On October 1, 1878, exasperated laborers on the Caribbean island of St. Croix set fire to houses, sugar mills and around 50 plantations while protesting oppressive working conditions enforced by Danish colonial rulers. At the helm of the “Fireburn” revolt was a woman named Mary Thomas, who was called “Queen Mary” by her followers, though she preferred to answer to “Captain.” Now, 140 years after the rebellion, Denmark has erected a towering statue in Thomas’ honor. It is, according to the New York Times’ Martin Selsoe Sorensen, the city’s first public monument to a black woman.
“I Am Queen Mary,” as the statue is titled, stands in front of Copenhagen’s West Indian Warehouse, which once stored sugar, rum and other goods produced by Denmark’s former colonies in the Caribbean. The building is now an exhibition space, and houses the 2,000 plaster casts that make up the Royal Cast Collection.
The statue is a collaboration between Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers and Virgin Islands artist La Vaughn Belle. It depicts Thomas sitting tall in a wicker chair, a torch in one hand, a knife for cutting sugar cane in the other. According to a statement on a website devoted to the new statue, her pose is meant to evoke the one that Huey P. Newton adopts in the iconic 1967 photograph that captures the co-founder of the Black Panther Party seated similarly in a wicker chair, spear in one hand, a rifle in the other.
The body of the statue was made using 3D scanning technology, which created a hybrid of Ehlers’ and Belle’s bodies.
The monument is a “bridge between the two countries”, Belle says in the statement. “It’s a hybrid of our bodies, nations and narratives.”
“I Am Queen Mary” was unveiled on March 31, marking the end of a centennial year commemorating Denmark’s sale of the Virgin Islands to the United States. The statue “extends the conversation beyond the centennial year,”Belle says in the statement, “and gets people to really question what is their relationship to this history.”
In 1848, some 70 years before the sale of the Virgin Islands, Denmark abolished slavery in the former Danish West Indes as the enslaved population was poised for a full scale revolt. But conditions remained difficult for laborers on the islands. As Gad Heuman explains in The Caribbean: A Brief History, workers were bound to yearly contracts, which could force them “to work for an estate against their wishes.” Low wages and abuses of power by estate managers also fueled frustrations, leading to the Fireburn rebellion in 1878. Leading the revolt on St. Croix were three women: Axeline Elizabeth Salomon, Mathilda McBean and Thomas.
Before Danish authorities put an end to the rebellion, workers burned down more than half of the city of Frederiksted. Thomas, who reportedly played an active role in the vandalism and arson, was tried and sentenced to death. Her punishment was subsequently commuted to a life sentence with hard labor. She lived the rest of her days behind bars, at prisons in Copenhagen and Christiansted, a town on St. Croix.
The new statue at the West Indian Warehouse is one of Denmark’s only monuments to its Danish colonies. According to Sorensen, the country has “not undergone a national reckoning about the thousands of Africans forced onto Danish ships to work the plantations in Danish colonies in the Caribbean.”
“It may have to do with the narrative of Denmark as a colonial power saying, ‘We weren’t as bad as others,’” Niels Brimnes, an associate professor of history at Aarhus University, tells Sorenson. “But we were just as bad as the others.”
Henrik Holm, senior research curator at the National Gallery of Denmark, said in a statement that he hopes “I Am Queen Mary” hope will prompt Danes to reflect more frankly on their colonial past.
“It takes a statue like this to make forgetting less easy,” he explained. “It takes a monument like this to fight against the silence, neglect, repression, and hatred.”