Virgin Islands Stories: Dr. Paul Erdmann Isert

Labor and the Plantation Economy of the West Indies
Failing to find gold, the Europeans who originally came to the West Indies endeavored to make their fortunes as masters of plantations exporting sugar and other valuable tropical products. However, these West Indian plantations would require a great number of low paid laborers.

As other Europeans would not consider relocating to this hot and unhealthy part of the world, working long hours (from sunup to sundown) all to be paid an abysmally low wage, the answer to this labor problem was to procure enslaved workers, who would have no choice in the matter.

Slavery
As a result, Africans, captured by slave traders, were chained and shackled, and brought to European slave-processing stations on the west coast of Africa. These unfortunates were then crammed into slave ships under the most horrible conditions imaginable, and transported across thousands of miles of ocean to labor in a strange land controlled by cruel and barbaric overseers.

Dr. Paul Erdmann Isert
Dr. Paul Erdmann Isert, a German national who had studied and lived in Denmark, came to the west coast of Africa in 1783. He was appointed Chief Surgeon at the fortified Danish settlement of Christianborg, which today would be in the nation of Ghana. He obtained this position even though he was very young, because it was a job no one wanted.

After a few years in Christianborg, Isert signed on as a physician aboard a slave ship, where he observed first hand a glimpse of the horrifying reality of what had become a large and lucrative ongoing business .

Inherent Stupidity of the System and a Reasonable Alternative
Sickened by the horror and human misery he saw, both in the slave-processing bins of Christianborg and aboard the ship, Isert came up with an alternative. The use of enslaved laborers on West Indian colonial plantations, Isert reasoned, was not only inhumane, cruel and immoral, but also absurdly stupid.

In a letter sent from St. Croix in 1787 to his father, Isert asked these questions:

“Why did our forefathers not have the sense to found plantations right there on the fertile continent of Africa; plantations for sugar, coffee, cacao, cotton and other articles that had become so necessary in Europe?

“Had we gone to Africa with the leaf of the olive tree in our hands rather than weapons of murder, willingly would the natives have given us access to the best and most fertile parts of their lands, areas which for untold years had been lying desolate. Why was not our approach more Christian, more intelligent and humane? Why?

“These African people would have helped us in freedom and, for low wages would have given us greatness and riches with no offense against nature, or our personal and national consciences.

“Why did we have to uproot vast numbers of people from their homelands, subject them to agony, torture, humiliation, and death; transplant them to alien continents, Caribbean islands, big and small? Why?”

Friends in High Places
Isert wanted to demonstrate that the establishment of working plantations on the continent of Africa could be practical and profitable. To this end, he enlisted the aid of Ernest Schimmelmann who was then the Danish Minister of Finance.

Schimmelmann, a well-known and well-off liberal, who was instrumental in the passage of the law ending the Danish Atlantic slave trade, agreed to finance Isert’s endeavor.

Isert also had an important ally in Africa, the Asante king, Osei Kwame. The two had become friends after Dr. Isert had treated an cured the king’s ailing sister.

Success!
Isert sailed to Africa in the summer of 1788 and established a plantation at the base of the Awapim Mountains, purchasing the land from Osei Kwame, on behalf of the king of Denmark.

With the help of Osei Kwame, who shared Isert’s enthusiasm about the plan, paid workers cleared the land and began cultivation of sugar and coffee.

On January 16, 1789, Isert wrote a report for the King of Denmark in which he expressed the fine initial success that he was enjoying.

Enemies in High Places
On January 21, 1789, just five days after writing the report, Dr. Isert was found dead on his African plantation reportedly a victim of a tropical fever.

Other information that surfaced later indicated, however, that he had been murdered in a conspiracy that was instigated by European financiers of the slave trade and powerful plantation owners on St. Croix in the Danish West Indies. Isert’s actual assassination was said to have been carried out by corrupt government officials at Christianborg and their henchmen.

Project Abandoned
After Isert’s death, the African plantation project was abandoned.

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