Organizers of the annual Fortsberg history tour are being joined this year by a younger generation, eager to preserve tradition. About 80 people gathered at Cruz Bay Beach Friday morning to remember the slave uprising that took place Nov. 23, 1733.
The 2018 observance of the Fortsberg Uprising is one in a series of events promoting history and culture on St. John. One focused on the art of storytelling. The final event, set for Nov. 30, explores the concept of freedom.
Both are related to the Forstberg story. As Friday’s tour began with a ceremony honoring the past, educator Sele Adeyemi recalled how the Fortsberg narrative evolved over 34 years or remembrance.
“We had very little information when we began,” Adeyemi said.
When the first history tours began in the mid 1990s, organizers largely relied on oral history and tales of enslaved Africans from the Amina tribe smuggling machetes to the Danish garrison at Fortsberg and overpowering the soldiers. But by 2003, research uncovered the name of the Akwamu tribe and the links leading to slaves transported from West Africa to St. John.
To highlight the value of oral traditions this year, the St. John Heritage Collective held its first event Nov. 11 as part of an observance they dubbed “Freedom Month.” About two dozen people – children and adults – filled the audience at the St. John School of the Arts.
The storytellers were introduced as griots, African culture bearers tasked with relating oral history.
“We had a comfortable crowd, a mix of young, old and in between,” said collective member Kurt Marsh Jr. “They each did two or three stories apiece. They were very different sessions, which was very refreshing.”
At the end of presentations by griots Patrice Harley, Faye Fredericks and Eddie Bruce, came a mystery griot, Dr. Gilbert Sprauve. A retired linguistics professor from the University of the Virgin Islands, Sprauve and the late Dr. Gene Emmanuel helped promote and nurture the story of Fortsberg.
Marsh and other members of the heritage collective – David Knight Jr. and Dr. Hadiya Sewer-Gibney – joined Friday’s tour with the mission of documenting the event. They also play a role in the final planned event in Freedom Month.
On Nov. 30 at Bajo El Sol Gallery at Mongoose Junction Shopping Center in Cruz Bay, organizers have planned a discussion about the meaning of freedom in 2018.
According to information appearing on the Global Slavery Index website, 40.3 million people are currently living without freedom in the world. Those numbers included people subject to forced labor, child laborers, children and adults forced into sex work and drug trafficking, and migrants forced into indentured servitude.
Both Sprauve and Adeyemi were asked to reflect on these circumstances. Adeyemi, a historian, author and professor of African American History at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Virginia, acknowledged the slave trade has again emerged in Africa.
“You definitely have slavery going on now, in Sudan, Mauritania and Niger,” he said. “I think I’ve see in other parts of the world where it’s happening. I would want to know the extent of it.”
Sprauve said word of widespread slavery in the modern world serves as a reminder why observances of Freedom Fighter’s Day – Nov. 23, 1733 – on St. John has merit.
“We consider it a liberation struggle that’s ongoing. While we concentrate on the uniqueness of 1733, we recognize it’s a universal struggle of those who are exploited against their oppressors,” he said.
Freedom Fighters Day was adopted as a day of observance in the Virgin Islands through the encouragement of Emmanuel and through a bill sponsored by former Senator-At-Large Almando “Rocky” Liburd, made law with the signature of then-Gov. Charles Turnbull in 2002.