In the early morning of November 23, 1733, a small group of enslaved people entered the Danish West India Company’s fort in Coral Bay, St. John. These enslaved people arrived under the guise of a firewood delivery for the fort’s soldiers. In truth, they had hidden cane knives within the stacks of wood they carried. They took the soldiers at the fort by surprise, killing all the soldiers there but one. After taking the fort, these freedom fighters fired the fort’s cannon. The shots were a signal to St. John’s enslaved community that the insurrection was underway. The roots of the insurrection, however, stretched back long before that November morning.
Until about 1730, the Akwamu people dominated Africa’s Guinea Coast. They controlled inland trade routes and took captives from neighboring nations. The Akwamu would then sell their captives to European slavers.
Around 1730, the leader of the Akwamu people passed away. This allowed neighboring nations to seize power in the region. Afterward, the Akwamu made the majority of persons that slave traders imported to the Caribbean. The Akwamu people did not accept their newfound bondage. These proud people engaged in acts of resistance to Danish authority as a way of life.
Landowners on St. John provided very little in the way of material needs for enslaved people. Most enslaved people living on St. John, provided food for themselves. Planters allowed enslaved communities to access small land plots where they grew crops such as potatoes and cassava.
Natural disasters brought an end to St. John's inhabitants' ability to provide food for themselves. The island experienced a prolonged drought and then a major hurricane. A plague of crop-devouring insects came in the hurricane's wake. These events caused total crop failure for both the enslaved people and the planters. This led large numbers of enslaved St. Johnians to abandon the plantations. They hid in the thick forested areas of St. John and sought to survive off the land. The Danes called this outlawed practice “marronage.”
In response to the wave of marronage, Governor General Philip Gardelin enacted the 1733 Slave Code. This law codified harsh penalties for all acts of defiance to Danish authority. These included flogging, amputation of limbs, or public torture and execution. The 1733 Slave Code intensified the enslaved peoples' motivation to revolt. Many saw open rebellion as their only viable course of action.
The Danish government’s presence on St. John amounted to just six members of an unorganized Civil Guard. Additionally, the enslaved community outnumbered the Europeans living on the island by a wide margin. A group of enslaved Akwamu men and women began work on a plan to take the island and its sugar estates from the Danes. They intended to use the plantations for their own benefit.
Three men, King Claes, King Juni, and Kanta, were the leaders of the insurrection. These men had been prominent members of Akwamu society before their abduction from their homeland. Enslaved Akwamu people recognized the social status these men had occupied in Africa. Together, the three leaders developed a plan to take the fort at Coral Bay. As another key component of their plan, they commanded the enslaved community to listen for the firing of the Fort’s cannons. The canon shots would signal that the insurrection was underway. The leaders of the revolt asked the enslaved community kill all Europeans on St. John once the canon shots rang out.
St. John’s enslaved community had fractured itself along ethnic lines. Enslaved people of the Accra nation feared that the Akwamu would dominate them. Their fears were not unfounded, as the Akwamu had done precisely this in Africa. As a result, most of the enslaved people who were not Akwamu opted not to take part in the revolt.
The planters likely would have been completely overrun had the enslaved united. Instead, many Europeans were able to escape to nearby islands using small boats upon hearing the news of the insurrection. Those who didn't have boats retreated to Pieter Durloo’s plantation. Durloo's plantation was a fortified location on St. John’s east end.
Following their success at the fort in Coral Bay, the Akwamu fighters split into three groups. Kanta and his followers remained at the fort. Another group, led by King Juni, traveled eastward along the shore of the island. The third group, led by King Claes, traveled to the west through the island’s interior. Both latter groups moved from plantation to plantation and killed nearly every European they found.
When the three cannon shots rang out early on that November morning, the European residents of St. John took the shots as a signal to gather at the fort in Coral Bay. A group of planters traveling the interior of the island toward the fort ran into the group of Akwamu rebels led by King Claes. In the ensuing battle they took several casualties and retreated to Durloo’s plantation. They then provided testimony that the fort in Coral Bay had fallen.
The Akwamu fighters laid siege to Durloo's plantation and the Europeans and enslaved people who had refused to take part in the revolt. The Akwamu attacked the plantation several times. They came close to capturing the estate twice. On one attempt, they managed to set fire to the plantation’s munitions magazine. Ultimately, the planters were able to repel the attacks. They held Durloo’s plantation for the duration of the insurrection.
Danish efforts to extinguish the insurrection bore little chance for success. The St. John planters appealed to Governor Gardelin for help. To the planters' dismay, the resolve of the government soldiers would prove insufficient to the task. The Akwamu fighters drove the Danish authorities off the island in each instance. Yet they never captured Durloo's plantation.
The British authorities feared that the insurrection would inspire revolt in the BVI. To discourage this, the British offered help fighting the Akwamu. They provided 60 troops who arrived on St. John aboard a warship from Tortola. A group of Akwamu fighters set an ambush for the British soldiers as they came ashore. In the ensuing battle, the British took four casualties and immediately retreated to Tortola.
The fighting between the Akwamu and the European planters would rage on for six months. The Danes drew on a newly formed alliance with France. The French issued a fighting force of approximately 400 soldiers from nearby Martinique. After arriving on St. John, these soldiers split into several detachments. They planned to drive the Akwamu fighters to the east side of St. John and corner them. Defeat was imminent, and many Akwamu fighters chose to take their own lives to escape brutal deaths at the hands of the Danish.
The 1733 Slave Insurrection was the first instance in which enslaved people took control of a colony. It served as a spark to later slave revolts that would take place. We can take inspiration from the strength and resilience of the Akwamu fighters. These men and women risked their lives for freedom. They took fate into their own hands as they rose against their oppressors.
Last updated: June 15, 2023