Century of Change Part IV
Part 15 in a series
Excerpts from "Divers Information on "The Romantic History of St. Croix" by Florence Lewison, 1963, St. Croix Landmarks Society.
THE LABOR RIOTS. Two years later the frustration of the laborers came to a dramatic climax of riots and burnings. It began quietly enough on October first (1878) when new contracts were to be signed. This was a day free from work and the Negroes began to drift into Frederiksted in large numbers. Suddenly in the afternoon the rioting began and the first mob attacked the Fort and was fired upon. An urgent message sent to Christiansted for reinforcements did not arrive there until after midnight. By that time Frederiksted was a river of fire with all of Bay Street burning. The puncheons of rum in the warehouses exploded like cannon. The inferno went on all night and by dawn nearly half of Frederiksted was gone.
The military declared a State of Siege against the bands now roaming the countryside burning and looting estates. It took five days to subdue the rioting, with over one hundred lives lost. Nearly all the estates along Centerline west of Kingshill were burned out. Near Christiansted, Anna's Hope and Work and Rest went up in smoke, but the town itself was left unharmed. Not only the men were the heroes to the laborers this time, women too played their part in the action and the most famous was: QUEEN MARY. The mobs of women and children who lit the rum or kerosene to burn Frederiksted, factories and Greathouses while their men fought the Militia had several leaders. Queen Mary was the imposing head of one mob. A famous old Carasou folk song celebrates the part played by Queen Mary, Queen Agnes, and a third, Queen Matilda, who was known simply as "Bottom Belly."
Later Queen Mary spent some time in the Bassin Jail, and along with the two other Queens was supposedly sent to Denmark for trial and prison. They were returned eventually to St. Croix.
The ferocity of these Cruzan women during this great "fire burn" in which forty-four estates, two schools, a customshouse and police station, a big cane weighing house at Peter's Rest and half of Frederiksted went up in smoke, is still spoken of with awe. Fire was the Negroes' one weapon against any kind of enslavement and it was used with great determination in the fight for freedom and labor rights.
DOWN AGAIN, UP AGAIN. The period after the Labor Riots ws another one of adjustment and compromise. The labor regulations were made more liberal, and the tension lessened. Frederiksted was rebuilt with late-Victorian gingerbread charm. In general, however, it was still a period of slow decline. There were a few temporary financial rallies in the closng decades of the 1800's, but the old, grandiose days were gone. Denmark found its islands were a burden. One factor lay in the growing absentee ownership, with the profits of the good years drained off to England, Denmark or other countries. Planters left in discouragement, putting their estates into the hands of the Scotch and Irish managers, who often managed to acquire title by purchase for unpaid taxes, or assumed ownership by default.
The slow conversion to new methods went on, and the last big effort in this line came when the huge Bethlehem Central Sugar Factory was built in 1904 to serve the entire island.
Great hopes were aroused in the islanders when the United States bought the Danish Virgin Islands in 1917 for $25,000,000 after several earlier negotiations for purchase had failed.
The hopes of the three islands for a fast economic growth were dashed again when the impact of prohibition hit the rum industry. A few islanders turned to rum-running. Again St. Croix, which had many times been a smugglers' paradise under its vatious owners, survived partly by way of its rum, which still meant the difference between profit and loss.
The depression of the '30's in the States was reflected here with much needed pump-priming, government aid, homesteading programs, the WPA and welfare programs. During these years, the CCC planted thousands of roadside trees including most of the mahoganies and all of the tall old coconuts on Centerline Road.
Some self-government was realized with the adoption of The Organic Act, or Constitution, in 1936, set up by the U.S. Congress. This provided for an appointed Governor and an elected local Senate to serve all three islands.