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In 1878, one of the most violent rebellions took place in the-then Danish Caribbean islands. Locally known as the ‘Fireburn rebellion’, this labor riot sent a fiery message to plantation owners locally and the world at large.
Chattel slavery was practiced in the Danish West Indies from around 1650 until July 3, 1848, when Colonial Governor Peter von Scholten issued an emancipation proclamation. The Danish government, however, then enacted rules that kept people enslaved by contracts for another two years.
According to Virgin Islands History, in 1847, a year before the governor’s decree, the government instituted a gradual emancipation plan stating that henceforth children born to enslaved laborers would be free. In addition, all forms of slavery would cease entirely in 1859.
A new labor bill was also passed in 1849 to regulate and improve working conditions, in part stipulating a day wage and ruled October 1st “Quarter Day,” the one day a year where the workers could change plantations.
On this day, many celebrated their short-term feeling of freedom. However, these changes would fail to improve the lives of newly freed people.
Hunger and lost hope led to Fireburn
The immediate reason behind the rebellion in 1878 was that rumors about improvements in the labor rules from 1849 turned out to be fruitless over time.
Much like Reconstruction within the US, their population quickly grew frustrated with living conditions which had largely remained the same after the abolition of slavery. Yet, these free workers did not receive food or any care from their employers, prompting some of them to declare that the new conditions were worse that enslavement.
Given the confusion and uncertainty around emancipation, sugar plantation owners made sure that the lives of the formerly enslaved changed very little.
Many ex-slaves were hired at the plantations where they were previously enslaved and offered one-year working contracts that included a small hut, a plot of land, and a little money.
The Fireburn and queens
Growing more hungry and hopeless by the day, the people rose up against their oppressors and the property they held so dear.
At the helm of the “Fireburn” revolt was a woman named Mary Thomas, who was called “Queen Mary” by her followers, though she preferred to answer to “Captain.”
According to the Danish West Indies, Queen Mary was also vitally aided by Queen Agnes and Queen Matilda, who are also considered heroines.
Houses, sugar mills, sugar fields, and stores on about 50 plantations on St. Croix were burnt to the ground. Over half the city of Frederiksted was also left smoldering. The rebellion is thus locally known as the Fireburn, while the Governor called it the arson rebellion.
She had reportedly become somewhat intoxicated and had shouted that those who did not want to be part of the rebellion were to be decapitated.
She was also very active in vandalism and arson on the plantations.
When she arrived in 1882 at the women’s prison in Christianshavn in Copenhagen, Queen Mary brought only a ring and a few earrings. She was about 40 years old and had three children, although she was unwed.
Like the other two queens, Mary served her life sentence in the women’s prison until 1887, when they were sent back to Christiansted to serve out the remainder of their sentences.
Queen Mary would be given the death sentence for looting and arson.
Today, the local population in the West Indies has erected statues of the three women, Queen Mary, Queen Agnes, and Queen Mathilda, and one of the main roads on St. Croix is today called Queen Mary Highway.
Each woman in the statue holds a tool used in the revolt, a flaming torch, a sugarcane knife, and a lantern.
The statue is twenty-three feet tall and is Denmark’s first public monument to a Black woman.
An unjust justice system
Immediately after the rebellion, courts-martial were established in Frederiksted and Christiansted. Twelve people were given a death sentence and immediately shot.
Thirty-nine were given a death sentence and sent to Copenhagen. However, 34 of them later had their sentences commuted to hard labor and the last five to imprisonment with hard labor for life, including Queen Agnes and Queen Mathilda.
The women who led slave revolts will not be forgotten
As stories of Black resistance and introspection are under a microscope more now than ever, it will not stop heroic tales from being told.
“If you’re a Black child, you learn about slavery but you don’t learn about slave resistance or slave revolt in America,” author Rebecca Hall says.
“But if you’re taught the history of resistance, that our people fought every step of the way, that is a recovery that is crucial to our pride in our humanity and our strength and struggle. So the issue of slave resistance is something I think everyone should know about.”
“Fireburn: The Documentary” interviews historians, cultural ambassadors and educators and looks at the folklore, art and history surrounding the Fireburn.
According to the documentary site, “The Fireburn addresses the heart of humanity and shows us what happens when people are robbed of their inalienable rights.”