The United States Virgin Islands celebrates Emancipation Day, an official holiday, on July 3. It commemorates the abolition of slavery by Danish Governor Peter von Scholten on July 3, 1848.
By 1600, the native population had been wiped out by the Spanish. The Dutch and English settled on Saint Croix, with the Dutch being driven out around 1645. The French and the Knights of Malta took possession from Spain; Denmark, which had established slave plantations on Saint Thomas and Saint John, purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733.
Although Denmark suppressed the slave trade in 1803, the practice of importing new captives did not end until the British occupied the islands in 1807. The islands were returned to Denmark in 1815 and remained the Danish West Indies until their purchase by the United States in 1917. On July 3, 1848, about 30,000 enslaved Africans from plantations on the western end of St. Croix marched into Frederiksted to demand their freedom. Led by Moses Gottlieb and Admiral Martin King, they confronted Danish soldiers. Danish Gov. Peter Von Scholten, seeing the potential for trouble, rode into town and proclaimed all unfree in the Danish West Indies free from that day forward.
See also: Monday, July 2, a national holiday
Historically, the society was divided along caste and color lines. Even after emancipation in 1848, ex-slaves' participation in the political process was restricted and their freedom of movement and emigration were limited by legislation. A result of Danish determination to maintain the status quo was the Fireburn of 1878, a labor revolt on Saint Croix that destroyed many plantations.