Pictured above: The ‘Freedom Statue’ on display in Franklin Powell Park in Cruz Bay, St. John.
Photos provided by Amy Roberts and St. John Historical Society.
How do you bring up the painful topic of slavery in a country that has largely forgotten its role as a slave-trading, colonial nation?
That’s a question that artists, historians, educators, and others have been discussing as the Virgin Islands gears up to commemorate in 2017 the 100th anniversary of its Transfer in ownership from Denmark to the United States.
In 1917 when Denmark severed its ties to the Virgin Islands–its only colonies in the Caribbean–it essentially “closed the door,” Karen Munk –Nielsen told members of the St. John Historical Society when she spoke at the Bethany Moravian Church on November 8.
Munk-Nielsen, the curator of the Holbaek Museum in Denmark, explained that unlike some other countries, such as England with its former colony Jamaica, the flow of population practically ceased once the political ties were severed between Denmark and its Caribbean colonies.
Yet the wealth that came from Caribbean sugar plantations fueled the economy of Denmark in the 18th century, leading to the construction of huge family estates in Denmark that still exist.
“In Denmark, there’s recognition that the country has been suffering from cultural amnesia,” said historian David Knight Sr., who introduced Munk-Nielsen at the SJHS meeting. “I find it frustrating. I believe that all countries that were part of the slave trade should admit culpability.
“It’s been a topic of discussion in Denmark. When we tried to get across what actually happened, why Denmark might have owed the people of the Virgin Islands some sort of reparation, it fell on deaf ears because the history has not been taught,” Knight said.
Fortunately, that’s all changing now. UNESCO is facilitating the inclusion of the transatlantic slave trade as a topic to be taught to all high school students in Denmark. The Danish National Archives is moving quickly to digitize their records from the colonial era and translate them into English. Museums in Denmark are arranging exhibits to discuss slavery in the past and present manifestations.
And the gift of three bronze statues of freedom-fighters from the people of the Virgin Islands is furthering the conversation.
The bronze statues are copies of originals created by Ghanaian-American sculptor Bright Bimpong in 1998. The originals still stand in parks throughout the Virgin Islands.
“A gift is a really powerful thing when you give it without strings attached, with no politicians involved,” said Knight. “It comes from the heart, and the acceptance they have gotten in Denmark is a huge thing.”
The gift of the three statues became breaking news in Denmark as Munk-Nielsen set off on her trip to the Virgin Islands, hitting the front page of the newspaper Politiken on November 2 (When you click the link, translation is available). In the next few days, five other publications and two TV stations picked up the story.
“I haven’t heard any negative reports,” said Munk-Nielsen. “The people have just embraced them.”
“The statues were commissioned by Walter G. Brunner of St. Croix, an art collector and political consultant to former governor Roy L. Schneider,” said Lonnie Willis, President of the St. John Historical Society.
When Bruner died, he left his copies to his sister, Carol Whittier and her husband Ted, who live in Maine. Their copies’ existence came to the attention of members of the VI Historical Preservation Commission. They contacted the Whittiers who agreed to donate the statues to Denmark as part of the Centennial Celebration.
However, the problem arose of paying the $5,000 in shipping costs to Denmark.
“When the project to send the statues to Denmark was first conceived, we really needed a community-based organization to assist,” David Knight Sr. told the audience at the SJHS meeting. “I immediately said, ‘We have got to go to SJHS.’ I knew I could count on you. As members, what you have done has surpassed what I imagined.”
With the help of the Virgin Islands community, the statues arrived in Copenhagen in early August.
The statues will travel to several locations before they find their final resting place.
The statue of Jackson is expected to be displayed at the Workers Museum in Copenhagen, across the square from where Jackson addressed the public when he traveled to Denmark in 1915.
The statue of Buddhoe will become part of a permanent exhibition on the slave trade in the Danish West Indies at the Holbaek Museum, where Munk-Nielsen serves as curator.
The statue of the conch blower will be displayed in September at Christianborg Palace, the queen’s royal quarters in Copenhagen. The exhibit will include other artifacts associated with Peter von Scholten, the Governor-General of the Danish West Indies from 1827-1848.
Munk-Nielsen would like to see the conch blower statue placed permanently in front of the king’s warehouse in Copenhagen—the Vestindisk Pakhus— where sugar, cotton and coffee were stored in the 18th century. “Four out of five pounds of sugar imported from the Danish West Indies came through these doors,” she said. “Sugar brought great wealth to the nation.”