Forts on St. John 


In 1717 soldiers, planters and enslaved Africans were shipped from St. Thomas to occupy the island of St. John, then called St. Jan. On a strategic mountain in Coral Bay they built a small fort – ‘Frederiksværn’ – most often called ‘Fortsberg’ after its location atop a mountain. A map from 1720 shows a very accessible road to the fort with a collection of houses behind a dike. The fort was later reinforced and expanded, but is now in ruins. Below the fort a coastal battery was built with a half wall with embrasures for cannons. The fort was in the same area as the plantation that the West India and Guinea Company built when they colonized the island. The location was carefully chosen because the fort would guard the Coral Bay, which many considered to be the best natural harbour in the Caribbean.

From the end of the 1700s a small fort in Cruz Bay, Fort Christian, was armed with cannon that also faced inland. Today the building contains the local government’s offices and the Governor’s house on St. John. Fort Christian in Cruz Bay was built in 1780 on the instructions of P.L. Oxholm, but was enlarged and rebuilt in 1824. A carpenter named John Wright, under contract to Governor-General Peter von Scholten, was in charge of the work. John Wright was born in 1775 on St. John and bought his freedom as a 20-year-old. He was trained as a carpenter in the Dutch Reformed Church, and through his profession became a very wealthy man with his own construction company and a large number of properties in Charlotte Amalie.

On St. John 86 plantations were founded, often separated by rough terrain and high mountain ridges. Most ended up as cotton plantations. As on St. Thomas, approximately 80-90% of the population of St. John were enslaved Afro-Caribbeans throughout the eighteenth century. In 1733 there were 238 Europeans and 1,074 enslaved Afro-Caribbeans. Many planters from St. Thomas expanded their activities with plantations on St. John, but not everyone wanted to live so far from the centre of the colony in Charlotte Amalie. So in the early years of colonization at least 13 plantations on the island only had Afro-Caribbean residents, mostly slaves.

Many slaves neither could nor would come to terms with their fate and escaped from slavery – they ran ‘maroon’. The more people who ran away, the greater was the desire for freedom among those who remained. In the dense vegetation and along the rugged coastline the escaped slaves could hide in freedom and poverty. ‘Maroon’ slaves were hunted as game and suffered cruel punishments when they were caught. Because the slaves on the neighbouring British island of Tortola were emancipated in 1832, many Danish slaves naturally fled there on simple rafts.

The small fort in Coral Bay was not an impressive symbol of power, and from this point the rebellion of 1733 started. It was here on St. John that one of the most protracted slave rebellions in the Caribbean took place. The rebellion was crushed after six months during which the rebels in practice had total control of the island. They managed to wreak such havoc that it probably affected the Europeans’ perception of the forts: from now on they would be for protection not only against attacks by foreign powers, but against rebellious Afro-Caribbean slaves. It was in fact only after 1733 that Fortberg was enlarged and fortified with stone walls.