Denmark as a colonial powerTheme
Spices, sugar, slaves and a special relationship
The great European naval powers underwent an expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries that saw them establish colonies and trading posts around the world. Denmark took part, but as a bit player. Denmark's colonies fell into three categories, each defined by their geographical location – North Atlantic, South Atlantic and the Far East - and the way they were exploited – trading monopoly to market-oriented production.
In 1620, an expedition sent by King Christian IV was granted control of part of southern India in exchange for an annual payment to the local raja. The fishing village of Tranquebar was to become a fortified trading station with the aim of buying and storing Indian spices and textiles. The colony and its trade were administered for more than a century by companies that had a monopoly on certain items. The first, the Danish East India Company, was set up and went bankrupt in the early 1600s. It took more than a hundred years for its successor, the Danish Asiatic Company, to establish trade in earnest, and additional trade outposts were established in India. Starting in the late 18th century, trade with India was gradually opened, while administration remained under the Crown. Trade with China, however, remained the exclusive right of the Danish Asiatic Company. After Denmark's involvement in wars against Britain in the early 1800s, trade began to decline, and in 1848 Tranquebar was sold to Britain.
Sugar and slaves
The South Atlantic colonies were a part of a much more complicated and refined system – the triangle of trade. The system spanned the Atlantic with colonies in Guinea in Africa and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. Trading was controlled for many years by a the Danish West Indian-Guinea Company, which bought African slaves for use in the West Indies. There, the company controlled three islands: St Thomas, a free port and international slave market; St Croix, which produced sugar on plantations with the work of slaves; and St Jan (St John).
Sugar from St Croix was shipped to Copenhagen, where it was refined. Some of Denmark's first industrially produced goods were used to barter in Africa.
Slave trade banned
In 1745, the slave and sugar trade was liberalised. There was a lot of money to be made in the triangle trade, and it created some of the day's largest fortunes.
Slavery was one of the cornerstones of colonial Denmark, and a necessity for sugar production on St Croix. But, as the end of the 18th century approached, opposition to holding slaves began to emerge. In anticipation of the outcome of popular opposition to slavery, Denmark in 1792 became the first country to ban the slave trade. The law went into effect ten years later. Slavery itself wasn't outlawed until 1848.
Vikings and Eskimos
The relationship between Denmark and its North Atlantic territories – the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland – dates back much further and was much deeper than with its other colonies. All three became Danish possessions together with Norway in 1397 as part of the Kalmar Union. As territories of the Kingdom of Denmark, their symbols were added to the royal coat of arms. The symbols of the Faroe Islands and Greenland can still be seen today.
Iceland and the Faroe Islands were settled by the Vikings between the seventh and ninth centuries. Their descendents still inhabited the islands, where they were fishermen, whalers and sheep farmers. Greenlanders were also hunters, which made trade in skins possible. Greenland wasn't settled until the 10th century. Norsemen resided in southern Greenland for 500 years, during the same period that Inuits migrated from the north. The Norsemen disappeared inexplicably around the year 1500. It is believed they either died out or were forced away due to a declining climate and a lack of supplies as Norwegian ships stopped coming. It wasn't until the early 18th century that contact was resumed – this time when King Frederik IV sent a missionary in the person of Rev Hans Egede, who was to convert the Inuits and, if possible, to re-establish contact with the Norsemen.
Less exploitation, more administration
Denmark's relationship with the North Atlantic colonies was far less one-sided than it was with other colonial areas. The few inhabitants of the three colonies were royal subjects, and it was emphasised that colonisation was a form of aid – which they had to pay for in the form of taxes. Trade was established, but it was highly regulated, and for many years was a royal monoply.
The Greenlandic Trading Company quickly went bankrupt, and the state in 1722 took over trade by creating the Royal Greenlandic Trading Company. The company had a total monopoly on all trade with Greenland, a status it retained until 1950. Meanwhile, legislation was passed to protect Greenlanders from coming into contact with the vices and illnesses of civilisation. They were to remain in their native state. It was a system that was clearly aware of its responsibility for native peoples, but its view of Greenlanders was also a patronising one.
Denmark – a colonial power
Colonial Denmark was not very large, and for many years there was no economic gain associated with its status as a colonial power. But for us today the existence of Danish colonies, and over such a wide geographical area, demonstrates that not only was there political will to establish colonies, there was also enough naval power to enforce that will. By the 18th century, the colonies did start to turn a profit. Their economic contributions began to slack off, however, after Denmark's wars with Britain at the start of the 19th century and the following economic downturn. Unlike with its tropical colonies, Denmark's relationship with its North Atlantic colonies was too strong for it to ever consider selling them, as occurred with the Virgin Islands in 1917. In fact, two of the three remain a part of the Danish Kingdom today. Iceland declared independence during World War II.