​Is Sweden denying its colonial past?

Today, 9 October, marks the 168th year since Sweden abolished slavery on its colony in Saint Barthélemy. Sweden ruled over the Caribbean island for over 90 years and was in 1847 one of the last countries in Europe to abolish slavery. But Sweden does not recognize its part in the transatlantic slave trade.

Sweden wanted to be with the big league. It had already failed to take over Tobago and Puerto Rico but managed in exchange for trading privileges with France to finally get its very own colony in 1784. Not much has been documented about the Swedish slave trade and its involvement is in modern time still overlooked.

“I believe that Sweden often tend to have a rather self-righteous self-image. Sweden has slightly seen itself as a global conscious, and we tend to forget what happened in our own history. There is probably a reason why nobody has studied this before and it is not because the archive is stored in France, but because slave trade has not been included in our self-image,” says Fredrik Thomasson, academic researcher at the Department of History, Uppsala University in an interview with SVT.

Small big island

Saint Barthélemy is small and had then only 600 citizens. Two third of the population were French colonists and the rest were slaves brought from Africa. But Saint Barthélemy was not just a small island for Sweden. Its location on the Caribbean Sea was ideal for the Swedes who wished to gain a leading role in the transit trade between North America and Russia. Saint-Barthélemy became also an obvious stop on the way for the slave trade between Africa and America.

There were three groups of slaves on the island; the cotton plantation slaves and the work and domestic slaves that were in the city. Slave trade was established through the Swedish West India Company. The king himself, Gustav III, was the largest shareholder and got 25 per cent of the company’s profit. A total of 5334 slaves were brought from Africa to the Swedish colony's capital, Gustavia, which was entirely built on slave force. But the island's priest Sven Dahlman claimed that the “negroes’ conditions are better in S. Barthélemy, than in the other islands, they don’t have as cruel masters here. They are fed and get clothes.”

But the slaves of Saint Barthélemy shared the same reality as other slaves in the Caribbean islands.

Non-existing slaves

"The negro such as I in the Caribbean had the opportunity to observe is barely half-man, the rest is the monkey and the tiger," wrote the Saint Barthélemy's vicar Carl Adolf Carlsson. The church book is today archive for many of the slaves that lived and died on the island. There is some lines about the “negress Sophie George bastard” who was baptized the 4 September 1786 and “negress Magdalenda Bardens daughter Frances 4,5 years” who was buried the last October 1788.

Swedish naturalist Bengt Euphrasén visited the colony at the end of the 1780s and witnessed how it often happened “that a slave starves and is too strictly driven into work, is daily beaten and runs away.” The island newspaper ‘The Report of St. Bartholomew’ published ads on fugitive slaves. Found slaves were returned to owners who had all the freedom to do with them what they wanted.

“Negroes ordained to work”

The Swedish slave trade was never really recognized. Slaves were never mentioned in documents but there are references to “negroes ordained to work.” Neither the Swedish crown nor the church ever used the word slave in their documents.

Sweden’s colonial history is more evident in court records. Fredrik Thomasson, the first researcher who has gone through the island's court journals thinks that the records are an important source of social history. “It’s almost the only source where we can find out something about the slave population that it is otherwise so quiet around. The slaves are there in name, they are witnesses and you can almost hear their voices.”

The abolishment

Slavery was never met with criticism at home. Other countries' involvement in the slave trade was criticized. The cruel treatment of slaves was widely known and written about in Swedish newspapers. But there was never a Swedish abolitionists movement, not even after Great Britain had banned slavery in 1833.

Slavery was abolished only in 1847 when Sweden joined an alliance with Great Britain. Saint-Barthélemy was at that time an economic loss. Sweden wanted to get rid of it but there were no interested buyers Finally, it was sold back to France in 1878.

Recognizing the past

Several motions about making October 9 an official Swedish memorial day for the abolition of slavery has been presented by different MPs. The Green Party spokesperson Gustav Fridolin proposed in 2010 that Sweden should publicly apologize for its role in the slave trade. Social Democrat Hillevi Larsson presented in 2012 a similar motion stating that a memorial day would give “knowledge of what happened, and Sweden's role in it all.” Future generations need also to be informed as “today's textbooks blinds Sweden's role, which only helps to idealize our history.” Larsson emphasizes in the motion that “the establishment of a memorial requires that we are willing to admit that Sweden has been involved in the transatlantic slave trade.”

All presented motions of making October 9 to a memorial have been rejected in the parliament.

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm