Sunday, July 23, 2006

Denmark and the slave trade

Manila Times column
May 7, 2006

The role Denmark played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is an almost-forgotten aspect of its history. It has been virtually written out of the books – in the 80s, for example, one could open a gymnasium (high school) text and discover exactly one and a half lines about it: namely, that in 1917, Denmark had sold the Danish West Indies to the United States, whereupon they became the US Virgin Islands.

In fact, Danish presence in the islands dated back to 1672. In 1754, the islands became royal Danish colonies, their plantation economy flourishing on African slave labor.

A forum I attended last week, at the Politiken newspaper building in Copenhagen, was open to members of the media and endeavored to raise public awareness of this buried aspect of Danish history. The forum, incidentally, was tied in with a three day conference at Copenhagen University on the Danish presence in the Atlantic slave trade, and the speakers in the panel as well as many members of the audience, were participants in that conference.

Peter Tygesen, a journalist in the panel of speakers, noted that the strong Danish presence in what was then the Belgian Congo in the latter half of the 19th century. The area had been declared the personal property of King Leopold of Belgium, and the bulk of the king’s army was recruited from Scandinavia, according to Tygeson. An estimated one-third of the white officers in that army were from Scandinavia, and of these many were Danish, enforcing the king’s policy of forcing every single Congolese person to work for one month a year, without pay.

These officers often found themselves administering vast tracts of land, a single white man sometimes in charge of an area larger than that of Denmark itself. This was at a time when the mother country was extremely poor, and a stay in Africa was certain to beget a large fortune. The officers ran veritable kingdoms, and they (and their wives) wrote home about frightening encounters with nature and “savages.” It was a time in history when newspapers were widespread and cheap, and these letters home were printed each week in every small town newspaper throughout Denmark, to the delight and astonishment of readers, who were thus entertained by tales of servants who were “brutal, cheeky, deceitful, thieving and stupid” and “cannibals with filed teeth” (though the practice of cannibalism was never substantiated, according to Tygesen). These private adventure accounts, written in the mode of Henry Morton Stanley, reinforced negative notions of what was foreign and “Other,” and reassured sedentary, provincial Danes in the “Center” of their “civilized” and racial superiority.

These were concepts that circulated in Danish society for generations, and, according to Tygesen, their legacy is the notion of the Dane as hero – the emancipator, the civilizer, almost genetically-inlaid, that Danes do good in the world and can do only good.

One of the questions that had been asked at the beginning of that forum was why Denmark had allowed itself to ignore and forget its colonial past, and to build up an image of a small, inconsequential country in world affairs – to style itself, nowadays, “as victim, not executioner”? Always, in back of the discussion, surfacing from time to time in the inputs from panel speakers and audience, was the uncomfortable reality of xenophobia and contempt/mistrust for immigrants and foreigners within Danish society.

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