There are moments and times in the history of every country that are shameful, yet a country that acknowledges these times is also a country that can learn from them.
Denmark is no exception. The Danish Colonialism of what is now called St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, collectively the Virgin Islands, has a history of slavery and inhumane treatment of people. But on March 31st the unveiling of a statue of “Queen Mary” Thomas is part of its acknowledgement of this dark time in its past.
March 1st was the end of the centennial year commemorating the sale by Denmark of three islands to the United States on March 3, 1917 for $25 million. The commemoration began on March 1, 2017 when the Danish National Archives opened all its digitized records from the time when Denmark was a colonial power in the West Indies for online access.
It took over three years for the Danish National Archives to digitize all the historic records from the Danish colonial era. They digitally scanned more than five million digital images. You can access these records here.
On Saturday, March 31, 2018 in Copenhagen a statue called “I am Queen Mary” was unveiled celebrating Mary Thomas. Thomas was considered “a rebel queen” who led the “largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history,” according to the New York Times. It is the first public monument in Denmark to a commemorate a black woman.
The statue, that is nearly 23 feet tall, is placed in front of what was once a warehouse for Caribbean sugar and rum, just more than a mile from where she was jailed. Thomas’ head is wrapped and she stares straight ahead while sitting barefoot, but regally, in a wide-backed chair, clutching a torch in one hand and a tool used to cut sugar cane in the other.
The statue, created by Danish artists Jeannette Ehlers, left, and La Vaughn Belle. The artists have said that the torch and the cane bill held in the statue’s hands symbolize the resistance strategies by those who were colonized. Her seated pose “recalls the iconic 1967 photograph of Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party.” The chair rests on a plinth that incorporates “coral cut from the ocean by enslaved Africans gathered from ruins of the foundations of historic buildings on St. Croix.”
Henrik Holm, senior research curator at Denmark’s National Gallery of Art, said:
“It takes a statue like this to make forgetting less easy. It takes a monument like this to fight against the silence, neglect, repression and hatred.” Never before has a sculpture like this been erected on Danish soil. Now, Denmark is offered a sculpture that addresses the past. But it is also an artwork for the future.”
Last year, the Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, expressed regret for his country’s part in the slave trade saying:
“Many of Copenhagen’s beautiful old houses were erected with money made on the toil and exploitation on the other side of the planet … It’s not a proud part of Denmark’s history. It’s shameful and luckily of the past.”
Mary Thomas was one of the three women who participated in the Fireburn rebellion. Fireburn was a labor riot on St. Croix which was then part of the Danish West Indies began on October 1, 1878.
In July 1848, the slaves of Danish West Indies staged a protest and gained their freedom but this freedom would be short-lived. The plantation owners created new regulations so the “free laborers” were forced, by law, to sign contracts which bound them and their families to the plantations on which they worked and so the laborers became slaves again except they were no longer called slaves.
In October 1878, laborers gathered in Frederiksted to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Although it was initially a peaceful gathering, the crowd began to become violent after rumors circulated, including a rumor that a laborer had been hospitalized, but was mistreated and died in police custody. The rioters threw stones and the Danish soldiers retaliated with gunfire. As violence escalated, the soldiers barricaded themselves inside a fort. Unable to scale the gates to access the fort, the rioters turned their focus on the town and began looting the town, using torches to burn many buildings and plantations.
On October 4, British, French, and American warships arrived and offered to help stop the riot. However, Governor Garde was confident he and his men had the situation under control, and turned the ships away, though some soldiers borrowed guns from the British ships. The next day, the Governor ordered all laborers to return to their plantations or be declared “rebels.” Laborers were forbidden from leaving their plantations without written permission from the plantation owner. By mid-October, the riot had died down and peace was returning to the islands.
Among the leaders of the rebellions were several women – “Queen Mary” Thomas, “Queen Agnes” Salomon, and “Queen Mathilda” McBean – who became known as “Queens of the Fireburn.” More research uncovered the name of a fourth “queen,” Susanna Abramsen, who was known as “Bottom Belly.” All them were arrested and served part of their sentence in the Christianhavn women’s prison in Copenhagen in the 1880s. You can find out more about the three Queens here. There is even a folk song about Queen Mary that is still sung today:
“Queen Mary” was not a saint:
The best known of the three queens was Queen Mary, who had been part of the rebellion in many places. She had become somewhat intoxicated and had shouted that those who did not want to be part of the rebellion were to be decapitated. She was also very active in vandalism and arson on the plantations. She was given a death sentence for looting and arson. When she arrived in 1882 at the women’s prison in Christianshavn in Copenhagen, she brought only a ring and a few earrings. She was about 40 years old and had three children, although she was unwed. She had previously been punished for mistreating one of her children and for theft. Like the other two queens, Mary served her sentence in the women’s prison until 1887, when they were sent back to Christiansted to serve out the remainder of their sentences.
The West Indies has statues of the three women, and one of the main roads on St. Croix is today called Queen Mary Highway. And now Denmark joins them in honoring “Queen Mary.”
Written by Mary Hirsch