I woke up this morning with Bob. Those immortal words written in 1979 by Bob Marley, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”. The lyrics of Redemption Song danced in my mind as I walked Clyde. Perhaps as counterpoint to the rhetoric I heard yesterday.
The 3rd of July is arguably a more relevant day in the former Danish West Indies – now the US Virgin Islands – than the 4th July. Independence Day commemorates the day in 1766 that the thirteen American colonies no longer answered to the British monarchy, and were relieved to no longer have taxation without representation.
The British as occupiers were long gone from St Croix by then – their first attempt to settle here being in the early 17th century. They did though loiter around the island throughout the occupations / ownerships of both the Dutch and the Danish, mainly as merchants, sailors and privateers. That’s what happens when ‘owned’ by so many countries – St Croix has flown under seven flags – descendants tend to stick around.
“None but ourselves can free our minds”. And yet yesterday afternoon, as words swirled up to our gallery from the Bandstand in Christiansted, one could be forgiven for thinking emancipation had only just occurred, rather than in 1848 – rather than 171 years ago. From one particular group of orators there was no single positive message. There is no denying the atrocious and barbaric Atlantic Slave Trade, or indeed the Domestic Slave Trade that flourished on the US mainland after the abolition of slavery in 1865. But a barrage of condemnation for a country banished from these shores in 1917, when America paid Denmark 25 million dollars for the islands, seemed a rather pointless exercise.
Rather than harangue the, admittedly, very small audience, perhaps people yesterday should have been encouraged to walk the walk, to honour those men and women who demanded and fought for their freedom by actually taking part in the fort-to-fort trek.
The drums signalled the march on Frederiksted in 2019 as they did in 1848. At 5am on July 3rd, for the last nineteen years, former Senator Terrence ‘Positive’ Nelson, now Commissioner of Agriculture, has sounded the conch, given an invocation and rattled the chains at Fort Christiansvaern before leading Crucians, and a smattering of imports, on a pilgrimage of remembrance for those enslaved who demanded their freedom. He has lead people, who cared enough to get up early, to trudge those hills and valleys that make up Queen Mary Highway and to rattle the chains at Fort Frederiksted. Paying tribute to the bravery, and rigours, of those men and women who fought for freedom. It is a walk of reflection, and a celebration of what has been achieved, and a walk of hope for the future.
Moses ‘Buddhoe’ Gottlieb, a sugar boiler and a free man, is commemorated as being the leader of the uprising for freedom, yet cautioned restraint to the approximately 8,000 enslaved who converged on Frederiksted on July 2nd, 1848. It was he who gave Governor Peter von Scholten the 4pm deadline to emancipate the enslaved, which lead to the famous proclamation, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today free.”
Surely a more enlightened approach today would be to salute those Virgin Islanders who have succeeded and gone on to achieve so very much, whether here or abroad. People like Hubert Harrison, who became “one of the most brilliant and dynamic Negro intellectuals ever to emerge on the American scene” and touted, if he had not died so young at the age of 44, as being a possible candidate to serve in President Roosevelt’s administration. Or David Hamilton Jackson, the labour leader, legislator and founder of The Herald, the first black newspaper on St Croix. Or Miss Enid Baa, who among many accolades, represented the Virgin Islands in 1960 at the 3rd UNESCO conference in Mexico City on Latin American and Caribbean Bibliography. Or Alton Adams, the first black bandmaster in the US Navy and who wrote the Virgin Islands anthem. Or Ullmont James, not bahn’ here but born of Crucian parents and who was educated in the first graduating class of the Christiansted Senior High School, who went on to be an outstanding administrator and diplomat to various missions in Africa.
The list is long for the relative size of these three Virgin Islands. Sportsmen like Elrod Hendricks, and that proud son of St Croix, Tim Duncan, who has proved his commitment to his home island by his continual support, particularly after the 2017 Hurricanes of Irma and Maria. Or those who represent the Virgin Islands at the Olympic Games, only once a medallist but always present. Musicians, Jamesie and the All-Stars, or Stanley and Ten Sleepless Knights, who have taken the sounds of the Virgin Islands around the Caribbean and to Europe.
There was pride to be seen yesterday in the quelbe dancing later at the Christiansted Bandstand. Quelbe, recognised as the traditional music of the Virgin Islands and a graceful fusion of bamboula and cariso that tells the story of these islands. That’s keeping history alive in a positive manner.
Never forgetting, and honouring, the trials of our forefathers is important. Knowing our history helps make sense of today and prepares us for tomorrow. But to frame today against a litany of sins from long ago is neither productive nor constructive if, as Bob sang, “We forward in this generation, Triumphantly”!