Colonial history rarely makes us think about the Nordic region. That omission, it has been said, allows these nations to ignore their connections to the global imperial system. As GunlÃ¶g Fur writes with regard to Swedenâ€™s self-understanding in the 20th century, â€˜there was no decolonising moment, during which Sweden had to rethink its position. Instead this left room for reformulating a Swedish strategy for non-alliance and mediationâ€™ (p. 24).
The current BL exhibition â€˜Windrush: Songs in a Strange Landâ€™ encourages us to look closer. The discovery of three 18th-century Swedish legal documents in the British Library collections (to add to the many others received and purchased over the centuries) reminds us of Swedenâ€™s continuous intention to compete with the superior European powers at the colonial table, a table at which their neighbours Denmark had already managed to establish themselves.
But first, a quick sketch of Swedenâ€™s Atlantic exploration. 1637 saw Sweden establish a colony on the banks of the Delaware River, with the help of Dutch merchants. â€˜New Swedenâ€™ was short-lived (it collapsed in 1656) but it still â€˜became a home for generations of colonistsâ€™ (Ekengren et al., p. 169). In 1702 Thomas Campanius Holm wrote a comprehensive account of the geography, the colonists, the native Indians and, perhaps most interestingly, included chapters of phrases in the Lenape language.
While the two decades of official Swedish occupation in Delaware have often been viewed, in early histories of the period, as either ultimately unsuccessful and therefore harmless, or successful in Swedenâ€™s cultivation of wild forest into fertile land (and therefore harmless), the episode might be seen in parallel to the establishment of West African forts at the same time. Seafaring expertise and a thirst for trade opportunities led the Swedes simultaneously to America and Africa (with the SÃ¡pmi, arguably also part of the â€˜colonialâ€™ conversation), tying the search for land and goods and the accompanying Christian missionary activities, together with the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade.
Sweden had to wait 130 years for their next American colony, the island of St BarthÃ©lemy in the Caribbean, given by France in return for trading rights in Gothenburg. However, modern scholarship does not consider the intervening period a hiatus, rather â€˜Swedenâ€™s interest in the American world continued unabated, as evidenced by several plans to found colonies in the Caribbean or on the South American continent. At the same time, economic ties, both direct and indirect, were growing between Sweden and the Americasâ€™ (Schnakenbourg, p. 229).
Map of St BarthÃ©lemy (Stockholm, ). (Image from the John Carter Brown Library, via Wikimedia Commons.)
It is the latter idea of economic ties across the Atlantic, which is in evidence in the British Library collections recently found. The importance of Swedish iron to triangular trade is one example of how Sweden fitted into the global network (Evans and RydÃ©n) but Sweden was not content simply to export domestic products. Rather, they were consistently engaged in establishing a colony in the Caribbean, since the premature end of earlier ventures (Schnakenbourg). The Library holds both the 14 June 1731 privilege for â€˜Hindrich [Henrik] KÃ¶nig & compagnie angÃ¥ende en fart och handel pÃ¥ Ost-Indienâ€™, which inaugurated the Swedish East India Company, as well as the 2 December 1745 privilege â€˜pÃ¥ en handels och siÃ¶-farts inrÃ¤ttande pÃ¥ America, fÃ¶r handelsmÃ¤nnerne Abraham och Jacob Arwedson & Compagnieâ€™, which preceded the founding of the Swedish West India Company.
While engaged in triangular trade in the mid-18th century, supplying slaves to Caribbean colonies owned by other powers and directly selling Swedish commoditiesâ€”herring as well as ironâ€”to the new markets, the ambition remained to possess somewhere in the Caribbean to begin their own trade in sugar and other products. Therefore, the 1745 privilege was also intended to explore the possibility of taking first Tobago and later Barima, but Spanish and Dutch suspicion would prevent any serious attempts by Sweden. Their goal was secured in 1784 with the exchange for St BarthÃ©lemy, an island the French had struggled (and the Swedish would struggle) to cultivate. The harshness of the land led to the declaration â€˜som fÃ¶rklarar Ã¶n St. Barthelemy i Westindien fÃ¶r en fri hamn eller porto francoâ€™, in other words the island became a free port in an attempt to maximize trade activity.
Eight months later the Swedish crown was obliged to publish a sort of corrective to the free port announcement, as it had seemingly encouraged too much interest among Swedes in making the switch to the Caribbean. The notification â€˜Til hÃ¤mmande af obetÃ¤nkte utflyttningar til Ã–n St Barthelemyâ€™ of 2 May 1786 suggests that the previous yearâ€™s announcement was intended to encourage traders and not settlers. It highlights the tough conditions on the island, the lack of resources and the resistance to cultivation, as well as the limited space. Farmers, instead, should think more about working the fatherland!
From the beginning of Swedish administration of the island and aided by the official establishment of Swedish West India Company on 31 October 1786, â€˜a commercially-oriented infrastructure was erected with the development of the islandâ€™s natural harbour, le CarÃ©nage, as well as the edification of its capital city, Gustavia, with warehouses, supply depots, and public buildings surrounding the portâ€™ (Lavoie et al., p. 381).
To conclude this survey of some of the documentation regarding the Swedish colony of St BarthÃ©lemy, it is worth reiterating the complicated position contemporary Swedish historians are in. Fur describes the awkwardness as follows: â€˜popular understanding has gone from no colonialism to post-colonialism without stopping in-between, without having to confront the challenges and ambiguities of decolonizationâ€™ (p. 26). The problem remains that St BarthÃ©lemy, in comparison to the sugar island colonies of other powers, was always a site of temporary and fugitive wealth as an entrepÃ´t, and therefore Sweden â€˜cannot be considered as a colonial power in the full senseâ€™ (Schnakenbourg, p. 240). At the same time, by avoiding the overestimation of colonial achievements you risk the oblivion of the Swedenâ€™s role in the global matrix of exploitation. â€˜[N]owhere, and no one, was untouched by the forces of colonialism in the early modern world.â€™ (Horning, p. 297).
Pardaad Chamsaz. Curator, Germanic Collections
Yolande Lavoie, Carolyn Fick and Francine-M. Mayer, â€˜A Particular Study of Slavery in the Caribbean Island of Saint Barthelemy: 1648-1846â€™, Caribbean Studies 28:2 (1995), pp. 369-403. 3053.130000
GunlÃ¶g Fur, â€˜Colonialism and Swedish History: Unthinkable Connections?â€™, in Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (New York, 2013) m13/.14914, pp. 17-36
Chris Evans and GÃ¶ran RydÃ©n, â€˜From Gammelbo Bruk to Calabar: Swedish Iron in an Expanding Atlanticâ€™, in Scandinavian Colonialismâ€¦, pp. 53-67
Fredrik Ekengren, Magdalena Naum, Ulla Isabel Zagal-Mach Wolfe, â€˜Sweden in the Delaware Valley: Everyday Life and Material Culture in New Swedenâ€™, in Scandinavian Colonialismâ€¦, pp. 169-187
Eric Schnakenbourg, â€˜Sweden and the Atlantic: The Dynamism of Swedenâ€™s Colonial Projects in the Eighteenth Centuryâ€™, in Scandinavian Colonialismâ€¦, pp. 229-242
Audrey Horning, â€˜Insinuations: Framing a New Understanding of Colonialismâ€™, in Scandinavian Colonialismâ€¦, pp. 297-305