Slaves Capture St. John’s Island Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Dozens of Amina slaves, originally from the Gold Coast of West Africa, conquered much of St. John in one of the Caribbean region’s most successful slave revolts.

Summary of Event

During the St. John uprising of 1733-1734, a group of armed rebel slaves captured the Danish West Indian West Indies;Danish island of St. Jan (St. John) for six months. Their intention was to eliminate whites from the island, establish a traditional West African kingdom, and retain parts of the remaining population as slaves. The rebellion, punctuated by periods of stalemate, involved a slow war of attrition between the rebels and their pursuers, who included Danish and Dutch planters, West Indian slaves, Native Americans;as slaves[slaves] free blacks, English mercenaries, and French soldiers. Ultimately, the rebels were overpowered and destroyed, in many cases by their own hand, and the plantation system on St. John was restored. [kw]Slaves Capture St. John’s Island (Nov. 23, 1733) [kw]Island, Slaves Capture St. John’s (Nov. 23, 1733) [kw]John’s Island, Slaves Capture St. (Nov. 23, 1733) [kw]St. John’s Island, Slaves Capture (Nov. 23, 1733) [kw]Capture St. John’s Island, Slaves (Nov. 23, 1733) Slave revolts;West Indies [g]Caribbean;Nov. 23, 1733: Slaves Capture St. John’s Island[0840] [g]Virgin Islands;Nov. 23, 1733: Slaves Capture St. John’s Island[0840] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 23, 1733: Slaves Capture St. John’s Island[0840] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 23, 1733: Slaves Capture St. John’s Island[0840] Bolombo Aquashi Kanta Durloo, Peter Gardelin, Philip Longueville, Chevalier de

A series of natural disasters made life particularly difficult in the years and months preceding the rebellion. Unusually severe drought in 1725 and 1726 prompted many planters to divert scarce water resources to sugarcane and cotton fields at the expense of the plots on which slaves were required to produce their own food. Planters who neglected to import sufficient amounts of food forced some slaves to starve to death and others to steal for their sustenance. The threat of famine returned with another drought in the spring and summer of 1733, followed by two hurricanes and two plagues of insects that destroyed the struggling crops.

The slave unrest generated by hunger was exacerbated by exceptionally severe slave codes. Slave codes By 1733, St. John’s slave population had increased by 60 percent in five years and the slave population of 1,087 greatly outnumbered the 208 whites, in spite of high levels of maroonage, Maroonage or running away. Maroons might live independently in covert areas of the island or find refuge among the Spanish in Puerto Rico as converted Catholics. The desire of Danish West Indian planters and the Danish West India and Guinea Company Danish West India Company to suppress maroonage prompted extremely harsh legislation stipulating brutal punishments for slave disobedience. Punishment included flogging, branding, burning with pincers, hanging, and the amputation of a foot, leg, hand, or ear. The articles issued by the Danish West Indian governor Philip Gardelin in September, 1733, would serve to advertise the brutal policies throughout St. John.

Another key to the 1733 uprising was the recent arrival of slaves who were members of the West African aristocracy. Cut off from their customary slave suppliers on the Gold Coast in the 1730’s, Danish slavers procured captives from local elites who had taken nobles from rival nations as prisoners of war. Among the recent slave arrivals to St. John were a king, four princes, and several royal wives from three West African nations: the Amina (also known as Akan), the Aquambo (also known as Akwamu), and the Adambe. Several of the new arrivals, along with more established slaves, escaped the plantations and formed distinctive Maroon communities on St. John. The 1733 uprising was organized by these Maroon communities, who communicated with each other and plantation slaves by means of talking drums (which can sound like the intonations and rhythms of the human voice), preparing detailed plans to overtake St. John under the leadership of Adambe king Bolombo, Aquambo prince Aquashi, and Amina nobleman Kanta.

On the morning of November 23, 1733, approximately twelve slaves entered St. John’s fortification at Coral Bay on the pretext of bringing bundles of wood for fuel. In those bundles were sugarcane knives. The rebel slaves killed all of the soldiers in the fort except one, who hid under a bed and ultimately escaped to St. Thomas to inform Governor Gardelin of the insurrection. The rebels then fired the garrison’s cannon as a prearranged signal to the slaves throughout the island to kill their masters.

Within hours the rebels, a force of approximately one hundred, slaughtered several whites on the island. Many whites, warned by their slaves who accompanied them, escaped to St. Thomas or encamped in a plantation in the northwest of St. John that served as stronghold for the planters. The slaves who resisted the rebellion tended to be Creole Creoles (born in the West Indies) and descended from nations other than those of the rebel leaders. A white surgeon named Cornelius Bodger was spared so that he could provide medical assistance, which he did for both sides throughout the rebellion. The plantation of Peter Durloo served as a base for approximately twenty white and twenty black St. Johnians resisting the rebels. A Dutch planter from St. Thomas led a contingent of armed men, including numerous slaves, to retake the Coral Bay garrison and disperse the rebels as well as offer support and supplies to the men at Durloo’s. Unable to conquer the rebel forces, the Danish looked to the English, but the armed forces of Captain Taller and, later, Captain William Maddox, were repelled by the rebel forces as well.

The standoff between the rebels and the Danish forces, a contingent that included numerous slaves from St. Thomas as well as St. Thomas’s runaway-slave-tracking Free Negro Corps, Free Negro Corps (Caribbean colonies) led by a free black captain named Mingo Tamarin, continued for six months. Ultimately, geopolitics helped the Danes. King Louis XV of France supported his father-in-law Stanisław I in the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1738) and greatly desired Denmark’s neutrality. The Danish West India and Guinea Company had purchased St. Croix from the French for a substantial fee, and the Danish crown had promised neutrality during the impending war. The French were eager to aid their new ally. From April 28 to May 25, 1734, St. John’s rebels were worn down by approximately two hundred French soldiers from Martinique, including a free black corps, well trained in jungle combat and well led by Commander Chevalier de Longueville. Running low on ammunition and recognizing that they were overpowered, many of the St. John rebels chose suicide over capture. The French and Danish forces slaughtered several of the remaining rebels; others were publicly tortured and executed, including slaves who had surrendered with the promise of pardon.

About a quarter of St. John’s white population and six of the slaves who defended the planters had lost their lives, and just over half of the island’s ninety-two plantations had been damaged or destroyed.

Significance

Almost sixty years before the Haitian revolution, the St. John slave revolt proved to be one of the most successful slave revolts in Caribbean history. It represents an important precursor to the powerful slave revolts of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The St. John rebels, prompted by hunger, an exceptionally brutal slave code, and the conventions of the West African ruling elite, tried to eliminate the planters and their families and establish a traditional West African society. The intention of the rebels was not to abolish slavery. The enslavement of prisoners of war from rival nations was an integral part of the West African social structure they intended to reinstate, and rebel leaders planned to produce sugar and cotton for exchange. While the rebel forces were able to secure some ammunition and reinforcements from neighboring islands, their supplies dwindled, and they were ultimately outnumbered and overpowered by French forces.

The Danish plantation system was quickly restored, however, and sugar production flourished in the years after the uprising. In 1746 and 1759 two incipient slave rebellions in the Danish West Indies were suppressed. In 1792, Denmark outlawed slave trading, but it would take a slave revolt in St. Croix in 1848 to bring slavery in the Danish West Indies to a definitive end.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, John L. Night of the Silent Drums. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975. An engrossing narrative of the events of the rebellion, rigorously based on historical sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dookhan, Isaac. A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States. Essex, England: Caribbean Universities Press, 1974. A historical overview of the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, from pre-Columbian society to Danish colonization to U.S. rule after 1917.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Neville. Slave Society in the Danish West Indies, edited by B. W. Higman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. A comprehensive and detailed examination of slavery in the Danish West Indies, including its legal, cultural, political, and economic aspects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Low, Ruth, and Rafael Valls. St. John Backtime: Eyewitness Accounts from 1718 to 1956. St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands: Eden Hill Press, 1991. A collection of texts from primary sources, including a letter written by Commander Longueville and a court deposition from a trial of captured rebels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Westergaard, Waldemar. The Danish West Indies, 1671-1917. New York: Macmillan, 1917. This work includes a definitive historical account of the rebellion based on primary documents.

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Caribbean Slave Rebellions

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Great Caribbean Hurricane

Free African Society Is Founded

Haitian Independence

Denmark Abolishes the Slave Trade

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