Listening to Mario Moorhead tell the story of Emancipation Day was the next best thing to actually being there. Saturday, sitting before a microphone in Buddhoe Park, the place where 162 years ago St. Croix’s slaves took their freedom, his voice built to an emotional pitch as be brought the story to life.
More than 300 people gathered in the park to hear his keynote address to the Emancipation Day festivities.
The story actually began many years earlier, when England temporarily took control of the island to punish Denmark for backing Napoleon. Cut off from his source of sugar in the Caribbean, Napoleon backed an effort to refine sugar from sugar beets. By the time England defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, more than 150 plants in France were producing sugar from beets, which was the death knell of the sugar cane industry that relied on slaves.
“These were blows from which the Danish system of slavery could not recover,” Moorhead said.
Then England learned that it could produce sugar more cheaply using paid labor in India than it could using slaves in the Caribbean.
“Imagine that,” Moorhead told the crowd. “Indian paid labor was cheapter than enslaved African labor.”
While there was an active anti-slavery movement in England, it didn’t make any real headway until then, Moorhead said. When England abolished slavery in 1834, it did so because “It was no longer in their economic interest.”
Moorhead saved his greatest scorn for the man who was governor of the Danish West Indies at the time, Peter van Scholten. While von Scholten is often credited for granting emancipation, Moorhead made it clear that he didn’t do so because he was a wonderful person. He did it because he was forced to.
Von Scholten banned certain religions from practicing in the territory, those that would teach the slaves to read. He established a special set of schools for the children of slaves and made attendance mandatory, but it was a school in name only, Moorhead said, not a place where the students learned to read or write.
“It was a school without books,” he said, the anger in his voice growing. “It was a school without blackboards, it was a school where the children of our enslaved ancestors were taught to be good Lutheran Christians. They were taught to be obedient.”
With the slave-based sugar economy collapsing – the value of St. Croix’s sugar plummeted 30 percent between 1820 and 1840 – slaves were underfed and underclothed, and von Scholten outlawed what few alternatives they had. When a nine-month dry spell hit the island, nine months in which there wasn’t a drop of rain, conditions became even worse. But when they tried to escape and make their way to Tortola, where slavery was already outlawed, many were intercepted by Danish ships with orders to shoot to kill, according to Moorhead.
“You need to understand just how difficult, how impossible it was for our ancestors to survive on a daily basis,” he said.
By the mid-1840s slave resentment was simmering, and in 1847 the Danish government announced “gradual” emancipation. The children of slaves would be freed but the adults would have to wait another 12 years. That was the last straw for the slaves.
Under the direction of the slave leader General Buddhoe and his associate Admiral Martin King, the slaves began planning their revolt. On Monday, July 3, 1848, an estimated 30,000 slaves from the west end of the island marched on Frederiksted, where most of the Danish citizens huddled in the fort.
“Imagine it,” Moorhead said. "There were more people in this park than we have here now. They came by the thousands!”
He described a scene of jubilant chaos, with Martin King riding down the middle of King Street on a donkey.
“The forbidden drums were drumming, conch shells were blowing, church bells were ringing and white people were running for the ships!” he said, a triumphant note edging into his voice. “This is the day! This is the time!”
Buddhoe confronted the Danes at the first, who tried to tell him that they couldn’t do anything until the governor arrived and that wouldn’t be until 3 p.m. Buddhoe told them he was going, “But by the time I get back, if we don’t have freedom we’re takin’ it.”
When the governor arrived in his coach, he was overawed by the crowd and agreed on the spot to grant immediate freedom to all slaves in the territory — the ancestors of most of the people gathered in the park, who rose to their feet applauding as Moorhead finished the story.
The Emancipation Day celebration, which included a march from Christiansted to Frederiksted to commemorate the slaves’ walk for freedom, a parade and a cultural food fair, concluded with an exhibition of traditional quadrille dancing.