The emancipation of the all slaves in the West Indies by the Danish Government in 1848 did little to end the existence of slavery. Despite the emancipation, many people of African descent were still in forced slavery or working under slave-like conditions. Angered by the continued oppression, unrest continued to brew until these enslaved Africans finally rebelled. Three Crucian women known as “The Three Queens of the Virgin Islands”, Mary Thomas (Queen Mary), Axeline Elizabeth Salomon (Queen Agnes), and Mathilda McBean (Queen Mathilda) organized the people and led the rebellion.
The Fireburn and the Queens
On October 1, 1878 the laborers working in the Croix plantations gathered to protest their inhumane treatment and poor working conditions. At first, the protest was peaceful but the gathering quickly became violent after rumors spread of one of their fellow African laborers being murdered or injured at the hands of the Danish soldiers. The rioters threw stones at the Danish soldiers who retaliated with gunfire. This event caused the violence to escalate, and the soldiers had to barricade themselves inside a nearby fort. Once the rioters failed to break into the compound they turned on the town and nearby plantations burning and looting whatever lay in their way. They set fire to homes, torched businesses and burned down sugar mills and crops. In the days that followed, crowds of Black rebels burned down over half of the city of Frederiksted.
Among the leaders were three Crucian women who led and organized the rebellion known as “The Fireburn”. These women were involved in multiple riots and they had vehemently encouraged the people to seek freedom, blood, and fire. These brave rebel women were Mary Thomas, Axeline Elizabeth Salomon, and Mathilda McBean. In the Virgin Islands, they are known as the Queens.
Cause of the Rebellion
The 1848 emancipation promised improved working and living conditions for the enslaved Africans laboring in the Danish West Indies Islands. By 1878, these promises were still unfulfilled. Frustration and unrest brew as the slave-like conditions persisted despite the abolishment of slavery. In addition, rumors about workers being blocked from obtaining passports caused more unrest amongst the people. These African laborers needed a passport to move around the island and seek employment. The lack of passports would impose further restrictions on the laborers and basically ensure that none could move around the island freely. They already could only change Masters or leave the plantation of their own free will on October 1st. This day was known as Contract Day or Quarters Day. These new rumored restrictions were intolerable and resulted in rebellion.
The locals remember this rebellion as the Fireburn. It took the Danish government two weeks to bring an end to this rebellion. During the Fireburn almost 900 acres of agricultural land were destroyed. Retaliation from the Danish leadership was harsh and more than 100 Black laborers lost their lives as the Danes ended the insurrection.
Immediately after the Fireburn, the leadership in the cities of Frederiksted and Christiansted established a court specifically for trying members of the rebellion. The Danes arrested around 400 rebels of which twelve were sentenced to death and shot on the spot. Approximately 39 others were sentenced to death by the court. However, 34 of these rebels had their death sentence commuted to shorter terms. Among the last five, whose life sentences were not shortened were the Fireburn Queens (Mary, Agnes, and Mathilda).
Mary Thomas was the most famous of the three queens. She was known for her involvement in almost every riot on St. Croix. The hunger for a revolution intoxicated her. She even at one time called for the decapitation of those black slaves that did not want to join the rebellion. Queen Mary was extremely active in vandalism and arson on the plantations. As such, the court sentenced her to death for looting and arson. She arrived in Christiansharn, Copenhagen along with the other two queens in 1883 at 40 years of age and with three children, though unwed.
Queen Mathilda was just 21 when she joined the rebellion. She left behind her three children, including a four-month-old daughter named Sophia Bastian, to participate in the rebellion and burn down an island.
Return to St. Croix
The Three Rebel Queens of the Virgin Islands served their sentence in Copenhagen until 1887 when they were sent back to St. Croiz to serve out the remainder of their sentence.
Three Queens Fountain
In honor of their sacrifice, the locals in the West Indies erected a fountain dedicated to the three Queens; Queen Mary, Queen Agnes, and Queen Mathilda. The fountain stands on a hill above Charlotte Amalie City. These bronze structures are a symbol of the power of these three women who believed in freedom. The three sculpted figures stand back to back to form a triangle, representing tcenterhe fact that they intended to bring liberty to all corners of the island. They are dressed in long dresses, long-sleeved blouses, and aprons.
The figure standing on the right has a flaming torch in her right hand. On the left stands a woman carrying a lantern in her right hand. In the center stands Queen Mary, holding a burning torch in her left hand and a sugarcane knife in her right hand. In the hands of a slave, a lantern, a torch, and sugarcane knife were lethal tools that could spark an insurrection. These three figures of power stand in a basin cascaded with jets of water.
Three Queens fountain was unveiled in 2005. It was sculpted by Richard Hallier, an American artist from Kansas City, Kansas. The St. Thomas Historical Trust (Virgin Islands) commissioned the sculpture and it lies in a four-acre garden located in Kongens Quarter in Blackbeards Castle. There is a yard of vegetation on the outer perimeter. A bronze plaque lying at the South End has the following inscription:
THE THREE QUEENS OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS
In 1878 three former slave ladies on St. Croix led an
insurrection against the Danish Government for improved
working and living conditions. During this action, a major
portion of Frederiksted was destroyed by fire. This revolt
is known today as “FIREBURN” and the ladies are
renowned as “Queen Mary, Queen Agnes and Queen
Matilda” – The Three Queens of the Virgin Islands.
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Mary, Agnes and Matilda - Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas - USVI