The United Caribbean Association hosted its annual commemoration of the “1878 Fyah Bun” rebellion Tuesday evening at its headquarters in downtown Frederiksted. This year’s program marked the 141st anniversary of the labor revolt and began with a traditional conch shell and drum call, followed by an ancestral libation ceremony, performed by Denise Lenhardt Benoit. (Full disclosure: Benoit is the author of this piece) Other highlights of the evening included spoken word performances by Rehanna Griffiths of John H. Woodson Junior High School and Roann Griffiths of Alfredo Andrews Elementary School.
St. Croix author, historian and griot of Virgin Islands culture, Mario Moorhead gave a riveting account of the events that led to the rebellion, followed by a moving video produced and performed by reggae artist Pressure Busspipe of St. Thomas, and other local residents. Known for his conscious music, the video is a reenactment of the rebellion that resulted in the burning of more than one half of St. Croix.
Wala Hendrickson, manager and head chef at UCA’s Kitchen explained the importance of keeping the memory of Fireburn alive.
“Here at the United Caribbean Association, we believe in honoring our ancestors and are pledged to always remember the sacrifice they made for freedom,” she said. Hendrickson is a founding member of the Rebel Daughters, a local women’s group dedicated to the upliftment of the community through Caribbean culture. Together with author Richard Schrader, Sr., the group began performing a play based on his book, “Queen Mary and Dem” at the annual Fireburn tribute.
The story of Fireburn really begins with emancipation in 1848. The Danishgovernment passed the Labor Act in 1849 to regulate employment of the former slaves. There were few opportunities to work on the island, other than on the plantations the workers had previously labored on, for free. Much like the sharecropping laws enacted at the end of the slavery in the U.S., the Labor Act essentially kept the now freed population bound to those plantations at meager wages. Skilled laborers earned fifteen cents a day, while field laborers earned five cents per day. Furthermore, anyone not employed was considered a vagrant and punishable by imprisonment. In some ways, post slavery life was harder, as workers were no longer provided with housing, clothing or food rations.
For most residents, any hopes for better employment hinged on Contract Day.
According to the Labor Act, on October 1 each year – Contract Day – local workers could pursue a better job opportunity, on another estate, for instance. But year after year, the workers found their efforts thwarted by plantation owners who found ways to circumvent the law and prevent workers from seeking better employment opportunities.
Finding themselves still impoverished after thirty years of “emancipation,” the labor dispute and demonstration became an all-out riot, led by Queen Mary Thomas, Queen Susanna “Bottom Belly” Abramson, Queen Matilda McBean and Queen Agnes Solomon. Plantations and businesses were burned across the island for several days before the revolt was violently put down by U.S. troops stationed in Puerto Rico, at the request of the Danish government. The leaders of Fireburn were sent to Denmark where they were imprisoned, tried and eventually pardoned. Eventually they were allowed to return to St. Croix. However, many others involved in the riot met a violent fate. Roughly nine men were shot at firing squad at Fort Frederik, while thirteen women were accused of being witches and burned at the stake in Estate Grove.
Despite the solemn history of Fireburn, the mood at UCA was one of hope and inspiration, and in the minds of many, the struggle continues. Genevieve Whitaker, a proud Crucian and community activist, shared her thoughts on the subject of Fireburn, this way.
“One hundred and forty-one years ago, a group of women, led by Queen Mary Thomas took a stance against Danish colonialism. Let us continue the fight for our freedom in these times.”