Escape to Freedom
Slavery was abolished in the British Virgin Islands on August 1, 1834. By the complicated terms of the law all slaves less then six years of age were to be freed immediately. House slaves had to complete a four year "apprenticeship" and field slaves a six year "apprenticeship" before they received full emancipation. By 1840 all the inhabitants of Tortola were free, while in nearby St. John the institution of slavery was to continue until 1848. British law granted free status to anyone who arrived in their territory. These factors created a situation whereby slavery and freedom were only separated by a mile and a half of ocean.
Sir Francis Drake Channel, with St John shoreline on the right and Tortola across the Channel
The channel between St. John and Tortola, although narrow, is generally characterized by rough seas and strong currents. Nonetheless, many St. John slaves braved the crossing in stolen boats, on secretly made rafts, paddling estate house doors and even by swimming.
The first major escape from St. John occurred in May of 1840 when eleven slaves from the Annaberg and Leinster Bay plantations fled to Tortola. A week later four slaves from the Brown Bay Plantation crossed the channel to the British island.
The Danes tried to close this avenue of escape. A guardhouse manned by sixteen soldiers and equipped with cannons was constructed near Leinster Point. (The ruins of this guardhouse still exist and can be found near the beginning of the Johnny Horn Trail). The stone structure which can still be seen on Whistling Cay was also utilized to prevent slave escapes.
View from Guardhouse
In addition to the armed soldiers and cannons on land, the bays and channels around St. John were patrolled by Danish navy frigates, whose crews were ordered to shoot to kill.
One night in the year 1840, five slaves left St. John's north shore in a canoe. Somewhere in the western Sir Francis Drake Channel, between St. John and Tortola, they were spotted by a Danish naval ship. The soldiers opened fire and a woman was killed. The others jumped into the sea. Another woman and a child were apprehended and returned to St. John, but the remaining two fugitives got away. They successfully swam the rest of the way to Tortola. The story of their ordeal created an international incident.
The line separating Danish St. John from British Tortola was no more defined in 1840 than it is today. The government in Tortola protested the killing of the woman in what appeared to be British waters. The protest led to an official investigation of the occurrence and the court martial in Copenhagen of a Lieutenant Hedemann for the murder of the woman and the violation of British territory. The lieutenant was found guilty and was sentenced to a two month prison term.
The St. John slaves had an underground network of contacts in Tortola who often aided in their escapes. On the night of November 15, 1845, thirty-seven St. John slaves secretly left their plantations and assembled on a deserted bay on the sparsely inhabited south side of St. John. While the Danish Navy was busily patrolling the north shore of St. John, the 37 men and women, safely and without incident, boarded the vessels and were transported to a new life in Tortola.
Between the years 1840 and 1848 more than one hundred St. John slaves were known to have found freedom in the British colonies.