Emancipation Day – July 3 – commemorates the day in 1848 when 9,000 enslaved Africans on St. Croix demanded their freedom, forcing Gov. Peter von Scholten to declare, “All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today emancipated.”
The day is usually celebrated on St. John with a skit depicting the events, performed by the St. John Drama Club. This year’s program, however, contained a change in focus that delighted the crowd in Cruz Bay.
“One thing I’ve learned, St. Johnians never get tired of hearing about the slave uprising of 1733,” said Pamela Richards Samuel, emcee of the Emancipation Day program held Wednesday afternoon in Cruz Bay.
True to her word, the skit “Who is Breffu: The First Blow,” deals with one of the lesser known heroes of that earlier rebellion on St. John. Inspired by a play by Eddie Donoghue, the skit frames the tale of the hunt for Breffu, the enslaved African who allegedly murdered the stepson of the governor and his family in 1733.
For those who didn’t get to see the show, the surprise ending reveals that Breffu was not the man being hunted by authorities; in fact, Breffu was an Aquambo woman warrior.
“It was the first and longest slave revolution in the Western hemisphere, where women were at the forefront along with their men,” said Myrna George, who co-wrote the skit with Rosa Samuel.
With the help of French soldiers based in Martinique, the 1733 uprising was defeated, but it took six months. At the end of the struggle, Breffu and another leader of the rebellion chose to take their own lives rather than be recaptured. A third leader was taken to a plantation in Estate Adrian and beheaded.
Following these disturbing events, four shiploads of planters and their families sailed from St. John to St. Croix to start their plantations anew. One hundred and fourteen years later, their lifestyle based on the enslavement of others ended permanently in the Danish West Indies.
Guest speaker Nadine Marchena-Kean called the names and told the few known details of the enslaved Africans on St. John who were freed on July 3, 1848.
“We have shards of history – what we call ‘chainey,’ little pieces of pottery that we try to put together,” said retired UVI professor Gilbert Sprauve.
Keeping that heritage alive is critical, George said.
“We will fight for our freedom by any means necessary; every time they speak of Independence Day, we must speak of Emancipation Day.”
The program, though solemn in tone in certain segments, contained moments of humor as well as extraordinary displays of talent by young and old.
Darnell Birmingham and Shikira Smith sang the national anthem, and 11-year-old Jordyn Powell recited Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” with pitch-perfect tone. The young members of the Unity Praise Dancers performed a pantomime to “Break Every Chain.”
“Young and old” combined their talents as Evanna Chinnery debuted a song written by Theodora “Tutts” Moorehead in the 1970’s that Moorehead unveiled for this year’s festival.
The Echo People brought their spirited drumming to the stage, and guitarist Haile Israel sang anthems of freedom. The Macislyn Bamboula Dance Company whirled and stomped in the first part of the program, and later The Caribbean Ritual Dancers brought along colorful baskets in a performance depicting hard work and sensual play.
Toward the end of the program, two Virgin Islanders who have gone on to successful musical careers in the States and beyond gave rousing performances. James E. (James-Z) Smith amazed the crowd with a jazz solo saxophone version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Gylchrist Sprauve’s rich tenor voice echoed throughout Cruz Bay as he performed a song he wrote to honor the Virgin Islands.