Christina Proenza-Coles, "1733 St. John Revolt," Great Events from History: The Eighteenth Century, Salem Press, 2006.

 

During the St. John uprising of 1733-1734 a group of armed rebel slaves captured the Danish West Indian island of 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, 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.

A series of natural disasters made life particularly difficult in the years and months preceding the rebellion.  Unusually severe draught in 1725 and 1726 prompted many planters to divert scarce water resources to sugar cane 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. By 1733, St. John’s slave population had increased by sixty percent in five years and the slave population of 1,087 greatly outnumbered the 208 whites, in spite of high levels of marronage 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 to suppress marronage prompted extremely harsh legislation stipulating brutal punishments for slave disobedience including 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 served 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 1730s, 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 prices, 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 via talking drums and prepared detailed plans to overtake St. John under the leadership of Bolombo, an Adambe king, Aquashi, an Aquambo prince, and Kanta, an Amina nobleman. 

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 which they had hidden sugar cane knives.  The rebel slaves killed all of the soldiers in the fort save 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 100, 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 (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 might 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 Saint 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 a Captain Taller and later Captain William Maddox were repelled by the rebel forces as well. 

The standoff between the rebels and the Danish forces, which included numerous slaves from St. Thomas as well as St. Thomas’ Free Negro Corps led by a free black captain named Mingo Tamarin, continued for six months.  Ultimately, geopolitics lent a hand to the Danes.  Louis XV of France supported his son-in-law in the War of Polish Succession (1733-1738) and greatly desired Denmark’s neutrality.  The Danish West India and Guinea Company purchased St. Croix from the French for a substantial fee, and the Danish Crown 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 200 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. 

 

Significance

Almost sixty years before the Haitian revolution, a group of West African slaves wrested control of the island of St. John and held it for six months against Danish and English forces.  The 1733 uprising was one of the most successful slave revolts in Caribbean history and 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, endeavored 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 forces from Martinique.  In sum, virtually all of the rebels were killed or committed suicide, about a quarter of St. John’s white population and six of the slaves who defended the planters lost their lives, and just over half of the island’s 92 plantations were damaged or destroyed.  The Danish plantation system was quickly restored, and sugar production flourished in the years after uprising.  In 1746 and 1759 two incipient slave rebellions in the Danish West Indies were suppressed.  However, a slave revolt in St. Croix in 1848 brought slavery in the Danish West Indies to a definitive end.

 

Further Reading

Anderson, John L. Night of the Silent Drums. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975.  Engrossing narrative of the events of the rebellion rigorously based on historical sources.

Dookhan, Isaac. A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States. Essex, U.K.: Caribbean Universities Press, 1974. 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.

Hall, Neville. Slave Society in the Danish West Indies, edited by B.W. Higman. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.  Comprehensive and detailed examination of slavery in the Danish West Indies including its legal, cultural, political and economic aspects.

Low, Ruth and Rafael Valls. St. John Backtime: Eyewitness Accounts from 1718 to 1956.  St. John, U.S.V.I.: Eden Hill Press, 1991 [1985].  Collection of texts from primary sources including a letter written by Commander Longueville and a court deposition from a trial of captured rebels.

Westergaard, Waldemar. The Danish West Indies, 1671-1917. New York: Macmillan, 1917.  Includes a definitive historical account of the rebellion based on primary documents.

Byline: Christina Proenza-Coles