The 1733 Akwamu slave insurrection on St. John, which lasted from November 1733 until August 1734, was one of the earliest and longest slave rebellions in the Americas. The insurrection started on 23 November 1733, when 150 Akwamu slaves revolted against plantation owners and managers. The slaves captured the fort in Coral Bay and took control of most of the island.
In the late 17th century, following the Spanish relinquishment of the West Indies, the Danes claimed Saint John in 1718. Danish planters flocked to the region in search of good land, where they produced sugar cane, cotton, and other crops. Faced with a labour crisis, these settlers began importing enslaved Africans via Danish ships. These slaves came primarily from present-day Ghana and were distributed to plantations, particularly those on St. John in the Danish West Indies.
For the duration of the slave trade, it is estimated that over 100,000 enslaved Africans were transported to the Danish West Indies, with approximately half of them dying due to the inhumane conditions.
In 1733, in response to harsh living conditions from drought, a severe hurricane, and crop failure from insect infestation, many enslaved Africans in the West Indies, including on St. John, left their plantations to join maroon settlements in the woods.
Those who stayed back developed plans to instigate an insurrection, take control of St. John and rule it. An Akwamu house slave Breffu, led the rebellion. According to a report by French planter Pierre Pannet, her and other Akwamu rebel leaders met regularly at night for some time to develop the plan.
On November 23, 1733, the revolution began when a small group of Akwamu slaves overpowered and killed soldiers stationed at Fort Frederiksvaern in Coral Bay. They also fired a cannon from the fort, signaling the start of the uprising.
The sound of the cannon signaled the beginning of the revolution. Seizing the moment, Breffu took decisive action and stormed the main house, where she killed her enslaver and his wife. Armed with stolen gunpowder and ammunition, and accompanied by fellow freedom seekers, she proceeded to other plantations.
With audacity and strategic brilliance, the rebels waged a relentless campaign, targeting the very symbols of their enslavement. Plantation estates were set ablaze, and the gears of the sugar industry ground to a halt. In the ensuing chaos, European plantation owners and their overseers faced the wrath of those they had enslaved for far too long. With many slave masters fleeing the island on boats, the slaves captured the fort in Coral Bay and took control of most of the island.
The revolt sent shockwaves through the Caribbean, and its echoes reached far beyond the shores of St. John Island. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the French and Danes collaborated to reclaim the island in 1734.
They launched a relentless and coordinated assault on St. John Island in 1734, sparing no effort or resource to crush the uprising. They hit the island with everything they had, deploying their military might and strategic prowess in a bid to reestablish control over the rebellious territory and by may 27 they had restored planters’ rule of the island. The French ships returned to Martinique on June 1, leaving the local militia to track down the remaining rebels, which they did over the next three months.
The slave insurrection officially ended on August 25, 1734 when the last remaining maroon rebels were captured.
Denmark, acknowledging its role in the slave trade, officially ended the African slave trade in the Danish West Indies in 1803. However, slavery persisted on the islands until July 3, 1848, when enslaved Afro-Caribbeans of St. Croix, 114 years after the rebellion, achieved emancipation through a non-violent, mass demonstration.