It was 143 years ago — on Oct. 1, 1878 — when Crucian agricultural laborers set fire to Frederiksted town and western plantations on St. Croix. The objective was to burn all the way east to “Bassin jailhouse,” known today as Estate Richmond penitentiary. In those days, Christiansted was called Bassin by Crucians. In 1733, the Danes founded Christiansted town on the site of a former French village known as Bassin.
The agricultural laborers were stopped at Estate Anna’s Hope by Danish soldiers, but not before at least 51 plantations were damaged or destroyed. The estimated losses due to property destruction totaled $600,000, according to Danish historical records. Estates that were destroyed included Good Hope, Wheel of Fortune, Mt. Victory, Diamond, Punch, Annally, Nicolas, Mt. Stewart, Two Friends, Canaan. River, Grove Place, Big Fountain, Mon Bijou, Morning Star, La Vallee, Rust- op- Twist, Concordia, Glynn, Jealousy, Hermitage, Upper Love, Lebanon Hill, Dolby Hill, and Montpellier.
Other estates were Lower Love, Golden Grove, Adventure, Castle Coakley, Work & Rest, Barrenspot, Strawberry Hill, Diamond & Rudy, Clifton Hill, Slob, Bethlehem, Blessing, Anguilla, Fredensborg & Kings Hill, Castle Bourke, Paradise, Mannings Bay, St. Georges, Betty’s Hope, William’s Delight, Carlton, Whim, Enfield Green, and Concordia (West). There are estates that escaped the Fireburn, which I didn’t mention.
After the 1848 physical emancipation of enslaved Africans, the Danish government enacted rules to keep people enslaved by contracts. Hence, the freedom of the uprising agricultural laborers was short-lived as plantation owners began to quickly devise new regulations. The enacted Labor Law of 1849, which was created by planters and government officials and not by former slaves, was forced on them by law to sign contracts that bound them and their families to the plantation they worked for. As a result, by signing these contracts the agricultural laborers became enslaved again.
There is an old Crucian saying, “Once a man, twice a child,” which means a man must work his way through the labor class system from the third class, as a child, to first class, then as an adult, and ending up as an old man in the third class again. This system of labor describes the evilness and harsh reality of hardship that Crucian agricultural laborers faced on the island of St. Croix. Living conditions, health care, wages, etc., all were dictated and controlled by plantation owners and the Danish government.
Each Oct. 1, or what is known in our history as Contract Day, agricultural workers were allowed to leave their plantation and enter other contacts with a new plantation owner. On Oct. 1, 1878, agricultural laborers protested the fixed wages and harsh living conditions they were forced into on plantation villages. The protest started out peacefully, but eventually the atmosphere changed where fire became the weapon of a just cause for the former enslaved population of the Danish West Indies. The laborers managed to kill two soldiers and one planter, but 84 of them lost their lives.
The insurrection of the 1878 “Fireburn” was said to be organized and led by four heroines or Queens. Mary Leticial Thomas, better known as Queen Mary (1848-1905), arrived on St. Croix from Antigua in 1860 to work on the plantation. She lived at Estate Sprat Hall. Then, we have Susannah Abrahamsen/Abrahamson, known as “Bottom Belly,” who lived at Estate Prosperity; Axeline Elizabeth Solomon (Queen Agnes), who lived at Estate Bethlehem; and Mathilde Williams McBean (Queen Mathilda), who lived at Estate Cane.
According to Danish historical documents, more than 400 laborers were arrested, and 12 were executed by firing squad. About 40 people were tried and sentenced to prison along with the four Queens. The four Queens were sent to prison in Copenhagen, Denmark. On July 20, 1882, the local newspaper of Denmark, NYT Aftenblad, stated, “Four negresses, who are sentenced to hard labor for life for their participation in the rebellion on St. Croix arrived yesterday on the ship ‘Thea’ to the capital to serve their sentences to the Women’s Prison on Kristianshavn.”
The Danish newspaper also mentioned a list of 40 prisoners held at Fort Frederik for their involvement in the 1878 Fireburn and what estate they came from. Here are a few names: Rebecca Frederick, Estate Cane; John Samuel, Estate Anguilla; Joseph James, Estate Enfield Green; Joseph Briggs, Estate Friedensborg; William Barnes, Estate Rust-op-Twist; Francis Harrison, Estate Prosperity; Emanuel Jacobs, Estate Prosperity; George Simmonds, Estate Barren Spot; James Cox, Estate Diamond; Joseph William, Estate Windsor; Richard Gibbs (Sealey), Estate Barren Spot; and Johannes Samuel, also called “Banborg,” Frederiksted.
Malvina was the ship that transported Queen Mary, Queen Agnes, and Queen Mathilde back to St. Croix. The Queens departed Denmark on Dec. 18, 1887, and arrived on St. Croix on Feb. 2, 1888, the same year my grandmother Catherine Smalls was born on the island of St. John. Queen Susannah Abrahamsen, known as “Bottom Belly,” came back separately from the other three Queens. In May 1886, “Bottom Belly” departed Denmark and arrived on St. Croix on July 21, 1886.
The Queens and other agricultural laborers made the ultimate sacrifice for the poor working-class people of the Danish West Indies. As a result, on Oct. 24, 1879, the Labor Law of 1849 was repealed, allowing laborers to freely seek and secure their own employment and to leave the island of their own choice to seek employment elsewhere.
Queen Mary died on March 16, 1905, at age 57 and was buried in Estate Williams Delight Cemetery. Queen Susannah “Bottom Belly” died on July 20, 1906, at age 75 and was buried presumably adjacent to Christiansted Cemetery. Queen Mathilda died on Oct. 10, 1935 at age 78 at Estate Hogensborg and was buried in the Catholic Church section of Frederiksted Cemetery.
As Virgin Islanders and Caribbean people, let us not take the 1878 Fireburn lightly in our history. Happy Fireburn Day!
Olasee Davis is an Extension Professor/Extension Specialist in Natural Resources at the University of the Virgin Islands who writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.