Nov. 29, 2002 – As they have every day after Thanksgiving for nearly two decades, residents and visitors gathered to pay homage to those who sought freedom in the 1733 slave rebellion on St. John.
"It's interesting, it's educational, and I've never seen the ruins," said Takema James, 13, who came with friends from St. Croix to take part in the event.
Salt Lake City resident Clayton Parr, who was on St. Thomas visiting his son, University of the Virgin Islands math professor Adam Parr, said the program provided a means for "learning some of the historical and cultural background" of the territory.
The event commemorates the unprecedented six-month uprising that began on Nov. 23, 1733, when St. John slaves killed the colonial guards at the Fort using knives hidden inside bundles of sugar cane. The rebels held the island's colonialists at bay until they were defeated by military reinforcements sent by French authorities from Martinique.
Scholar Sele Adeyemi said that new research findings indicate that the African rebels killed themselves rather than face the torture and death that awaited them if they were captured. "And the revolution slowly came to an end," he said.
The day started with a short orientation in Cruz Bay Park, followed a shuttle bus trip to Coral Bay with stops at Adrian and Catherineberg, both old plantations that played roles in St. John's history. In Coral Bay, several East End residents joined those who had come from St. Thomas and Cruz Bay for an hour-long program at the start of the track that leads uphill to the old stone ruins of Fortsberg. The program featured the traditional libation poured in honor of the ancestors of those gathered and words from several of the islands' history scholars.
Gene Emanuel, a UVI professor who helps organize the yearly trek, told the 75 people gathered for the program that there was no excuse not to look for their family roots.
"We know how many of each ethnic group was brought to the Virgin Islands," he said, speaking of the enslaved people who arrived in what was then the Danish West Indies from West Africa. He said that good records kept by the Moravian Church show both the African names and the European names given to the slaves when they arrived on the island.
Emanuel said most of his information came from another UVI professor, Souley Ousman, who is from Ghana. Emanuel said Ousman could not be present because he was called to a meeting of African Muslims on St. Thomas. Emanuel said there have been threats made against the Muslims and the group gathered to deal with the situation. He had no further information.
Ousman has done research on the communication among Africans from different tribes who lived on St. John. As Emanuel relayed it, while each tribal community had its own language, there also was a common language shared by people of the same African empire. He likened the situation to the fact that English serves as the common language for much of the world.
Gilbert Sprauve, a retired UVI professor, segued from speaking about the significance of the 1733 rebellion to what he views as the current oppression of Virgin Islanders by the U.S. government in designating 12,000 underwater acres off St. John as the Coral Reef National Monument. "We are seriously threatened by these heavy-handed tactics," he said.
The day concluded with the traditional trek up to the Fortsberg ruins and a ceremonial honoring of ancestors.
Among those present at Friday's gathering was an advance team from Terra Nova TV, which will film a documentary of the 1733 uprising in late January for broadcast on The Discovery Channel next fall. Auditions for principal roles and more than a hundred extras will be held Wednesday on St. Thomas. For details, see "Tryouts set for TV program on 1733 slave rebellion".
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