Peter von Scholten and the journey to emancipation

Peter von Scholten is probably the most well-known Dane in the West Indies. He has been portrayed frequently in both books and film. He had an impressive career in the colony where he became the Governor-General but in 1848 he was forced to declare a general emancipation of the enslaved laborers to avoid a rebellion. The emancipation was not popular with all groups on the islands. Von Scholten suffered a nervous breakdown and had to leave the islands a broken man.
Peter von Scholten.
Peter von Scholten (1784-1854), Governor-General of the Danish West Indies (private ownership).


Peter von Scholten was born in 1784 in an officer family with ties to the colony in the West Indies. He trained as an officer in the army and as part of the aides-de-camp of the Crown Prince he developed a personal connection with King Frederik VI. In 1814, he left the army and was appointed to the profitable office of customs weigher and measurer on St. Thomas. Here, he rose through the ranks and in 1823 became Governor on St. Thomas and from 1827 Governor-General of all three islands. As an official, he has been described as authoritarian and patriarchal but hospitable and extravagant in private. He is not thought to have been overly intellectual.

Massive resistance against von Scholten

In the small colony, von Scholten had many enemies among the Europeans. He worked to improve the conditions of the free coloreds and enslaved laborers and eventually to abolish slavery. Among his reforms were that the free coloreds in 1834 got largely the same civil rights as Europeans on the islands. In 1839, he sanctioned the construction of a number of schools for enslaved children, and in 1843 the enslaved got Saturday off in addition to Sunday. Obviously, resistance was great among most plantation owners and other slave owners. His almost autocratic behavior led to a number of complaints and several trials, among other things concerning libel, between him and other members of the West Indian bureaucracy. A persistent point of contention was the question of compensation to the slave owners if property rights over the enslaved were taken from them.

Mistress Anna Heegaard

Peter von Scholten was probably encouraged in his fight for the cause of the enslaved laborers by Anna Heegaard, who was a free colored and with whom he lived on St. Croix even though he had a wife back home in Copenhagen. The plantation Bülowsminde outside Christiansted was their sanctuary when government duties at the government house did not make demands on him.

Breakdown, death and legacy

Von Scholten’s attempt to avert the slave rebellion on St. Croix in 1848 by declaring a general emancipation was not very successful since the riots continued for several days after. The chaotic situation caused Peter von Scholten to suffer a mental breakdown and shortly after he travelled to Denmark. His wife died the following year and he spent the remainder of his life with his daughter in Altona (part of Hamburg in present day Germany), where he died in 1854.