Slavery in the Danish Caribbean

The islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix constituted the Danish Caribbean colonies. The first Danish settlement on St. Thomas failed in 1665 but the Danish position of relative neutrally between competing French, British, and Dutch forces in Europe
and the Americas allowed for other attempts at settlement by way of the Danish West India and Guinea Company in 1671. It would, however, take another seventeen years to transform St. Thomas into a plantation colony. In 1680, approximately 156 whites and 175 enslaved Africans populated St. Thomas, but by 1725, 324 whites and 4,490 enslaved Africans inhabited the colony. St. John was colonized in 1675 and plantations were firmly established after 1715, whereas St. Croix, the larger and more fertile island, was acquired in 1733 for the development of sugar plantations. 

Most planters and merchants invested in these plantations were Europeans of non-Danish origin, and the while official language was Danish, languages used in ordinary conversation included English, Dutch and French. Throughout their tenure as Danish holdings, St. Thomas remained a major entrepôt engaged in the “slave trade” and its status was augmented by the slave-driven and sugar-producing economies of St. John and St. Croix, which were considered appendices to St. Thomas until St. Croix became the primary colony from the mid-18th century onward.

Slavery under the Danish West India and Guinea Company, 1671-1754

The Danish West India and Guinea Company established plantations for the production of sugar, cotton, and provisions through enslaved African labor supplied through its Gold Coast (contemporary Ghana) trading posts in West Africa and from other sources. Environmental factors and rebellions against enslavement and the laws intended to curtail those acts plagued the plantations of the Danish Caribbean. The Danish colonists imported a 1,000 or more Africans on an annual basis, but the enslaved population remained relatively low compared to other sugar-producing colonies and because of high mortality and low fertility rates among the enslaved. 

Moreover, the plantation economies of St. John and St. Croix were especially prone to persistent revolt, even after emancipation in 1848, and its costs factored into the larger cost analysis of sustaining enslavement and the price of importing Africans. Resistance began, in many instances, from the African coast and after Africans entered the colonies, endured the public auction (abolished in the late 1830s), the branding, the march to the plantation, the “seasoning” process of acclaiming new arrivals, and regimented life in and around the plantation. The first and most successful enslaved revolt in the Danish colonies occurred on the island of St. John. In 1733, “Amina” Africans from the Gold Coast revolted and ruled St. John for several months. Between November 1733 and June 1734, largely Akan-speaking insurgents of the Gold Coast state of Akwamu staged a revolt and controlled St. John in an effort to overthrow the white planter regime and establish a polity of their own with the Akan as the new planters. 

The African population in St. John and in the other Danish colonies included newly arrived Africans, Africans born or with long residence in the colony, those in maroon settlements, “free” but landless Africans not from the colony, and those manumitted and unfreed but not the property of another. This social configuration ambiguously distinguished by levels of freedom and un-freedom was a key source of white anxiety given the imbalance between the number of enslaved Africans and the number of freed persons of African descent. The relentlessly severe “slave code” of 1733 promulgated by Governor Philip Gardelin sought to address that imbalance, but it, including a series of natural calamities resulting in famine and starvation, contributed to the St. John revolt of 1733. 

Those in revolt envisioned their efforts extending to other Danish colonies through a network of “Amina” forces, but not even their defeat of Danish and British forces would forestall their lack of firearms, ammunition, and wide support from diverse segments of the enslaved and “free” African community. French forces soon came to the aid of Danish planters and restored planter rule in June of 1734; the French hoped their intervention in the Americas and the sale of St. Croix in 1733 would translate into a French-Danish alliance in Europe, but this was not so. 

Slavery during Crown Colony Rule, 1755 - 1848

In the wake of the St. John revolt, planter repression continued but the ownership of the colonies was transferred to the Danish monarchy in 1755. In 1755, the colonies had a total enslaved population of 14,877 and a total “free” population of 1,979, and St. Croix accounted for more than half of that enslaved population (8,897). This demographic reality and the deep anxiety of planters no doubt inflamed by the 1733 St. John revolt led to the sheer brutality employed by those planters in alleged 1759 uprising based on rumors and “confessions” gather through torture and at the stake. Of the 89 Africans accused of conspiracy to revolt, 58 were acquitted, 10 were sent out of the colonies, 7 escaped and remained at-large, and the rest were hung, strangled, burnt alive, and gibbeted. 

Between the 1733 and the alleged 1759 revolt, sugar was the primary export commodity and approximately ninety percent of it went to Denmark followed by cotton, rum, and tobacco. The production and population growth of St. Croix made it the primary Danish colony. St. Croix population at the end of the eighteenth century reached 23,000 enslaved Africans and 1,000 “freed” persons of African descent compared to approximately 2,000 whites. But St. Croix’s prosperity declined with British occupation of the Danish colonies between 1801-02 and 1807-15, and low sugar production due to competition from beet sugar in Europe and cane sugar from other Caribbean islands between the 1800s and 1840s. 

Unrest, economic despair, and mass insurrection in St. Croix compelled Governor General Peter von Scholten to abolish slavery in 1848, in spite of planter opposition. Yet, those emancipated became part of a 30-year sharecropping program governed by stringent labor laws amidst worsening economic conditions, high mortality, poor housing, and protest and labor strikes. In fact, it was the labor revolt of 1878 that ended serfdom. Better economic opportunities elsewhere in the Caribbean led to immigration as an option for some African descendants at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century, while the Danish crown decided to cut its losses and sold its Caribbean holdings to the United States in 1917.

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© Kwasi Konadu, 2010, reproduction by permission @Diasporic Africa Press

Kwasi Konadu is associate professor of history at City University of New York, in the Center for Ethnic studies department. He specializes in African, Akan, and African diasporic history

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