Yesterday the conch shell sounded. Its mournful cry carried on the Trade Winds to bounce off the thick, yellow walls of Christiansvaern Fort and echo around the mainly deserted streets of Christiansted. Blown by Senator Positive Nelson, it gathered those commemorating the road to emancipation 168 years earlier.
At 5 o’clock in the morning, the group of walkers, one by one, rattled the chains on the Fort gates before setting off to strains of reggae and rap, and the exhortations of Senator Nelson. Their destination, fifteen miles along the island of St Croix to Fredriksted Fort, where they would rattle the chain of those gates to proclaim their arrival.
A different atmosphere swirled on July 2nd, 1848 when slaves began congregating outside Fredriksted, the culmination of a year-long plan to demand their freedom. That time the leader was Moses ‘Buddhoe’ Gottlieb, a sugar boiler and a free man. By the early morning of July 3rd numbers had swollen to about 2,000 and by 10 a.m. approximately 8,000 slaves had travelled from estates along the north shore and the northwest of the island.
Fearing aggression and fire, many estate owners from the West End sort sanctuary in Fredriksted Fort, begging Governor Peter von Scholten to come and talk to the crowds before violence erupted. The Governor was given until 4 p.m to free the slaves. Meanwhile, preparations were made by slave women to set fire to the fort, and the whipping post – that symbol of the barbaric treatment of recalcitrant slaves – was thrown into the harbour. Versions vary as to from exactly where von Scholten issued the proclamation but, upon seeing the masses, he announced, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today free.”
Jubilation flooded the countryside, and it is Buddhoe who is credited with calming the situation, helping quell any rioting. Slaves in Christiansted, however, hearing of the rebellion but not the freedom given, began to rebel. With the situation spiralling out of control at Bassin Triangle, at the entrance to the town, Danish militia were ordered to fire a shrapnel-filled cannon, injuring and killing unarmed slaves. Panicked by rampaging mobs of former slaves intent on retribution, plantation owners sought refuge in Government House. By the time Governor von Scholten arrived in Christiansted on the evening of the 3rd July, the town had calmed and in the following days, with the cooperation of General Buddhoe, new norms were put in place.
The British abolished slavery in their West Indian colonies in 1833, which had intensified the discussion in the Danish West Indies and with government in Copenhagen. Von Scholten had long harried for better conditions for the slaves, and in 1843 had given slaves both Saturday and Sunday off in order they might work their tracts of land, and sell their produce in the towns.
After long discussions on abolition, starting in 1844, the Danish government made into law any child born to slaves from 1847 would be born free. The measures though were not enough and freedom was demanded, and given, on 3rd July 1848. The Governor was vilified by the West Indian government and slave owners who with one proclamation and no consultation had lost vast wealth. He was recalled to Denmark, and leaving his long time paramour, a black woman called Anna Heegaard, he left the islands.
Today, in the former Danish West Indies, now the US Virgin Islands, another day of freedom is also celebrated – the 4th of July – a weekend of independence. There will be fireworks, but it is the clarion call of the conch shell which sends quivers of remembrance along the spine of this former colony.