Slave trading past still haunts Norway

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Norway’s participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is back to haunt the country, as an alliance of Caribbean nations seeks slavery reparations. Norway was a territory state under the Danish crown at that time, but Norwegians were strongly represented at all levels in the Danish-Norwegian slave trade from 1660 to 1806, according to a Norwegian doctoral candidate.

Life on the slave ships, many of them owned and crewed by Danes and Norwegians, was brutal, as was life in the slave ports. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Life on the slave ships, many of them owned and crewed by Danes and Norwegians, was brutal, as was life in the slave ports. PHOTO: Wikipedia

The center of the Danish-Norwegian slave trade, according to Fredrik Hyrum Svensli at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim,  was on the Gold Coast (Ghana) in Africa. Ghana’s relationship with the Caribbean dates back over 400 years and is inexplicably linked with slave trading.

Norwegians made up around 10 percent of the total crew serving on slave ships at any one time, wrote Svensli in newspaper Aftenposten recently. Hyrum Svensli’s PhD project explores the slave trade rivalry between Denmark-Norway, England and the Netherlands in Ghana in the 1600s and 1700s. That’s when Norwegians took part in what’s been called the “triangle of trade” on Norwegian and Danish ships like the Fredensborg, found wrecked off Arendal in 1974. Norwegians staffed slave forts on the African coast, sailed on the slave ships and carried goods produced by slaves back to Norway and the rest of Europe. The “triangle” went mostly from Norway and Denmark to Ghana, then to Caribbean ports such as St Croix and St Thomas and back to Scandinavia.

Those Norwegians who served at the slave posts on the Gold Coast came from various backgrounds such as soldiers, gunsmiths, artisans and even clergymen. They shared one thing in common in that they were for the most part “incompetent and reckless adventurers,” Hyrum Svensli told Aftenposten.

Caribbean nations are seeking reparations for the after-effects of slavery, but are unlikely to prevail. Norway can blame is domination by Denmark at the time. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Caribbean nations are seeking reparations for the after-effects of slavery, but are unlikely to prevail. Norway can blame is domination by Denmark at the time. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Fortress life was marked by chaos and a lack of discipline but some notable individuals stand out from the rest. One such exception was Cornelius Pettersøn from Bergen, a soldier and later a sergeant at the main fort at Christiansborg from 1729 to 1745. He was involved in everything from slave trading to political intrigue and in 1744 took part in a mutiny which led to complete chaos at the fort. Fortunately for Pettersøn, he was able to avoid the death penalty as he was married to an African woman (as were many Norwegians serving on the Gold Coast) and therefore was able to gain crucial support from his wife’s powerful African family and wider network.

Another Norwegian, Andreas Wellemsen, was governor at Christiansborg during the Akwamu war (1727-1730), one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Gold Coast’s history. Using diplomatic prowess he managed to secure Danish-Norwegian trade interests by both keeping them out of the war and in the process was able to secure a high number of slaves as African prisoners of war were transported from the African interior to coastal fortifications.

Søren Schielderup also served as governor at the fort at Christiansborg (1735 -1736) and in the 10 short months he was there, helped to establish one of the largest slave trade developments in Africa at the Fredensborg fort. The fort was important for the expansion of Danish-Norwegian enterprise, which was moving eastwards on the Gold Coast in the second half of the 1700s. Under Schielderup’s administration, trade was so profitable that the competing Dutch slave traders awarded a significant bounty to have him killed.

Doctoral candidate Fredrik Hyrum Svensli has been researching life at the slave forts in Africa at NTNU in Trondheim. PHOTO: NTNU

Doctoral candidate Fredrik Hyrum Svensli has been researching life at the slave forts in Africa at NTNU in Trondheim. PHOTO: NTNU

Schielderup, Wellemsen and Pettersøn were all part of a slave-processing system whereby slaves were moved, aided by African sellers, to the Danish-Norwegian slave forts on the coast where they were examined and branded like cattle with the initials “CB” for Christiansborg. They were then herded into slave barracks and ferried over the Atlantic in cramped slave ships. In total, Denmark-Norway was responsible for the shipment of more than 85,000 African slaves in the period from 1660 to 1806 (over 150 years).

Now, hundreds of years later, the heads of state of 15 Caribbean nations are demanding reparations from several European countries for the enduring suffering inflicted by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Newspapers including The Guardian have reported that they plan to first seek “dialogue” with former slave-trading nations including the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.  The claim is rooted in an alleged cycle of poverty and degradation from which many descendants of slaves still suffer.

The Caribbean nations claim they’re not just seeking financial reparations, but diplomatic aid to help persuade countries like Ghana and Ethiopia to offer citizenship to the children of people from the Caribbean who “return” to Africa. They want help in improving the lives of poor communities in the Caribbean that they claim are still suffering from the after-effects of slavery, aid for literacy drives and, not least, an apology for their role in shipping millions of men, women and children from Africa to the Caribbean and America in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s unlikely the European nations will accept the claims, given the time that’s passed and, in the Norwegians’ case, the fact that their participation was carried out through Denmark since Norway was not a sovereign nation at the time.

While the inhumane and exploitative suffering of African slaves is beyond comparison, Norwegian researcher Hyrum Svensli notes that life was hard for those serving at the forts as well. The priest’s son Schielderup described it as a “veritable Sodom” where there was an abject lack of respect for authority.  Disease was also rampant and death rates were extraordinarily high. Those who died ended up in “white man’s graves” after succumbing to diseases such as malaria, pox and dysentery. The few Norwegians who returned to Norway alive were often blighted by their former lives in Africa, according to Hyrum Svensli’s project (external link to NTNU’s research synopsis).

newsinenglish.no/Audrey Andersen

  • John Palmer

    Slave trade was the way things were then. Horrible, yes. Legal, yes. Norway doesn’t owe them anything.

    • epn

      and legal how? was it legalised by every African state?

      • John Palmer

        The Africans who sold other Africans didn’t seem to have a problem with it.

        • inquisitor

          Nor did the Jews who, in many instances, owned the ships and were the big money interests financing the slave trade.

        • This line of argument is clever. Yes Africans from the Bight were involved but they were contracted to supply slaves to western slave traders usually English, French and Americans. The introduction of firearms on the west coast of Africa tilted the balance in favor of those who made slaving the basis of their economy like the Dahomey.

          • John Palmer

            Whether it was legal or illegal, at least in the US, the constitution prevents a writ of attainder. A group can not be found guilty without a trial. And, in my opinion, descendants are not responsible for the actions of their ancestors. Today’s Germans are not responsible for the holocaust, for example. It happened. Get over it.

            • Jason Newstedt

              Although I agree with most of what you’re saying, The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp is a prime example of the US violating the bill of attainder act.

              • John Palmer

                Jason, I agree. Probably violates other laws, too. A national disgrace.

  • inquisitor

    China used their own people as slaves.

  • inquisitor

    And don’t forget the force importation of opium even after China tried to rid themselves of it because of the destruction it had on its people.