The most common type of archival record is correspondence. Civil servants transmit documents of all kinds, add commentary and information, and receive feedback through letters. While official correspondence is often bureaucratic in style, it is also informative and insightful. The letters shown here are part of a collection of letters penned by St. John planters and foreigners that provide firsthand descriptions of the St. John slave revolt from its outbreak in November 1733 until its final suppression in June 1734. The letters describe this major event in Virgin Islands and Caribbean history solely from the perspective of participating members of the White ruling elite whose power, property and lives were at risk. While African leaders such as King Claes, Juny and Prince are named and, as in this document, their deaths proclaimed, their voices are silenced, and so the full story of this heroic uprising will never be known. (Language of the Correspondence: Chevalier de Longueville is writing in French. V. Beverhoudt is writing in Dutch. Both are writing to Danish Governor Gardelin who is in St. Thomas.)
In this activity students will learn about the St. John Slave Revolt of 1733 through official correspondence written at the time. The activity includes the opportunity to transcribe and translate the letters in an effort to learn and practice skills a historian must use, or students can refer to a translation of the letters. Students will consider whose voice the letters represent and whose voice is missing.
Primary Sources in this Activity
Suggested Teaching Instructions
This primary source activity includes the topic of slavery and protest. Viewed as sensitive topics for classroom lessons, teachers should consider their students ability to engage with the topics, give background information, create a safe environment for discussion, and be prepared to support their students’ questions and responses to the subject matter.
Before using these letters, lead a class in a discussion about primary sources, about letters as a primary source, and the strengths and weaknesses of using letters as primary sources in history research.
Next, have the students discuss what they know about the years 1733-1734, specifically related to St. John and slavery. Read the background information regarding the correspondence as a class in order to gain context before viewing the letters.
Next, have students look at the image of the letters. Help students to answer the primary source analysis questions and lead a discussion with students about the letters. The letters are written in script, and are not in English. The letter from Chevalier de Longueville is in French and the letter from V. Beverhoudt is in Dutch. Both are writing to Danish Governor Gardelin, on St. Thomas. Historians and researchers must transcribe and translate such documents in order to use them in their research.
The teacher may incorporate transcription and translation into this activity, creating a multiday exercise. Begin by transcribing the letters, then translate the transcription, then interpret the translation. Students can work as a team to identify words and sentences and transcribe them together. Then, using Google Translate or a similar service they can translate their transcriptions into English. If there are French and/or Dutch speaking students in the class, ask them to volunteer and help with the translation. The teacher can also discuss the difficulties of transcribing and translating documents, particularly those written a long time ago. Languages are continuously growing and adapting (words stop being used, new words are added, and the meaning of some words change). The possibility of an author’s original message being lost or misrepresented by someone translating it today is therefore a concern. Historians must consider this, and be careful when translating documents.
For the purpose of facilitating the discussion in this activity a translation of both letters is provided. The class should begin however by looking at the original letters and analyzing them. Then the teacher can load the translation on the smart board for discussion, they are found at Letters from Longueville and J. van Beverhoudt about the St. John Slave Revolt.
Analyze the Primary Source
You may load the Analyze a Written Document worksheet on the smart board or on computers so that you can lead students through answering the questions, print the worksheet and distribute to your students, or adapt the questions from the worksheet to create your own. Primary Source Analysis Worksheets
Have students complete the analyze worksheet individually, in small groups, or as a class. Help students as needed to complete the worksheets. Review their answers and the observations as a class.
Research the St. John Slave Revolt of 1733, and the enslaved Africans that lead and participated in the revolt and answer: Who? What? Where? When? Why? This research will help bring context to the letters.
This correspondence discusses events of the revolt. Answer the following questions, using what you’ve learned, your research on the revolt and the explanation of the correspondence: Why would they mention this event in correspondence? How would this revolt have impacted the plantation owners economically? How would this revolt have impacted the plantation owners psychologically? How did the slave revolt in St. John influence the next few years in St. John, and influence changes?
What do you think a revolt of this magnitude showed the slave owners? What do you think it taught other enslaved African people? What can a researcher learn from correspondence like this? Whose voice or side of the rebellion do the letters represent? Whose voice and perspective is missing? What do the letters help us learn about life of enslaved people on St. John at that time in history? What conclusions can students make about why people rebel or try to break away.
A Single Perspective: Ask your students to pick a current event and write a letter to a friend describing the event. Once complete, have the students reflect on each other’s letters. If researchers in the future came across their letter, what would they learn? Does your letter give the whole story or only a single perspective? How would the information you include or omit impact how someone in the future understands the event?