Colonies in the Caribbean Scandinavia and the slave trade

Colonial history: Sale of slaves in the streets of Havana, Cuba, in the 19th century. School wall painting (color print), 1950.
Sale of slaves in the streets of Havana, Cuba, in the 19th century. School wall painting (color print), 1950. | Photo (detail): akg-images © picture alliance

When I tell people that I’m researching Scandinavian colonial history, their first reaction is often: “Is that even a thing?” In Norway I even get the response that it’s Denmark’s responsibility – after all Norway was governed from Copenhagen during the period in question.
 

By Lill-Ann Körber

Norwegians took part in overseas trade and what was probably its most gruesome chapter against their will, so the claim goes. The reference is to the transatlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery in the Scandinavian territories in the Caribbean.
 
But what’s the truth about the colonial history of the Scandinavian countries and the Norwegian involvement?
 
Inspired by expansion efforts in the rest of Europe and luxury goods coming from all over the world, Sweden (which at that time incorporated large areas of the Baltic, as well as Finland until 1809) and Denmark (which included Norway up to and including 1814) were also entering the East Asian, African and American-Caribbean markets by the 17th century. At first it was typically private trading companies like the Vestindisk-Guinesisk Kompagni that equipped the ships for trade outside Europe and negotiated the establishment of trading posts with local ruling powers; it was only later that the ownership and administration claims of the Swedish and Danish crown were widened. Territories in Africa and the Caribbean facilitated Scandinavian involvement in a highly lucrative “Trade Triangle”, as it was known.

Dying within a short time

Norwegians were involved in the colonisation of the Caribbean islands, human trafficking and the continuation of the slave trade – in the capacity of financiers, merchants, colonial civil servants, seafarers and, on a more or less voluntary basis, settlers. The first ship from the Vestindisk-Guineisk Kompagni, which brought enslaved Africans to the newly established colony of St. Thomas in 1674, bore the name “Cornelia” and belonged to a merchant from Bergen called Jørgen Thor Møhlen. “Cornelia” also had a large number of convicts on board, including some from Bergen, who were intended to be the first colonists. Almost all of them died within a short time.
 
  • Colonial history: Sculpture “The Slave” by the Danish-Norwegian sculptor Stephan Sinding (1846-1922) in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Copenhagen, Denmark. Denmark was one of the first European colonial powers. From 1380 to 1814, the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway formed a union in which Denmark dominated and Norway was granted provincial status. The Danish colonial empire stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean and the Arctic. The Danish colonies in Europe included the Faroe Islands and Iceland, in the Arctic Greenland, in America the Danish West Indies (Caribbean: Lesser Antilles, Virgin Islands with Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix, and also Crab Island), in Asia the Danish East Indies in historical India (New Denmark/Nicobar Islands, Serampore or Frederiksnagore in Bengal and Trankebar/Danish India on the Coromandel coast) and trading posts in China. Prisma Archivo © picture alliance
    Sculpture “The Slave” by the Danish-Norwegian sculptor Stephan Sinding (1846-1922) in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Copenhagen, Denmark. Denmark was one of the first European colonial powers. From 1380 to 1814, the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway formed a union in which Denmark dominated and Norway was granted provincial status. The Danish colonial empire stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean and the Arctic. The Danish colonies in Europe included the Faroe Islands and Iceland, in the Arctic Greenland, in America the Danish West Indies (Caribbean: Lesser Antilles, Virgin Islands with Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix, and also Crab Island), in Asia the Danish East Indies in historical India (New Denmark/Nicobar Islands, Serampore or Frederiksnagore in Bengal and Trankebar/Danish India on the Coromandel coast) and trading posts in China.
  • Denmark's former Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen (right) and Head of the former Danish Parliament Thor Pedersen arrive at the Cathedral of Nuuk, Denmark. In folk festivals around the Arctic island, Greenlanders, on 21 June 2009, celebrated a new chapter in their history, moving a further step away from Denmark's colonial rule. An agreement on extended autonomy entered into force on that date. Kalaallisut, the language of the native Inuit, has been the national language ever since; the Greenlandic government took over responsibility for police, justice and the coastguard, only foreign and defence policy continues to be determined by Denmark. Formally, the Danish Queen Margrethe II. remains the head of state of Greenland. epa Scanpix Navntoft © dpa-Report
    Denmark's former Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen (right) and Head of the former Danish Parliament Thor Pedersen arrive at the Cathedral of Nuuk, Denmark. In folk festivals around the Arctic island, Greenlanders, on 21 June 2009, celebrated a new chapter in their history, moving a further step away from Denmark's colonial rule. An agreement on extended autonomy entered into force on that date. Kalaallisut, the language of the native Inuit, has been the national language ever since; the Greenlandic government took over responsibility for police, justice and the coastguard, only foreign and defence policy continues to be determined by Denmark. Formally, the Danish Queen Margrethe II. remains the head of state of Greenland.
  • Colonial history: On March 31 2018 the 7 meter high sculpture “I am Queen Mary” was revealed at the West Indian Storehouse in Copenhagen Harbor. The sculpture was made by Danish artist Jeanette Ehlers in collaboration with Virgin Islands artist La Vaughn Belle. The motif is that of Mary Thomas who was behind the biggest worker's uprising in St. Croix in 1878 and is a symbol of the Danish colonial past. The artists hope to further a dialog about the Danish role in colonial times. Nils Meilvang © picture alliance/Scanpix Denmark
    On March 31 2018 the 7 meter high sculpture “I am Queen Mary” was revealed at the West Indian Storehouse in Copenhagen Harbor. The sculpture was made by Danish artist Jeanette Ehlers in collaboration with Virgin Islands artist La Vaughn Belle. The motif is that of Mary Thomas who was behind the biggest workers' uprising in St. Croix in 1878 and is a symbol of the Danish colonial past. The artists hope to further a dialog about the Danish role in colonial times.
  • Colonial history: Colonial history: The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade. Today the former fortress is a large museum on the history of the slave trade on the former Gold Coast and since 1979 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the Gold Coast of West Africa, Denmark maintained numerous bases and fortresses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which are collectively known as the Danish Gold Coast and Danish Guinea respectively. Cape Coast Castle is one of about 35 historic forts on the Ghanaian coast. Like most other forts on the so-called "Gold Coast", Cape Coast Castle served as a prison for locals who were captured for sale and transport as slaves to the European colonies in North and South America according to Wikipedia. In the basement dungeons of the fort, they often had to wait for months for the next slave ship before they were finally brought to the beach through a narrow cellar corridor for loading. Rita Funk © picture alliance/dpa
    Colonial history: The Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana served as an important base for the slave trade. Today the former fortress is a large museum on the history of the slave trade on the former Gold Coast and since 1979 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the Gold Coast of West Africa, Denmark maintained numerous bases and fortresses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which are collectively known as the Danish Gold Coast and Danish Guinea respectively. Cape Coast Castle is one of about 35 historic forts on the Ghanaian coast. Like most other forts on the so-called "Gold Coast", Cape Coast Castle served as a prison for locals who were captured for sale and transport as slaves to the European colonies in North and South America according to Wikipedia. In the basement dungeons of the fort, they often had to wait for months for the next slave ship before they were finally brought to the beach through a narrow cellar corridor for loading.
  • Artifacts recovered from the 18th century slave ship Fredensborg are on display at Fort Frederik in Frederiksted, St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Danish West Indies in the Caribbean was a Danish colony from 1666 to 1917. Danish and Schleswig-Holstein farmers kept black slaves there and cultivated primarily sugar cane, which was then refined in Flensburg and Copenhagen. The archipelago was finally sold to the USA in 1917. Traces of the colonial period, especially buildings, have been preserved; even today, the islands are still a popular destination for Danish tourists. Cristian Simescu © picture alliance / newscom
    Artifacts recovered from the 18th century slave ship Fredensborg are on display at Fort Frederik in Frederiksted, St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Danish West Indies in the Caribbean was a Danish colony from 1666 to 1917. Danish and Schleswig-Holstein farmers kept black slaves there and cultivated primarily sugar cane, which was then refined in Flensburg and Copenhagen. The archipelago was finally sold to the USA in 1917. Traces of the colonial period, especially buildings, have been preserved; even today, the islands are still a popular destination for Danish tourists.
One of the Norwegians, who served the Danish crown in St. Croix as a civil servant, was lawyer Engebret Hesselberg (1728–1788). Hesselberg became “famous” as a result of the particularly cruel punishment of enslaved men who were under suspicion of planning a rebellion. No proof was ever found. A copy of Hesselberg’s report can be found in the Nasjonalbiblioteket (Norwegian National Library), which – alongside a precise listing of suspects and each person’s methods of punishment, torture and execution – provides information about one thing in particular: the fact that Norwegians or Scandinavians in general did not behave in any sense “better” or “more humanely” than others when they ended up in positions of colonial power. Of course this contradicts the self-image of many Scandinavians.
 
Indeed the relationship between Norway and Denmark can be retold through their shared colonial history as well. In 2017 when Denmark commemorated 100 years since cession of the Danish West Indies to the USA, with lots of exhibitions and discussion events, there was little mention of Norway – simply because it’s often forgotten that “Danmark” or “Det danske rige” can also refer to Norwegians, Germans or Icelandic people, not necessarily the Denmark that lies within today’s boundaries.

For Norway, one particular event in the past few decades was significant as a reminder of the Norwegian involvement in the slave trade: the discovery of the “Fredensborg” in 1974, a ship that sank in 1768 off the coast of Arendal. On its final Triangular Trade voyage, the ship transported 256 African slaves from the “Gold Coast” across the Atlantic to St. Croix.

Enforced passages

In recent years the interest in this unpleasant chapter of history has increased. Examples of this are Fartein Horgar’s five novels about Danish-Norwegian colonial history in the Caribbean, Anders Totland’s non-fiction work for children and young people Den norske slavehandelen (2018), or the Artistic Research Project at the Akademi for scenekunst  Høgskolen i Østfold, “Spectral collaborations: performative entanglement  in the archives of Nordic participation in Trans-Atlantic slavery”.

But why is this history important at all? For me it isn’t about guilt and shame, it’s about accepting that we are part of a shared history and therefore a shared present and a shared future that goes beyond our own country, region and continent. Maybe it’s also possible to develop an understanding of the idea that the memory of “seilskutetiden” (sailing ships) is full of positivity and pride for most Norwegians, but can sound horrifying to Afro-Caribbeans: a reminder of enforced passages with a fatal outcome. And the reason for the exhibition entitled Listening to the echoes of the South Atlantic (Oslo Kunstforening, 6th February to 2nd April 2020) is to establish precisely this link.