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Breffu

Breffu (?-May 1734), “Queen of St. John,” a leader of the 1733 enslaved uprising on St. John, a small Caribbean island which was colonized by the Danish as early as 1718. Breffu, originally from the Akwamu nation (present-day Ghana), was enslaved at a plantation owned by Pieter Krøyer. On 23 November 1733 Breffu, along with King Claes, King Juni, and Kanta, (all of Akwamu ethnicity) led one of the earliest recorded instances of coordinated rebellion amongst enslaved persons. Many scholars attribute the valor to initiate such a rebellion to the proud disposition of the Akwamu peoples, who dominated Africa’s Guinea Coast, controlling inland trade routes and capturing individuals from surrounding cities to sell to European enslavers. The death of the Akwamu King in 1730 disrupted this control and the Akwamu people soon became a majority of the enslaved population being exported to the Caribbean.

Just three years after their King’s death, Breffu and other Akwamu people from the fallen nation initiated one of the longest slave uprisings in North American history, with the St. John insurrection lasting six months from November 1733 to May 1734. Interestingly, the goal of the revolt was not to free the people of the colony or return to Africa but to supplant white (mostly Danish, but some French) plantation owners with Akwamu leaders. The Akwamu leaders of the insurrection planned to take over the colony’s plantations and people indefinitely, essentially reinstituting their home Nation’s former practices of enslavement on St. John.

Natural disaster, food scarcity, and strict slave codes characterize St. John’s climate around the time of the insurrection. The same year of the insurrection, the island suffered hurricanes and drought, which made it hard for enslaved people to provide food for themselves. Food and labor insecurities sparked a wave of marronage amongst the enslaved population. In response to the high number of maroons, Governor Phillip Gardelin issued Maroon Ordinances in May of 1733, which stipulated specific procedures for collecting and punishing runaways--procedures which included flogging, limb amputation, torture, and death.

Six months after Gardelin’s implementation of Maroon Ordinances, Breffu and other leaders initiated their planned revolt in the pre-dawn hours of 23 November 1733. King Juni and other leaders overtook Fort Fredericksvaern and sent out a signal to the island by firing the Fort’s canon. The canon being the signal that the Fort was successfully overtaken, other leaders of the insurrection received cue to begin their assaults. Upon hearing the canon, Breffu murdered her owner and his wife in the Krøyer family home. After seizing gunpowder and ammunition from Krøyer, Breffu and her co-conspirator Christian proceeded to Gabriel van Stell’s house, executing the entire family: husband, wife, and child.

Not much more is known about Breffu’s role in the insurrection for the remaining six months. The Danish lacked the resources to quell the revolt immediately and eventually turned to the French for aid. By May of 1734, the tides of the revolt turned and the remaining rebels (others having surrendered or been stamped out by French and Danish forces) commit group suicide. Breffu’s body and twenty-three others were found on Browns Bay. It is upon the discovery of the bodies that Danish officials learn, with great shock, that Breffu is a woman. While it had been known at the start of the insurrection that Breffu was involved, her gender was never explicitly discussed—perhaps out of an assumption that leading a rebellion was more characteristic of men.

While scholars debate over whether Breffu (in some sources called Princess Breffu) was truly of royal society in Akwamu, Breffu’s leadership in the rebellion gained her the posthumous title “Queen of St. John” amongst later generations of Virgin Islanders. In Cruz Bay and other areas of St. John, Breffu is celebrated at Independence day festivals and parades. In 1848, more than 100 years later, the Danish Virgin Islands emancipated all enslaved people.

Online Resources

Norton, Holly. “Breffu: a slave, a rebel, a fighter – and a woman almost invisible to history.” guardian.com. The Guardian, March 20, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/mar/20/breffu-a-slave-a-rebel-a-fighter-and-a-woman-almost-invisible-to-history

Nielsen, Euell A. “Breffu (?-1734)” blackpast.org, February 23, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/people-global-african-history/breffu-1734/

KESSE. “The story of Breffu, a female slave from Ghana who led a massive slave revolt to take over the West Indies in 1733.” ghanaianmuseum.com. Ghanaian Museum, December 23, 2019.

https://ghanaianmuseum.com/the-story-of-breffu-a-female-slave-from-ghana-who-led-a-massive-slave-revolt-to-take-over-the-west-indies-in-1733/

KESSE. “Queen Akua, Ghanaian slave who became a Queen in Jamaica.” ghanaianmuseum.com. Ghanaian Museum, April 7, 2020. https://ghanaianmuseum.com/akua-the-influential-slave-healer-who-became-queen-in-jamaica-but-was-executed-by-the-british/

“Nanny.” Slavery and Remembrance. http://slaveryandremembrance.org/people/person/?id=PP023

Bibliography

Norton, Holly Kathryn. "Estate by Estate: The Landscape of the 1733 St. Jan Slave Rebellion." PhD diss., Syracuse University, 2013.

 

Richelsen , Carolina Augusta, and Katherine Faust Larsen. “The 1733 Uprising on St. John.” ArcGIS StoryMaps. Esri, June 25, 2020. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/a6759f73e6b74119ae60a8526e1e64f0.

 

“The 1733 Slave Insurrection.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed September 23, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/viis/learn/historyculture/the-1733-slave-insurrection.htm.

Author

Jada Similton

Adapted by

Sophie Alegi

Contributing Institutions

Michigan State University

Danish castle of Christiansborg at Accra. Built in 1660, it was the center of Denmark's participation in the slave trade. Approximately 100,000 enslaved Africans were transported to the Danish West Indies, comprising the islands of St Croix, St John, and St Thomas.

Key Events

1718

The Danish colonize St. John (then known as St. Jan).

1730

The Akwamu nation loses its strong hold in the slave trade after the death of their King, which led to high numbers of the Akwamu people being sold into enslavement.

May 1733

Governor Phillip Gardelin issues Maroon Ordinances in response to the high number of enslaved peoples escaping into the mountains.

5 September 1733

Gardelin issues a harsh punitive Slave Code on September 5, 1733—just two months before the uprising.

23 November 1733

Akwamu’s former citizens, now enslaved in the Caribbean, initiate an insurrection in Coral Bay where Breffu leads one faction of the insurrection upon hearing Fort Fredericksvaern’s canon, the signal that King Juni and other leaders had successfully overtaken the Danish fort. Breffu murders her owner, Pieter Krøyer, his wife, and Gabriel van Stell’s family in the early hours of November 23rd.

April 1734

The French come to Danish aid in April 1734, bringing two ships and over two hundred men led by Comandanten de Longueville.

May 1734

The six-month rebellion ends in May as Breffu’s body and over twenty other bodies are found after a group suicide ritual.