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.