New book on Danish-Norwegian 18th-19th century slave trade

Book review

slave trading

Photo: Maritime Museum of Denmark
Oil painting (1806) in book by British painter George Webster (1797-1864) showing ships near Danish trading fort Christianborg on the Gold Coast.

M. MICHAEL BRADY
Asker, Norway

A new book on the Danish-Norwegian participation in the 18th-19th century slave trade, De dansk-norske tropekoloniene (The Danish-Norwegian tropical colonies) has just been published in Norway. Its story details the little-known chapter in Nordic history in which more than 100,000 slaves were transported from West Africa to the Caribbean. 

That trade volume was enabled by an extensive infrastructure that had come about by the shared Danish and Norwegian history. From the mid-17th century until the dissolution of the Dano-Norwegian realm in 1814, Denmark and Norway had trading forts on the Gold Coast, a former British Crown Colony on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, at Accra, now the capital of the nation of Ghana. The tropical colonies had been a significant phase of the Danish-Norwegian colonial era that began in Trankebar, a colony in India from 1620 until 1845, when it was sold to Great Britain and became part of British India.

Colonial rule did little for the people ruled and often disparaged the rulers. Norwegian diplomat and colonial general Peter Anker (1744-1832), the governor of Trankebar from 1773 to 1808, complained that there were spiders, scorpions, toads, and frogs in the governor’s residence and cobras in its garden. The distance from Copenhagen complicated trade as well as communications. People died like flies from “tropical fever,” the indeterminate word for local diseases and for unexplained death, as from poisoning. Years could pass for the news of the death of an emissary to reach a home country and result in the assignment of a replacement to a post. In 1699, 29 years had passed since the previous emissary from Copenhagen had arrived at Trankebar, only to find just one Dane still alive. It was a time of embezzlement, intrigue, and conflicts with local leaders and other colonial powers.

There was no impelling great idea or strategy. Many means were tried. When trade in traditional goods, such as cotton, liquor, and weapons faltered, other ventures were launched, including piracy, catching sea cucumbers, and collecting swallow nests. In Africa and the Caribbean, trade became triangular, in slaves, liquor, and weapons. The Danish-Norwegian colonial venture was not notably successful. Yet in the transatlantic slave trade, Denmark-Norway was a significant actor, with its transport of more than 100,000 enslaved people to the Caribbean. In comparison, at the time, about 300,000 enslaved people were transported to what now is the United States.

Like the colonial ventures of other countries, the Danish-Norwegian venture had its dark side. Professor Olasee Davis at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands believes that “Denmark had the most vicious and barbaric laws in the entire Caribbean.” Matters did not improve when missionaries came in to “lead the black slaves out of the darkness of the devil and into the light of Jesus.” They held that those enslaved were to blame for their plight, as they lived in sin. The enslaved people who allowed themselves to be saved were subjected to a harsh regime and a rigid  moral code. Even lust within marriage was forbidden. Lutheran Bishop and Professor Erik Pontoppidan (1698-1764) believed that slavery was a good thing, because it saved the Africans from what he thought was their miserable lives in Africa and made it possible for them to become Christians.

It is easy to focus on the negative aspects of the Danish-Norwegian colonial adventure, at the time when the Scandinavian involvement abroad was more tyranny than goodness. There is much more in De dansk-norske tropekoloniene. The book is a trove of individual stories as well as a nuanced and captivating picture of the past. For one who prospererd, there were many who went bankrupt, ended up in disgrace or simply died of tropical fever. Author Løken portrays them in a sympathetic and compassionate way, even if they lacked these qualities.

Løken’s account is accompanied by historically accurate pictures of merchant ships of the type that carried enslaved people. The one shown above depicts a ship off the coast at the trading fort of Christianborg (named after the Christianborg Palace, the seat of the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen).

De dansk-norske tropekoloniene (The Danish-Norwegian tropical colonies) by professor emeritus Roar Løken (1947- ), Oslo, 2020, Solum Forlag, 469 pages hardcover, ISBN 978-8256023268. At this writing, no American booksellers or agencies stock the book. But it is available on export order from Tronsmo Bokhandel in Oslo; the link for ordering is: www.tronsmo.no/bok/9788256023288/DE_DANSK-NORSKE_TROPEKOLONIENE-SUKKER__KRYDDER__SLAVER_OG_MISJON.

Further reading: Review in Norwegian cultural weekly Morgenbladet by Andreas Viestad: Tropefeber (Tropical fever), print version pp 8-14 of Jan. 8-14 edition, online version link at morgenbladet.no/boker/2021/01/tropefeber.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.

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