The married couple Mette Nielsdatter and Jens Pedersen arrived along with a group of other convicts at St. Thomas on February 24, 1686, aboard the West India and Guinea Company’s Fortuna. Jens had a life sentence for theft.
Convicts and indentured servants
In the first two decades of the colonization of St. Thomas, the group of convicts and indentured servants constituted a minor portion of the European population and of the workforce in the colony. They were supposed to perform the hard physical labor that was later taken over by enslaved laborers from Africa. Both the convicts and the indentured servants came from Denmark, and most were young men. Many of the convicts had been sentenced to work the rest of their lives in chains at Bremerholm (the navy’s shipyard) in Copenhagen – therefore they were called slaves. The indentured servants came, for example, from Tugt- og Børnehuset (Christian IV’s Workhouse and Home for Waifs and Strays) in Copenhagen, a workhouse for orphans, loose women and thieves.
Slave work up to seven years
The indentured servants were bound by a contract of three to seven years, which they had voluntarily made with the company. It was a way of escaping a wretched existence in the poorhouse. If they survived the time as indentured servants, they had a right to pay in the form of a piece of ground and a quantity of tobacco to sell. For the convicts, the king had changed their life sentences to working for the company on St. Thomas for four to seven years. Then they could gain their freedom. But only very few indentured servants and convicts survived long enough to become free.
The stolen cotton
The existence Mette and Jens arrived at in 1686 was thus dominated by hard work and the prospect of an early death. Nonetheless, matters deteriorated further because they were already accused in the late summer of the same year of the theft of fifteen pounds of the company’s cotton. They were thrown into the dungeon in the colony’s fort, Fort Christian. One month later the situation became even worse. Mette, Jens, some other convicts and a couple of soldiers were accused of having planned to steal one of the company’s boats and flee the colony. Jens and another convict, Peder Vognmand, were subjected to torture during the interrogation and admitted everything. When Jens was identified as leader of the plot, he was whipped under the gallows and branded on his back. When Jens had suffered the punishment he and Peder Vognmand were placed together in iron chains and sent out on the company’s plantation to work in the field.
Escape attempt and the gallows
However, apparently neither torture, whipping, branding nor chains could crush the desire for freedom. One November night in 1686, Jens, Peder, Mette and a pair of other convicts attempted to escape from St. Thomas in a canoe. They did not get far, for three days later the canoe stranded on one of the small islands between St. Thomas and St. John. Soon they were found by the company’s soldiers, and after a few days all of them were back in the fort’s dungeon. Jens Pedersen was sentenced to hang, and his wife Mette was to be whipped under the gallows and branded on her back.
Widow and remarried
In 1691, five years after the fateful events in 1686, Mette’s daughter was baptized. The father was also part of the underclass, a convict named Peder Hansen Jyde. The couple had to wait a year to marry, however, because they wanted to be free first. Another obstacle to their marriage was that Peder had actually already been married in Denmark. But he had not had contact with his first wife since he was deported seven years previously. Despite that, Vice Governor Lorentz chose to allow Peder and Mette to marry. On the one hand, it was unthinkable that they could live together and have a child without being married. On the other hand, neither of them could be sent away from the Danish West Indies, because as previous convicts they were not allowed to leave the Danish colony. In addition, the colony needed settlers, so Lorentz approved the marriage.
The later life of Mette, Peder and their daughter is unknown.
Mirjam Louise Hvid, “Dend Arme Blancke Slave”, servinge og straffefanger i Dansk Vestindien 1671-1755 (“‘The Poor White Slave’, indentured servants and convicts in the Danish West Indies 1671–1755″). Unpublished MA thesis, Department of History, University of Copenhagen, 2006.