This is a continuation of the post Recognizing Professor Olasee Davis: How His Partnership Offers WSU Students Learning Opportunities in the U.S. Virgin Islands
Alongside Ranger Benito Vegas from the National Park Service, at the Christiansted National Historic Site (CHRI), Davis educates us all on the history of Fort Christiansted with a focus on this particular place being a hub of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Professor Davis explains how the Danish West India and Guinea Company capitalized through exploitation and occupation to become the primary tool for Danish colonization in the West Indies.
Davis also makes it clear that the skilled labor of enslaved people built the town of Christiansted, as is true throughout the Carribean and in the U.S.: “The Company obtained captive laborers from trading outposts that they maintained on the west coast of Africa to boost their ambitious business plan for their colonies…Where did the labors come from to build the town? Of course, African laborers were imported to St. Croix to build it… Let us never forget that Christiansted wouldn’t have been a town without the free labors of enslaved blacks.”
Perhaps the most enlightening and moving hike is the one to Maroon Ridge. Maroon is the term used to describe enslaved people who escaped their captors to form a community of resistance. According to Davis:
“This land is sacred; it is where runaway slaves paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. There is no area in the entire Virgin Islands [like] St. Croix’s northwest corner. During the colonial period of the Danish West Indies, the Danish government recognized the resistance and stronghold of runaway enslaved Africans in that northwest side of St. Croix. There are other sites documented as locations of Maroon activities on the island, but the northwest was known for its sizable Maroon community because of its rugged mountainous terrain.
If you are in tune with nature, you can feel the spirits of Maroons who once used the area as their sanctuary. It is a place for spiritual revival as you hike on dirt roads, follow the paths of runaway slaves, and rock climb to tidepools of unspeakable beauty.
It is a place where you return and return again. It was the runaway slaves who led to our freedom.”
Professor Davis leads us up a steep path to a breathtaking overlook. At the ridge, Davis shares the “Slave Code” issued by a Denmark Royal Council. It is brutal, barbaric, and violent. He asks for volunteers to read from the Code. Article 5 reads “A slave who runs away for eight days, shall be given one hundred and fifty lashes; twelve weeks, shall lose a leg; and for six months shall forfeit life, unless the owner pardons him, in which case he shall suffer the loss of one leg.” Professor Davis tells us that the Slave Code was vigorously enforced.
Professor Davis asks for volunteers to read from Council Proceedings from the late 1700s that detail reports of people who had run away from those who enslaved them. We hold hands and have a moment of silence.
Olasee Davis goes on to explain that Maroon Ridge is sacred land because it is a site of resistance to colonial power and slavery. There, Davis shares, runaway enslaved people found sanctuary. They planned revolts that threatened the lives of those who enslaved them in order to escape servitude through the use of force. Some fled to Puerto Rico. Olasee shares with us that some chose to jump off the cliffs in the area to certain death below rather than be returned to slavery.
Professor Davis then shared his thoughts on reparations of a sort. He calls on Denmark, on the 100th anniversary of the sale of the U.S. Virgin islands to the U.S., to “protect this corner of St. Croix and establish a Sanctuary Territorial Park in remembrance of those who lost their lives or escaped to Puerto Rico for freedom.” His passionate framing of this request adds much to our discussion of reparations later in the trip.
Another site of resistance comes during the baobab walk. We visit two former plantation sites and view the baobabs there before arriving at the incredible tree in Grove Place. It is estimated to be about 300 years old and the oldest baobab in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Professor Davis tells us that the baobab is native to West Africa and seeds were transported to the Virgin Islands by enslaved Africans.
As 20 women from Winona State University and Olasee Davis get out of two large vans, a few kids run up to us as we approach the enormous baobab and shout “people died there!” The WSU students have read about this tree in The Grove when they read Davis’ article “The Baobab: A Community Hub,” and they know the history of this tree in connection with the 1878 “Fireburn” labor riots where sugarcane workers on St. Croix used fire as a weapon to destroy 53 sugarcane estates. But the children’s words are a moving reminder of the cultural significance of this incredible baobab.
Fireburn followed emancipation, which took place in 1848 as enslaved people revolted and demanded their freedom. Davis’ article, “St. Croix Slaves Freed Themselves,” tells of the incredible acts of resistance that ended slavery in the Danish West Indies.
The Grove baobab was a rallying place for laborers and union activity while St. Croix was a Danish colony, and Fireburn was a powerful act of resistance in the face of colonialism. Davis explains that during Fireburn, “three Whites were killed. Hundreds of Black laborers were arrested. After 18 months of trials, 60 laborers were shot to death in sugarcane fields, while 67 were imprisoned.
Meanwhile, 12 men were executed by firing squad.” And, “near the baobab tree in Estate Grove, some 14 women where burned at the stake while others were hanged from the tree.” Olasee Davis reminds us all that “The baobab tree in Estate Grove Place is a monument to the people of these islands.” While Fireburn forced the Danes to enter into less horrible labor agreements with free Blacks, those agreements came at an unfathomable cost, an atrocity memorialized by a bronze plaque next to the tree.
We hold hands and surround the baobab in a moment of silence.
In Part 3, Professor Davis accompanies the travel study group to The Village work-site and on a special trip to watch the sunrise.
–Dr. Tamara Berg, Professor and Director
Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Winona State University
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