Ownership history

Life in the colony – Reports from the plantations

Plantation owners with debts to the Danish state sent frequent reports to the authorities with detailed information about the state of affairs at each plantation. Today the reports are important sources for knowledge about the harsh circumstances under which the enslaved laborers in particular lived in the colony.
Frederik von Scholten’s watercolor from 1833 of the Morning Star plantation with the mountains on the north side of St. Croix in the background. (Maritime Museum of Denmark).

The plantation owners in the West Indies ran up a large debt to Dutch creditors during the 1700s. The Danish state wanted very much to prevent the plantations from being completely transferred to the Dutch and therefore paid off the loans in 1786. The plantation owners had to submit frequent reports.

Weekly reports, police reports, and infirmary reports

For example, the plantation owners submitted weekly reports on the workforce, the work performed, and the inventories at each plantation. These have been preserved for the period 1787-1847. There are gaps, but in many cases developments on a given plantation can be followed for decades. Along with the weekly reports, the plantations’ monthly police reports and infirmary reports can often be found in the archives, as well as accounts and letters.

Life on the North Star plantation

For example, a report from the North Star plantation on St. Croix tells about the week of September 13-19 in 1830. There were 65 enslaved laborers on the plantation, of which 3-5 were absent from work for sickness, and one was loaned out for road work on the Morning Star plantation, which lay approximately 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) away. Eighteen horses and mules were available as beasts of burden. Work was done at this time of the year on clearing the fields of weeds and preparing them for planting sugar cane cuttings. On Monday the enslaved were provided the week’s ration of corn (maize) meal and herring for their own households. The physician routinely visited the location the same day. On Friday the enslaved laborer Martin reported for work without his pickax, so he was punished with 24 blows with a cudgel and put in the plantation’s lockup for four days. Sunday was a day of rest, when the cattle were simply led to be watered at the sea.

The report also relates that North Star had a stock of pickaxes, meal, herring, sugar and rum. The diseases among the enslaved included leprosy, fever, stomach ache, and toothache – which was cured by pulling out the tooth.