John Wright, Outstanding Citizen of the Danish West Indies

(A Presentation by Per Nielsen, summarized by Jan Frey)

We continue our report on the speakers at our December meeting. Here we review the presentation of Professor Per Neilsen of the University of Copenhagen. Fifteen years ago Per Neilsen began studying the life of John Wright and on December 3rd he shared his findings with the St. John Historical Society. John Wright was an important figure in St. John and Virgin Islands history.

Photo of Per Nieslen

He was born enslaved in 1775 on St. John and worked for Dominie or Pastor Sporon of the Dutch Reformed Church. Around 1796, he joined the ranks of the free colored by purchasing his freedom from wages he earned as a carpenter. He moved to St. Thomas where he appears in the 1803 Proceedings and Register of the Free Colored. Our own David W. Knight Sr. and Lolly Prime edited and compiled these proceedings in a seminal research study called St. Thomas 1803 Crossroads of the Diaspora, 1999, St. Thomas.

Eventually, he owned his own construction company and became the fifth largest property owner in Charlotte Amalie. He would buy old houses and either fix them up or tear them down and builds new ones. Per believes that Wright built a large number of private houses in St. Thomas, but had not uncovered any physical evidence of such construction until a written contract was unearthed in Copenhagen by none other than David W. Knight Sr.

Wright’s work expanded to include large government contracts. He built the barracks, which after the natural disasters of 1867 had to be rebuilt and now houses the legislature in Charlotte Amalie and most importantly for us he built the Battery formerly called Christianfort right here in Cruz Bay. Governor Peter C.F. von Scholten ordered the building plans drawn and on December 5, 1825 presided over the opening of the new courthouse and jail. Ruth Low in her book St. John Backtime, 1985 referred to the Battery as “the embodiment of the island’s historical continuity” because of association with von Scholten and as the site of all official actions on St. John to these modern times.

John Wright fathered one daughter and two sons. Their mother was Theresa Sartorius a “free mulatto”. She owned a house on King Street in Charlotte Amalie. The children were sent to Moravian boarding schools in Denmark at early ages and the sons eventually followed careers in law and medicine. John Wright also bought a house in Cruz Bay for his mother, Edmuth Francis. He eventually married Charlotte Sophia.

Professor Neilsen spoke of John Wright’s concern for and his efforts in the improvement of the status of the free-colored both in social and political standing. In 1786, the Ordinance of Governor-General Schimmelmann sought to regulate the social dress and activities of both enslaved Africans and the free-colored. He wanted to counter the tendency to dress “fancy”. The cost of such dress, he maintained, was “inappropriate to their rank and condition.” Since “banquets and festivities given by people of color” provided the occasions for the display of luxury, Schimmelmann proposed to regulate these more closely and to institute “more modest and proper forms of dress.”

Accordingly all people of color were expressly forbidden to wear jewelry of precious stones, gold or silver, material of silk, brocade, chintz, lawn, linen, lace, or velvet; gold or silver braid; silk stockings; elaborate up-raised hair styles, with or without decoration; or any form of expensive clothing whatsoever. Under the Ordinance free-colored were permitted to wear the “more modest and proper” dress prescribed for domestic and field slaves. Also permitted were wool, cotton, coarser varieties of lace, silk ribbon of Danish manufacture, a simple gold cross or silver ornament worn on the head, chest, or around the neck. The ornament was not to exceed 10 dollars in value. Pinafores of simple cambric were acceptable, as were head or neck-scarves of the same material, and silver jewelry and silver pocket watches.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the place of the free colored in the social order had more or less taken shape. Their numbers had grown in all three islands. The male leadership had been co-opted, and while some degree of status might have attached to ranks such as Freedman Captain, the avenues to status and economic mobility were shut. Their women folk, with marginally more access to the avenues of economic mobility, were no more mobile in status terms. The intention of the law, and the conventions as they evolved, was to ensure that the boundaries of ethnicity and ascriptive class remained inviolate. The law emphasized the lowliness of all free colored as a status group by insisting on the “Free Brief” or certificate of freedom, but denying the burgher’s certificate held as a matter of course by the most inconsequential white resident or itinerant. No one held any position of trust under the crown except as security personnel and then largely for reasons of expediency and their evidence was not admissible against a white person in the local courts.

The above world of the free-colored was ably described by Neville A.T. Hall in his Slave Society in the Danish West Indies, University of West Indies Press, 1992.

John Wright signed and supported The Freedman Petition of 1816, which was a long list of grievances, which followed a request for privileges. It was delivered directly to the King in Denmark. It did not work because the King did not accept any requests directly. The West Indians who delivered it were admonished for leaving their homes without approval of the government there. It did however result in the creation of the Fire Service staffed by the free colored.

A definite indicator of wise men is the ability to learn from their errors. Next the free-colored employed the good and collegial offices of the Governor-General to carry their concerns to the King and not as demands but rather praises. Governor-General Peter von Scholten was a leader of vision who not only saw the inevitability of emancipation but also the steps necessary to obtain it. He was mistaken in his perception of granting freedom. “Freedom can only be taken” as our own Guy Benjamin has so often said. Along with their requests the free-colored thanked the King with a proposal that he have a medal struck commemorating his approval of the Royal Ordinance of April 18, 1834. Five medals were struck in gold, which were graciously accepted by the King from the free-colored for “We Ourselves” as he officially referred to himself, his sons the crown princes and von Scholten. Medals were also struck in lesser metals and distributed to the leading free-colored. This was a stupendous public relations ploy that resulted in equal status and burgher briefs or full business licenses in place of the demeaning free-colored identification papers.

John Wright’s life was well lived and along with helping improve the lot of his fellow man he also left us the Battery, a daily reminder of his construction skills. Per Neilsen also told us of John Wright receiving the Order of Dannebrog from the King in 1834 for his role in fighting the devastating fire of 1832 in St. Thomas. Wright died in 1846 at the age of 71 and is buried in Western Cemetery next to his wife Charlotte Sophia.

Per left us with a final admonition to preserve all of our cemeteries since we have important people buried in all of them. Isn’t that the truth.

Per Nielson

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