Personal history

Life in the colony – according to the Christian congregations’ reports

There were a number of Christian congregations in the Danish colony in the West Indies. Today their reports about births, confirmations, marriages and deaths are an important source for knowledge about the inhabitants and life in the colony.
The Lutheran church.
The Lutheran church at the corner of Kongensgade and Dronningens Tværgade in Christiansted as it appeared in 1836 after architect Albert Løvmand’s renovation and addition of a steeple. (The Danish National Archives)

The population in the Danish West Indies consisted of many different nationalities. There was no dominant established church, but rather several different religious communities. The Christian congregations included, among others, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, members of the Reformed Church, and Moravians, also called the Moravian Brethren. The last-mentioned conducted an extensive missionary activity among the enslaved laborers.

Records from the congregations

Not many church records as we know them from Denmark have been preserved. But there are approximately 3 meters of shelf space with the Christian congregations’ reports to the Danish state that have been preserved. These reports with considerable gaps however tell of births, confirmations, marriages, and deaths in the period 1805-1918 – among both enslaved laborers and freemen.

Birth, confirmation and marriage

For births the reports typically provided birth and baptism dates, name, the parents’ names, ages, occupation and residence, and the godparents’ names. The confirmants were listed with name, age, and residence. Often it was a matter of adult enslaved in their twenties. For example, for marriages it might be reported that Pastor Hother Hänschell married the enslaved man Thomas of 28 years to the enslaved woman Catharine of 29 years on July 21, 1845 in the Danish church in Christiansted on St. Croix, both belonging to the plantation Constitution Hill and both members of the Danish mission’s congregation. In this multicultural society, it was not uncommon to intermarry among the Christian congregations. In the final period before slavery’s abolition in 1848, several examples were seen of freemen marrying enslaved laborers.

Reports about the dead

With respect to the dead, the reports listed, among other things, name, age, occupation, residence, cause of death, and burial location. The causes of death were often indicated somewhat vaguely (age, insanity, stomach trouble), and the burial often occurred at the small cemetery on the plantation where the deceased had resided. Until the abolition of slavery, the reports generally also indicated whether the deceased was free or unfree.