#Us too: How small European nations are discovering their colonial past: Nr. 1 Denmark

When we hear the term “colonial empire”, what usually comes to our mind are the huge, often profit-driven, hierarchically structured and racially justified realms that spread over the globe in the Age of Imperial Expansion (16th to early 20th century): the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French or Dutch Empires. We might also recollect a few smaller nations which only joined the imperial game in the late 19th/early 20th century and whose exploitative verve in their quest to make up some ground has become notorious: for example the German, Italian or Belgian colonial empires.

Who would think of Denmark, Sweden, or Switzerland, though? Yet, these smaller, ‘peripheral’ European nations are all currently exploring their own contributions to the history of European colonialism. In the small series #Us too I would like to introduce you to the many ways in which academic researchers and cultural institutions are presently re-writing these “black chapters” of their national past.

Danmark_En KolonimagtTRYK

Nr. 1 Denmark: Small power, big anniversary

In the Early Modern Period, the Danish-Norwegian Kingdom was an active player on the international stage. The Danes thus also participated in various projects of colonial expansion and overseas trade in the 17th-18th centuries:

  • they (re-)established their sovereignty over Greenland via Protestant missions,
  • they cultivated sugar plantations in the Danish West Indies (now known as Virgin Islands),
  • they took part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade via their military forts on the West African “Gold Coast” (now Ghana),
  • and they established several trading stations in India (Tranquebar, Serampore) as well as tried to colonize the Nicobar Islands.

    Karen Blixen’s autobiographical novel “Out of Africa” became world-famous through Sydney Pollack’s 1985-movie adaptation.

Denmark’s reduced power status after a succession of lost wars in the 19th century and its subsequent early abandonment of most of its colonial possessions, however, meant that, later on, its colonial past was almost forgotten. When it featured in history books and public discourse at all, it was usually to cultivate an image of a particularly mild and humane colonial power, with a special focus on the fact that Denmark was the first European nation to abolish the slave trade  in 1792/1803.

Of course, the Danish literary canon boasts of some masterpieces of (post)colonial literature. Between 1967 and 1970, the acclaimed novelist Thorkild Hansen published his famous Slave Trilogy (Coast of Slaves, Ships of Slaves, Islands of Slaves) which recapitulates Denmark’s unfortunate participation in the triangular trade. Karen Blixen‘s classic Out of Africa (1937), meanwhile, shines a light on Danish involvement in other colonial empires such as British East Africa.

Only over the last two decades, though, has the Danish colonial empire, as historians are now ready to call it, received wider academic attention. And it was only last year that a major jubilee – the 100th anniversary of the sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States – was used to bring this newfound academic awareness to broader public consciousness.

Blind spots poster
Blind spots. Copenhagen’s Royal Library celebrated the anniversary of the sale of the Danish West Indies by showing rare photographs documenting forgotten interactions between white Danish masters and Creole servants/slaves both in the tropics and at home.

Countless exhibitions, publications and public events provided nuanced views of Denmark’s relationship with its Caribbean colony: from the establishment of the sugar plantations, the import of African slaves and the heyday of Danish trade in the late 18th century to the gradual abolition of first the slave trade (1803) and then slavery (1848) through to the continued poor living conditions of Denmark’s “free coloured” citizens and the mother country’s complex attitudes towards them.

Here I would like to highlight two broader and still accessible projects which took the centenary of the sale of Denmark’s tropical colonies as an occasion to revisit and revise the country’s entire history as a colonial power. Their benefit is that they leave behind the Eurocentrism of older days, focusing instead on the cultural encounters between colonizers and colonized or shifting attention entirely to the perspective of colonial subjects.

1) Voices from the colonies (Stemmer fra Kolonierne)

In October 2017, a new permanent exhibition opened in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Its subject is Danish colonialism as seen through the eyes of those who experienced it. “Voices from the colonies” essentially retells 34 life stories which represent the entire variety of fates and fortunes that unfolded under the Dannebrog flag in Denmark’s tropical and arctic colonies.

Section from the exhibition “Voices from the Colonies”, National Museum of Denmark

The visitors meet famous persons such as the insurgent “Queen Mary”, who led a violent rebellion to address the bad working conditions on the West Indian island of St Croix in 1878, or the Greenlandic Inuit Pooq, who was famously paraded as a sensation in Copenhagen in 1724. But they also get introduced to ordinary life stories like those of the West African slaves shipped to the Caribbean or the West Indian nannies who took loving care of their white masters’ children. With its rare exhibits and special focus, the exhibition fills a gap in the museal representation of Danish history.

2) Denmark and its colonies (Danmark og Kolonierne)

Another major project of the jubilee year 2017 was the publication of a 5-volume book series which provides the first comprehensive (postcolonial) account of  the Danish colonial empire. Written by the leading academic experts in the field for a broad popular (though unfortunately only Danish) readership, it combines the merits of cutting-edge research with the delightfully narrative prose and lavish design of a coffee-table book.

Volume 1 of the series discusses the Danish(-Norwegian) Kingdom as a multi-national and multi-ethnic state. It vividly guides the reader through five centuries of Danish colonial rule in the tropics and in the North Atlantic, dealing with general issues such as  the administrative organization of the Danish Empire, the biographies of the merchants who profited from it and the material traces that resulted from Denmark’s encounters with the wider world.

Bernhard Grodtschilling Portrait of Pooq & Qiperoq1724
Portrait of the Inuit seal hunters Pooq & Qiperoq by Bernhard Grodtschilling, 1724 (Collections of the National Museum of Denmark)

Volumes 2-5 then chronicle the history of  Denmark’s individual “colonies” in India, on the West African “Gold Coast”,  in the West Indies, as well as Denmark’s last remaining colony, semi-independent Greenland. Each volume introduces the reader to a different world, as it were, be it the rich and colourful trade networks of the Indian Coromandel Coast or the booming sugar economy of the 17th- and 18th-century Caribbean, the traditional slave-holding society of  Guinea or the traditional seal-hunting society of the Inuit.

In these scenarios, Denmark emerges as a small player in complex regional environments with little competitive potential compared to both its local counterparts and European rivals. One is fascinated, though, by the small  nation’s efforts to carve out niches in a globalizing world of trade. And one cannot escape the impression that the re-discovery of Denmark’s colonial history, as well as the sympathetic, but honest discussion of all that it involved, adds an intriguing piece to a larger puzzle.

Further information:

For a full academic discussion of “Danmark og kolonierne”, read my book review on HSozKult.

A small collection of other important academic publications about Danish colonialism:

Gold Coast Movie Poster
The most recent take on Danish colonialism, Daniel Dencik’s “Guldkysten”, hit cinemas in 2015.

Apart from the above-mentioned exhibitions, the National Maritime Museum of Denmark also showed a presentation entitled “West India revisited” (Vestindien revisited), which traced Dano-Caribbean relations from early modern trade to 21st-century nostalgic empire-tourism. In its permanent exhibition, the Museum also features an engaging, interactive section about Danish trade in the “first age of globalization“.

The Danish National Archives (Rigsarkivet) have put together a rich collection of archival resources on the Danish West Indies.

Within the wider popular re-discovery of Danish colonialism, you might also be interested in the 2015-movie “Gold Coast” (Guldkysten), which deals with Danish attitudes towards “Danish Guinea” following the abolition of the slave trade – a curious chapter in Danish history, when plans for a true Danish colony there were seriously considered!

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