St. Croix-born lawyer, fashion designer and historian Wayne James said in a release from Copenhagen on Wednesday that the documents he unearthed in the Danish National Archives pertaining to the "queens" of the Fireburn of Oct. 1, 1878, will require a rewriting of V.I. history.
One 122-year-old document "details everything from the jewelry in the women's possession upon their arrival at the prison in Copenhagen on June 19, 1882, to serve out life sentences of hard labor to their occasional menstrual ailments to their fights with Danish inmates," James said. "Also detailed are their lives on St. Croix prior to Fireburn: the number of children that [they] had borne, their criminal records (if any) their religion, their ages, etc."
But probably the most historically significant detail, he said, "is the fact that the records now establish that there were in fact four, not three 'queens' of the Fireburn as had been previously written in the history books and previously believed."
The Fireburn was an economic uprising of former slaves who 30 years after emancipation were still barred from leaving the island and bound to the same plantations where they had worked when enslaved. Some 50 estates and half of the town of Frederiksted went up in flames, according to historical accounts. Groups of workers torched the town and plantations and made their way east toward Christiansted led by what have been described as three women "Queen Mary" (memorialized in a traditional folksong dating from the 1880s) Thomas, "Queen Agnes" and "Queen Mathilda."
Accounts have referred to Queen Mathilda also being known as "Bottom Belly."
According to James, however, the records he has come upon show definitively that it was another woman who was known by that nickname.
"Queen Mathilda was a young Frederiksted girl in her mid- to late teens named Mathilda McBean," he said in the release, while the woman known as "Bottom Belly" was Susanna Abramsen, who was in her 40s at the time of the Fireburn.
James said he also found photographs of the Danish prison, which is no longer standing, including pictures of its cells during the era of the incarceration of the "queens." He said he also came upon a storybook used by the women and a host of other historically significant documents and photos.
Local historians expressed excitement at the news. "James has made a contribution in a significant way to a better understanding of our history," William Sissel, historian for St. Croix's National Park Service facilities, said.
Author and poet Richard Schrader said he looks forward to James's return in order to get a first-hand look at the documents. Schrader has 17 published books on life in the Virgin Islands, including a play titled "1878 Queen Mary an Dem," which he describes as "a work of fiction anchored in fact."
Harold Willocks, author of "The Umbilical Cord," a historical account of the Virgin Islands, said he felt "overwhelmed" at the news. Willocks stated that history needs to be updated periodically, "or else it becomes social commentary, rather than historical fact."
James said he plans to transfer the historical documents and his other findings to the people of the Virgin Islands formally at an appropriate ceremony at a time and place to be announced.
"It gives me great pleasure to once again contribute to the cultural heritage of the Virgin Islands," he said in the release. "Our understanding of ourselves today is inextricably linked to our knowledge of our past. I am proud to participate in the accurate reconstruction of that past."
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