Intermittent rain didn’t deter nearly 50 people from attending the 30th annual 1733 St. John African Revolution Commemoration, which started with an observance on Cruz Bay Beach and included stops at the V.I. National Park Visitors Centers at Susannaberg and Catherineberg, at Guy Benjamin School and ended with the traditional trek up to Fortsberg.
The hike up to the ruins of an old fort at the aptly named Fortsberg is not for the faint of heart.
“I’m prepared,” said Jerrisa Lake, 16, of St. Thomas as she waited with her friend, Isis Collier, 16, for the Cruz Bay Beach ceremony to begin.
The event commemorates the Nov. 23, 1733, uprising by St. John slaves against the plantation owners in what was then the Danish West Indies.
The tour stopped at key spots that factored in the uprising, including Fortsberg, at which the slaves overcame the Danish gendarmes to seize control of the island for six months until the French came from Martinique.
“It’s important to remember where we came from,” said St. Thomas resident Caron Berry as she waited for historian Gilbert Sprauve to begin his presentation at the Visitor Center.
Sprauve told those gathered that the Danes kept good records of the event, a boon to researchers seeking to find out what happened rather than rely on word of mouth. Sprauve said the work done by John Anderson for his book, “Night of the Silent Drums,” was also a big help.
St. Thomas resident Sele Adeyemi also did a lot of research on the subject and his book, “The 1733 Revolt,” which was published in 2003, provides a raft of information on the subject.
“The Akwamu were principal players in the 1733 revolution,” he said.
While the 1733 revolt took place on St. John, its impacts were widely felt. “The significance of the 1733 revolt goes beyond St. John,” said Karl Dawson, president of H. Lavity Stoutt Community College on Tortola. Dawson and two professors from the school’s V.I. Studies Institute attended the commemoration.
According to Dawson, people migrated from St. John to nearby Tortola as a result of the revolt. And he said he thinks his Thomas family ancestors participated in the revolt.
Sprauve said the revolt was the first major act of emancipation and predated the Haitian revolution by almost six years.
At Cruz Bay Beach, a traditional ceremony heralded the commemoration’s start. As part of the ceremony, Felicia Blake poured water on the beach to remember the ancestors.
“Professor Gene Emanuel,” one person called out from the crowd, remembering the late University of the Virgin Islands professor who was a key mover and shaker in getting the Fortsberg trek tradition going. Emanuel died July 28, 2011.
The ceremony also included N’Harmony singing “The Rivers of Babylon,” which had nearly everyone singing along, and the blowing of the conch shell by Mano Boyd.
During the ceremony, Blake explained that words and phrases are repeated three times to carry them to the ancestors.
“Ashe, Ashe, Ashe,” she said, using the traditional African word similar to amen.