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.

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.
  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.