Since the Fortsberg History Tour became a day-after-Thanksgiving-Day tradition on St. John, organizers and scholars have worked to expand the story of events that began on Nov. 23, 1733. As a result, the story of enslaved Africans who overtook a Danish garrison at a fort overlooking Coral Bay has provided insights about who led the Fortsberg Slave Uprising and how they formed the plot to take over the island of St. John after the initial attack.
This year’s gathering included elementary school students and teachers, those who attended the tour year after year, culture bearers, and at least one public official. Retired UVI professor Gilbert Sprauve, educator Leba Ola-Niy and scholar Sele Adeyemi who, along with the late UVI Associate Professor Gene Emanuel, set out in search of clues about the uprising’s leaders.
Sprauve called the 2022 gathering one of the largest in the event’s 39-year history. “This is the most impressive crowd we’ve had in terms of attendance and the level of attention,” he said.
The attention of the audience was captured during two presentations made along the way. At the Catherineberg sugar mill, former Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen shared discoveries found through research about why the site was used as a headquarters for the uprising.
One of the reasons was water supply. Another was that Catherineberg was used to graze cattle. Another was corn; there was evidence that corn was grown in the area, among other farm crops.
And research on the part of West Africa where the uprising’s leaders came from showed corn to be an important staple. All of those factors led Petersen to suggest that organizers of the Fortsberg uprising wanted their available resources to sustain them for the long term.
And history says the attack on the garrison triggered an island-wide uprising that allowed them to take control for six months. Petersen said he valued the contribution he was able to make from an agricultural point of view.
“I really feel an obligation to speak for the Akwamu ancestors who cannot speak for themselves,” he said. “What made Catherineberg the ideal headquarters was that it was a flourishing farm plantation.”
At the next stop along the route on Friday, Adeyemi displayed a chart providing details of gold trading practices in Western Africa around the time of the Middle Passage. There was evidence, he said, that some enslaved members of the Akwamu tribe, brought to the Caribbean and the Americas, were gold merchants.
It was a detail that suggested some of those living on St. John as slaves were powerful people in their former lives along West Africa’s coastal zone, also known as the Gold Coast.
Sprauve said that he and others delving into the likely leaders of the uprising identified the Akwamu as playing a primary role in the events of November 1733. He said his research into the Fortsberg uprising began in the 1970s at Princeton University.
From those days, he said, “there was one scholar who referred to Fortsberg as the Amina Revolt.” In the early days of the history, tour organizers referred to the uprising’s leaders as members of an Amina tribe. But Sprauve — whose scholarly specialty is linguistics — started researching the tribe’s origins, and other facts from earlier scholars began to emerge.
That included the explorations of a German scholar who was sent to the region by the German-based Moravian Church, “… and he was able to interview some of the pastors and some of the church people who spoke and were able to understand Dutch Creole,” Sprauve said.
Through his own studies and those of other scholars, Sprauve said he was able to determine that Dutch Creole was used as a contact language that allowed communication between the Dutch plantation owners operating in the Danish West Indies and the enslaved Africans.
The ability to understand the language allowed that 18th-century scholar to produce fairly accurate accounts of what happened at the Danish garrison and on St. John in the days that followed. Some of that information helped lead to clues about who were key players in the uprising and how they were able to orchestrate the uprising.
“Later evidence showed that the dominant group was the Akwamu, and they were a powerful group that came from West Africa,” Sprauve said.