To direct the Secretary of the Interior to install a plaque at the peak of Ram Head in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John, United States Virgin Islands, to commemorate the slave rebellion that began on St. John in 1733
STATEMENT OF LENA MCDOWALL, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, MANAGEMENT AND ADMINISTRATION, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE HOUSE NATURAL RESOURCES SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, FORESTS, AND PUBLIC LANDS, CONCERNING H.R. 7496, A BILL TO DIRECT THE SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR TO INSTALL A PLAQUE AT THE PEAK OF RAM HEAD IN THE VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK ON ST. JOHN, UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS, TO COMMEMORATE THE SLAVE REBELLION THAT BEGAN ON ST. JOHN IN 1733
JUNE 14, 2022
Chair Neguse, Ranking Member Fulcher, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the Department of the Interior’s views on H.R. 7496, a bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior to install a plaque at the peak of Ram Head in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John, United States Virgin Islands, to commemorate the slave rebellion that began on St. John in 1733.
The Department supports H.R. 7496 with amendments that would address the concerns described in this statement.
H.R. 7496 would direct the Secretary of the Interior to install a suitable plaque to commemorate the slave rebellion that began on St. John on November 23, 1733, in an appropriate location in the area of the Ram Head trail at the peak of Ram Head in the Virgin Islands National Park, within one year of the date of enactment of the bill. The bill specifies that the plaque would include information regarding important facts about the rebellion; the collective suicide that occurred in the vicinity of Ram Head on St. John in 1734; and the significance of the rebellion to the history of St. John, the United States Virgin Islands, and the United States.
Written accounts of the resistance to enslavement describe an organized, methodical movement that rapidly spread across the Danish West Indies colony of St. John. One hundred forty-six enslaved Africans sought relief from increasingly harsh conditions of enslavement and a restoration of freedom for their people. These men and women largely represented the Akwamu Nation in western Africa.
The uprising spanned nine months and was one of the earliest and most sustained resistance efforts in the “New World,” sparking subsequent fights for freedom across the Caribbean. Freedom seekers advanced upon multiple plantations on St. John, in areas now protected as part of Virgin Islands National Park. Battles ensued at Cinnamon Bay and at the Duurloo Estate, or present-day Caneel Bay. The freedom seekers were ultimately overpowered by the efforts of colonial forces, facing death upon capture. Archival records reveal that some freedom seekers experienced extreme torture and horrific public executions. Some were falsely promised clemency, while still others, beginning in May 1734, made the ultimate sacrifice, choosing death over the prospect of persecution.
Enslaved St. Johnians continued their march toward freedom throughout the era of colonial enslavement, intensifying efforts once the British declared emancipation in 1834. Approximately 100 enslaved people successfully fled Danish St. John along the Leinster Bay Waterfront to the British island of Tortola over a 14-year period, under the constant threat of capture. In 2021, in recognition of the significance of this site of escape, the National Park Service (NPS) added Leinster Bay Waterfront to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
We believe strongly in the importance of promoting public knowledge and understanding of the 1733 uprising and its significance in the movement to end slavery throughout the western hemisphere. The NPS takes seriously its duty to tell the whole story of America’s heritage. Across the system, NPS staff and partners help audiences navigate sometimes difficult truths with care and compassion, recognizing the potential for these experiences to help transform understanding through the conveyance of history and knowledge.
However, we recommend that H.R. 7496 be amended to provide more flexibility in the means of commemorating and interpreting this story. Before acting to install any interpretive material on the events that began in 1733, we would like to have the opportunity to engage the public on the design and siting of an exhibit. There are difficult aspects to the story, especially with respect to the collective suicides from the Ram Head Peak and Brown Bay areas, that need to be approached with accuracy, integrity, sensitivity, and a concern for public safety. A planning process that includes robust public engagement would help achieve that objective.
We would also like to note that a permanent plaque is different from a non-permanent wayside marker or other non-permanent means of commemoration. Over time, a plaque has the potential to become a historic object itself and part of the historic landscape. The NPS’ Management Policies, in particular, section 9.6, support careful consideration before adding new commemorative works that have the potential to become historic objects and alter historic landscapes, and state that a plaque should not be used unless it increases visitor understanding and will do so more effectively than other interpretive media.
We would be happy to work with the bill sponsor and Committee on language to provide the National Park Service with the flexibility recommended in this statement.
Finally, the Subcommittee’s hearing on H.R. 7496 is timely, as June is Caribbean-American Heritage Month. The Department appreciates the opportunity to express support for the effort to honor the sacrifices of enslaved individuals living on St. John who summoned unimaginable courage to break the first links in the chain of systematic chattel slavery everywhere.
Chair Neguse, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the Subcommittee may have.