A Tribute To Colonial Past

She is sitting up straight, holding a torch in one hand and a cane bill in the other, near Copenhagen’s West Indian Warehouse. The nearly 23ft-tall statue – titled ‘I Am Queen Mary’ – made its public debut in the Danish capital on March 31, as the Scandinavian country paid a rich tribute to the 19th-century rebel leader Mary Thomas. Known as “Queen Mary”, the lady led a revolt against her Danish overlords on the Caribbean Island of St Croix in the 19th century.
Almost 99% of the statues installed in Denmark are of white men’s and this is the first public monument to a black woman there. Why Denmark suddenly erects the statue of a black woman in its capital city? The answer lies in the colonial history of the country.
Denmark imposed a ban on transportation of slaves from Africa in 1792. However, the slave trade continued till 1848, when the European nation abolished slavery in the former Danish West Indies, as the enslaved population was gearing up for a full scale revolt.

A black worker encouraged his countrymen to revolt against the deprivation and torture in the Caribbean Islands in 1878…..three decades after the end of slavery. In his publication ‘The Caribbean: A Brief History’, Gad Heuman wrote that three black women – Axeline Elizabeth Salomon, Mathilda McBean and Thomas – led the revolutionaries especially in St Croix Island. The rebels burned down at least 50 sugarcane fields on St Croix, and many houses, mills, shops and plantations in Fredrikstad city on the US Virgin Islands during the rebellion, which is locally known as ‘The Fireburn’. Thomas was one of three women who were referred to as “queens” by locals for symbolising the resistance. Denmark brutally suppressed the rebellion, arrested the three queens and sent them to Copenhagen to serve prison sentence.

The concerned authorities in Copenhagen have installed Thomas’ statue in order to pay homage to the revolt and to immortalise the lady who led the revolt against the Danish colonial rule. Artists Jeannette Ehlers of Denmark and La Vaughn Belle of the US Virgin Islands informed the press that they built the statue to “memorialise the Scandinavian nation’s colonial impact in the Caribbean and those who fought against it”. They said that it became important to create the statue as most of the people in Denmark didn’t know about the revolution. But, why Mary is there…… what about Salomon and McBean? …Ehlers and Belle claimed that the statue of ‘Queen Mary’ is a symbolic one and all the three rebel leaders would be remembered by the Danes. In a joint statement, they said: “This project challenges Denmark’s role in slavery and the commemoration of its colonial past. It aims to change the narrative around this history and demonstrates how artists can be leaders in this conversation.”
Meanwhile, Ehlers and Belle admitted that the iconic 1967 photograph of Queen Mary – clicked by Huey P Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party – encouraged them to build the statue. In that photograph, Mary was seated similarly in a wicker chair, spear in one hand and a rifle in the other. They revealed that the body of the statue has been made using 3D scanning technology that created a hybrid of Ehlers’ and Belle’s bodies.

Ehlers & Belle

Incidentally, Denmark sold the ‘ownership’ of three of its islands in the Caribbean Sea to the US in March 1917 and the unveiling of the statue coincided with the centenary of that event. The Senior Research Curator at the National Gallery of Art, Henrik Holm, stressed: “It takes a statue like this to make forgetting less easy. It takes a monument like this to fight against the silence, neglect, repression and hatred.” He further said: “Never before has a sculpture like this been erected on Danish soil. Now, Denmark is offered a sculpture that addresses the past. But it is also an artwork for the future.”

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