The date of October 1st commemorates Contract Day and the legendary Fire Burn revolt that took place on October 1, 1878. Today, we celebrate a history of strength and courage demonstrated by the women of that era, our Queens, who stood up for the rights of the masses regarding fair pay and fair labor practices.
Following the Emancipation of enslaved Africans in the Danish West Indies, the Labor Act of 1849 was enacted. This Act provided plantation owners with inexpensive laborers. These laborers were contracted on the first day of October and were bound to that plantation until the agreement was severed the following year at the same time.
Although laborers were being paid, their wages were meager, and not the fair pay for a day’s work in accordance with the existing Labor Laws. They still lived lives of impoverishment. The promise of improved working conditions and wages also were left unfulfilled year after year. This would soon change as a result of the courageous actions of the Queens of our history.
On Contract Day 1878 in Frederiksted, Mary “Queen Mary” Thomas, Mathilda “Queen Mathilda” McBean, and Axelline “Queen Agnes” Salomon led a revolt to demand better pay for plantation workers. Recognition of two additional women instrumental in the revolt include: Susanna “Bottom Belly” Abrahamson, and Rebecca Frederik.
This revolt and the burning of acres of land and property serve as what we know to be the historic “Fire Burn,” which started at Fort Frederik and spread throughout the Western end of St. Croix. According to historical documents, after five days, 53 plantations including crops were destroyed. Interestingly, of those killed, 60 were laborers and only 3 were Danes. Subsequently, more than 400 persons were arrested, including Queens Mary, Mathilda, and Agnes who were sentenced to jail in Denmark.
One year later on Contract Day, the Labor Act of 1849 was repealed as laborers once again gathered and plantation owners feared that the masses would once again revolt.
As Virgin Islanders, we are rooted in the resilience, courage, and fearlessness of our ancestors. Historic acts of bravery and sacrifice paved the way for us to stand proudly in our purpose and be empowered by the legacy of trailblazers from our past. We celebrate all who let their torches burn for our right to fair pay and fair labor practices in the Virgin Islands.