“Queen Coziah”: Fact or Fiction?
The September 10-12, 1892 Coal Workers’ Strike
When native Virgin Islanders are asked to recall the islands’ greatest historic events, they almost invariably invoke the 1848 Emancipation (referred to as “Budhoe-Free” by generations past), orchestrated by John “General Budhoe” Gutliff of Estate La Grange; the great “Fireburn” of 1878, led by Axeline “Queen Agnes” Solomon, Mary “Queen Mary” Thomas, Mathilda “Queen Mathilda” McBean, and Susannah “Queen Susannah” Abrahamsen, better known as “Bottom Belly”; and the 1733 Slave Revolution on St. John, an event that predates the Haitian Revolution of 1791 by more than a half-century. Few islanders, however, especially those educated before 2005, have ever heard of the Coal Workers’ Strike of 1892. And to the extent that they have heard of the uprising, amidst sketchy facts are the many historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies: that the event unfolded over the course of one day; that the principal figure was a bamboula dancer called “Queen Coziah”; and that the uprising was “peaceful.” And unlike Clear dih Road, (leh dih Slave dem Pass) of Emancipation fame and Queen Mary, Weh We Ah Go Bu’n? and Fan Mih, Mih Buckra Missus, Fan Mih of Fireburn—kaiso songs that have become indelibly etched into the collective memory of Virgin Islanders territory-wide—the chant, “Dollar fo’ Dollar” is a tradition revived in 2005(after falling into disuse for decades) when the re-enactment of the strike first became an annual, organized commemoration in the streets of Charlotte Amalie. And the kaiso song, Roll, Isabella, Roll, once unwittingly sung by local school children of the 20th century almost as a nursery rhyme rather than as the song of rebellion that emerged from the strike, has today faded into oblivion except in the most culturally conscious households on St. Thomas.
But, finally, in honor of the 128th anniversary of the September 10-12, 1892 Coal Workers’ Strike (also called “Coal Carriers’ ” or “Coal Porters’ ” Strike ) on St. Thomas, details of the historic uprising, uncovered in the Danish National Archives in 2010, are being made available to Virgin Islanders and the people of the world.
The recently uncovered archival material, however, has served to question some long-standing “truths” about what is regarded as the island of St. Thomas’ most revered contribution to the history of resistance in the Virgin Islands:
-Why was a three-day uprising reported by the media of the day as a one-day event when even police reports and the folksong that chronicles the event describe an event beginning on a Saturday and culminating on the following Monday?
-Why is the name “Coziah” or the appellation “Queen Coziah” conspicuously absent from the contemporaneous written records—especially since other names of coal carriers, female and male, appear in the records—if she was the leader of the movement, so much so as to have been venerated with the lofty and rarely bestowed title of “Queen”?
-Why has the uprising been historically characterized as “peaceful” when, though there was no bloodshed, the event—by all surviving written accounts—was teetering on the brink of disaster?
Background: The Coaling Industry on St. Thomas (1841-1935)
By the early 1800s, ships powered by wind-filled sails and man-driven oars were giving way to steam-powered vessels, first as paddleboats that traversed rivers and other localized bodies of water, then, beginning in 1839, by screw-propeller vessels designed and constructed specifically for ocean-going, intercontinental journeys. The year 1830 witnessed the arrival of the first steam-powered vessels to the port of Charlotte Amalie. And in 1841 St. Thomas’ deep-water harbor, located in the center of the Caribbean and, thus, in the center of the New World, became a coaling station for the refueling of the many steam engine ocean liners that were beginning to sail the world’s waterways. Ten years later, in 1851, St. Thomas became the West Indies’ coaling hub for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSPC), a position the port would enjoy until 1885. Chartered by Britain’s Queen Victoria in 1839, the company’s mission was to maintain a fleet of at least 14 steam vessels for the purpose of transporting British mail, freight, and passengers between Britain and the West Indies. Other international shipping companies such as the German Hamburg-American Packet Company (1871-1914) and the French Compagnie Générale Atlantique would soon follow suit, their vessels calling on St. Thomas’ harbor, refueling while in-port. By the middle of the 1850s, Charlotte Amalie’s harbor had become the premier fueling harbor of the Caribbean—the “gas station” of the New World.
The RMSPC established its depot and coaling station on the northeastern side of Hassel Island. [Until 1865, Hassel Island was a peninsula connected to mainland St. Thomas, impeding the egress of water from the harbor. A deadly outbreak of cholera in 1853, compounded by the poor circulation of water in the harbor, motivated the Danish Government, by way of a request from RMSPC, to dredge the harbor in order to separate the Hassel Island peninsula from mainland St. Thomas, thereby allowing for increased water circulation in the harbor].
The coal used to fuel steamships was not the charcoal made from local trees that was used in coal-pots for cooking. Instead, anthracite and lignite coals mined in Europe (especially Wales) and bituminous coal from the United States (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky) were used. Coal workers would unload the coal at wages approximately seventy-five percent the rate paid for loading. The island’s larger coaling stations could each accommodate approximately 16,000 tons (32 million pounds) of coal, enough to fuel 32 large steamers, each loaded with one million pounds of coal. About 10,000 basketfuls of coal were required to coal each vessel, the average coal carrier in a work crew of 100 carrying 100 loads per ship. (Some carriers were known for customarily transporting 200 basketfuls, and sometimes 300, in the coaling of one vessel.) On average, therefore, a coal carrier would deliver 20-25 basketfuls of coal per hour, or one basket every three minutes.
In 1905, St. Thomas’ Brønsted & Co., advertised: “A large stock of fresh Cory Merthyr smokeless Cardiff steam coal, Scotch, Newcastle[,] and superior American bituminous coal is always kept on hand for supplying steamers with prompt dispatch and at very low prices.” The coal was delivered to St. Thomas onboard wind- and steam-powered cargo ships.
Whether by day or by night, ships could be coaled. A horn would be blown, summoning coal porters to the respective coaling wharves. Typically, upwards of 100 workers would answer the call.
Steamships in need of re-fueling would dock at designated coaling wharves, whereupon the island’s coal carriers—primarily women—would begin transporting, atop their heads, large wicker baskets piled high with between 80 and 100 pounds of coal. Usually barefooted, the porters would walk up and down the steep gangplanks of the vessels. Porters were compensated one penny per basket load of coal, issued in metal tokens, minted specifically for the coaling station, to be redeemed for real currency at the end of the workweek. The whole hectic scene would be enlivened with song (sometimes accompanied by dance)—typically sung in a minor key, the lyrics alluding to some local event or mocking some individual. Scarves would be tied across the nostrils to minimize the inhaling of coal dust. (Maubi a fermented beverage made of maubi bark and various herbs, was drunk by coalers as a cleansing agent to rid the respiratory system of coal dust. And carriers would routinely take herbal baths—locally referred to as “bush baths”—to wash their skin clean of coal dust) Four or five hours were usually required for a full complement of coal workers to fuel a large steamer. Earning, on average, one dollar per day, coal carrying was a better-paying occupation than sugarcane-cutting, which paid about 20 cents per day in the 1890s.
In the 1840s—a few years before Emancipation in the Danish West Indies—Robert Woodward, a junior officer onboard an RMSPC ship, describes the coaling operation on St. Thomas:
“I saw the ladies and gentlemen employed at the work were kept moving by a white man with a whip in his hands; the ladies also carried baskets on their heads which held 112 lbs. coal […] and had to move smartly with their load, or the whip came into requisition.”
By September of 1892, almost a half-century after Emancipation, the white man’s whip, a metaphor of sorts for the sordid institution of slavery itself, had been euphemistically replaced by harsh labor policies and meager wages. And just as the post-Emancipation economy of the Danish West Indies was about to take a nosedive on account of reduced profits, the steamship coaling industry became a cornerstone of the St. Thomas economy. Steamship companies and coaling station owners amassed great fortunes because of Charlotte Amalie’s esteemed position as the best harbor in all the West Indies. The Danish-owned West Indies Coal Depot boasted its ability to service four large steamers simultaneously. And it is said that St. Thomas-born Thomas William Brønsted (1836-1916) became “extremely wealthy” as a result of coal deliveries to United States warships during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Thus, when on those three fateful days in September of 1892 St. Thomas coal carriers decided to put down their wicker baskets in protest and stand up for payment in Danish currency rather in Mexican dollars, the collective voices of the workers had to be acknowledged.
(The coal-worker profession endured on St. Thomas until 1935.)
The Mexican Dollar
When 12-time (non-consecutive) Mexican president/emperor Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876), during his third exile from Mexico, arrived on St Thomas in 1858, it is believed that he brought with him copious amounts of Mexican silver dollars (also called “Spanish Dollars” and “Pieces of Eight”), for it is around that same time that there was a marked increase in the circulation of Mexican dollars in the Danish West Indies, especially on St. Thomas. Santa Anna remained in St. Thomas until 1869, residing in the hilltop villa on Bjerge Gade that is today a boutique inn called Villa Santana Hotel. When the charismatic Mexican president departed St. Thomas after his 11-year stint on the island, the Mexican dollars he had brought to the island remained in wide circulation.
That Santa Anna would travel with Mexican (“Spanish”) Dollars is hardly remarkable since the “Spanish” dollar was at the time—from the first half of the 16th century until the middle of the 19th century—considered the most internationally accepted and exchanged currency of the colonial New World. The once-ubiquitous coin was first minted in Mexico in 1536 from silver mined in Central Europe, northwestern Mexico, and the storied “silver mountain” of Potosi, in what is today Bolivia. Regarded as the world’s first global currency, the Mexican dollar maintained its international relevance for almost 400 years. Indeed, it is the currency from which the U.S. dollar, the Hong Kong dollar, the yen, the yuan, and most of the currencies of Latin America derive.
By the 1890s, however, the once-great currency was witnessing a decline in value—by approximately 40 percent. Consequently, when St. Thomas’ coaling companies persisted in paying the island’s coal porters in Mexican dollars, which had lost almost half of its purchasing power in local stores, the porters complained. And when their complaints repeatedly fell on deaf ears, the porters took action in the form of the September 10-12,1892 Coal Carriers Strike.
The Sanct ThomæTidende of September 14, 1892, two days after the strike, reported:
“An Eventful Day”
The Mexican Dollar, which has been a prominent instrument in our commerce for many years, though it is dying, seems determined to die hard, and came perilously near causing bloodshed here on Monday.
As the circulation of the “tokens” has by law been suppressed, there was considerable commotion in town in the morning consequent on people rushing to have those they held redeemed, and quite a run was made on the Brokers to have Mexican money exchanged for Danish. On the other hand, the coal-carriers still declined to work unless they receive dollar for dollar Danish silver a day.
A crowd of these and others paraded the streets crying down the Mexican and shouting for Danish money, each moment fresh accessions joining until it assumed a considerable size. After making loud demonstrations at the three principal steamship agencies, the crowd moved to the Police Office, and next to the Government Secretary’s Office. By this time, 10 o’clock, the mob had reached enormous proportions, and as its attitude became menacing—a number, male and female, carrying sticks which they brandished wildly—a detachment of armed soldiers, under Captain PALUDAN, was ordered out, a posse of Police, together with Police Master FISCHER, K.D., and Policeassistant Kjær, likewise doing duty.
The military halted at the Big Market, some of the troops being stationed there to check the rush, whilst the others proceeded to Generalgade, where much excitement prevailed.
At the sight of the troops, people became greatly agitated and riotous, and at a certain moment there was every appearance that a conflict would ensue. They, however, very sensibly desisted from turbulence, and after hearing that they would be paid dollar for dollar Danish money as their day’s wage assumed a calm and cheerful demeanour. Notwithstanding, the multitude did not disperse, but the downpour of a heavy shower of rain caused it to be perceptiv[e]ly thinned.
Though the demonstrations were loudest in the lower part of the town, the eastern portion was by no means quiet, and on the guards being called off from down street they were for some time stationed near the Park, in the vicinity of which the mob had congregated and appeared disposed to give trouble. It may be mentioned that here, as elsewhere, the suavity with which it was treated by the POLICEMASTER and his ASSISTANT, who displayed much forbearance, helped greatly to keep it under restraint—the former moving about from place to place with the crowd and occasionally addressing it in terms of pacification.
During the tumult many stores were closed, and business suspended, and some doors were only thrown open when the soldiers retired to barracks and tranquility was restored. It is seldom in the history of St. Thomas that such a scene has been witnessed.
Contrary to expectation, there was not the slightest disturbance at night in connection with the day’s embroilment, and the Main Street and General Gade, which had been the scene of so much confusion up to midday, were completely deserted. And it was a happy circumstance that matters terminated as they did, for if the threats made by some of the people had been accomplished, the tale might have been sad to tell.
We understand that several summonses in connection with the movement have been issued, and an investigation is being carried on in the Police Court.
Police Protocol, October 1892—Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, Danish West Indies, September 10-12, 1892
[In October of 2013, Danish historian and author Peter Garde translated the Police Protocol of the September 10 – 12, 1892 Coal Workers’ Strike on St. Thomas. The following is the edited transcription of Garde’s translation. General editing, including punctuation, paragraphing, and notes within brackets, have been added where those alterations serve to enhance the readability of the text. Every effort has been made to preserve the meaning and spirit of the Garde translation of the original text.
The Police Protocol was handwritten over a period covering the first days of October 1892.]
The Chief Constable plus two witnesses present. Investigation of the disturbances of the 10th and 12th last month [September, 1892]. Clothilde Simonet, under arrest, admitted that she, on the 12th, was by the police ordered to keep quiet and did not comply. She admits that she was resisting arrest when Chief Constable Gellerup took hold of her, the reason being that she was so excited that she was not fully aware of her actions.
The incident began when a squad of female coal workers from the French wharf had gone on strike on the 12th [September] and had declared that they would only work if paid in Danish silver money, whereas the wharf’s foreman only paid 1/3[rd] [of the wages] in Danish money.
[New page begins]
She was not in that squad; but when she heard what had happened in that squad, and that they were threatening those who did not join them, she decided to endorse the claims of the squad. And when the foreman said that it was impossible to fulfill their demands, they went into town to see whether Mr. Dueholm [Name not fully legible] was willing to do so. He refused and said that he would not pay the men more than 76 Danish “skillings” [According to Garde, 96 skillings is 1 daler. Garde writes that perhaps the illegible abbreviation means “cent,” but that he cannot read the word with certainty.] and the women 45 Danish “skilings.” [“cents”].
Frustrated by this, they went to the police precinct to talk with the Chief Constable, at which point she [Clothilde Simonet] left the crowd and went home, while, as far as she knew, the crowd went to the French wharf and from there to Nørregade. She joined them there [presumably, Nørregade]; and Gunnar Petersen, who was carrying a Danish flag, gave it to her, she being in the front row [of the crowd], whereupon she carried the flag until the Chief Constable took it from her and gave it to a constable. No other person carried any [Danish] flag, and the [other] flags seen in the back rows of the crowd belonged to Adolf [Sixte?] [Garde is unsure of the spelling of the surname], who was due to perform in the theater and advertised his show by means of placards and three flags carried by three men in the back part of the crowd.
Asked whether there was a leader of the movement, she [Clothilde Simonet] denied this and stated that she and her squad were not in the beginning au fait with the question of payment in Mexican currency, but had heard from the first squad that a Mexican “daler” [dollar] was not worth more than 63 cents and that all were agreed that not only would they not work for what was offered them, they would also demand full payment in Danish currency for the work already performed. When Mr. Puchette [?] [Garde is unsure of the spelling of the name, but it is probably “Luchetti,” a name which appears later in the transcript and is a name that was known on St. Thomas in the 19th century] refused this, they were angry and joined up, but without being clear on what they would do.
She [Clothilde Simonet] was not drunk and never takes alcohol; and she does not believe the other workers, male or female, were drunk or had been drinking to acquire courage.
Her [Clothilde Simonet’s] wages were 63 cents [According to Garde, the amount of her wages, written 13 lines from the bottom of page 3 of the report, is barely legible], paid to her in Danish currency on the 12th [of September 1892].
The Chief Constable remarked that Clothilde Simonet is a “public woman” [According to Garde, the Danish equivalent of a “common prostitute”], several times punished.
The court [the Police Court] decreed that as, in light of what was known, she had taken part in the disturbances and had resisted arrest, she would be taken into custody, which was told to her. She was carried away, and the case continued.
Tuesday, 4 October , afternoon. Chief Constable plus two witnesses. Investigation of disturbances [of September 10 – 12, 1892].
Thomas Philips [Garde is not sure of the spelling of Thomas’ surname] was produced and was strongly asked to tell the truth about his presence and recalcitrant behavior and the purpose of the same, which, according to the statements of the officers [two names that Garde cannot decipher], seems to have a larger scope than a demonstration to acquire higher pay. He [Thomas Philips] denied having shown resistance against the police or having instigated the crowd to break through the military detachment, which blocked the street. And as to the scarf, he denied having worn such one. He wore a hat. On the previous Saturday, he had worn a scarf, tied in another way than as stated by the police. But on that day, he had come from the coal wharf where he, during work, always had a handkerchief tied around his head in order to prevent coal dust from entering his eyes and hair.
Dismissed. [Thomas Philips]
Dorothea [Garde cannot decipher her surname] was also strongly asked to tell the truth about her plans; the sign of rebellion on her head; and her utterings of contempt towards the military, but [she] denies having had plans for the disturbance of the peace. She only ran up and down the street in the company of many other female workers. At one point, she joined a riot near the apothecary [presumably A. H. Riise on Main Street] but left the site a moment afterwards when the police arrived and asked them to vacate the street. She carried a rather thick stick in her hand but had no thought of using it. But when she saw the other women and men carrying sticks, she picked up one, which she found on street.
She [Dorothea] denies having had her headscarf tied in such a way as described by the officers [two names that Garde cannot decipher] and states that she did not know whether the method of tying the scarf had any meaning. Also, she denies having talked about the military as described by Police Constable [ ] [Garde cannot decipher the name]. Dorothea also states that she usually works at the French or the German wharf and that on Sunday the 11th [of September, 1892], she had worked at the German wharf and had been paid by the manager, Herr [ ? ] [Garde cannot read the surname. Herr means “Mr.” in German], 40 Danish cents instead of the usual 40 Mexican cents. On the following Monday [September 12], she went to the wharf of Captain Decker in town, together with other workers, male and female, in order to work at the coal wharf. But when they went there, they demanded to be told how much they would be paid per day. He [Decker] said that the men would be paid 80 cents Danish instead of 1 Mexican daler, and that the women would be paid 40 cents Danish instead of 60 cents Mexican. They all refused that offer, demanding to be paid the same in Danish currency as earlier in Mexican currency. And when he did not comply, they refused to go to work.
On this day [Monday, September 12, 1892], no work was done because they would not accept the payment offered them. On Friday of the same week [September 16th ] she worked a few hours and was paid the same amount in Danish currency as previously in Mexican currency.
Clothilde Simonet, under arrest, was produced and declared that she usually worked at the French and the German wharfs and on Saturday, the 24[th] of last month [September], having worked at the German wharf, was paid the same amount in Danish currency as previously in Mexican currency. As to Monday the 12th of last month [September], she declared that had the other male and female workers accepted to work for the wages offered, she would have done so also. But as they refused to work, she joined their protest. None of them would have forced higher wages by violence or threat of violence when they met in the town, but they hoped to achieve that result by informing Herr. Luchetti [Garde is unsure of the spelling of the surname, but Luchetti is probably correct] that if he did not accede to their demand, they would relinquish the wages already earned.
Last to testify was Lucretia Quomones [?] [Garde is unsure of the spelling of the surname], who was enjoined to tell the truth about her participation and the throwing of stones from her home. She persisted in denying having thrown stones herself at the military or police, or to have seen anyone else do so.
The court decreed that, considering the new information, it was probable that Thomas Philip and Dorothea Gotlief [Garde reads the surname as probably “Scotlief,” but it is more likely “Gotlief,” given the presence of that name on St. Thomas. It should be noted, however, that Scotlief is a surname used on the island of Tortola, British West Indies, and that many residents of Tortola worked on St. Thomas as coal-carriers during the era.] had planned disturbances of the public peace and order on the 11th of last month [September] rather than merely participating in the riots on the 12th, and that it was necessary to secure their presence during the investigation, for which reason the arrest was prolonged, which was told to them. They were taken away together with Clothilde Simonet and Lucretia [Quomones ?]
25 Aar I Vestindien
Fra Firsernes og Halvfemsernes
N. A. Kjær
[In the 25-year period between 1882 and 1907, Danish lawyer N. A. Kjær lived on St. Thomas, where he served in various public capacities, the most prominent being Police Assistant and Royal Accountant. After returning to Denmark, he wrote his memoirs, which were later expanded and published in Copenhagen in 1934. In his writings he describes the social unrest in Charlotte Amalie surrounding the September 1892 Coal Workers’ Strike.t:]
“As concerns the rebellion on St. Thomas in September 1892[,] we had some disturbances, and I must say that the grounds from the Negroes’ side were not totally unfounded. There was a lack of Danish coins and Danish currency. The wages of coal workers and servants were therefore paid in Mexican currency. When I arrived [in 1882,] the Mexican dollar was worth 80-90 cents[;] but it sank and sank, until the value at the beginning of the Nineties was 50-60 cents. The shops would raise their prices after the value of the dollar, but the Negroes had to purchase groceries with [Mexican coins worth] a little more than half of what they purchased. Civil servants and higher echelons of the businesses received their salary at full value, normally Spanish gold. The workers complained loudly, but as the Governor was slow in responding, a crowd collected outside the Governor’s office[,] where they threatened and complained to Secretary Hänschild [The equivalent of present-day Lt. Governor]. Governor Arendrup was on St. Croix. The secretary could not quieten the mob[,] which was growing. After the lesson of 1878 [Fireburn on St. Croix] the fortress [Fort Christian] was closed and barricaded.
The police gathered in the fortress’ courtyard, and the military, under command of Captain Paludan[,] were called to assistance, and Fischer, who, as mentioned earlier [in the book], was popular, attempted to exhort the crowd to quietness. He did not succeed, as the atmosphere was violent, and threats were uttered. The military and police succeeded in removing the mob, but soon it gathered in bigger and smaller riots in the street, armed with sticks and stones.
Generalgade was full of Negroes who refused to retreat when the Chief Constable Captain Paludan and I arrived. Stones flew near the ears, and with sticks hardened in the fire, “brandished” called, they tried to break through our force. We resisted the attack, and they had to withdraw[, b]ut only to gather at other sites in the town[.] [S]o we had to begin again from the beginning. I remember that I and Captain Paludan[,] at the time being on bad terms[with each other], toasted reconciliation in Brøndsted’s shop after the affair in Generalgade had ended.
The whole day and the following day [September 10 and 11] we dispersed the bigger and smaller crowds where they had gathered. The military could have used the firearms at its disposal in response to the situation, but the chief constable who was in command and was afraid of employing that measure as the excited mob possibly would retaliate by putting fire to the town, which could not be evaded and would have occasioned great disasters. By seizing a rum-shop the rioters could drink themselves out of mind, and the consequences would have been enormous.
On one of the days, unrest broke out at the French shipyard. Before I went to the shipyard with a smaller force of police, I asked my wife for something to eat, but the food wasn’t ready. When she offered me a West Indian dish called ‘calalu,’ I first declined it with contempt[,] but as there was nothing else, I had to swallow the bitter pill. But when I had tasted the Calalu, a kind of cabbage mixed with fish and spices, I found it to be excellent and from that day I would eat Calalu and other West Indian dishes. Did nothing else come of those September days, then I at least learned to eat West Indian food[,] which was more agreeable to me than the heavy Danish dishes, ill-suited for the climate as they are.
An English man-of-war, which, having heard rumors of disturbances, arrived in the port but was not asked to assist. Further damage to persons and property did not ensue.
Arriving on St. Thomas, Governor Arendrup said that the chief constable had acted too leniently, whereas the press of the town praised the police for its moderation and cool-headed acting, by which greater mischief was evaded, and it is a moot question whether this point of view was not the right one.
The Negroes’ demands were largely fulfilled, as some old and solid businesses were allowed to issue checks of small amounts which could be used as currency. Of course, the firms guaranteed the transferability of these checks. Later, some of these businesses went bankrupt, which caused some difficulties. But we got rid of the Mexican [coins], and after a short time they disappeared.
There were no other disturbances during my stay in the Danish West Indies.“
Oral history is an integral part of Virgin Islands history, the oral component oftentimes giving life, meaning, and color to the otherwise-black-and-white pages of the written record. One song emerged from the 1892 strike and was passed down from generation to generation on St. Thomas:
“Roll, Isabella, Roll”
Roll, Isabella, roll
Roll, Isabella, roll,
Roll Isabella, roll,
Dem shopkeeper got dih island down.
Ah went to dih shop wid a quart
To buy fifteen cent t’ing.
When ah look in mih han’,
Dem shopkeeper gimme tall fo’ change.
Roll, Isabella, roll,
Roll, Isabella, roll,
Roll, Isabella, roll,
Dem shopkeeper got dih island down.
St. Croix Avis, September 24, 1892
The fall in the value of the Mexican dollar which has been the occasion (not the cause) of the present difficulties in the adjustment of payments in St. Thomas, is not the fault of the Mexican dollar itself which, though not “as good as gold” is at any rate as good as the best silver can make it.
The Mexican dollar has always had a high character for being true to weight and pure in quality, and, as far as we know, has never had a word of suspicion uttered against it. Many years ago, when this coin was in great demand for exportation to China and India as a circulating medium, it became scarce in the West Indies, and stood, we are told, at a premium in St. Thomas, selling for six or seven cents above its face value. It must be a puzzle to many persons, that notwithstanding all this, the Mexican dollar has gradually gone down in value, till it can be bought to-day in St. Thomas for 66 cents, and in New York for about the same.
How has this been possible, it may be asked. As in so many cases of a similar kind, we have to look for the cause far away from where the effects are felt; we have to go to the mountains and valleys of Colorado, and there, in the vast quantities of silver yielded by the veins spreading through the rockey masses, over the division of whose wealth the miners and the mine-owners are now engaged in a fierce struggle, here we find the cause of the fall in the value of silver and consequently in the value of the Mexican dollar.
The influence of the influx of silver from Colorado, has of course been felt all over the world, and the troubles of St. Thomas are small indeed compared, for instance, with those of India, but at the same time they are of considerable importance for the people who are affected by them, and hence, as affecting our friends in St. Thomas, there at the same time to us in Sant Cruz, although we are ourselves outside of them.
It is much to be regretted that when the Mexican dollar began to depreciate plain language was not used about it. Instead of saying, however, that the Mexican dollar was at a discount, it was always said in St. Thomas that other moneys, gold, notes, etc., were at a premium. It may be replied that this is exactly the same thing, and so it is of course among business men, but among the working population of St. Thomas it did not mean the same thing; the language used did not point out to them that the Mexican dollar was decreasing in value, it rather led them to suppose that while the Mexican dollar remained at the same value the other moneys, for some mysterious reason or other were becoming dearer.
Very soon the inconvenience of having to make change for a Mexican dollar in Danish money showed itself. The inconvenience may be made clear by a simple example. A man goes into a shop, calls for 2 cents worth of something and puts down a Mexican quarter-dollar piece; let us suppose the Mexican dollar is worth at the time 90 cents, then the quarter-dollar is of course worth 22 ½ cents; yet the shop keeper gives 23 cents change, hence he parts with his 2 cents worth of stuff for nothing and gives away a half cent besides. Of course, nobody would do business in this way and the shopkeepers tried to get over the difficulty by declining to give more than a certain portion of change. Still there was evidently a loss every time change was made. At a meeting of merchants it was agreed to take the Mexican dollar only at its actual value, and if this simple rule had been adhered to all the recent troubles would have been avoided. One merchant, however, broke through the rule and offered to take the Mexican dollar at its face value. Of course he made it up or intended to make it up in the price of his goods, but it was impossible to make the working population understand this and they flocked to his shop, deserting the others, who then found themselves compelled to the old system. Then it was that the system of tokens was introduced, a cheap coinage without value but representing on the good faith of the merchants who issued them, certain parts of a Mexican dollar. This was 5 or 6 years ago. Some people saw the dangers of this system at once, and they are well exposed in a letter in Danish in the Tidende in September 1887. For the time, however[,] this brass as it soon came to be called was found to be convenient, and was sometimes actually sold at a premium to shopkeepers who were short of change. In this way it came to pass that two circumstances existed side by side in St. Thomas, namely the legitimate coinage of this country, and the unauthorized Mexican dollar system, and except in public offices, such as custom house, the latter prevailed everywhere. It might have gone on without much complaint against if the Mexican dollar had remained at a small discount of 10 or even 20 per cent. But when the value went lower even that that, there came an outcry. The merchants complained bitterly of making accounts in a medium which was continually depreciating, so that when the account came to be paid they had to lose a considerable part if not all, of their profits. Added to this great inconvenience came the bankruptcy of a couple of the firms which had issued the “brass,” and consequent loss to the holders of the said brass. This is the straw which has broken the camel’s back and has led first to the ordinance compelling the redemption of the said “brass,” and next to a resolution on the part of many of the merchants not to receive the Mexican dollar at any price. These two measures have compelled a return to the legitimate currency of the place. Now at last it has to be made clear to the labouring population that they have been all along paid in a currency which is of lower value than the Danish. Employers say, what is no doubt true, that labour has gone down in value, but it is not easy to convince the labourers of this. Many of them, we believe, are quite honest in their demand of a dollar Danish in place of a dollar Mexican; there may of course be others who know very well that in demanding this they are in reality demanding a higher pay. In course of time all relations will of course be adjusted; but in the meantime there is continual debating between master and servant, owner and renter, debtor and creditor as to how the claims of each are to be regarded now. The Mexican currency has been got rid of. Unpleasant as this is for the time being, we do not regard it by any means as St. Thomas’ worst trouble.
That the September 1892 Coal Carriers’ Strike was a win for laborers is irrefutable; their demand for payment in Danish currency was met. What remains puzzling, however, are the newspaper reports which describe the strike as a one-day event when the police protocol and Kjær’s memoirs clearly indicate that the uprising encompassed three tension-filled days, beginning on Saturday, September 10th and concluding on Monday, the 12th. Also cause for befuddlement is why—though admittedly there was no bloodshed—the uprising has come to be described by many present-day Virgin Islanders as a “peaceful” rebellion when the record speaks to the contrary. But most bewildering of all is how—and exactly when and why—did an alleged bamboula dancer called “Coziah” not only emerge in the oral history (and since the 1930s in the written record, albeit without cited original sources) as the leader of the uprising, so much so that she is called “Queen Coziah,” when her name is absent from the written and original oral records? Is she the Clothilde Simonet who was arrested and imprisoned because of her involvement in the uprising? Is Coziah the “Isabella” of “Roll, Isabella, Roll”? And if so, why is the name “Coziah” not recorded?
Because of the long, harsh reality of slavery, Virgin Islands history may be correctly characterized as a “resistance history” since so many of the islands’ great historic events emerged as resistances to oppression. And in Virgin Islands culture, as is the case in cultures the world over, those rare individuals who rise to the occasion by standing up against oppression are lauded with titles befitting heroes and heroines.
The tradition of bestowing the title of “queen” upon extraordinary females is a tradition rooted in the West African culture from which most Virgin Islanders derive. Thus, it is consistent with Virgin Islands culture for a female leader of a rebellion as significant as the Coal Workers’ Strike of 1892 to be honored with the title of “queen.”
In all of Virgin Islands history, only a few women have been venerated with the title of “queen”: Susannah Abramson, Mathilda McBean, Mary Thomas, and Axeline Solomon. Their first and last names, their ages, children, etc., are all documented in the over 15,000 pages of archival records pertaining to the 1878 Fireburn. In addition, their names were, generations ago, emblazoned onto the tongues of Virgin Islanders of the oral tradition. Great Virgin Islands women such as Eileen Petersen, first female judge, and Lucinda Millin and Ann Abramson, trailblazing female legislators, have not been honored—even if deserving—with the title “queen.” It would therefore behoove Virgin Islanders to tread cautiously when bestowing the honor for fear of its dilution in significance.
The historic record pertaining to the 1892 Coal Porters’ Strike seems to indicate that if the event was led by a woman, the name of that woman was Clothilde Simonet. Thus, if a coal worker is to be exalted with the title of “queen,” then that woman should be called “Queen Clothilde,” not “Queen Coziah.”
Clothilde Simonet was a verifiably real person who, by her own admission, participated in the Strike. And of the throngs of coal-carriers who participated, it is she who emerged as the primary person of interest of the Danish authorities.
Virgin Islands women are renowned for their strength, bravery, leadership ability, wisdom, resourcefulness, etc. And it is likely that some of their inspiration derives from the presence of great females throughout the history of the islands. Those heroines serve a greater good when they can be historically verified by the people whom they inspire.