“Queen Mary, o _ where _ you_ gwon’ go _ burn?
Queen Mary, o _ where _ you_ gwon’ go _ burn?
Don’t _ ask _ me _nothin’ _at-all
Jus _ give _ me _ the _ match _ and _ oil…”
It began with the sounding of the Conch shells in the morning of 1st October 1878. Usually, the shells were used to summon the slaves to the fields but on that day, the call was made for the enslaved people of St. Croix to rise up and rebel against their slave masters. They took up their cane bills and torches and made their way to Frederiksted. This day was the perfect day. This was the one day that slaves were free to change jobs. It was the one day to “roam” free.
While slavery in the Virgin Islands had officially been abolished on July 3rd, 1848, the lives and labor conditions were worse. They labored for hours under the hot sun with little food, clothing or adequate housing only to get between 10 and 35 cents per day. So, on Contract day of 1878, three women: Mary Thomas (Queen Mary), Axeline Salomon (Queen Agnes) and Mathilda MacBean (Queen Mathilda) led the protest against the brutal treatment of native laborers.
“Queen Mary” is the most famous of the three. Legend has it that she at one time called for the heads of the slaves who did not want to join the revolt. She was a radical 40-year old woman and mother of three who was able to galvanize her fellow men to revolt. The youngest of the three Queens, Mathilda was only a 21-year old mother of three who left her young children to march and participate in the burning of half of Frederiksted. For two weeks the Danish government worked to end the rebellion. The retaliation was harsh. More than a hundred black workers died compared to the two soldiers and one plantation owner who were killed during the insurrection. More than 400 rebels were arrested. Twelve were sentenced to death and shot. Thirty-nine others had their death sentences commuted, but the “Fireburn Queens” were jailed and sent to Copenhagen. They were sent back to the islands in 1887 to serve out the remainder of their sentence. 140 year later after the rebellion, a sculpture of Queen Mary “I Am Queen Mary” was erected in Copenhagen. This sculpture by Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers and LaVaughn Belle from the Virgin Islands was unveiled on the 31st March 2018. This is the first and only monument in Denmark that marks the history of the Danes in the Caribbean.
The Virgin Islands honors these Queen’s sacrifice with a fountain erected on a hill overlooking Charlotte Amalie. Three bronze structures of the women holding a sugarcane bill, a torch and a lantern – lethal weapons in the hands of a slave – form a triangle around a basin with jets of water. The fountain is located in a four-acre garden in Blackbeard’s Castle. These women are a symbol of the power of women and the working class. In a lot of ways Fireburn marked the true emancipation. The event instigated change and was the beginning of the radical restructuring of the political, social and economic institutions of the Virgin Islands.