and it became an afterthought in the colonial world. This event also serves to deepen our understanding of the connections between slavery and capitalism in the eighteenth century world, in which slaves themselves can see the wealth and opportunity if only they can free themselves and take over the space to enslave others. Another bit of the aftermath is that one of the slaves who refused to participate in the rebellion and informed on it, a man named Franz Claasen by the Danes, was freed and given a plantation by his owners for saving their lives and allowing them to escape to St. Thomas. That happened in 1738 and he became the first African to own a plantation on the island. Of course he kept the slaves.

This is the 451st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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