Christian Sort: Slave, doctor and planter

Very few enslaved laborers wrenched themselves free of the brutal life of a slave. Christian Sort was one of them. He got his freedom because he helped his owners during the slave rebellion on St. John in 1733. But he also won respect among both Europeans and enslaved laborers because he was a capable doctor.
Map of Coral Bay on St. John.
Map of Coral Bay on St. John, 1720, drawn by Anders Sørensen. Danish National Archives, Rentekammeret (“Chamber of Revenue”), archive no. 303, Kort og tegninger (“Maps and drawings”) 1600-1920, map no. 337.018

No one knows where and when Christian was born. But when the great slave rebellion broke out on St. John in 1733, he was working as a slave assistant for the West India and Guinea Company’s doctor on the island, Dr. Cornelius Bødker. Christian was an enslaved laborer on the company’s large plantation Carolina in Coral Bay, where Bødker worked as plantation doctor.

Christian was very intelligent and a capable doctor, particularly because he had great knowledge of the local medicinal plants on St. John. Perhaps it was his position as assistant and trusted aide to the plantation doctor that induced him to help his owners against the rebellion in 1733. In any event, he functioned as an informant for the company, and for that effort, among other things, he got his freedom many years later.

Planter – but enslaved

In the years after the rebellion, however, Christian still lived and worked as an enslaved laborer on the company’s plantations, but as the most valued of them all. And when he married the enslaved woman Christiana Bille in the Lutheran Church in 1747 – now with the surname “Sort” (Danish for “Black”) – Christian Suhm himself, Commandant of St. Thomas and St. John, acted as witness to the marriage.

When the Danish Crown took over the colony from the company in 1755, Christian was no longer working as an assistant. Now he was a barber-surgeon, in other words a doctor, on the plantation. And not just that, he also owned his own plantation in the vicinity and the eight enslaved laborers that worked on it.

Free, licensed doctor and planter

Enslaved laborers could not normally own other enslaved, and therefore it is possible that already by 1755 Christian was being treated as free without formally being so. Not until 1762 was he registered as a “free Negro”, and the year after he was officially emancipated by his owner, King Frederik V. Christian gained his freedom because he had worked for many years as a doctor on the royal plantations, but also because he had stood on the side of the planters during the rebellion in 1733. In that way Christian was a good role model for other enslaved laborers, the King thought.

Christian had high status in the slave community. On several occasions he acted as godfather at the baptism of enslaved children in the Lutheran Church. The role of godfather or godmother was an honorable responsibility which the child’s parents offered to high-ranking persons with whom they wished to establish a relationship.

Mold breaker

In 1764, Christian received official authorization to work as a doctor everywhere in the Danish West Indies. It was recognition of his abilities and experience, which like his other accolades overcame the distinction between black and white, enslaved and free, on which society in the Danish West Indies otherwise rested.

Financially it was also going well, apparently, because in 1766 Christian purchased a plantation in Brown Bay on the north side of St. John, not far from his former home at Carolina. Christian Sort lived at Brown Bay with Christiana until his death in 1772.


Knox, John P., A historical account of St. Thomas, W. I. : with its rise and progress in commerce, missions and churches, climate and its adaptation to invalids, geological structure, natural history, and botany : and incidental notices of St. Croix and St. Johns, slave insurrections in these islands, emancipation and present condition of the laboring classes. New York: Charles Scribner, 1852.

The plantation Carolina at Coral Bay on St. John.
The plantation Carolina at Coral Bay on St. John, 1833. Colored drawing by Frederik von Scholten, sketchbook II, drawing no. 54. Maritime Museum of Denmark, file no. 000034163.