On the morning of December 14, 1759, William Davis succumbed to a self-inflicted wound rather than face St. Croix’s harsh justice for an alleged slave rising plot.
They strung up his remains just the same.
St. Croix, today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was at the time a Danish colony.* As with other Caribbean islands, its economy catered to the lucrative new European taste for sugar — powered by human bondage.
“The establishment of the sugar industry created the demand for labor in the West Indian islands,” Eric Williams wrote. “It was a choice, from the sugar planter’s point of view, of Negro labor or no labor at all. Sugar meant slavery.”
It was, in fact, sugar which raised these insignificant tropical islands from the status of pirates’ nests to the dignity of the most precious colonies known to the Western World up to the nineteenth century …
Tremendous wealth was produced from an unstable economy based on a single crop, which combined the vices of feudalism and capitalism with the virtues of neither. Liverpool in England, Nantes in France, Rhode Island in America, prospered on the slave trade. London and Bristol, Bordeaux and Marseilles, Cadiz and Seville, Lisbon and New England, all waxed fat on the profits of the trade in the tropical produce raised by the Negro slave. … Sugar was king; without his Negro slave his kingdom would have been a desert.
For those in King Sugar’s castle this desert stuff was no mere metaphor, but life and limb itself. They trafficked fantastical wealth from the shores of tiny islets where they took their sleep surrounded by a vastly more numerous** servile population. Just let the serfs of such a manor commence a jacquerie …
White planters’ vulnerability to a potential slave revolt, dramatically underscored by a 1733 revolt on neighboring St. John, bred great paranoia about imagined plots: a casual word here or there could be heard as a seditious murmuring, and then a politically motivated judicial machinery of torture, hearsay, and panicked accusations set into motion. It can be maddeningly difficult from the distance of centuries to weigh the truth value of a supposed slave plot strangled in the crib. Intrepid resistance? Or phantom from the planters’ nightmares?
Either way the slaves wound up just as dead.
We have the story of this revolt’s suppression from one of the judges, Engelbert Hasselberg, and this naturally constrains our view. Hasselberg wrote up his report, complete with an index of all the slaves punished, for eyes in Copenhagen. He’s certain that there really was an intended rising, even as he acknowledges a want of firm evidence: “many of the conspirators have refused to confess anything at all, although there has been sufficient evidence against them, insofar as it may be called evidence at all, where rogues have plotted and been the sole witnesses.” That is, a few people’s highly questionable accusations/confessions† sustained the entire affair.
But the story must have had the judges’ hearts in their throats.
Each [Negro] was if possible to slay his master or foreman; next, those whose masters’ plantations lay in the Christianstaed district, were to gather on Colleman’s plantation … and those Negroes who belonged to the West-End, were to assemble at the West-End fort, and first take possession of Fort Friderichswaern and of all the ammunition there to be found. Thereupon all those who had procured weapons were to march to Christianstaed, setting the plantation[s] on fire on the way, and killing or burning all whites who collected to put out the fires, and finally to storm [Fort] Christianstvaern.
Hasselberg’s report begins, oddly enough, by meditating that “the greater part of the slaves on colonies as recently developed as St. Croix are free-born, and have therefore just as good claim to their freedom as we have to ours. One or other fateful occurrence has brought them out of that natural equality which at birth they enjoyed with us, and made those persons our slaves who by a contrary event might have become our masters. What wonder then that such persons seek their freedom when they are provoked by the unreasonable conduct of unwise masters, and when they believe that the enterprise is not impossible.”
For Hasselberg this freely acknowledged natural inclination is not so much a systemic critique as a management challenge, and he expands on the talents required by the slaveowner to extract surplus-labor without “expos[ing] himself to resentment”, while not neglecting to request that Denmark increase its subsidy to St. Croix.
The enterprise was exposed by a few stray remarks from a quarrelsome slave.
It was in the month of December, 1759, that 2 white men, Matthias and Benjamin Bear, were molding bullets on Sr. Soren Bagge’s plantation. A Negro slave by the name of Cudjo, working at that time on Bagge’s plantation, asked Benjamin Bear to give him some of the bullets as a present, but as he was unable to give a proper account of what he was going to do with them, Bear gave him none. But Matthias, who did not think so far ahead, gave Cudjo a dozen bullets while Bear had stepped aside. Bear learned about it, and in the afternoon of the same day, he said to Cudjo, in the presence of a white man, Peter Hyde, and of a number of other Negroes, that he had heard that Matthias had given him some bullets, but he, Cudjo, had better look out, or his head might some day be found lying at his feet. To this, Cudjo replied, addressing himself to the 2 white men, Benjamin Bear and Peter Hyde, “You look out that some of your heads won’t lie at your feet pretty soon.” Peter Hyde then asked, “Whom will you then kill?” and Cudjo replied, “You shall be the first that I shall kill.”
The day before this conversation took place between Bear, Hyde and Cudjo, the Cudjo aforementioned had said concerning Mr. Bagge’s plantation house, “Maybe that house will be mine in a short time,” to which one of Bagge’s Negroes, namely Will, replied, “God damn you, you can’t keep a secret.” The same day Cudjo had asked B. Bear how long it would be until Christmas, and when Bear asked Cudjo why he wanted to know this, he answered, “I am asking about it, as I hope by that time to be a little Petit Maitre.”
Bear and Hyde reported the conversation and under questioning on December 11, Cudjo and his blood brother started revealing details of a slave rebellion in the offing — scheduled to capitalize on whites’ distracting Christmas celebrations. William Davis, a free black, was its supposed instigator.
Davis was under interrogation the very next day. The particular suspicion he was under would have instantly impressed him as placing him in the gravest peril; when induced with a plea bargain-type offer to merely suffer banishment, he “made a frank confession” and “exposed the whole dessein, and gave the names of quite a number of Negroes, some of whom have been found guilty and others acquitted.”
Hasselberg’s categorical assertion that Davis’s plea-induced statement was a “frank confession” doesn’t square comfortably either with Davis’s subsequent attempt to repudiate the “confession” or with the acknowledged denials and acquittals of most of the people he named. Perhaps this speaks well of St. Croix’s judicial restraint, but what might actually have been afoot for Christmas 1759, and how many people it might have involved, is heavily conjectural.
Not least because Davis — in remorse for naming names, perhaps, or else not trusting his captors’ assurance of humane treatment — took any subsequent remarks to an early grave.
[H]e managed to cut his throat in the morning of December 13, while in the fort. The wound was not considered dangerous by the surgeon, and he was immediately bound. He made various confessions after that time, but on the following night, he tore the bandage from his neck, cursed and scolded those who approached him, and swore that if they cut him up piece by piece, and roasted on the fire, he would nevertheless confess nothing. On the following morning, December 14, he died, and he was made an example of.
Hasselberg is not completely explicit here that the posthumous punishment occurred on that same day Davis succumbed, but he does not mince words when it comes to the example itself.
His dead body was dragged through the streets by a horse, by one leg; thereafter hanged on a gallows by a leg, and finally taken down and burned at the stake.†
By Hasselberg’s accounting, Davis was just the first of 14 people hanged, burned, broken on the wheel, or “set up in a gibbet or iron cage” to die of thirst and exposure.§
* St. Croix’s most famous denizen for posterity at this hour was a very small child named Alexander Hamilton.
** Of the British territory Nevis, one late 18th century chronicler remarked, “the present number of whites is stated not to exceed six hundred, while the negroes amount to about ten thousand; a disproportion which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well regulated militia.” According to Hasselberg, the ratio on St. Croix was 1,690 whites to 11,807 blacks.
† The first slave to provide a corroborating account, one Qvamina, received his freedom and 50 rigsdalers in a conspicuous ceremony performed in front of other slaves.
‡ All translations are via Waldemar Westergaard in “Account of the Negro Rebellion on St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1759” in The Journal of Negro History, January 1926.
§ William Davis was the first; the full roster of additional executions in Hasselberg’s report:
2. Franch (or French), free negro, convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing himself.
He was broken on the wheel with an iron crowbar, laid alive on the wheel, where he survived 12 hours. The head was then set on a stake, and the hand fastened on the gallows.
3. Prince Qvakoe, belonging to his Majesty, convicted by witnesses, and has confessed being implicated.
Was executed in the same way as Franch and lived 2 hours.
4. Cudjo, belonging to Doran, is convicted by witnesses, and has himself confessed.
Was burned alive on a pyre, lived in the fire 4½ minutes.
5. Gomas, belonging to John Bradshou, is convicted and has confessed.
6. George, belonging to James Hughes, has confessed and is convicted.
Both these negroes (5 and 6) were first pinched with hot tongs, then hanged by the legs in a gallows, and a dog likewise, by the neck, between them. Gomas lived ½ an hour and was strangled; George lived 3 hours and was strangled.
7. London, belonging to Thomas Lacke, is convicted and has himself confessed.
He was first pinched with glowing tongs, then hanged up by the legs, lived 12 hours and was strangled.
8. Sam Hector, belonging to Pieter Heyliger, Senior, is convicted by witnesses, but has confessed nothing himself.
He was set up in a gibbet or iron cage and lived 42 hours.
9. Michel, belonging to Hugh O’Donnell, is convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing.
Got the same punishment as Sam Hector, lived 91 hours.
10. Will, belonging to Soren Bagge, is convicted by witnesses, but made no confession.
Was burned alive, lived in the fire 14 minutes.
11. George, belonging to John Cookly, confessed and was convicted by witnesses.
He was pinched with glowing tongs and hanged by the neck.
12. [Name not given], belonging to Manan Rogers, is convicted by witnesses, and made a partial confession.
Was set up in a gibbet from January 18, at 3:30 p.m. to Jan. 27, 8:30 a.m.
13. Sylvester, belonging to James Conningham, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.
He was burned alive, and lived in the fire 4½ minutes.
14. Jupiter, belonging to W. Burnet, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.
He was burned alive, and lived in the fire for 1½ minutes.