Strike despite hardship

In 1916, during the struggle for better conditions for workers on the islands, headed by David Hamilton Jackson, the Labour Union organized a general strike, which ended in victory for the workers. The great costs involved bear witness to strong leadership, which succeeded in maintaining the strike despite hardships.
Picture of pupils and their teachers in Peter’s Rest School.
Pupils and their teachers in Peter’s Rest School dressed up in their Sunday best in the early 20th century. (Royal Library).

The first general strike in the Danish colony in the West Indies lasted from 24 January to 26 February 1916. The strike started just as the sugar cane harvest was to start in earnest. Plantation owners immediately responded by throwing working families out of their houses and huts on the plantations.

The rural schools took in the homeless

Many of the people who were now homeless moved towards the cities, but Superintendent O. Rübner-Petersen made sure that rural schools were immediately “opened to give shelter to children under school age, together with their mothers or nurses.” Rübner-Petersen also played an important role as a mediator and arbitrator between the parties to the conflict.

Donations of food and money

In order to provide food for the homeless, Rübner-Petersen started a collection of money, food and cooking utensils. It can be seen from the collection lists that several contributors chose to remain anonymous and simply signed themselves as, e.g., “A Sympathizer”.

Women and children lived in miserable conditions in the small school buildings until the strike was called off. For instance, 12 adults with 17 children lived at Peter’s Rest School just outside Christiansted. They did not have very much, but the bills show that, despite everything, they got oatmeal, sugar, flour, milk, butter, onions, pork, fish and so on almost daily – and mainly from James Summersill’s grocery in Christiansted.

Home at last

Despite the great hardships, the workers, with the Labour Union and David Hamilton Jackson in the lead, managed to sustain the strike, which ended in success for the strikers: the daily wage for a labourer increased from a maximum of 25 cents to a minimum of 35 cents. Working families could now return to their homes on the plantations. The school buildings were once again taken over by schoolchildren, who had enjoyed a month of unexpected holidays.

Picture of O. Rübner-Petersen and Ejnar Olsen.
O. Rübner-Petersen (to the right), Director of Education in the Danish West Indies, together with Reverend Ejnar Olsen about 1916. (Danish West India Society).
Picture of a bill from Merchant James Summersill.
An example of bill from Merchant James Summersill for oats and sugar delivered to the lodgers in Peter’s Rest School. (Danish National Archives).