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Op-ed: Confederate Monuments are Falling, Should Old Danish Kings Who Ruled Over These Islands Be Next?

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

If you, like so many other good people were appalled by the recent video of a white man hurling bricks at a local woman and her family as she mistakenly drove onto his property in St Croix — you undoubtedly understand that racism and white supremacy have no place in our Virgin Islands.

Around the world, and in our United States of America; people of color and our white allies are becoming aware of and speaking out against the realities of structural racism, privilege and inequality.

We see this in the exposure of the university bribery scheme, the swift changes in gun laws in the wake of the recent mosque attack in New Zealand and in the subtle but profound messages sent by the removal of confederate monuments from public spaces in the southern states in the mainland U.S.

As Virgin Islands History Month draws to a close in a few days, it is only right that we place ourselves within a broader, more global context and view our identity through a historical lens fitting of the histories we as a people and as a colony have survived. Our land and our people have, for the last 400 years, passed through the purse strings of 7 different empires — each leaving a distinct legacy of what would meld together (harmoniously enough) to become the melting pot of the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, because of the legacy of slavery and continued colonization, the Virgin Islands suffers from a case of historical amnesia. We have forgotten that Kanta’s Rebellion in St John was the first successful* slave revolt in the West. That St. Thomas, particularly the Market Square in Downtown Charlotte Amalie, once held the largest slave auctions in the world. Crucian slaves led by Moses Gottlieb liberated the Danish West Indies and the Queens of the Fireburn won fairer wages and conditions for all.

In the post-reconstruction era of the South, Frederick Douglass said “the slave went free, stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” Having continually been passed from one “owner” to another, the people of these Islands have been caught in the crossfire of imperialist world powers and have not had a chance to confront and heal from our collective trauma. We have not had as yet the opportunity for Virgin Islanders to define who we are, to control our land and resources and to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to future interventions from world powers.

Living on islands where time often appears to stand still, it is paradoxical how we are confronted with the dramatic changes in landscape as newly poured concrete and gentrification continue to be offered as the cure to our not-so-new economic woes. White supremacy and racism are not only displayed through hooded figures on horseback with burning crosses or using the n-word. It also exists subtlety so as to not bring attention to itself- so those with historical amnesia now look at it as “a part of our history” or heralded as “progress”.

It comes in the form of over-development, voter disenfranchisement and disaster capitalism.

Despite these realities; the average person on our island – 37% of families with children live below the poverty line -simply do not have the time, money or the resources to grapple with these harsh truths. Despite not having the access however, all of us should care about the public spaces that we share. The spaces that define our identity and bind us as a community. Our architecture, our historic trees, and the monuments we erect all reflect our highest ideals as a society — they are the things we leave for the next generation to reflect and build upon when we are gone. They anchor the present and the future to the past.

Prior to its dedication in 1998 in commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of Emancipation in the Danish West Indies, the grounds of the now Emancipation Garden had existed in Charlotte Amalie under Danish rule as “Frederik Park”. A gazebo, similar to the bandstand currently there was erected in wood and often used for public speeches and other activities. It is possible that news of Emancipation was brought from St. Croix and spread from what was then King’s Wharf at the edge of these grounds in town.

30 years after Emancipation in 1878, under the rule of King Christian IX, conditions of former slaves in the Danish West Indies were virtually unchanged. On Contract Day (October 1), the only day laborers were “free” to seek employment on another plantation, Crucians revolted and burned the island to the ground in the fight for better living and working conditions.

12 men were immediately hung upon confirmation of their participation in the riot. After trial, some of the women who we today revere as Queens would be convicted and sentenced to prison in Denmark where three other men would join them. The word “Fireburn” has rightfully been singed into the consciousness of our people.

King Christian IX of Denmark would die in January of 1906 and 3 years later… 30 years after the Fireburn… the first publicly erected monument in the Danish West Indies would be sent from Denmark and placed at the seaside entrance of our capitol in his honor — despite his having never stepped foot on our shores and his reign directly tied to our history of resistance. The purchase and transfer to American rule would occur 8 years later. We would remain stateless for another 10.

Of all the places this relic of the past could sit, it is troubling at best and sinister at worst, that the bust of King Christian IX casts the longest shadow in Emancipation Garden. When the sons and daughters of our diaspora are looking up in a park dedicated to their freedom, it is not their reflection they see towering above them but the face of their oppressor.

King Christian IX monument, Emancipation Garden

It is important for us to reclaim our history and understand the weight and strength of what it means to be a Virgin Islander. If we are to honor the heroes of our past, only the bust of one man should stand as sentry over a space dedicated to the emancipation and freedom Virgin Islanders gave ourselves and his name is Moses Gottlieb.

We must embrace all of our history: the good, the bad, the indifferent. The bust of King Christian IX is a part of our history and it should be displayed, but a place of reverence and esteem like that of Emancipation Garden is not that place. We must be mindful of how we pay homage to the past and the messages we send in doing so. Deh chirren dem watchin’…

So I ask you, Confederate monuments are falling in the South, should old Danish Kings who ruled over these islands be next?

Submitted on March 24th, 2019 by: Michael Vante, 25, who holds degrees in English Literature & Africana Studies with a minor in International Studies. Michael is also a community activist living in St. Thomas. Michael also started a petition to have the monument of King Christian IX removed by the people of the Virgin Islands.