Traveling in Denmark for research, Sen. Wayne James has uncovered thousands of pages of 130 year old records of the 1878 Fireburn labor revolt in the Danish Provincial Archives and Danish Maritime museum, shedding new light on this significant but poorly documented events in Virgin Islands history.
According to a statement from James's office, the documents include images of the ship "Thea," which carried the four "queens" of the Fireburn: Susanna "Bottom Belly" Abrahamsen, Mary Thomas, Axeline Salomon and Mathilde McBean, to Copenhagen in 1882, where they would be imprisoned at the women's prison in Christianshavn for their roles in the revolt that set fire to much of the west end of the island before being violently suppressed by the Danish military.
The documents also reveal the long-forgotten fact that three men were also sent to Denmark for their roles in the insurrection; James Emanuel "Mannie" Benjamin, Joseph Bowel and Edward Lewis, all of whom served their sentences at Horsen's Men's Prison in Denmark, James said.
"The new find is invaluable," James said. "Many of the gaping holes in the Fireburn story are beginning to close. Finding new information leads to new questions and the new questions lead to new answers. The entire process is beautiful."
James first heard of the 1878 Fireburn story as a young boy when his father described the events as told to him by his paternal grandmother, who was born at Estate Annaly in 1861 and saw the Fireburn firsthand.
"From that day, the story entered my soul and has been a part of me ever since," James said.
In 2004, while also poring over original archival material in Denmark, James found there were four women organizers or "queens" of the Fireburn, not three as commonly believed. While combing through the archives at St. Paul's Anglican Church in Frederiksted, he found Thomas died in 1905 and was buried in the Williams Delight plantation cemetery.
Queen Mary Highway on St. Croix is named for Thomas.
The newly uncovered documents will have to be identified, catalogued, copied and translated - a time-consuming process, James said.
"From these documents we will glean the true history of Fireburn, not the myths, half truths and outright lies," James said. "The documents will bring us close to the real story. And when we find it we need to rewrite the history books."
Right now James' research is focused on uncovering photographs of the four queens,.
"When the queens arrived in Copenhagen in 1882 - four years after Fireburn, their arrival was noted by the Danish print media," James said. "I am convinced that some Danish photographer would have found four exotic black women who burned a Danish colony in 1878 to have been interesting subjects for a photograph. So the work continues and I don’t think it will end anytime soon."
James is still in Denmark, returning this Saturday and could not be reached for comment.