A darker side of Swedish history
Sweden made the slave trade illegal in 1813, but allowed slavery until October 9, 1847.
Last week marked 165 years since slavery was abolished in Sweden. Compared to the slave trade of other colonial powers, Swedish slave trade was fairly mild, yet it is important to remember those who were victims of the racist politics. Swedish slave trade began on May 12, 1646, when a Swedish slave trade expedition sailed to Africa on the initiative of businessman Louis de Geer. In what is today Nigeria, the expedition bought 260 slaves, all of whom were sent to Barbados. Only 150 slaves were alive when the ship arrived in the West Indies. Not long after, the slave fort Karlsborg was built in what is today Ghana, in West Africa. It is clear the Swedes had high hopes with this business. The Swedish Gold Coast (as it was called) was a Swedish colony founded in 1650 by Hendrik Carloff. It was a profitable colony while it lasted, though in 1663 the Swedes lost it to the Danes. During the 16th century, Sweden exported more iron than any other country, and especially British slave trade was dependent on Swedish iron in order to make ships and tools like handcuffs. In an article in daily Dagens Nyheter, Karl Dalén writes that there are several testimonies of how cruelly slaves were treated by Swedes on Saint Barthélemy, the island in the West Indies that was a Swedish colony between 1784 and 1878. Within 15 years, there were 6,000 inhabitants living on the island (there were 739 when the Swedes arrived in 1785), and the capital Gustavia was Sweden’s sixth biggest city. The reason for this expansion was manifold, but the Swedes made money on slave trade. In 1786, King Gustaf III launched the corporation Västindiska kompaniet, the main purpose of which was slave trade. However, with the French Revolution and the 1792 death of Gustaf III, the ambition to create a greater Swedish slave trade waned, even though Sweden and Saint Barthélemy continued to make money on slaves for some time. To control the dark-skinned inhabitants on the island, a slave law was introduced by Governor Pehr Herman von Rosenstein. According to this law, slaves were to be whipped if they were caught dancing without permission or right before they were to be executed, and executed they were if they ever fought a white person until he bled. Also according to the law, the owners of the slaves had the right to whip their slaves themselves, although never more than 29 blows. “Every whipping sounds like a gun shot, and great pieces of skin and flesh often come off,” writes the Swedish botanist Bengt Anders Euphrasén in 1788. The law was strict even for the free dark-skinned inhabitants of the island. It didn’t take much for them to be condemned to slavery and auctioned off. The proceeds of these auctions went straight to the Swedish king. “To the benefit of the King” it was printed in the auction ads. Swedish slave owners themselves were not allowed to torture their slaves with methods such as iron collars or branding, those methods were reserved for the Swedish authorities alone, although according to an 1804 letter to the local paper, “The report of St. Bartholomew,” few Swedes seemed to have bothered to follow the law: “Some people in this here colony seem to lately have fallen prey to a devilish desire to torture free people of color, just as well as slaves of other people,” an anonymous person writes. A year later, the paper reported that a female slave has escaped a “private” dungeon. Sources to the paper insisted that there were several such dungeons where female slaves were kept hidden. In a case from 1802, a female slave reports that she was punished with 400 blows because she had finished her owner’s soap much too quickly, this cruel punishment was witnessed by two. It was perhaps especially difficult for the island’s female slaves, since they were often taken as mistresses by white men. In a diary entry, Swede Robert Montgomery (then aged 54) writes that he took a 22-year-old slave as his mistress, “Since everybody kept telling me that I needed a girl for my health.” When voices were raised against slavery, the need for arguments to keep slaves got more intense. Judge Olof Erik Bergius wrote a book in 1819, in which he calls black people lazy and particularly given to lying. A year later Pastor Carl Adolf Carlsson writes: “The negro is barely half a person, the rest is ape and tiger.” Swedish slave trade continued until the end of the 1830s, even though in England, for instance, it was banned in 1807. In 1814, Sweden diminished its slave trade quite a bit, and in 1830, a death penalty for those who kept slaves was introduced. However on Saint Barthélemy slavery continued. But only a few years remained for the island under the Swedish flag; the inhabitants moved to other islands, and in the mid 1800s only 1100 people were still in Gustavia. Sweden tried desperately to sell the island, without any luck. At the end, France bought it back in 1877. In daily Dagens Nyheter on November 23, 1877, a poem is published by “a poet in Hälsingland,” honoring the steadfast Swede who won’t give up his “home” in Gustavia: “Thank you, you last Swede, it is inspiring to see your warm love for the Swedish society.” It is bittersweet to note that the last Swede on the island in reality was a dark-skinned businessman by the name of Wellington Sicard.