I don’t know that there’s any place in the United States that celebrates the Fourth quite like it’s celebrated on St. John.
To understand the significance one must have a little background. To that end, what follows if a very brief history of the U. S. Virgin Islands.
It all started when Columbus discovered the islands on his second trip in 1493. He landed on St. Croix and was chased off by the fierce and sometimes cannibalistic Carib Indians (for which the Caribbean is named.) Sailing north he came across a string of emerald jewels surrounded by turquoise water. There were so many islands he named them after St. Ursula and her entourage of 11,000 virgins.
The islands were “owned” by different countries over the course of the next several hundred years, including Spain, Britain, Holland, and France. During that time it was mostly pirates who used the harbors to hide out. It wasn’t until 1672 that the Danes established a permanent settlement on St. Thomas.
In 1694 the Danes claimed St. John and built a small fort at Coral Bay, perhaps the most protected harbor in the Caribbean. St. John soon became the home to many plantations and over a thousand slaves. By 1733 conditions for the slave population were abysmal. Hurricanes, drought, an insect plague, crop failures, epidemics of cholera and small pox, a severe code of treatment, along with an influx of slaves who had been royalty, all led to a brutal slave uprising.
The revolt of 1733 was bloody and violent. For six months the slaves held the island of St. John. They were not defeated until the Danes called for help from French troops stationed on neighboring islands. Even then, the leaders of the revolt refused to surrender. Knowing they would die a slow painful death if they did, they chose instead to commit mass suicide. (An excellent historically accurate account of the revolt is told in the book Night of the Silent Drum by John L. Anderson.)
This revolt is the cornerstone, the foundation, on which was built, over the course of the next 100 years, the determination by an enslaved people to be free.
There are many things that happened, many things the slaves did in an effort to win their freedom, but the final straw was a slave revolt on St. Croix which forced Governor Peter von Scholten to abolish slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was read on St. Croix on July 3, 1848.
This is a picture of the Lord God of Sabaoth Lutheran Church where the proclamation was read.
St. John, home of the first revolt, didn’t get the news until the next day, on July 4th.
In 1917 the islands were bought by the United States. The islanders embraced being citizens and identified with those who fought for their independence from England.
And that’s why the Fourth of July Festival on St. John is celebrated with such enthusiasm. It is a celebration of freedom from slavery and freedom from tyranny, a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence.
Coming soon? well, certainly eventually:
Part II - The St. John Festival