The National Guard’s horn orchestra played.
Senators and officials watched.
There were armed soldiers. There was prayer. There were speeches.
Under a blue sky, the bust of the Danish king Christian IX was yesterday removed from the park Emancipation Garden – the Garden of Liberation – on the island of St. Thomas.
The island is one of the US Virgin Islands, which from the 17th to the 1700s until 1917 was part of the Danish colony of the Danish West Indies, where enslaved children, women and men worked in plantations under inhumane conditions.
The statue of the king, who is Queen Margrethe’s great-great-grandfather, has had the most prominent place in the park since 1909. But now it’s over.
Yesterday, the bust was carefully removed from the park with a crane and moved to the nearby Fort Christian Museum, where it will be exhibited.
Host of the ceremony was former Senator Myron D. Jackson. It was he who in his time put forward the bill to remove the bust, which was passed on December 31 last year.
“This morning is historic in many ways,” the former senator said.
“We are bringing the local community and government members together to revisit a chapter in the history of the Virgin Islands that relates to monuments, public space and history.”
Myron D. Jackson emphasized that in the process leading up to the removal of the bust, there have been many discussions on the islands about colonial history and the impact that history has had on the population. There has also been great disagreement among the locals as to whether the bust should be moved or not.
Jackson justified the presence of the National Guard’s Horn Orchestra on the grounds that the occasion made special demands:
“The orchestra is here today to honor the requirements for solemnity, which must follow the removal of a monarch who is directly connected to the current monarch in Denmark, Queen Margrethe,” he said.
That the ceremony took place yesterday is hardly coincidental. For today – March 31 – is a national holiday in the US Virgin Islands. Transfer Day is called the anniversary, when the population marks that the islands on 31 March 1917 changed from being Danish to being American.
A strange feeling
Another important speaker at the event was activist Michael Vante. He has initiated a petition to have the king’s bust removed, a collection that has garnered about 1,300 signatures.
In his speech, Vante explained why he thinks it is important to move the Danish king out of the park.
“The bust of the king in the Emancipation Garden leaves the visitor with a strange feeling,” he said.
The bust has caused more questions than answers, he explained. It has given more space to myth than to facts.
“Today we not only recognize our colonial history, but the people of these islands are taking a symbolic step towards becoming the center of our own history. In a place that is as fundamental to our identity as virgin islanders«, It sounded from the activist.
The area where the park is now located was formerly a slave market and has since taken its name after the liberation of the slaves. Michael Vante has long wanted to get the colonial master out of the park, which is named after the freedom struggle of enslaved people.
He wants to pay homage to the American Virgin Islands’ own heroes rather than the colonial rulers.
“No matter how we then romanticize our physical landscape, monuments to colonial times and white supremacy have no place on sacred ground like the Emancipation Garden,” he said.
Freedom replaces the king
Instead of King Christian IX, the park will in future be adorned with the statue ‘Freedom’ – also called ‘The Conch Shell Blower’ – which depicts a enslaved man blowing to revolt in a conch shell.
“Because there has been no context around the king’s bust in the Emancipation Garden, the visitor has been left to his own guesses as to who actually liberated whom in the Virgin Islands,” said Michael Vante.
“That question is now – where we are replacing the bust with ‘Freedom’ – definitely answered. It’s a reminder of the strong spirit of the Virgin Islands.
“Today is a victory for the people.”
The three islands that were once Danish, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, each have their own copy of ‘Freedom’ standing in public places. Last year, a copy of the statue was erected in the Port of Copenhagen. That copy was a popular gift from the islands to Denmark. A reminder of our participation in the atrocities of slavery.
After yesterday’s speeches, prayer and music, the bust of King Christian IX was taken off its pedestal and transported to the Fort Christian Museum by the military.
Back in the park stood the empty plinth. With its text, which still – over 100 years after the islands belonged to Denmark – is in Danish.
The whole of yesterday’s ceremony can be seen here: