Researching Nordic Colonialism – Past, Present, Futures

digital (Helsinki)
Janne Lahti, "Nordic Colonialism and the Global" research project, University of Helsinki
24.05.2021 - 25.05.2021
Janne Lahti / Lotta Vuorio, History, University of Helsinki

What is Nordic colonialism? Is it relevant for Nordic and global histories? Is it relevant for explaining and understanding present-day Nordic identities and social issues? How is it researched? These were some of the pertinent questions that the workshop sought to address. The idea was to bring together a cadre of international scholars from all the Nordic countries and beyond who were working on histories of colonialism and to have them engage in mutual dialogue pertaining to the shared trajectories and divergent pathways of colonialism in the Nordic context.

This workshop was the opening of the “Nordic Colonialism and the Global” project that consists of a series of workshops in 2021 and 2022 and is funded by NOS-HS (The joint committee for Nordic research councils in the humanities and social sciences). Led by Janne Lahti (University of Helsinki), together with Linda Andersson Burnett (Uppsala University), Gunlög Fur (Linnaeus University, Växjö), John Hennessey (Uppsala University), Rinna Kullaa (Tampere University), and Kristín Loftsdóttir (University of Iceland, Reykjavík), this project advances transnational, transimperial, and global framings, understandings, and entanglements of colonialism in the Nordic perspective. It reflects the recent rise of scholarly and public interest in colonial histories and postcolonial presents in the Nordic region by fostering international collaboration and exchange of ideas.

The project investigates colonialism in the historical experience and contemporary identities in the Nordic region and also tracks what kind of influence colonialism has had on the definitions of nationhood, the society at large, and on group and individual identity. It encourages scholars to look beyond their own national histories and toward transnational understandings. In conjunction, it advocates moving beyond the usual notions of “complicit colonialism” or “Nordic exceptionalism.” This does not suggest traditional comparative histories alone, nor of promoting examples of some static or singular brand of Nordic colonialism. Instead, the project explores relationships and spaces not merely within but between empires and colonial projects. This involves treating imperial centers and colonial peripheries within a single analytical field as well as mapping and understanding “connections” – the multiple tensions, networks, circulations, and flows of ideas, practices, and peoples within and beyond the boundaries of formal territorial rule. But mere investigation of connections in itself is not enough. These connections shaping Nordic colonial pasts and postcolonial presents need to be embedded into their global contexts.

The project advocates an inclusive conceptualization of Nordic colonialism; as something the Nordic individuals, groups, companies, and countries, individually or together, were engaged with within the geographical bounds of the Nordic region; and as something these actors did overseas and/or in the service of other colonial empires. Thus, Nordic colonialism covers plenty of ground, from the settler experience in North America to participation of Nordic companies in the slave trade, from Nordic explorers, scientists, missionaries, and administrators working for European empires across the world to colonization and assimilation of the Sámi peoples in the Arctic.

By studying the various facets of Nordic colonialism the project advances understandings and linkages between Nordic and global histories as well as integrating Nordic colonialism into global histories of colonialism and to the narratives of European expansion. These also make Nordic colonialism more accessible to researchers working on global history. It is typical that Nordic countries are often absent from theoretical analysis of colonialism. Furthermore, broader synthesis of colonial history seldom draw Nordic examples or if they do, they view Nordic colonialism as “exceptional,” meaning more humane, marginal, or mere complicit to the larger story. While a number of European countries have for long discussed their colonial pasts and postcolonial presents, research on northern Europe has not until very recently started to contemplate how this region contributed to, benefited from, and now inhabits a colonial history. This is because the region has been imagined, internally and externally, as being untarnished by colonialism. In fact, one could argue that historians seldom connect the words “Nordic” and “colonialism” or hear those terms being used in conjunction or in the contexts of global empires. This workshop represents a step in correcting this by exposing Nordic colonialism in its myriad of forms, multidirectional entanglements, and widespread ramifications, in the process integrating and relating Nordic experiences into larger patterns of global colonial expansion and postcolonial relations.

The conference opened with the session “Windows to Nordic Colonialism” meant to provide ways of conceptualizing and viewing Nordic colonialism in its multiple forms. After Janne Lahti welcomed the sizable audience of well over 100 scholars and students, and briefly introduced the project, the organizers offered short vignettes. Linda Andersson Burnett spoke about Linnean natural science and collecting, while Gunlög Fur talked about the need for solid empirical research on ways colonialism has saturated Nordic societies and identities. John Hennessey brought up how following Nordic actors in transimperial spaces can open up new perspectives on the global history of modern colonialism, and Rinna Kullaa addressed marginal actors in colonial histories and the transfer of identities in multi-ethnic empires and nation-states. Kristín Loftsdóttir in turn emphasized interconnections and entanglements of racialization and migration as shared questions in different academic fields.

After the opening pieces, LEILA KOIVUNEN (Turku) and ANNA RASTAS (Tampere) introduced their own multidisciplinary research on the “colonial turn” in Finnish research, stressing the blurring boundaries of decolonization, activism, and academic investigation. Next MAGDALENA NAUM (Aarhus) continued on the theme of colonial objects in Nordic museums. She viewed the contestations and possibilities of decolonial practices, of restitution and collaborations connecting different regimes of knowledge from the Western and Indigenous spheres. Finally, SAMI LAKOMÄKI (Oulu) took us to contemplate on the narrations and histories of violence in Sápmi from the 1500s onward. He laid out different types of violence impacting the Sápmi, from the cultural to the structural, and asked what is at stake in researching and excavating, memorializing and commemorating (or erasing), their complex histories.

The opening session was followed by six thematically specific panels. First up was the panel on “Everyday Racialization in the Nordic Countries”. MANTE VERTELYTE (Aarhus) introduced us to complexities of friendship and racialization among contemporary Danish schoolkids, while SAYAKA OSANAMI TÖRNGREN (Malmö) also discussed postcolonial conceptualizations of nationhood and identities by looking at the role and perceptions of Asians in Swedish society. Both papers addressed questions of racial visibility, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, barriers, and ambiguities, the ongoing tensions that reflect old colonial-era global racial and cultural lines and thinking.

Next up was the panel on “Colonial Culture as Nordic Culture” that discussed different forms of mediated colonialism visible in cultural representations in the Nordic countries. ÅSA BHARATHI LARSSON (Uppsala) introduced us to Swedish artist Jenny Nyström’s (1854–1946) illustrations in the bestselling book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly” (1852). Her presentation showed how examining visual illustrations addresses the heritage of colonial practices and colonial cultures in a region (Sweden) on the periphery of colonial endeavors. ELINA ARMINEN (Joensuu) talked about Finnish literary representations of environmental colonialism pertaining to Finnish Pechenga (Petsamo), while THAJILAH OLAIYA (University of Glasgow) changed the focus to colonial uprising in the Danish West Indies and on monuments and songs as forms of remembering this contested past as a global story from New York and Virgin Islands to Copenhagen.

The third panel of the workshop, “Resource Colonialism Over Time,” focused on the questions of extraction, natural resources, and the environment in the Arctic areas of Finland and Sweden. LAURA JUNKA-AIKIO (Tromsø) discussed settler colonial change via the Arctic Railway projects, and their ongoing effects on the contemporary aspects of Finnish colonialism towards the Sámi. JONAS M. NORDIN (Stockholm) examined the global and local connectedness of 17th-century copper industrialization in the Torne River valley of Sweden. DAG AVANGO (Stockholm) in turn dealt with resource-oriented colonialism in the context of Arctic and Antarctic regions in Sweden in the late modern period. The discussion on legacies of resource colonialism was a fine ending for the first day of the workshop, and lead the way to the second day of engaging papers.

The fourth panel, “Imperial Artefacts: Looting, Museums, and Nordic ‘Exceptionalism’”, shared research results as well as practical knowledge from the field of museology. LIV NILSSON STUTZ (Växjö) talked about Swedish museums and the ethical entanglements concerning human remains, which stimulated lively discussion on how to approach the histories of artefacts, and modern-day claims for repatriation. EEVA-KRISTIINA HARLIN (Oulu) focused on the role of Sámi objects as actors in time and space; on indigenization, connecting with ancestors, and possibilities of collaboration between Indigenous communities and museums. These papers demonstrated how the complex histories of looting/collecting objects and human remains, the governance of these objects and calls for their return resonate in the Nordic context and link the region to similar ongoing questions and debates happening globally.

In the fifth panel, “Nordic People in Transimperial Networks”, the direction was changed from artefacts to human agency and networks in the colonial past. MIKKO TOIVANEN (München) shed light on Dutch colonial networks and the opportunities they offered for Finns in the nineteenth-century East Indies. LISA HELLMAN (Bonn), director of NordGlob, a network for global history in the Nordic countries[1], introduced us to the histories of 18th-century Swedish prisoners of war in Russia and Central Asia. Her presentation made us think about tracking the traces of different colonial actors and on how to understand colonialism in the context of various imperial projects. EYRÚN EYBÓRSDÓTTIR (Reykjavík) in turn discussed Icelandic ethnic heritage in Brazil and its transnational ramifications in the present-day.

The last session of the workshop, “Art and Nordic Colonialism,” differed from the other panels by bringing an aesthetic dimension to the examination of Nordic colonialism. In this panel, the colonial past and its relationship to the present was mediated through artistic representations. JACQUELINE HOÀNG NGUYÊN (Stockholm) introduced us to her aesthetic research. Based on the SWICH (Sharing a World of Inclusion, Creativity and Heritage) artist-in-residence project at Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, she contrasted her own family’s biographical photographs from Indonesia with similar images available in the museum’s collection. ANNA EKMAN (lieu?) discussed her project “Les archives suédoises” on the Swedish missionary photography in the Belgian Congo. In a deeply emotional presentation, she pointed out many nuanced questions pertaining to the contextualizing of this visual archive, its interpretative range for varied readings of history, and the unequal power structures shaping it all.
For more detailed information about the workshop and the whole “Nordic Colonialism and the Global” project, please visit the website of the project.[2] It will work as a platform for the future workshops and on offering information on them.

The workshop proved a success with a plethora of insightful papers and lively discussions. It drew plenty of interest with close to 300 registered attendees and with each panel drawing large crowds. Foremost, it revealed the need and the interest to discuss and to research Nordic colonialism. It revealed many spatial dimensions, thematic threads, and temporal continuities, the connectedness in the colonial histories between the Nordic countries and beyond, and the transnational and global nature of these histories. It not only revealed rich histories of Nordic colonialism, but also showed that colonial heritage and durabilities also shape present-day Nordic cultures and identities. Finally, it showed that research on colonialism in general should look beyond national boundaries, and pay attention to colonialism’s Nordic dimensions and forms. Sidetracking or ignoring the Nordic from investigations of colonialism camouflages understandings of colonialism as a global process and structure shaping and shaped by big and small countries alike. The “Nordic Colonialism and the Global” project will continue the discussion, and more panels and workshops will follow in 2021 and 2022.

Conference overview:

Opening session: Windows to Nordic Colonialism

Opening words: Janne Lahti, Gunlög Fur, Kristín Loftsdóttir, Rinna Kullaa, Linda Andersson Burnett and John Hennessey

Leila Koivunen (University of Turku) and Anna Rastas (Tampere University): The Integration of Discussions on Colonialism into Finnish Histories

Magdalena Naum (Aarhus University): Colonialism, Collecting and Regimes of Knowledge: Approaching Native American Objects in Danish Museums

Sami Lakomäki (University of Oulu): “If these Two Obviously Hardened Men… Are Allowed to Live”: How to Reckon with Colonial Violence in Early Modern Sápmi?

Panel I: Everyday Racialization in the Nordic Countries
Chair: Kristín Loftsdóttir

Mante Vertelyte (Aarhus University): “Why are they not friends?”: Unpacking Youth Racialization in Denmark

Sayaka Osanami Törngren (Malmö University): Being Visible yet Invisible: How Race Matters for Asians in Sweden

Panel II: Colonial Culture as Nordic Culture
Chair: Janne Lahti

Åsa Bharathi-Larsson (Uppsala University): Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Media Culture

Elina Arminen (University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu): Literary Representations of Environmental Colonialism in Finnish Pechenga

Thajilah Olaiya (University of Glasgow): Resistance and Remembering in the Former Danish West Indies

Panel III: Resource Colonialism Over Time
Chair: Gunlög Fur

Laura Junka-Aikio (UiT Arctic University Norway, Tromsø): Whose Settler Colonial State? The Arctic Railway, Hinterland Communities and Self-indigenization in Northern Finland

Jonas M. Nordin (University of Stockholm): Copper, Culture, and Colonialism: 17th-century Copper Extraction in Sápmi

Dag Avango (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm): Swedish Resource Colonialism in the Arctic and Antarctic in the Late Modern Period

Panel IV: Imperial Artefacts: Looting, Museums, and Nordic “Exceptionalism”
Chair: Linda Andersson Burnett

Liv Nilsson Stutz (Linnaeus University, Växjö): Exceptional, ahead, or behind? Swedish Museums and their Relationships to Human Remains

Eeva-Kristiina Harlin (University of Oulu): From Repatriation to Rematriation: Sámi Objects and the Change of Paradigm

Panel V: Nordic People in Transimperial Networks
Chair: John Hennessey

Mikko Toivanen (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München): Finnish Colonisers under a Foreign Flag? The Career of Hjalmar Björling in the Dutch East Indies

Lisa Hellman (University of Bonn): Coerced Colonialism: 18th-century Swedish Prisoners of War in Russia and Central Asia

Eyrún Eyþórsdóttir (University of Iceland, Reykjavík): Doing Diaspora: Creating Icelandic Identity and Heritage in Brazil

Panel VI: Art and Nordic Colonialism
Chair: Rinna Kullaa

Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen (University of Arts, Crafts and Design at Konstfack, and the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm): The Long Walk: Following the Tick-ticking Sounds into the Unknown – or, The Omitted

Anna Ekman (lieu?): Les archives suédoises

Closing remarks: What’s next for Nordic Colonialism?


Tagungsbericht: Researching Nordic Colonialism – Past, Present, Futures, 24.05.2021 – 25.05.2021 digital (Helsinki), in: H-Soz-Kult, 27.08.2021, <>.