Among the worldwide reactions to the killing of George Floyd, protests have taken place across Scandinavia. Much of the local media coverage of these events assumed a display of solidarity with the United States and perpetuated the misconception that racism was something belonging to other countries. However, the participants were also highlighting current problems of systemic racism in their own countries along with the need to face up to their colonial past.
Denmark and Sweden were both involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Denmark had the Danish Gold Coast on the west of Africa from where slaves were sent to work on the sugar plantations of the Danish West Indies, the islands of St Thomas, St John and St Croix (now US Virgin Islands). Sweden owned the island of St Barthélemy. They were both minor players but their history is tainted by their participation – Danish ships transported over 100,000 slaves, representing 1% of the large-scale global operation; Sweden transported fewer slaves but its iron industry supported the slave trade of other countries by supplying chains and shackles.
It is fair to say that colonialism was ignored for many years but it has been the subject of wider debate in society more recently. Like Bristol and Liverpool in the UK, Copenhagen, and to a lesser extent Stockholm, benefited from the slave trade, and beautiful houses and palaces still evident today were built with the proceeds. Amid the protests there have been calls to rename some streets in Copenhagen, and the proposal of the last few years for Denmark to have a Centre for Colonial History seems ever more relevant. This would be in the West India warehouse on the waterfront, right by the 2018 statue I am Queen Mary depicting Mary Thomas, a leader of an uprising on St Croix, and the first statue of a black woman in Denmark.
For a long time little research was done in the field of colonialism. However, the last 20 years or so have seen an increased interest among academic researchers. Here are some recent publications, all in English, available online:
- Scandinavian colonialism and the rise of modernity: small time agents in a global arena edited by Magdalena Naum and Jonas M. Nordin (2013)
- Ports of globalisation, places of Creolisation: Nordic possessions in the Atlantic world during the era of the slave trade edited by Holger Weiss (2015)
- Navigating colonial orders: Norwegian entrepreneurship in Africa and Oceania edited by Kirsten Alsaker Kjerland and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen (2015)
- The Danish slave trade and its abolition by Erik Gobel (2017)
- Slave Society in the Danish West Indies: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix by Neville Hall (1994)
- Daughters of the trade: Atlantic slavers and interracial marriage on the Gold Coast by Pernille Ipsen (2015)
Of course, many people would associate the idea of slavery and Scandinavia with an earlier time when Vikings traded in thralls (Old Norse for slave). Indeed, the phrase “to be in thrall to someone”, meaning they have power over you, is derived from this. The Viking slave trade is discussed in more detail in Slavery and society in medieval Scandinavia by Ruth Mazo Karras and also in a chapter of The Viking world edited by Stefan Brink.
The countries of Scandinavia were long regarded as having open and welcoming immigration policies, resulting in high numbers of immigrants. However, as in many other European countries, large numbers of asylum seekers arriving coincided with increasing nationalism, the rise of the far right and the growth of Islamophobia. There has been a change in both attitudes and policies. Perhaps the most comprehensive and recent work discussing race issues in Scandinavia is the 2018 Racialization, racism, and anti-racism in the Nordic countries edited by Peter Hervik. Unfortunately this is unavailable at the current time as it is an Electronic legal deposit item.
Next week is the ninth anniversary of the 22 July Oslo attacks when 77 people were killed. The dangerous beliefs which led to this atrocity are examined in Sindre Bangstad’s Anders Breivik and the rise of Islamophobia (2014). Other useful works available online include Complying with colonialism: gender, race and ethnicity in the Nordic region edited by Suvi Keskinen (2009) and the rather older Even in Sweden: racisms, racialized spaces, and the popular geographical imagination by Allan Pred (2000).