The Akwamu Slave Revolt of 1733 on St. John was a rebellion against slavery imposed by the Danish plantation owners. The revolution started in 1733-1734 during which armed Akwamu slaves captured the contested Danish West Indies Island of St. John. The revolt lasted for six months.
Also known as the 1733 Slave Insurrection on St. John, inhumane treatment caused a massive and rapid call for a rebellion. On November 23, 1733, about 150 enslaved Africans from Akwamu, presently Ghana, revolted against their Danish masters in the plantations. The severity of this resistance made it one of the earliest and longest slave uprisings in the Americas. For several months, these enslaved Africans rebelled, directing their anger towards the white estate managers with the aim of overthrowing them and taking control of St. John.
Like most slave uprisings in those days, The Akwamu Revolt was suppressed after a major defeat in May 1734 when French and Swiss Troops from the Martinique came to help the Danish regain control of their estates. The forces were heavily armed and trained so suppressing the revolted slaves was imminent. In late August 1734, the planters regained control of the Island and the rebellion was declared over and defeated. The soldiers hunted down and killed or captured every single rebel.
Danish Occupation of St. John
The British had won the claim of St. John before the Danish government took control in 1618. The Danes established sugar plantations and large-scale farming of plants such as cotton and Indigo. At this time, the demand for sugar was high in Europe, and these sugar plantations became a goldmine to the plantation owners. Since hiring labor services was so expensive, and the Danes could not convince their motherland workers to come work for them in the West Indies, the Danish decided that slave labor was the most efficient source of energy. By mid-1733, the estate owners had developed about 109 plantations and the slave traders had brought about 1000 Africans from Accra. The Danes devoted one-fifth of the estates to sugar production. By the end of that century, thanks to the increased number of enslaved Africans, the population of St. John grew to 2500, but that never concerned the planters as these slaves were unarmed and uneducated. By the time of the revolt, the enslaved Africans outnumbered the European inhabitants. There were 1087 Africans to 206 Europeans without calculating children or the elderly. Also, around this time most plantation owners lived in St. Thomas. In their absence the hired managers assigned to oversee the owners’ properties and ascertain production and prosperity mistreated the labor providers. The cruelty of land managers planted seeds of rebellion among the slaves. To the advantage of the rebels, The Danish West Indies Company had provided only six soldiers to supplement the local white militia.
Reasons for the Rebellion
The large group of enslaved Africans working on the St. Johns plantations became fed up with the hostile treatment of the plantation overseers and the hard labor imposed on them. The Akwamu were known to be nobles and wealthy merchants. Due to this high ranking and pride, they developed plans to initiate a rebellion, take control of the island and rule it.
The Primary Reasons for the Resistance Were:
The extreme cruelty of the overseers left to manage the plantations for the landowners residing at St. Thomas.
Harsh living conditions arising from drought in 1725 and 1726 which led to the diversion of the little water to sugar cane and cotton plantations at the expense of the domestic use of water by the Akwamu.
The occurrence of a severe hurricane during that time and insect infestation.
The large number of enslaved Africans which had outnumbered the whites, 1087 slaves to 206 whites.
Severe public punishment due to disobedience which included heavy whipping, amputation of limbs and death by hanging.
In response to the harsh living conditions and the many more reasons including the ones named above, many slaves in the island left and escaped the plantation to hide in the woods. As a result, a slave code was passed by the colonial legislature whose main aim was to try and enforce obedience from enslaved Africans and prevent them from marooning and conspiring to fight for independent communities.
The Revolt and Insurrection
The rebellion kicked off with enthusiastic, open acts of uprising by the Akwamu on November 23, 1733 at the Coral Bay Plantation. About 12 Africans entered St. John Fortsberg with cane knives concealed in bundles of firewood. This group killed six men in the garrison and gained control of the fort upon which they fired the cannon as a signal to other slaves in the island that the revolt had begun and they too should kill their masters and free their people. With knives as the primary slaughter weapon, the enslaved Africans killed most of the soldiers and oppressors, ripping them of their firearms. During the revolt, the Akwamu avoided widespread destruction of property as they planned to take control of the estates. Cornelius Bodger, a white surgeon, was spared during the revolt so that he could use his medical knowledge in service to the Akwamu once they ruled the island.
After successfully overthrowing the white community and gaining control of the properties, the rebels spread all over the island freeing the other oppressed Africans. They also attacked the Cinnamon Bay Plantation in Central North Shore. A few slaves who opposed the rebellion defended their masters and their property. They resisted the attacking rebels by holding off them off with gunfire and used the Peter Durloo plantation as their base of operations.
Termination of the Rebellion
On April 23, 1734, the Danes appealed for military help to the French Colony at Martinique, 324 miles away. In response, 200 French and Swiss troops were dispatched to suppress the rebellion at all cost. The freedom fighters were already running low on ammunition by the time the heavily armed French troops trained in the jungle for combat, arrived. Noticing the impending defeat, many enslaved Africans chose suicide over capture. Even so, the rescue forces mercilessly slaughtered many Africans involved in the revolution. Others were publicly humiliated, tortured, and executed including those that had surrendered with a pardon promise.
On August 25, 1734, the Danish Government declared the insurrection as oppressed and extinct. Many people had died during the revolution, and massive property destruction was already evident; over half the plantations were in ruins. As a result, St. John landowners migrated to St. Croix, a nearby fertile Danish Island bought from the French in 1733. The Danes quickly restored their plantations and sugar production commenced just after the end of the rebellion.
Despite the defeat, the slaves died for futuristic victory. Thanks to the rebellion, the Danish government set up a courthouse and prison in Cruz Bay and committed to improving the treatment of St. John slaves making their rights and pleas for justice a state issue. That building, now known as the Battery is the only government building dating back to the Danes colonialism. At this time, the government also set in place a 12-year old plan that would see slavery dissolved and abolished. Freedom was finally a dawn away and St. John would, later on, become a free territory. In 1999, the Legislature of the US Virgin Islands declared November 23, as Freedom Fighters Day in honor of the Akwamu who rebelled and fought for their freedom.
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