In modern Sweden, the topic of colonialism is stubbornly avoided: it is too difficult to reconcile the country’s image with slavery. They refuse to include this unsightly page of history in school textbooks. Meanwhile, with the direct participation of the Swedes, at least ten thousand people were transported from Africa to the West Indies.
We previously wrote about the colonial past of Denmark and Norway. The Swedes had more modest colonial possessions. The country was inferior to its neighbors economically; Border conflicts occupied a lot of her attention. Finally, it was losing competition not only to Denmark, but also to England and the Netherlands.
Its presence in Africa was short-lived - 13 years intermittently. In the mid-17th century, the country owned the colony of the Gold Coast, or Cabo Corso, on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea: today it is the south of Ghana. Sweden was ousted from the African continent by its own neighbor, Denmark.
Swedish colonialism manifested itself more clearly in America: it managed to gain a foothold there for almost a century. The key possession was the island of Saint Barthelemy in the Caribbean, where the Swedes exported slaves from Africa. For a long time they also supplied colonies of other countries with African slaves.
THE AFRICAN COASTS WERE NOT CONTAINED
The country's ambitions to gain a foothold in Africa began in 1649, when the Swedish African Company (Svenska Afrikakompaniet) was established under the patronage of Queen Christina. In 1650, its manager Henrik Karloff landed on the Gold Coast (now the Republic of Ghana), where he established a number of trading posts. The colony consisted of only a few forts and trading posts: Carlsborg, William, Batenstein, Christiansborg, Witsen, Apollonia, where slaves, gold, sugar and ivory were bought.
Despite his significant contribution to the development of the Swedish Gold Coast, or Cabo Corso, Henrik Karloff was removed from his position in 1656. Then he headed to Sweden's arch-rival, Denmark. In 1657, a Danish detachment led by Karloff captured Fort Carlsborg and some trading posts. In 1660, after the Danish-Swedish war and the uprising of the local population against the new masters, Sweden managed to restore sovereignty over these territories. However, not for long. In 1663, Danish forces recaptured Carlsborg and Christiansborg, and the entire area eventually became part of Danish Guinea. Thus ended Swedish rule in the territory of modern Ghana. The Danish presence left a much larger imprint on these lands.
Swedish colonialism manifested itself more clearly on another continent. In 1638, the colony of New Sweden was founded on the banks of the Delaware River (in the modern states of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania). It existed until 1655, then came under the control of the Netherlands. The capital was Fort Christina (now the city of Wilmington). Over time, the formation included ten forts, in which no more than 400 people lived, speaking Swedish and Finnish. The bulk of the population was not the emigrated Swedes, but representatives of the Finno-Ugric peoples from the territories conquered by Sweden. They came to America in search of a better life.
Much later, in 1785, Sweden acquired another colony - on the island of Saint Barthelemy in the Caribbean Sea. It existed until 1878 and left the most significant mark in the colonial history of the country. Sweden acquired the island from France in order to develop maritime trade with the Caribbean countries. For this purpose, the Swedish West India Company was founded. Saint Barthelemy acted as a kind of intermediary.
During the first decades of Swedish rule, the port in the capital of Gustavia was used for the exchange of American and British goods. By the end of the century, the number of ships leaving Gustavia reached 1,330, which meant that influential merchants settled on the island and prominent trading houses operated. In addition, after the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1794, Saint Barthélemy experienced some economic prosperity. Many plantation families fled to the colonies of other European countries, including Sweden.
Saint Barthélemy's situation began to deteriorate in 1815, when the war between France and Great Britain ended. The island was a center where entrepreneurs from all the warring countries could trade. After peace, it lost its economic importance and was sold to France.
SLAVE TRADING BUSINESS
Like other Caribbean colonists, Sweden participated in the slave trade, both for labor and income. Slaves produced the most important colonial goods: mainly sugar, but also coffee, cotton and tobacco. Despite being a late and small colonial power, Sweden helped maintain the slave trade for several decades. Basically, it supplied the colonies of other countries.
The first time a Swedish ship transported slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean island of Barbados was in 1646. The construction of the ship was sponsored by Louis de Geer, the future initiator of the creation of the Swedish Africa Company, who received permission from Queen Christina to trade in Africa on behalf of Sweden. At least 30 of the 260 slaves died during the first voyage.
As the country's interest in the slave trade grew, other Swedish ships made similar voyages. Swedish sources estimate that in ten years the Swedish Africa Company transported between five hundred and one thousand Africans across the Atlantic.
In North America, the Swedes traded with the local population and bought land from them. Slavery was not widespread in the area, with only one known enslaved African.
As Swedish historian Fredrik Thomasson notes, the very fact that Sweden owned an island in the Caribbean clearly indicates that the country participated in the slave trade and used slave labor.
The Swedish West India Company, created after acquiring Saint Barthélemy, encouraged the slave trade by imposing low customs duties on the import and export of slaves. Thus, they wanted to attract slave traders to the island in order to subsequently make money by increasing customs duties. The slave trade continued in the Swedish colony until the early 1830s, and slavery itself was abolished in 1847.
BLACK LIFE IN SAINT BARTHELEMY
During the first decades after the Swedish purchase of the island, the population of Saint Barthélemy grew rapidly. By 1810, at least five thousand people lived in the colony. Approximately 70% of them were black. Most were born in the Caribbean. There was also a large group of slaves originally from Africa. They were brought to Saint Barthélemy on Swedish and foreign ships.
Almost all physical labor on the island was entrusted to the black population. Gustavia was built by the hands of slaves. The men worked on construction sites and in the port, many were also fishermen and sailors. There are cases where African slaves became hairdressers and bakers. Women often served as servants and took care of children. They also practiced crafts, such as rolling cigars, and trading in the city square. Some were midwives and laundresses. Prostitution was also common. There are many indications that enslaved women were forced into this occupation.
There were private schools in Gustavia, but only white children had access to schooling. The school, which also accepted the children of slaves, was run by Methodists - representatives of one of the Protestant denominations. In general, there were both Catholic and Protestant churches on the island.
The life of African slaves on Saint Barthélemy was strictly regulated. The police did everything they could to prevent them from escaping slavery. Those who contributed to escapes were also severely punished. The white population was fined. Slaves did not have property rights, so they could not pay fines: they were whipped with a long whip. There were also so-called “shameful punishments”. Slaves were stuffed into a log, spat on and scolded. Branding on the forehead was also practiced before 1800. An interesting fact is that the Swedish court at that time ruled that imprisonment would be too lenient a punishment, since in this case the slaves would not have to work.
It is important to note that the black population in the Swedish colony was divided into two groups: slaves (they were the majority) and free ones. These included, for example, mestizos - children from white men, as well as slaves who received freedom from the owner. In the 1810s, it was free black men who began to organize themselves and demand the same civil rights as the white population. Their struggle was ultimately successful and led to equality in 1833.
Historian Fredrik Thomasson emphasizes: “Compared to many other periods of Swedish history, Swedish Saint Barthélemy has so far been very little explored. One reason is that it was difficult to reconcile the image of modern Sweden with colonialism and slavery. Only in recent decades have historians begun to study how the black population was treated in the Swedish colony.”
The first comprehensive study of the Swedish slave trade was published in 2016. It covers the period from 1785 to 1830 and talks about 90 slave ships associated with the Swedish colony. It also documents that, with the participation of Sweden, from 8 to 10 thousand slaves were transported to the Caribbean islands from Africa. The real figure, according to Fredrik Thomasson, should be somewhat higher.
The history of Sweden's Saint Barthélemy is also a controversial topic in the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament. From 2001 to 2020, deputies from different political parties raised the Saint-Barthélemy issue fifteen times. Among other things, it was proposed to include the history of the colony and information about the slave trade in the elementary school curriculum. All these proposals were rejected by a majority vote.
In a number of countries that were involved in the slave trade and used slave labor, the day of the abolition of slavery became a memorial date. One of the appeals to the Riksdag proposed declaring October 9 as a National Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Swedish Transatlantic Slave Trade, but to no avail. Nevertheless, October 9 was declared the Day of the Abolition of Swedish Slavery by France. Since 2012, it has been celebrated annually in Saint Barthélemy.