Sele Adeyemi of St. Thomas, at right in photo, explains the African influence in the Hammer Farm sugar mill construction.
Ital Anthony, center right, leads drummers at the Guy H. Benjamin School following the annual hike commemorating the 1733 slave revolution.
FORTSBERG — At the end of a long, hot trek, present-day reality was tied to history by St. Johnian scholar and elder Dr. Gilbert Sprauve at Fortsberg overlooking Coral Bay, the site of the 1733 uprising by slaves of the Danish plantation owners on St. John.
More than 50 people, including a significant number of stateside visitors — and vistors from Morocco and South America, made the annual trek with Dr. Sprauve to what is irrefutably the most historic site in the Virgin Islands — 31 years after the first commemorative hike to the historic Danish-era fort that was the flashpoint for the short-lived “revolution.”
“My ancestors came from somewhere down here,” one stateside visitor acknowledged, explaining his attendance during a group discussion in the ruins of Forstberg which is owned by the Samuel family of Coral Bay and opened to the public for the annual event.
“There is a consciousness that is being built up,” Dr. Sprauve said of the significance of the Fortsberg remembrance, noting the significant increase in the number of V.I., stateside, and international attendees in the crowd for the 2014 commemoration from “four to five people years ago.”
“To those coming from the states, we understand what’s going on up there,” Dr. Sprauve said extemporaneously in reply.
“We are not ignoring what is happening in Ferguson (Missouri),” Dr. Sprauve told the large contingent of U.S. and international visitors. “We have to stay on top of our message.”
Slave Uprising Was “Revolution”
Dr. Sprauve had reminded the participants in the annual observation that what has traditionally been called a “revolt” was, in fact, a true “revolution” by the enslaved “to establish an African nation.”
“It was a powerful revolution,” Dr. Sprauve elaborated for the group of visitors and islanders, distinguishing the true significance of the uprising in establishing its own government and plans to free the enslaved on neighboring islands.
“The Danish government was not able to overcome it for six months” — with the eventual help of troops from other European nations who controlled neighboring Caribbean islands, former V.I. Senator Sprauve reminded his audience in the ruins of the fort overlooking Coral Bay — encompassing views to the neighboring British Virgin Islands and east to Africa.
“They set up their own government and ran the island for six months,” Dr. Sprauve reminded his audience. The former slaves also planned to foment uprisings on nearby Tortola and St. Thomas, the St. Johnian scholar related.
From the 1680s until the 1730s, the same African people had controlled most of the “Gold Coast” of Africa, Dr. Sprauve explained.
Fanning Flames of Fireburn
The annual tour had already traced the history of the St. John slave plantation era during stops at the historic plantations of Susannaberg, hosted by the Jones family, and at the overgrown mechanical remnants of the island’s sugar industry in neighboring Adrian where a visitor from South America sang in her native tongue the first of a series of tributes she presented along the historic tour.
At the restored sugar mill in the Virgin Islands National Park at Hammer Farm, Sele Adeyemi of St. Thomas traced the construction style of the towering stone structure to the construction practices of the African cultures of the enslaved workforce that built the sugar plantation economy.
At Forstberg, St. Johnian historian Dr. Sprauve fanned the coals of the historic “Fireburn” uprising when he reminded the Virgin Islanders — and especially the St. Johnians — participating in the commemoration that their modern-day struggles against an oppressive government were taking a different form.
“St. John has become the milk cow for our politicians,” the former Senator and retied educator told the group. “We’ve got to tell them to get off our back.”
“When (V.I. government officials) go to the bond market (to borrow) they do it on the back of St. John,” Dr. Sprauve said of the V.I. government’s current fiscal crisis.
“Eviction Notice from St. John”
“These enormous taxes are an eviction notice from St. John,” Dr. Sprauve warned his native audience.
Attendees from St. Thomas echoed Dr. Sprauve’s call in warning their fellow participants that government plans to grant developers leases to historic undeveloped areas of St. Thomas for tourism projects were threatening the heritage of the native population.
“We have to save Mandahl Bay,” one St. Thomian participant interjected during the impromptu ceremony of libations, remembrances, dancing and discussion within the ramshackle walls of Fortsberg.
“They are trying to take another jewel from us,” the St. Thomian activist said of the recently-announced lease of the pristine bay and salt pond on the north shore of St. Thomas which the de Jongh Administration has granted to developers for a planned hotel and marina complex. “Another beautiful place will be stolen from us.”
Participants were treated to musical entertainment by “Ital” Anthony of Mandal, St. John, and accompanying musicians as they enjoyed a sumptuous buffet of local dishes at the Guy H. Benjamin School in Coral Bay after the strenuous history lesson.