Century of Change, Part II
Part 13 in a series
Excerpts from "Divers Information on The Romantic History of St. Croix" by Florence Lewison, 1963, St. Croix Landmarks Society.
The Governor-General was always ahead of the home government. He was the first to give Negroes good government jobs, and twice a week he held brilliant receptions to which both Negro and white residents were invited.
REBELLION AND FREEDOM. Time was running out, and the stage was set for rebellion with the characters onstage: a liberal Governor; his free-colored mistress (Anna Heegaard); reactionary or dubious planters; a slow-moving home government; some 5,000 free Negroes, and some 17,000 slaves on St. Croix who wanted their freedom.
The spark which lit the tinder was a move on the part of Denmark which was intended as a step forward. The Danish King in July of 1847 proclaimed a gradual emancipation program to stretch over twelve years. In this period each baby born was to be free, then all slaves to be free at the end of that time.
The slaves had anticipated full, immediate freedom. They were bitterly provoked. The unrest and the underground tension mounted, although much of the white population seemed unaware of its seriousness.
Late in the night of July 2, 1848, the conch shell-horns began to blow and the estate bells to ring; usually signals of fire. This time they were the rallying call for a freedom march on Frederiksted, led by a young Negro, Buddhoe.
Governor von Scholten was alerted finally and spent the night consulting with his officials in Christiansted until daylight. Conflicting and confusing reports came in, but when it became apparent where the trouble centered, the Governor left in his carriage for Frederiksted.
Frederiksted, meanwhile, was in a turmoil. Reports came in that some estates were burning. The Negroes were demanding full freedom. Von Scholten arrived to confront a still orderly but determined crowd of some 8,000 Negroes who demanded freedom or the burning of the Fort and the estates. The situation was tense and dangerous; once the destruction and rioting began, nothing might stop it.
The Governor-General acted decisively. Shortly after his arrival he stepped onto the ramparts of the Fort and read his famous Proclamation of Freedom. It began:
All unfree in the Danish West Indies are from today free.
Von Scholten had long desired and pressed for this freedom, but he was acting on his own in direct contradiction to the King's orders and to the plantation owners' wishes. There were those who later accused him of collusion in the uprising and easy capitulation.
The Negroes dispersed to celebrate, and the Proclamation was ordered printed during the night for distribution. Meanwhile, word came that the Christiansted Negroes were gathering in a theartening manner. Von Scholten rushed back there to arrive just as real trouble began when a young lieutenant fired on the crowd against orders. The Negroes formed mobs and began the systematic burning and looting of the hated Greathouses and the cane fields. They harmed no whites.
The planters were angry and refused to accept the Freedom Proclamation. Under great pressure, von Scholten turned over his military powers to a group of officials who declared Martial law and threatened to shoot the rioters. Von Scholten, badly shaken and shocked by events, and foreseeing the end of his fight for human rights, resigned and retired a sick man. He is supposed to have had a slight stroke. In any case, his physician advised him to leave for Denmark immediately, where he would also have some hopes of vindicating his action in freeing the slaves.
Von Scholten left on July 14, never to return. His case went to court and he was sentenced to be dismissed from all his duties. Long after the Danish King had confirmed his Freedom Proclamation, von Scholten's appeal to the Danish Supreme Court cleared him unanimously of all blame.
Peter von Scholten died six years after he issued the Proclamation. He never lived to see St. Croix again, nor his beloved Anna Elisabeth. She who shared his love and life for so many years was buried on an estate owned by a relative, not far from the beautiful Bulow's Minde where she died in 1859.
Von Scholten lives on in memory as a man ahead of his time, hero of the slaves and of those who held human life and rights above their economic interests. He was a great humanitarian and a great man. He was not the only hero of the slaves; others shared in the fight for emancipation.