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St. John Commemorates 1733 Slave Insurrection

In keeping with a 32 years old tradition, residents and visitors commemorated the 1733 insurrection on St. John by enslaved Africans with a historic tour around the island on Friday.

“This is where Fortsberg is,” retired University of the Virgin Islands professor and historian Gilbert Sprauve said, referring on a map to the island’s east end where the slaves overcame the Danish gendarmes on duty at the old fort.

The fort’s remains still stand, and the hike up the steep hill to the fort is the centerpiece of the trip.

St. Thomas resident Marcella Jennings recalled making the trek for the first time in 2002 to see the historic site for herself. Waiting for the tour to leave Cruz Bay beach, she said she best remembers that the slaves carried wood on their backs up that hill. As history tells it, the slaves carried knives concealed in the wood to use in fighting the Danes.

This year’s tour brought out several dozen people including a researcher at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen who wrote her dissertation on how the slaves used their African networks to make new networks once they got to St. John.

“I always wanted to participate in this commemoration,” Louise Sebro said.

She said while the museum has a collection related to what was once the Danish West Indies, now the U.S. Virgin Islands, it’s very small.

V.I. National Park ranger Ted Johnson, who is new to the island, said he’d heard a lot about the annual day-after-Thanksgiving tour to Fortsberg.

“I like to learn about the history and culture,” he said.

About a half dozen young people joined with the adults to learn about the Fortsberg events.

“It teaches us about our African history. We can learn many things from what they went through,” Mensah Ola-Niyi, a 12-year-old St. Thomas resident, said.

The event included presentations by several people including St. Thomas resident K. Leba Ola-Niyi, who is Mensah’s father. The senior Ola-Niyi spoke at the commemoration many times, and this year said that while the Africans left behind material goods when they left Africa, they brought their culture.

Another presenter, Alphonso Wade III of St. Thomas, discussed the use of herbs in ancient healing methods.

“The painkiller leaf can be used directly for pain,” he said, speaking about a tree also known by the name Noni.

Wade, a farmer and herbalist by trade, said drinking the fruit after it’s put through a blender can help with preventing and treating cancer.

“It doesn’t have a pleasant taste,” he said, adding that it’s also known as the starvation apple.

Sprauve took the lead in explaining the ins and outs of the 1733 revolt.

“The history of 1733 has many challenges,” he said.

He said when the event began more than three decades ago, research was sketchy and they relied on John Anderson’s book, “Night of the Silent Drums.” While the plot is based on the 1733 insurrection, he said to make it a page turner, the account is fictionalized.

Even now, speaker Sele Adeyemi of St. Thomas agreed and said much of the research has turned up is based on what the slave owners said, not the slaves.

However, while some historians dispute the account of slaves jumping off the cliffs at Mary’s Point rather than remain enslaved, Sprauve said that story is part of the island’s oral tradition.

Adeyemi noted that a lot of information remains missing.

“We can’t just make up things,” he said.

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