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Peter von Scholtens forklaring på oprøret i 1848 og ophævelsen af slaveriet (1849)


Kildeteksten er Peter von Scholtens brev til sin advokat, Liebenberg, den 22. december 1849. Brevet blev skrevet i forbindelse med den retssag, der efterfulgte frigivelsen af slaverne i Dansk Vestindien den 3. juli 1848. Brevet er oprindeligt skrevet på dansk, men findes her i engelsk oversættelse (oversat af Eva Lawaetz). Originalbrevet ligger på Rigsarkivet i København.

Fra Eva Lawaetz (red): Emancipation in the Danish West Indies: Eyewitness Accounts II. St. Croix: VDCCA, Bureau of Libraries, Museums and Archaeological Services, 1973.


Previously I have forwarded to your Honor a number of documents and papers that might be helpful in clarifying the situation for you. At the same time I want to let you know the confidence and trust I have in your handling of my case in the best possible way. I am enclosing more documents for your information according to the attached list. At the same time I am handing you the following notations for your possible use or guidance in this case.

It will only be possible to understand my action on July 3, 1848, in St. Croix when the Negro insurrection took place, and to pass a fair and just judgment of the necessity of the proclamation of the emancipation, when the atmosphere in the colonies and my situation as Governor General are taken into consideration.

First it must be remembered that after the Royal Proclamation of July 28, 1847, all children born to the unfree after the issuance of this proclamation would be free at birth, while the same Royal decree dictated that a period of 12 years of transition should exist for the unfree. This was bound to cause a difficult and precarious situation, not only among the planters, but the slaves, who of course had a stronger demand for freedom because it now had been promised within not too many years.

It is a well-known fact that the planters were not pleased with the decree of July 28, 1847, providing for the freedom of all children born after that date and promising final emancipation at a certain stipulated time.

The slaves did not want to wait 12 years for emancipation and constantly complained about the treatment of their free children. On the other hand, it was quite natural that the planters now neglected the children: they were considered a burden because the planters could not be compensated through the children’s work on the plantation when they grew up.

As a matter of fact, on every holiday after the proclamation of the Royal Decree, a number of mothers complained to me about the planters’ treatment of their children.

Thus the situation became more complicated in the colonies and it was more difficult to preserve the status quo. It must also be remembered that, during the year after the proclamation of the British emancipation (1833) conditions have been dangerous and not very reassuring. All the slaves longed for emancipation, without understanding its real impact on everyday life and individual well-being. Add to this the new development in the French colonies, which complicated the situation even more.

It is commonly felt that the emancipation in the French colonies was a consequence of the French Revolution in 1848, which caused a change in the form of government and the constitution.

About the same time, or shortly thereafter, it came to the attention of the slaves in our islands that the Danish constitution had been changed, but of course they did not know anything about the importance and the consequences of this change so far as the Danish West Indies were concerned. But anybody who has lived in our colonies will understand that the slaves in our islands generally would believe that, just as the change in the French constitution had brought emancipation to their brothers in the French Colonies, a change in the Danish constitution would result in theirs. As a matter of fact, many slaves were so sure of their emancipation that they believed the proclamation to be arbitrarily delayed.

The fact that the slaves knew about the revolution in France in February and in Denmark in March had severe consequences for the whole situation in the Danish Islands. Even the sober, quiet, better part of the slaves came to look at an insurrection and/or a strong demand for freedom in quite another way, In an uprising, the leaders could calculate on support in a violent demonstration even from those who were not dissatisfied with their conditions of life. Because the leaders could expect general support from the slave population, the outbreak of an uprising would be in their control.

It is well documented that the prinicipal provison in the Decree of July 28, 1847, that is, the freedom of the slave children, was not engineered by me or anybody else connected with the government in the Danish West Indies. On the contrary, both in writing and by words of mouth, I seriously objected to it. I even openly explained and without reservation to His Majesty King Christian VIII, that the situation caused by this gradual emancipation could not be controlled. I could even refer to a conversation with His Majesty the King, who, in reply to my remonstrances, answered that “The emancipation has to be granted if necessary, and I (the King) am willing to give you the necessary authority to act in order not to subject either the country or the whites to the disaster of revolution.” But to this I objected that neither for the King’s sake not for my own did I want to have this authority. Such and authority could easily give rise to prompt claims for compensation when the emancipation was going to become a reality. Such authority could not be kept a secret from the planters, and they would become even more suspicious of me than before: as if I had wanted to have the power as soon as possible to proclaim final emancipation. Rather all my endeavors have been concentrated on slowly and systematically, through education, to prepare the free colored and the slaves for their rights and obligations as citizens and for their freedom.

It is also very important to understand my position as Governor General of the Danish West Indies, and to remember that the military force in the islands was negligible, far from sufficient to suppress an ordinary uprising. Nothing could be done about this because the presence of a sufficient military force on the islands would have involved exorbitant expense. Therefore, I have never suggested using these means to safeguard the colonies against uprising or to secure general quiet and order. I have always directed my efforts toward creating a well organized police force and towards improving the conditions for the Negroes, especially their morality, because in my opinion this provides the best guarantee for maintaining a quiet life and continued development in the colonies. Even in more recent times, the police were far from being in proper shape. However, I cannot be blamed for that, because for many years I have repeatedly requested an in depth reorganization of the police in the islands. But my recommendations have not been followed, whereas measures I strongly opposed have been adopted. For your information, I will just mention that, against the strong opposition stated in my proposal of April 30, 1840, the white and free-colored police in St. Croix were exempted from night duty, and thus also from night patrols.

Speaking about the morality of the Negroes, I certainly appreciate the efforts made by the Government; I do hope my efforts will also be remembered. However, many things have not been done or even attempted: much has been left undone, in spite of my recommendations and hard work to realize my aims.

I will not elaborate on all the difficulties with the planters whenever I tried to improve the conditions of the slaves, especially after the emancipation of the free colored. I will only mention those situations that have been impossible for me to correct by means of proposals to the Government in Denmark or efforts in the colonies. This has had a very dangerous impact on the Negro population.

First I want to mention the testimony of slaves in court. Although, educationally speaking, they should qualify as witnesses, very special and very complicated rules govern their right to testify. Because of this I have often been compelled (against my moral conviction) to dismiss a case, or, when the owners, managers or overseers, with very few exceptions, insisted that their word could be trusted, however far from the truth.

Even more damaging for the morality of the Negro population was the fact that the managers and overseers pursued young Negro girls. They often promised the girl’s own mother that they would buy freedom for the girl and the children she might bear. In this way they succeeded in persuading young girls to live with them; but later on they could not be induced to honor this solemn promise.

In this connection I want to mention that a manager on the Enfieldgreen Plantation near Frederiksted had in this way persuaded a girl hardly fourteen years old to live with him in his house. After he had three children by her, he let both the girl and the children remain slaves, disregarding all remonstrances from the owner and from the Governor General. He could do this without punishment because there did not exist any law, nor could one be passed, forbidding that kind of seduction. I could not even obtain an oath on the holy Bible that he disclaimed to be the father of the children. A free man’s word against a slave’s was sufficient.

Such behaviour can have the most terrible consequences. Almost at the same time on the plantation, the manager and the overseer were killed by poisoning. The overseer lived with the daughter of an old mulatto woman. He had promised to buy the freedom of the daughter and the children, if any. He did have a child by her, but for a long time he had refused to buy their freedom, making all kinds of excuses. The mother had her revenge by putting instant plant poison in his coffee, killing not only him, but also another completely innocent victim.

The morality of the Negro population and my ability to carry out orders suffered when my efforts to improve conditions were not supported by Government. The Government’s failure to support me had the most unfortunate influence on my authority and, in the colonies, this is one of the worst things that can happen.

If you consider the colonies from a European point of view, it will scarcely be possible to understand the moral damage suffered when the Governor General’s authority was not supported, but often undermined by the government in Denmark. Everybody familiar with life in the colonies, and who is able and willing to consider the importance of their peculiarities, has to admit I am right. To illustrate what I mean, I will just point out that the Governor General over a long period of time had to suffer at the hands of an inferior official in the islands who was allowed to write and behave in a spiteful manner toward the island’s highest authority without any interference from the Government, at the very time when his authority needed support more than ever; this was bound to weaken and diminish that authority, paralyze his strength, and damage the situation which after so much work and difficulty was nearing a happy solution, without any disruption in the conditions of life or any considerable increase in expenses.

Finally, this official was found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine, but because of his insulting remarks about the Governor General, it was necessary for me to bring another action against him. But this time, the Government reinstated him in office instead of suspending him as in the first case. This was a very unfortunate decision, the more so because my efforts to settle conditions in the colonies, to maintain the rights of the free colored, and to improve conditions of life for the slaves, were bound to evoke the planters’ opposition. Even if such opposition was not shown openly very often, it was always alive and directed toward damaging any position as Governor General. Therefore I needed all possible moral support from the Government.

The radical changes in several military and civil branches of the administration which I proposed and carried out, especially within the administration of the Royal plantations, injured many private interests as the Royal exchequer improved. Of course, this was fuel to the fire of opposition.

This, then, was the situation when the insurrection broke out, and therefore the instigators almost succeeded in keeping it secret.

In my letter of September 25, 1848, concerning the first questions, I have intimated that there were no indications of an uprising in the near future; but I also pointed out that in an apparently quiet situation, extraordinary measures can never be kept a secret from the Negro population, and will cause extreme tension in the population who will try to find out the reason why such measures have been introduced. They will conclude that the Government is afraid of an uprising and has realized their power. In this way the measures taken to prevent an uprising might easily become the reason for one.

But as the court hearings in the colonies have been finished by now, we will know if anybody in the colonies knew anything about the outbreak of a rebellion, and if there is any reason to blame me for lack of vision or less foresight than others.

Whether I should have crushed the revolt at birth with the force I used to subdue the rebellion after the proclamation of the emancipation has been answered in the previously mentioned letter of September 25th, question six.

It makes a great difference if you deal with the whole population. The more sensible and reasonable segment, due to events in Denmark in March 1848, believed their cause to be justified and reasonable and a common cause for the whole population rather than with a malicious, thoughtless and shameless crowd that would make much greater demands than would the reasonable element whose support they will thus lose. At that time not a single man, not one single voice suggested the use of force, thus provoking unspeakable grief without solving the problem. The history of the French colonies during the first revolution was a dire warning to everybody, and at that time there was a comparatively stronger military force in Martinique than in St. Croix in 1848. And I am sure that if it had been possible to call the planters together and ask for their opinion, the more sensible and realistic of them would have advised me to do exactly what I did. Today, when their properties and lives are not in any danger, it is only natural that they should have another opinion because the only way they can expect to obtain any compensation is to maintain that it was not necessary to emancipate the slaves and therefore they suffered unnecessary losses.

There are two more things I want to point out even if they are not legal proof; however, they ought to be considered when deciding whether I have proclaimed emancipation without any need or reason.

In the first place, I have never supported a suddenly proclaimed emancipation; on the contrary, all my work as Governor and Governor General proves that I considered that an emancipation had to be prepared gradually to qualify the Negro population for the conditions of freedom. Because of this, I have been attacked so many times both at home and abroad, and therefore am entitled to believe that I am not an 'Emancipist' in the general meaning of the word.

Is there any reason to expect me suddenly to have proclaimed an emancipation that was not absolutely necessary? I did not have any property in the islands to be concerned about. Should I suddenly have changed my lifelong attitude, if it had not been necessary? And should I have preferred to proclaim an emancipation so evidently against my plans, the work of my whole life? Furthermore, I had worked successfully in the realization of my plans. Consider the quiet and orderly conditions in the colonies since the slaves have been emancipated for these past eighteen months. Compare them with conditions in the colonies of other countries where a sudden emancipation has either been given or taken. Doesn’t it show that generally speaking, my administration, policy and efforts were appropriate, considering the conditions in the colonies?

Today others might admit against their will that my work for the benefit of the colonies had been very fruitful and will continue to be; therefore, why should I hesitate to admit it myself? Sudden emancipation will bring more dangers and less real advantages to the black population whose happiness and civilization has meant so much to me during so many years and been the object and aim of all my activity.

I have thought it wise to send you these notes and presentations and, at the same time, I once more assure you of my unlimited respect and trust in you.


Tekst 43 | Oversigten over kildetekster | Tekst 45

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