The 1733 Slave Revolt that Liberated an Island


For six months the island of St. John came under the control of rebels who rose up against their owners, TeleSur reports.
In 1999 the Legislature of the U.S. Virgin Islands declared November 23 as Freedom Fighters Day, marking Sunday as the 15th anniversary of the establishment of this commemorative day. Freedom Fighters Day celebrates the 1733 St. John slave revolt, one of the earliest and longest lasting slave revolts in the Americas. A revolt that predated the Haitian Revolution by over 50 years.

After the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, there emerged a need for cheap labor to work the white-owned plantations. Slavery emerged as the solution to the labor deficit and by the early 18th century was well-established, with most slaves coming from western coast of the African continent, in the area now known as Ghana.

By 1733, the year of the rebellion, slaves constituted a vast majority of the population of the island of St. John, then ruled by the Danish West India and Guinea Company, with slaves greatly outnumbering the whites.

Conditions for slaves were, unsurprisingly, unbearable and in an effort to dissuade slaves from escaping, a serves of very punitive slaves codes were established, with punishments ranging from flogging to amputations and hangings. The situation of slaves on the island was exacerbated by a series of natural disasters that led to the starvation deaths of many.

A group of enslaved people who had previously held a privileged position back on the African continent and were members of the aristocracy, were brought to St. John. It was this group who conspired to organize the revolt, planning their action months in advance. And on the morning of November 23, they initiated their plan.

Approximately a dozen slaves entered the St. John fortification at Coral Bay in order to deliver wood. Inside the wood they had hidden sugar cane knives that they used to subdue and kill the soldiers stationed at the fort. The rebels then fired that canon as a signal to other slaves on the island to commence the wider revolt. Eventually a force of approximately 100 formed and moved across the island, liberating plantations and killing the white overseers.

The rebels eventually took control of the entire island, save for one plantation. Many whites fled to neighboring St. Thomas. The plantation owners enlisted the help of the English but they were unsuccessful at defeating the rebellion, though they did succeed in recapturing the fort and scattering the rebels.

Eventually the plantation owners were able to secure a 200-person strong military force from the French from the island of Martinique. Exhausted and low on supplies and ammunition, the rebels were defeated by the French forces who captured, tortured and killed most. The plantation system was re-established soon after.

Although ultimately defeated the island of St. John was effectively liberated for six months, setting an important example. It would take another 114 years for slavery to be abolished in the Danish West Indies.

For the original report go to

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