Denmark was a colonial power in the Caribbean from 1672 until 1917. In the Danish West Indies, chattel slavery was practiced from around 1650 until July 3, 1848, when the governor issued an emancipation proclamation. Still, the Danish government went on to make rules that kept people enslaved by contracts for another two years.
In effect, despite the emancipation proclamation, many people of African descent were still in forced slavery or made to work under harsh living conditions. Sugar plantation owners hired formerly enslaved people to work at the plantations where they were previously enslaved, giving them working contracts for a year that came with poor living conditions including little money.
On October 1 every year, known as Contract Day on the Danish colony, workers could leave their plantations and enter into contracts with new plantation owners. But on Contract Day in 1878, workers gathered on the island of St. Croix to protest their poor living conditions. The protest suddenly turned violent as protesters hurled stones at Danish soldiers, who then had to barricade themselves in the town Fort on the island.
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In the days that followed, protesters burned down homes, sugar mills, and businesses on about 50 plantations on St.Croix. Over half the city of Frederiksted also burnt down in what became known as the “Fireburn, the Uprising of 1878”. This rebellion became the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history. Among its leaders were three women: Mary Thomas, Axeline Elizabeth Salomon, and Mathilda McBean. Due to their role in the uprising, the three women came to be known as “queens.”
The most famous of the three was Mary, who had before the rebellion played active roles in almost every riot on St. Croix. She was bent on seeing a rebellion so much so that she once called for the decapitation of enslaved people who did not want to join the 1878 rebellion, a report said. It would take the Danish government two weeks to curb the uprising, which claimed the lives of about 100 Black laborers and destroyed 900 acres of sugar.
At the end of the day, 400 people were arrested while 12 were sentenced to death and executed on the spot. Thirty-nine others were sentenced by a court, however, 34 had their sentences commuted to shorter terms, and among that group were Mary, Axeline, and Mathilda. The three queens were shipped off to a prison in Copenhagen in 1882. Mary was at the time 40 years of age and with three children. In 1887, she and the other queens returned to Christiansted, St. Croix to serve out the remainder of their sentences. They have since not been forgotten as they are widely spoken about in the Caribbean.
In 2005, to grace their immense contribution to the cause of freedom, locals in the West Indies erected The Three Queens fountain which stands on a hill above Charlotte Amalie City. Each of the three sculptured figures holds a tool in their hands used during the rebellion — a lantern, a flaming torch, and a sugarcane knife.
What’s more, Denmark, in 2018, unveiled a statue of Mary in the city where she was first jailed. The 23-foot statue of the rebellion leader became Denmark’s first statue of a powerful Black woman in its capital Copenhagen. Created by Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers and Virgin Island native La Vaughn Belle, the statue, also known as “I am Queen Mary,” was unveiled at the end of the centennial anniversary marking the sale of the Virgin Islands to the United States.
“I Am Queen Mary represents a bridge between the two countries. It’s a hybrid of our bodies, nations and narratives. It extends the conversation beyond the centennial year and gets people to really question what is their relationship to this history. Who we are as a society is largely about who we remember ourselves to be. This project is about challenging Denmark’s collective memory and changing it,” La Vaughn Belle said in a statement on the project’s website.
In Denmark, 98% of the statues represent White males. The artists said their work is, therefore, to confront “present day’s racism and Eurocentrism by claiming a space for our narratives.”