June 25, 2006 – JoAnne Murray now has a better understanding of what it was to be a slave hundreds of years ago.
"Listening to the speakers brought it home, and it just saddened me to think that this took place all these years ago," said Murray, one of about 50 people who crowded a room at Fort Frederik on Saturday for a panel discussion on Crucian culture and history, including the July 3, 1848, Emancipation Proclamation.
"Imagine being somewhere in Africa, free, and then you're captured, hurled on a ship and taken thousands of miles to be auctioned off and then used as if your were not a human being," Murray added.
The lecture series is a part of the activities leading up to the 158-year observance of the 1848 slave rebellion, known as the local Independence Day by the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Committee. The group is a subcommittee of the History, Culture and Tradition Foundation.
On July 3, 1848, those who were enslaved marched into Frederiksted demanding their freedom in what Yulette George on Saturday heralded as the largest, but least bloody, uprising in the history of rebellions.
George, a curator at Fort Frederik, spoke on the role of women during slavery and during the uprising itself. She said that along with St. Croix, rebellions were held in other Caribbean islands.
A revolt had been planned in 1759, she said, but because of "leaks" it never got past the planning stages. The 1848 uprising was the "best-kept secret," and to this day, no one knows where the slaves periodically assembled to plan it, she said.
Saturday's lecture series was moderated by V.I. Society of Historians member Arnold Golden, a former Public Works Commissioner and former candidate for lieutenant governor. Other activities – including an art exhibit, donkey races, quadrille dance and a live re-enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Danish Gov. Peter von Scholten addressed the crowd in the area known as Buddhoe Park and pronounced them free – will help bring Crucian culture and history into perspective for residents.
In the proclamation, Von Scholten told the slaves gathered in Frederiksted that all those "unfree" would be free. However, on Saturday George said that only those children born after July 28, 1847 were freed. All others, she said, would have to wait 12 years to get a taste of that promised freedom. George said that history notes that von Scholten made the promise on behalf of Denmark, but that he did not like the arrangement of setting some people free while others were forced to wait, noting it would breed discontent.
Murray believes that von Scholten's prediction all those years ago rings true.
"We have people from Christiansted who don't want to associate with people from Frederiksted; and it's always an us-versus-them mentality when it comes to St. Croix and St. Thomas, so I'm apt to believe that this discontent is rooted in that period," she said.
George, in discussing the role of women, brought a hush in the audience when she pondered the degradation faced by slave women: to not only be raped by their masters but to have their children born into slavery.
"The children were not their own but their master's property," to be sold at a whim, she said.
George said that historical accounts portray women as "formidable adversaries" during the 1848 uprising.
"They were more revengeful and more aggressive than the men," she said, adding this had to do with a lot of pent-up emotion through years of enduring rape.
Hortense Sackey Milligan-Rowe spoke about first-generation African slaves who escaped to the mountainside and got the name Maroon, as a result. Rowe said that history places them in St. Croix as early as 1650. The dictionary, she said, describes Maroon as "runaway," and later the word was used to describe savagery. However, that wasn't the case with the slaves for whom the name was coined.
"They were not bad people," she said. "These were people whose freedom was taken from them and dealt with it with resistance."
Resistance meant escaping to Maroon Ridge, on St. Croix's northwestern side, where they were protected by steep, rugged hills, dense brush and rough seas. Rowe said that some of the slaves eventually stole boats and sailed to Puerto Rico, where they gained freedom.
Three times a year slave owners would go hunting for the escapees. Those who were caught either fought for their freedom and were killed in the ensuing battles or were brought back to be jailed or hung on posts and beaten – sometimes to death, Rowe said.
The Maroons, she said, fished and raised vegetables and at night pilfered from the plantations to survive.
Rowe said that often, rather than risk being caught, the Maroons would jump off the hillsides to their deaths because they believed they would be reincarnated.
For those reasons and others, she said, she supports a growing movement to turn the area into a commemorative park.
"Maroon Ridge is a spiritual place for Crucians and should become a world heritage site," she said. "The entire northwest corner of St. Croix should be set aside as a memorial site for those who shed their blood. The area is sacred."
Genealogist Duane Howell, who traced his family roots back to the Emancipation, and historian and writer Edgar Lake, who discussed the role of the Moravian missionaries in religious and general education on St. Croix, rounded off the lecture series.
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