The 1848 Story

Text taken from Chapter 8 - Emancipation and Beyond from the book Crucian Recollections: From the Compelling Past of a Storied Land
by Dr. Arnold Highfield

Image is of General John Moses "Buddhoe" Gottleib - leader of the 1848 Emancipation Revolt on a white horse.
Painting by Leo Carty - Used with permission of Stefan Carty

The year 1848 was a pivotal time in European and world history. It appeared as if the earth had come to a very rough spot in its orbit and there was simply no avoiding the jolts along its path. Confrontation, war, and revolution rocked the planet on all sides. France, Denmark, Germany, and other European nations were all shaken and reshaped by it. And not even the miniscule St. Croix and the Danish West Indian islands were able to escape it. But not all the outcomes were negative. Our cataclysm occurred on July 3, 1848, in what was known as the Emancipation Revolt.

Emancipation is beyond any doubt the most important event in local history. On that day the enslaved population of these islands rose en masse, demanded their freedom, and were granted it. In one stroke, Danish West Indian people became free after 177 years of slavery. What explains this sudden change of fortune, and was it connected with events on the larger world stage?

The onset of the Haitian Revolution (1791), set off by the revolution in France (1789), sounded the ultimate death knell for slavery in the Caribbean. One by one, European nations would abolish first the Atlantic slave trade and then turn against slavery itself. Curiously, little Denmark was among the first to embark on the abolition of the trade. Danes realized that if both France and Great Britain were to abolish the trade, as then appeared very likely, then such a small nation as theirs would have no chance in maintaining slave-dealing.

On March 16, 1792, Denmark therefore passed an Edict banning the slave trade, which was to take effect in 1803. The reason for the eleven-year delay in implementation was to allow the Danish colonies time enough to build up a supply of African slaves in order to keep the sugar business going into the future. In 1807, Britain fulfilled Danish expectations and abolished its trade. Slavery dragged on in the colonies of both nations. It was an addiction from which it was difficult to escape.

What with this British abolition, coupled with the growth of cane cultivation in British colonies in Asia, it became clear to most serious observers that it was only a matter of time before slave-produced sugar would become unprofitable in the Caribbean colonies and slavery would thereafter disappear. Great Britain also took a giant step in that direction in 1833 when its Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that went into effect in 1834, freeing the enslaved in all the British colonies.

The Danish Caribbean islands found themselves in an increasingly difficult position. The government of the islands was attempting to increase fertility rates by means of amelioration policies aimed at maintaining population levels among its slave communities and thereby making sugar production viable into the future. But at the same time, those authorities had to face inevitable British opposition, from no less than the world’s foremost naval power. It placed the Danish West Indies in an untenable position.

It was against this background that an ambitious young Dane entered the scene. Peter von Scholten was a liberal administrator who became Governor-general in 1827, with the intention of improving the position of the islands’ Black and Colored people. He was especially concerned with ameliorating conditions among the slaves. The words “slavery” and “amelioration” seem oxymoronic when used together since slavery denies freedom, the one right that undergirds all the others in the human condition. Nevertheless, Von Scholten was convinced that he was working toward a greater good in the future. Through the 1830s and 1840s, he effected legislation that improved the slaves’ lot, including measures relating to schooling, free work days, and reduced punishments.

But Von Scholten could not approach the matter of emancipation itself, because it involved a nearly insoluble problem. If the Danish government were to pass a law to end slavery in its colonies, it would have to answer to its planters who would demand monetary compensation for every one of their numerous slaves whom they considered to be their inviolable property. This amounted to an enormous sum of money, especially for a country that had been completely bankrupt as recently as 1814 due to an involvement in several disastrous encounters with Great Britain in the Napoleonic Wars. The Danish government at that time simply could not afford remunerated emancipation.

Von Scholten responded to this impasse by refining his gradualist policies. As an example, his edict that allowed slaves free days for work time enabled some among them to earn money and thereby pay their manumission, permitting them in effect to purchase their own freedom. This momentarily satisfied some of the slaves and at the same time provided a monetary payment to the planters without burdening the Danish government. Such gradualist tactics by Von Scholten worked well for a time. However, the slave population soon manifested impatience and with good reason. The Danish serfs had been liberated some four decades previously in 1788. In 1834, all the slaves in the British islands were emancipated. By 1840, those freed slaves from the British islands were already present in the Danish West Indies. Their presence caused resentment and discontent among the Danish slaves. How long would they have to wait for their turn at freedom?

In the summer of 1847, King Christian VIII (1839–1848) proved once again that good intentions very often lead directly down the road to perdition. At that time, he proclaimed the end of slavery, not immediately, but some twelve years into the future and then added insult to injury by announcing that, in the meantime, all children born to slave mothers on or after July 28, 1847, would be immediately free. This so-called “free womb,” or "free birth," law once again sidestepped the thorny problem of compensation. First, it was made clear that there would be no freedom for adults over the next dozen years. And second, all free births over the next twelve years would require that no compensation be paid by the government. In addition, it was thought, mistakenly as it turned out, that the slave population would readily embrace this policy of gradualism and eventual emancipation.

Events of early 1848 showed that the Danish king had sadly miscalculated. King Christian VIII died in January 1848 and his son, the new king Frederik VII (1848–1863), was hard pressed by reformers. He finally agreed to accept a constitutional monarchy in Denmark, with power being shared between the king and a parliament (Rigsdag). After many centuries, royal absolutism came to an end, and the Danish people soon gained their constitutional rights. Word of these developments spread quickly to the islands in the spring of 1848, raising expectations among the enslaved that they would also receive their freedom and full rights. When those changes were not forthcoming in the early summer of that same year, the slaves began to suspect that their due rights were being withheld from them.

The spark that ignited the fires of revolt on St. Croix came from Martinique. Revolution had broken out on French soil in February of 1848 and resulted in the creation of a constitutional monarchy and ultimately a republic in France. This “February Revolution” immediately fueled high expectations in the French islands. The enslaved population revolted in May 1848 and forced the proclamation of emancipation on May 22 by the island’s governor, who acted to avoid a damaging uprising. News of these dramatic events quickly traveled to the Danish islands, giving hope to the people of St. Croix. It was under these circumstances that Crucians headed into the summer of 1848.

During the early weeks of June, expectant slaves met in groups, selected leaders, and began to plan for their own freedom. It must have been apparent to them that their cause was anything but hopeless. The governor was sympathetic to their plight, the Danish military was weak and thinly spread over the island, and the country estates were weakly defended. Clearly the enslaved could put 10,000 to 12,000 men, armed with bills, cane knives, and sticks, in the field against little more than several hundred Danish soldiers. At the same time, John Gottlieb, Morse Henry, and several others stepped forward as trusted leaders.

The planning came to a head in early July. During the evening of July 2, 1848, the estates of St. Croix’s west end came to life with the ringing of bells and the blowing of conch shells. By the next morning, people were leaving the estates by the hundreds and streaming along the roads toward Frederiksted, machetes and cane bills in hand. From Estate La Grange, a dominant leader emerged in the person of John Gottlieb, better known as “Buddhoe.” He wielded a sword and later acquired a horse, the symbols of power and leadership. Crowds of slaves formed around such leaders, or “generals,” and they boldly entered the town, surrounding the fort and seizing the Police Station, some 8,000 determined souls in all. They were quick to rip up the hated “whipping post” and angrily throw it into the sea. Pure and simple, they wanted their freedom immediately.

For all their anger, the damage to the town that day was relatively slight. One man, Mr. Moore, a merchant, was heard to say that the crowds should be fired upon by the troops, a remark that precipitated the looting and plunder of his home and business. He was forced to take refuge on board a ship in the roadstead. All things considered only some three buildings in all were destroyed, all of them symbols of detested authority. At about that same time, Buddhoe was seen brandishing his sword but also admonishing restraint all about town.

Emancipation Proclamation by Peter von Scholten
Danish West Indies Governor General Peter von Scholten issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on July 3, 1848 -- Painting by Leo Carty - Used with permission of Stefan Carty

The growing crowds demanded to see the Governor-general for they knew that he was the only one who could grant them their freedom. Governor von Scholten, who had been in Christiansted that morning, appeared in Frederiksted in his carriage at four p.m. and was met by crowds of angry protestors. He descended from his carriage in front of the main gate of the Fort and addressed the people with this terse message. “You are free now, you are hereby emancipated.” He then turned and went inside the fort. After 114 years of Danish slavery on St. Croix, the people were finally free. The next day, the Governor circulated printed copies of the declaration.

When night fell, Frederiksted appeared all but pacified. But von Scholten was soon informed that groups of people were moving on Christiansted, and so he immediately hastened back to the east. Orders were given that defenses be set up at both the eastern and western approaches to the town, replete with cannon. A group approaching the town from the west did not heed the call to halt and was fired upon, perhaps prematurely, by the soldiers. A half-dozen or so people were killed and a few more were wounded. This was sufficient to persuade the crowds to break off and return to their estates. But it also left them bitter and determined to return and continue their action the next day.

The revolt lasted only a short time longer. On July 4, Von Scholten rode into the countryside to explain the proclamation. In Frederiksted, Major Gyllich, Chief of the Fire Brigade and Buddhoe rode side-by-side into the countryside of the west end to calm and reassure the newly freed laborers. Buddhoe, who had acted to pacify the workers during the revolt, was arrested, imprisoned, and later deported to Trinidad. He is said to have made his way to New York City by 1850.

Von Scholten’s fate was decided from the moment that he read out the proclamation. The planters felt that he had not employed the appropriate force required to break up the rebellion. Some were of the opinion that he was complicit in the whole affair. Certainly his precipitous action in granting emancipation showed no regard, from the planters' perspective, for the awarding of compensation to the slave owners and planters, an oversight that they greatly resented. Thoroughly discredited, on July 14, the Governor, under considerable duress, boarded a ship for Denmark, never to return. Back in Copenhagen, he was tried in 1852 for dereliction of duty and found guilty, but later, in 1854, after an appeal to the Danish Supreme Court, he was ultimately acquitted. He died later in 1854.

After Emancipation had been granted, the rebellion died down quickly. The Proclamation of July 6, 1848, ordered complete disarmament and compliance with the constabulary forces, on pain of being “shot on the spot.” On September 22, 1848, King Frederik VII issued a Royal Letter, in which the Emancipation Proclamation of July 3 was officially recognized. For the time being, the workers were enjoined to return to their estates. In the meantime, King Frederik appointed Peter Hansen as interim Governor, and in January 1849, he decreed the Labor Act that established a system of annual contracts and tight controls on the actions of the freed workers.

Although 1848 struck a decisive blow for Emancipation, it did far less for freedom. The majority of the former slaves were forced back to the same plantations as contract workers in what amounted to be a system of forced peonage that was strictly regulated by government laws and regulations. In effect, the newly freed workers became bound to the estates by coercive contracts, which controlled all aspects of their lives. Another thirty years would pass before that contract system was crushed in the Fireburn of 1878. And yet another thirty-eight years would come and go before the workers of St. Croix would be able to bargain face-to-face as equals and freemen with their Danish adversaries, as played out by the Labor Union in the Strike of 1916. In retrospect, Emancipation was only the first step in a long, arduous journey.

"Highfield, Arnold. Crucian Recollections: From the Compelling Past of a Storied Island.
Antilles Press. Kindle Edition."