The emancipation of the enslaved in 1848

Denmark was the first nation that prohibited transatlantic slave transport, in 1803. But Denmark was far from the first to abolish slavery itself. It continued for decades in the Danish colony in the West Indies for those who had already been shipped there and for their children after them.
Poster of Peter von Scholten's proclamation of the emancipation of the enslaved laborers.
The very same night when Peter von Scholten proclaimed the emancipation of the enslaved laborers, he had this bilingual public notice printed, which was posted everywhere on the islands in the days after. (The Danish National Archives).

After other nations had abolished slavery in their Caribbean colonies, for example the British in 1833, there were also forces that worked for a gradual abolition of slavery in the Danish colony. Not least of these was the colony’s Governor-General, Peter von Scholten, who implemented several reforms that eased conditions for the enslaved laborers. See the fate story about Peter von Scholten.

Weekends off and freedom for the newborn

In 1843, for example, the enslaved laborers were given Saturday off, just as they already had Sunday off. It meant that they could work for themselves, save money and perhaps even buy their freedom.

The question of emancipation of the enslaved laborers was often discussed at the Assembly of the Estates of the Realm in Denmark in 1844. It was in 1847 it was decided that the children that were born to enslaved laborers in the future would be free, and that slavery would entirely cease in 1859.

Rebellion on St. Croix in 1848

The following year, 1848, revolutions broke out several places in the world. France experienced the February Revolution, and revolutions also broke out in Haiti and Venezuela. The disorders there spread to Martinique and Guadeloupe. The desire for freedom also spread to the enslaved laborers in the Danish colony in the West Indies. On July 2, they rose up in an initial rebellion on St. Croix. Plantations were burned down, and the town of Frederiksted was besieged by rebels, so only the town’s fort, Fort Frederiksværn, remained in Danish hands.

“You are hereby emancipated”

When Peter von Scholten came the following day to Frederiksted, the situation was about to get completely out of control. Scholten was under heavy pressure and chose to declare slavery abolished with immediate effect. He called out over the enraged enslaved laborers: “Now you are free, you are hereby emancipated.”

In the following days, local officials worked together with the rebellion’s leader John Gottlieb, called General Buddhoe, to calm tempers and to get society to function on the new terms with the new free workers.

Unpopular among slave owners

The Governor-General had no authority at all to abolish slavery. But the long chain of command made it impossible for him to get instructions from Copenhagen in the pressing situation. Subsequently he was ferociously attacked for his decision by leading members of the West Indian government and by the slave owners. At the stroke of a pen, they had lost a large part of their wealth without knowing what compensation they could expect.