The slaves rebel on St. John

The enslaved of the islands lived under very harsh conditions. Rules from 1733 stipulated that enslaved who committed grand larceny were to be pinched three times with red-hot tongs and hanged.

If a slave attempted to run away, the punishment was to have a leg amputated or – if forgiven by the master – be given 150 lashes and lose one ear. When the slaves encountered a European, they had to step aside and stand still “with all subservience”. If not, they were given a proper beating.

The slaves occupy a Danish fort

At this time, there was a great majority of slaves on St. John – there were 208 European settlers and 1,087 slaves on the island. Because of the severe punishments,  among other things, a revolt took place on November 23, 1733, among the slaves on St. John. They took over a small Danish fort on a mountaintop, and with a signal from the cannons of the fort, the slaves on the many plantations revolted. About fifty plantations and many sugar cane fields were destroyed, and several European settlers were killed. Soon, the rebels controlled almost the entire island.

Troops from Martinique put down the rebels

The Danish military on St. Thomas was weak and could not do much against the many hundreds of rebels. With assistance from French troops from Martinique, there was a manhunt for the rebels, and by May 1734 the revolt was put down. Most rebels were killed during the fighting or committed collective suicide. The military managed to capture 41 rebels alive, of which 18 were executed in the most horrific ways as a deterrent to other slaves. After these violent episodes, the operation of the plantations was quickly resumed.

Kort over Coral Bay på St. Jan
Map of the harbor and surroundings at Coral Bay on St. John. This map was made in 1720 and sent to the board of directors of the West India and Guinea Company in Copenhagen for information. Inserted in the upper left corner is a sketch of the small fort where the slave revolt started in 1733. (The Danish National Archives).