March is Virgin Islands History Month, and credit is due to former Senate President Shawn Michael Malone, who had the foresight to propose legislation, now Act No. 6802, proclaiming the month of March as “Virgin Islands History Month.”
Every year, I get calls from both private and public schools to give presentations about Virgin Islands history. Today, children learn about V.I. history both formally and informally — in classrooms where they read and write or orally from parents, grandparents and great-grandparents — about the natural and cultural history of these islands.
The privilege of reading and writing is one both children and adults did not have some 300 years ago in the Danish West Indies. It was well known historically that most planters of the Danish West Indies were against having any form of slave gatherings. There were also Danish laws that prohibited gathering of slaves on plantations. These laws imposed fines and penalties on planters who allowed their slaves to have such gatherings on their plantations.
The Royal Archives of Denmark also revealed that there were ordinances that made exception to the laws, allowing slaves to attend Moravian schools or to gather.
In 1732, the Moravian Brethren begun their effort to teach enslaved children to read and write so that they could read the gospel for themselves. In fact, on June 8, 1839, King Frederik created a school system for slaves by giving Governor General Peter von Scholten permission to travel to Herrnhut in East Germany to negotiate with Moravians to establish country schools in the Danish West Indies. The Danes created an educational system for children of slaves, mulattoes, and “free Blacks,” making the education system for the enslaved population during the latter part of slavery in the Danish West Indies one of the best in the West Indies.
One of those individuals who benefited was Cornelius, born a slave on the island of St. Thomas. His mother was one of the first members of the Moravian congregation on St. Thomas. In 1740, his mother was baptized in the faith and was named Benigna after Count Zinzendorf’s daughter, who was instrumental in establishing the Moravian church in the Danish islands.
Like his mother, Cornelius was baptized by Bishop Johannes in 1749. He worked as what was known then as a “national helper” for the Moravian mission. The brethren of the church described Cornelius as well-liked and a reliable person who was well-respected in his community. According to Oldendorp, an Moravian missionary, Cornelius was a first-class mason who laid the foundation stones of six Moravian churches in the territory.
The six churches Cornelius laid the cornerstones for were Friedensthal on the outskirts of Christiansted; New Herrnhut (Posaunenberg) on St. Thomas; Bethany near Cruz Bay on the west side of St. John; and Nisky outside of Charlotte Amalie where the Moravian Brethren acquired land at Krum Bay, not far from Mosquito Bay where King Airport is located today. The other two churches were Friedensberg on the outskirts of Frederiksted town, and Emmaus at Coral Bay on the east side of St. John, not far from where the slave insurrection began in 1733. These churches still stand today, a testimony to a slave’s will to become a free man.
Cornelius was also a powerful preacher of the gospel, which moved even the white brethren and sisters to tears. His wife Barbara was also a faithful member of the church. Cornelius was not only a master mason, but could also read and write Creole, and in Danish, Dutch, German and English languages. In 1767, Cornelius was a free man and bought his wife’s freedom, and later that of his children. .
In a letter Cornelius wrote to Ernst von Schimmelmann, the largest slave owner in the Danish West Indies with estates holdings on all three islands, he offered cash to purchase the freedom of his grandchild Johanna. In addition to escaping slavery as a runaway, buying one’s freedom was another way out. However, many slaves didn’t have the opportunity to purchase their own freedom much less that of other family. It was a costly affair, and craftsmen like Cornelius had the best possibilities to save money and purchase their own freedom and that of their families.
The story of Cornelius is fascinating part of V.I. history, where a slave purchased his freedom and rose to the occasion of greatness. He was known as “The Black Evangelist” of his day in the Danish West Indies and in Germany. There is a portrait of Cornelius in a museum in the Moravian Archives in Herrnhut, East Germany. It was Thomas de Malville (1739-1798), the first native-born governor of the Danish West Indies, who came up with the idea of a portrait of Cornelius.
Malville was converted to the Moravian faith by Cornelius, his good friend. That said a lot about Cornelius as a man. The painting of Cornelius was presented in 1783 to the Moravian headquarters in Herrnhut by Malville. There is a lot more about the story of Cornelius, and such historical information is what our children should be learning about for inspiration. If nothing else, they learn that they, too, can aspire to be great. You see, in spite of Cornelius’ initial life as a slave, he rose to the occasion to educate himself and thousands of others in the Danish West Indies.
As a community, we should encourage our children never to give up on their education. Cornelius’ story is one that they can learn from.
— Olasee Davis, St. Croix, is an ecologist at the University of the Virgin Islands. He is active in the Virgin Islands’ historical, cultural and environmental preservation.