A gift of three bronze statues from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Denmark is stirring buried memories in Denmark of its colonial past, according to Karen Munk- Nielsen, a Danish museum curator.
Munk –Nielsen was on all three Virgin Islands this month to discuss how copies of three statues, including the iconic image of the machete-wielding conch blower, are leading to dialogue in Denmark about its slave-trading past.
The U.S. Virgin Islands and Denmark are forging new connections as they plan events to commemorate the the 2017 centennial of the transfer of the territory from Danish to American.
Until recently, the colonial past has remained largely unrecognized in Denmark, said David Knight Sr., one of the facilitators in the project.
“There’s recognition that the country has been suffering from cultural amnesia. Their history has not been taught,” Knight said.
Munk-Nielsen told an audience at the St. John Historical Society on Nov. 8, “The Danish people [essentially] closed the door’ in 1917,” when Denmark sold its colonies in the West Indies to the United States.
When the transfer took place, she explained, most Danish citizens packed up their belonging in the Virgin Islands and moved back to Denmark. Unlike some other countries – such as England with its former colony Jamaica – there was relatively little population flow between the European country and its colony once the political ties were severed.
Now there is a movement in Denmark to acknowledge the past. UNESCO is facilitating the inclusion of the slave trade as a topic to be taught to all high school students in Denmark. The Danish National Archives is moving quickly to digitize its records from the colonial era and translate them into English. Museums in Denmark are arranging exhibits to discuss slavery in the past and present manifestations.
The three statues, known as the “Freedom Statues,” arrived in Denmark in early August. In addition to the statue of the conch blower, there are also busts of two historical figures who are well-known in the Virgin Islands – D. Hamilton Jackson and Moses “General Buddhoe” Gottlieb.
Jackson’s achievements as an educator, labor leader and newspaper publisher were celebrated Nov. 1 in the Virgin Islands as Liberty Day. Buddhoe is credited with leading the St. Croix uprising that brought the end of slavery July 3, 1848.
The gift of the three statues became breaking news in Denmark as Munk-Nielsen set off on her trip to the Virgin Islands, hitting the front page of the newspaper Politiken on Nov. 2. (See link below.) In the next few days, five other publications and two TV stations picked up the story.
The statues are copies of originals created by Ghanaian-American sculptor Bright Bimpong in 1998. The originals still stand in parks throughout the territory.
“The statues were commissioned by Walter G. Brunner of St. Croix, an art collector and political consultant to former governor Roy L. Schneider,” said Lonnie Willis, president of the St. John Historical Society.
“Upon Walter’s death, his personal copies of the statues were passed on to his sister and her husband, Carol and Ted Whittier. Through the efforts of Jeffery Nichols in Maine, and Matt Eckstein and David W. Knight Sr. of the V.I. Historical Preservation Commission, Carol and Ted Whittier donated the statues to the St. John Historical Society (SJHS),” Willis said.
The St. John Historical Society raised the $5,000 needed to ship the statues to Denmark.
“When the project to send the statues to Denmark was first conceived, we really needed a community-based organization to assist,” Knight told the audience at the SJHS meeting. “I immediately said, ‘We have got to go to SJHS.’ I knew I could count on you. As members, what you have done has surpassed what I imagined.”
Exactly where the statues will wind up is still under discussion.
The statue of Jackson is expected to be displayed at the Workers Museum in Copenhagen, across the square from where Jackson addressed the public when he traveled to Denmark in 1915.
The statue of Buddhoe will become part of a permanent exhibition on the slave trade in the Danish West Indies at the Holbaek Museum, where Munk-Nielsen serves as curator.
The statue of the conch blower will be displayed in September at Christianborg Palace, the queen’s royal quarters in Copenhagen. (See link below.) The exhibit will include other artifacts associated with Peter von Scholten, the governor-general of the Danish West Indies from 1827-1848.
Munk-Nielsen would like to see the conch blower statue placed permanently in front of the king’s warehouse in Copenhagen – the Vestindisk Pakhus – where sugar, cotton and coffee were stored in the 18th century.
“Four out of five pounds of sugar imported from the Danish West Indies came through these doors,” she said. “Sugar brought great wealth to the nation.”
“We really need a monument that reminds us as a country of our colonial engagement,” she added.