In the darkness before dawn on Nov. 23, 1733, two enslaved Africans waited anxiously in Coral Bay for the signal that would mark the beginning of a revolution. The pair’s peers had hidden knives in a wood delivery to Coral Bay’s Fort Fredericksvaern, which they used to kill every soldier but one. The escaped soldier, John Gabriel, managed to alert Danish officials, but his warning came too late.
A cannon blast from the fort jolted through the night air indicating the takeover’s success, and the enslaved duo who’d been standing by took their cue, entering the home of their owner, Pieter Krøyer, who they killed along with his wife. They loaded up on ammunition and gunpowder before moving on to the Van Stell home and killing three members of that family.
One of the enslaved Africans who bravely stood up and said “no more” to the harsh conditions they faced on St. John was a woman. Known as Breffu, she was a Ghanian from the Awkamu tribe and she’s credited with leading one of the longest-lasting rebellions in the Americas. Breffu and her cohort, an enslaved male known as Christian, empowered more than 150 enslaved Africans to fight for their freedom in a rebellion that remained successful until April 1734, when the French military agreed to help the Danes regain control of the island. Rather than face a life of continued slavery, Breffu and 23 of her followers committed suicide, their bodies reportedly washing up at Brown Bay. By August, the last of the Akwamu rebels had been killed and the nine-month rebellion came to an end.
Slavery would continue in the Danish West Indies until July 3, 1848, when emancipation was declared by Gov. Peter von Scholten under pressure from an uprising in St. Croix.
Emancipation Day has long been an important part of St. John Festival celebrations, being held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, the holiday was marked by a stirring performance of “Who is Breffu: The First Blow,” a play put on by the St. John Drama Club. Little else is known about Breffu, though recorded history suggests the island’s slave owners were shocked to learn that the leader of the uprising was a woman.
This year’s Emancipation Day will be honored with a historical dialogue with Kurt Marsh Jr., tomorrow at noon. Visit https://www.vicarnivalschedule.com/stjohn/ for more information.
With St. John Festival going virtual this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, members of the St. John Festival & Cultural Organization—which handed over the reins to the Department of Tourism’s Division of Festivals—looked back on their memories from Festivals past.
Leona Smith, chairperson:
My favorite part has been getting together with the members and planning for Festival every year. That’s the fun part. It’s hard work, but in the end you still have time to get a little fun out of it. We did it with our hearts and for people to enjoy. We went from a single one-day event to almost two months of activities.
We were known for bringing bands that entertained the whole diverse community. One of the things that draws a lot of people to St. John Festival is the entertainment in the Village. We had very good lineups. The pageant shows are a significant part of the Festival, and Emancipation Day gets a lot of attention. It’s a delight to have the different hotels and residents and children of St. John take part in the parade.
Making people happy and having a stress-free Festival is something we always look forward to. We enjoy planning for people to enjoy themselves. Every year, we try to make it better and better.
I always loved the different tastes at the food fair. You get to enjoy food you don’t have throughout the year like whelks and crab and rice, different baked goods, and stews.
Last year, we honored all past and present members of the organization for their dedication and hard work, being that the Festival falls under the leadership of the Dept. of Tourism this year. We felt it was proper to honor the members in their last year.
Since Festival can’t happen physically this year, we’re going to do something virtual for the people to enjoy to gear them up for next year. We’re going to come back stronger next year God willing.
Alecia Wells, public relations:
St. John is unique, because we are Love City. I remember when we would meet upstairs at Bob O’Connor’s Hilltop, and Jane Johannes would talk about when Festival was a one-day function in the Franklin Powell Sr. Park. Everyone would come in with their baskets of food. People would plan to come from early in the morning because it was a trip for the whole day. They would have games right there in the park, then they would have some of the functions on the Winston Wells Ball Field. It expanded into the parade and honoring people as parade marshal and Festival Village honoree. I’m so glad we honored Rodney Varlack because he’s passed on now. I’m glad we’ve given people their flowers while they could still smell them. I just really enjoy seeing how we’ve evolved to become the best. At first, if you blink your eye you’d miss the parade because it was so short.
This year, I’m missing the activity. It’s almost 10 days of continually moving and doing. I miss going down to Cruz Bay and seeing people building their booths, I miss going over and hugging somebody. We have to thank the people who come from St. Thomas, St. Croix, and Tortola, because they make our Festival the Festival that it is. Once we see them coming, we’re ready. At night you’re dead tired, getting home at 3 in the morning or later, then going back again for 9 in the morning because there’s something you need to be there for. I miss the exhaustion. By the time we leave at the end of the parade, all we want to do is sit down, put our feet up, and have a drink. When people tell you, “This is really nice. We really enjoyed ourselves,” that’s all we want.
Enid Doway, pageant committee chairperson:
I started with the pageants in 1994. Up until 1968, the title was Miss Independence, and the winner was elected through votes. The next year it became Miss St. John, and that’s when the pageants started. Pageantry has become more popular. We changed the cultural wear to international wear for the queen show and to the cartoon character segment for the princess show, and that’s been a really big draw.
We try to think up ideas to make it bigger and better than before. We need the people to come from St. Thomas and the states to support the pageant, so we always try to bring out new ideas so that every time people come to a show, there’s something exciting.
I really enjoy spending time with the girls and I really enjoy teaching them something. I don’t think the community realizes the pageant is much more than having the girls perform on stage. These girls learn a lot. We’ve given them classes on etiquette, culture, women’s health where they learned about sexual awareness and relationship advice, and we’ve taken them on historical island tours. We start practicing from January all the way up to the show in June. At first it’s 12 to 15 hours a week, then 20 to 30 hours a week. On top of that, these ladies have to maintain a 3.0 grade point average, so they’re putting a lot of work into it. These girls really and truly come out a lot better for their participation in the pageant.
It’s become very expensive, with some of the young ladies spending in excess of $10,000 for their gowns for just that one night. With the costumes, the chaperones, the coach, hair, and makeup, the cost to participate could go in excess of $20,000.
I remember Marissa Duncan, who competed but didn’t win in the early 2000s. She went away to college but she always wanted to be Miss St. John. She came back in 2005 and competed again, and this time she won. It was a complete transformation — not in her looks or beauty, but in sheer confidence — and I think that’s what won her that pageant. To this day, I’m her daughter’s godmother, and I always remember the way she totally transformed.
Lucinda Jurgen, entertainment chair:
When we had our first Festival Mix and we brought Third World to St. John, that stands out as well as Emancipation Day. I’ve been in Festival for so long. We did our best and we worked hard to see visitors return to enjoy our Festival. I’m glad to have brought so much revenue to the island because of our small carnival. Working hard is never fun most of the time, but seeing the smiles on people’s faces and seeing how far we’ve gotten from where we began and where we are today, that is my privilege.