The Scandinavians ‘hitchhiked’ their way to the boons of empire


Plantation Høgensborg on St Croix in the former Danish West Indies (1833) PHOTO/Wikipedia

For many of the most successful imperialist countries, empire was just not worth the trouble. Scandinavian monarchies in the 17th and 18th centuries endeavoured to build empires that would rival the Dutch or even the British, but come the 19th century they sold up the remnants of these overseas ambitions, and largely escaped the administrative responsibility, and moral condemnation, for the age of High Imperialism. Nevertheless, though they gave up administering colonies, a closer look reveals that, by hitchhiking on the back of the British, French and German empires, the little Scandinavian monarchies benefitted greatly from European colonialism. In profound ways, talking of a European colonialism, or a colonialism enriching a collective Europe, makes sense.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, European monarchs speculated on the economic potential of overseas colonies. Trading companies, owned or backed by governments, built trading posts and administered land at the fringes of European exploration. British, French or Dutch empires were not the only speculators. Denmark established 30 forts, lodges and stations along the West African Coast. Between 1626 and 1825, Danish vessels shipped almost 100,000 enslaved Africans through these Scandinavian forts. The Danish East India Company held posts as far from Jutland as Tamil Nadu and Bengal, and settled three sugar islands in the Caribbean – the ‘Danish West Indies’ – while Sweden took the Caribbean island of St Barthélemy.

Under 18th-century mercantilist empires, these trading companies and their forts, monopolies and gunpowder were the only legitimate way for a country to funnel profits from the New World (and Africa and Asia) into their treasuries. Navigation Acts aimed to ensure that raw materials and investments of empire moved only between ‘mother country’ and ‘colony’. Smaller countries were shut out of the most lucrative lands in, say, St Domingue or Barbados. This left them to establish their own ventures in the leftover or marginal spaces. Scotland, for instance, shut out of trade with English colonies, tried to make good the swampy, gnat-infested, Darién gap in modern-day Panama at the end of the 17th century. After the Darién colony failed, Scotland turned in 1707 to formal Union with England. Monarchs in Copenhagen and Stockholm tried to establish their own colonies to face a powerful world of mercantilist competitors.

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