Olsen, Poul Erik (Hrsg.): Danmark og kolonierne: Vestindien. St. Croix, St. Thomas og St. Jan. Kopenhagen 2017 : GADs Forlag, ISBN 978-87-12-04956-2 405 S. kr. 349,95

Venborg Pedersen, Mikkel (Hrsg.): Danmark og kolonierne: Danmark. En kolonimagt. Kopenhagen 2017 : GADs Forlag, ISBN 978-87-12-04954-8 477 S. kr. 349,95

Gulløv, Hans Christian (Hrsg.): Danmark og kolonierne: Grønland. Den arktiske koloni. Kopenhagen 2017 : GADs Forlag, ISBN 978-87-12-04955-5 445 S. kr. 349,95

Brimmes, Niels (Hrsg.): Danmark og kolonierne: Indien. Tranquebar, Serampore og Nicobarerne. Kopenhagen 2017 : GADs Forlag, ISBN 978-87-12-04958-6 411 S. kr. 349,95

Hernæs, Per Oluf (Hrsg.): Danmark og kolonierne: Vestafrika. Forterne på Guldkysten. Kopenhagen 2017 : GADs Forlag, ISBN 978-87-12-04957-9 397 S. kr. 349,95

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Miriam Schneider, School of History, University of St Andrews

Over recent years, the colonial history of ‘peripheral’ European nations has received increased scholarly attention. While major colonial empires such as Britain, France, Spain or the Netherlands have always taken centre stage, and while the study of infamously “belated” colonial powers such as Belgium or Germany has made up considerable ground, lesser colonial empires (such as the Scandinavian countries1) or “colonialisms without colonies”2 (such as the Swiss example) are only recently being explored. In Denmark, it has only become the custom to label the famed Oldenburg monarchy (i.e. the Danish Kingdom under the rule of the Oldenburg dynasty) as proper colonial empires from the 2000s onwards.3 In a characteristic development, a major jubilee – the 100th anniversary of the sale of the Danish West Indies in 2017 – has now been used to bring this newfound academic awareness to broader public consciousness. Amongst many (online) exhibitions and publications, one book project stands out, having even been nominated for the popular “Årets historiske bog” award: the 5-volume collection Danmark og Kolonierne [Danmark and the Colonies]. It took the centenary of the sale of Denmark’s tropical colonies as an occasion to revisit and revise the country’s entire history as a colonial power.

As the editors remark in their general preface, Denmark’s reduced power status after the Napoleonic (1803–15) and Schleswig Wars (1848/1864) and its early loss of most of its colonies meant that its colonial past and history as a slave-holding nation were almost forgotten. Following World War II, moreover, in the wake of the general de-colonization of Europe’s major colonial empires, the Danes cultivated an image of themselves “as a particularly mild and humane colonial power” (p. 4), supported by the fact that Denmark was the first European nation to abolish the slave trade (1792/1803). Recently, Danish scholars and the media have started to investigate their nation’s involvement in the “black chapter” (p. 4) of European colonialism, though. Danmark og Kolonierne aims to bundle this research and to provide “the first comprehensive” (p. 5) postcolonial account of the history of Danish colonialism in the tropics as well as in the North Atlantic.4

What is appealing about this enterprise is that the books address a broad Danish readership without losing the merits of cutting-edge research. The stern academic might complain about the lack of footnotes, which could have elevated the series to valuable student’s companions. Also, the lavish design and corresponding weight of these richly illustrated coffee-table books compromise their readability. Nevertheless, the project has assembled some of the leading experts in the field of Danish colonialism who, while writing in an easily intelligible and often delightfully narrative prose, ask and answer all the latest research questions. Detailed bibliographies, moreover, provide the reader with an overview of the scholarship that each chapter builds on.

Thematically, the books are grouped into four studies dealing with individual colonies – 1) Tranquebar, Serampore and the Nicobar Islands in India, 2) the forts at the West African Gold Coast, 3) the Danish West Indies and 4) Greenland – as well as 5) one comprehensive examination of the Danish(-Norwegian) Kingdom as a multi-national and multi-ethnic state.

Newcomers to the subject are recommended to start by reading the volume Danmark: En Kolonimagt [Denmark: A Colonial Power]. Although conceptualized as a round-up rather than flagship book, it provides a valuable overview introducing Denmark(-Norway) as a multi-facetted “conglomerate state” (p. 383) consisting of numerous geographically and constitutionally diverse territorial units. In Chapter 1, renowned historian Uffe Østergaard details the various parts that once belonged to the composite “Oldenburg Monarchy” or later “Rigsfælleskab” [Community of Kingdoms]: Denmark, Norway, Schleswig and Holstein, Iceland and the Faroe Islands etc. And he provides a reliable, ethnicity-based definition of the concept of “colony” which explains why Greenland is included in this collection while Iceland is not.

Following this theoretical introduction, the next four chapters, written by empire pioneer Michael Bregnsbo, vividly map out the history of the Danish Empire from its establishment in the 17th century to its heyday around 1800 and its decline/de-colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Particularly intriguing are Bregnsbo’s biographical portraits of the many Danes who, in the absence of further state involvement in imperial expansion, made their fortunes within other colonial empires in the Age of Empire. They chime in with recent research on trans-imperial border-crossers and “imperial cooperation”.5 The remaining six chapters provide valuable diachronic discussions of individual themes such as the administrative organization and personnel of the Danish Empire (Poul Erik Olsen); the cultural, social and economic history of Denmark as a colonial power seen through the lens of its material culture (Mikkel Venborg Pedersen); an evaluation of Danish colonialism in comparison with other European states (Michael Bregnsbo); and a colourful investigation of Danish popular colonial culture up to the present (Anne Folke Henningsen).

Overall, the book, by inserting Denmark into the wider history of European colonialism, makes a valuable contribution to recent research. At times, the authors are so painstakingly concerned to leave the narrative of the Danish ‘special path’ that they miss pointing out what was special about their subject, though. Thus, a highly relevant, almost overarching question of the entire volume is whether there existed such a thing as a “positive colonial and imperial ideology” (pp. 171, 200) in Denmark, or whether the Danish colonial empire was a mere product of chance. Collectively, the authors seem to negate the relevance of the concept of “imperialism” (as opposed to practical “colonialism”, p. 60), their explanations not going much beyond the mercantilist model (pp. 200, 274). Michael Bregnsbo at least also points to the Danish Atlantic Isles Association as a later, private movement favouring a strengthened colonial empire as a matter of national prestige (p. 171). What is missing, though, is a discussion of the notion of “informal imperialism” and in how far secondary powers such as Denmark (a major shipping and trading nation throughout the centuries!) did not use their inconspicuous, neutral image to gain exactly this informal influence which would become such a central theme towards the end of the 19th century. A comparison with other minor rather than major powers and their strategies might have been helpful here.

While a desirable English edition of Danmark: En Kolonimagt could make worthwhile reading for all historians of European colonialism, the other four volumes of the series address a more geographically specialized audience. Unlike the round-up, they do not offer enjoyably well-organized, informative thematic sections. Instead, their traditional chronological structure sometimes even blocks the view of broader developments. The innovative potential of the four volumes rather lies in their perspective which primarily locates the individual colonies in the history of their regional environment and which focuses on cultural encounters between colonizers and colonized rather than purely Danocentric views.

Thus, the volume Vestindien – probably the most intriguing of the series – firmly places the three islands St Thomas, St Croix and St Jan within the wider history of the rise and fall of the Caribbean sugar economy and of the triangular trade. To achieve a primarily Afro-Caribbean perspective, the expert authors unearthed some striking sources on life in the tropics. Due to its wonderful narrative coherence – each chapter starts with a paradigmatic biography which illustrates the grand developments of the subsequent pages – the tome effortlessly guides the reader through history, from the 17th-century establishment of the plantations to the process of Christianization and Creolization through to the gradual abolition of slavery and the final sale of the now US-American Virgin Islands. Particularly Chapter V provides a nuanced revision of the popular narrative how slavery was abolished in 1848, demystifying Governor-General Peter von Scholten and instead putting a new focus on the agency of leading Afro-Caribbeans such as General Buddhoe.

The volume Vestafrika can be read as a pendant to Vestindien. Despite its small-step chronological structure, it provides good insights into the complex local situation of the African Gold Coast (now Ghana) which a handful of Danish merchants had to negotiate to establish and hold trading stations on the second vertex of the triangular trade. The volume highlights the high level of cooperation with other European and especially with local African elites which was needed to keep up a regular slave flow to the West Indies. Especially naval specialist Erik Gøbel’s Chapter VII puts the Danish slave trade into a much-needed wider perspective, showing how the profitless, marginal activities of the Danes in Africa were all geared towards securing the self-sufficiency of their tropical treasury. The most intriguing section, though, is Daniel Hopkins’ investigation of the curious plans for an actual Danish colony (Guinea) entertained by King Frederik VI, the eminent politician Ernst Schimmelmann, the bureaucrat Peter Thonning and others between 1788 and 1855. Not only does Hopkins’ account prove the existence of a colonialist-imperialist ideology among some Danish circles, it also gives the most straightforward reason why the miniscule African forts were included in a series about Denmark’s colonies.

Probably the most dazzling site of Danish colonial activity were the trading stations Tranquebar and Serampore in India. Already in its first chapter, the volume Indien thus provides a colourful introduction to the South-East-Indian Coromandel Coast as a “centre of the world’s biggest trading system” (p. 20) which awakened the desires of European companies and absolutist monarchs such as Christian IV. The following chapters highlight how, even more than in Africa, the officials of the Danish East India Company had to submit to the complex social and political terms and conditions of the varying kingdoms of this region to secure their trade. The entire volume traces how the notoriously underfunded Danes were competing with several other European nations and particularly how they accommodated to the growing British presence in India. Serampore College, opened in 1818, is described as an important centre of intellectual life. The most baffling chapter, though, is Simon Rastén’s short overview of the altogether six attempts by several Danish expeditions to colonize the inhospitable Nicobar Islands across the Bay of Bengal between 1755 and 1848. Again, it demonstrates how Denmark participated in colonialist-imperialist dreams in a period of colonial (dream) expansion which still needs much further exploration.

The final volume of the series studies an altogether different space: Grønland, Denmark’s Artic and last remaining colony. It presents the North Atlantic island and its surrounding fishing grounds as contested territory throughout the ages which the Danish-Norwegian Kingdom successfully claimed for itself, from the “improvised colonialism” (p. 105) of the early 18th century to the present era of climate change. From a Danish perspective, the colonization of Greenland was a two-edged project: On the one hand, a paternalistic civilizing mission aiming for the Christianization, the reform and protection of the Inuit population; on the other hand, a system of monopoly trade exploiting a traditional whaling and seal-hunting society. That Denmark was even involved in projects of “colonial expansion” and imperialist thinking in the Age of Empire is demonstrated by Søren Rud’s description of the exploration and development of East Greenland in the 1880s–1900s. The central theme of the second part of the volume is the awakening national and political consciousness of the Greenlandic people and how it was accommodated by the Danish government until first home rule (hjemmestyre) and then self-government (selvstyre) were achieved in 1979/2009, respectively. Greenland’s growing geostrategic importance from World War II onwards, the Danifying reform projects of the post-war era and the growing counter-movement for a more Greenlandic Greenland bring us right to the present and to the nascent public debate about the nature of Danish colonialism in the Artic and elsewhere.

It is the opening-up of this debate to a broader public and the introduction to European, Caribbean, African, Indian as well as Arctic discourses which presents the strongest merits of this highly knowledgeable series. Overall, the four individual volumes might have profited from a thematic rather than chronological structure which would have enabled a more integrative and comparative analysis of the separate colonial spaces instead of individual themes getting lost in disconnected subsections. For example, the central role of various religious missions, particularly the Hallensians and the Moravians, across the entire Danish colonial empire could have been highlighted by specially dedicated chapters. On another note, the assertion that a poly- rather than Euro- or Danocentric approach is attempted is, unfortunately, not supported by the inclusion of academic voices from the former colonies, apart from Greenland. Nevertheless, by presenting the ‘peripheral’ power Denmark(-Norway) as a colonial empire spanning four continents and as a would-be global player which, at least until 1848, participated in colonial expansion as much – or little – as it could, the series fills a gap – not only in Danish public consciousness, but also in the study of colonial history at large.

1 See e.g. Magdalena Naum et al. (eds), Scandinavian colonialism and the rise of modernity. Small time agents in a global arena, New York 2013; cf. the exhibition project “Rethinking Nordic Colonialism”, http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/41460/rethinking-nordic-colonialism-a-postcolonial-exhibition-project-in-five-acts/ (23.04.2018).
2 See Barbara Lüthi et al., Colonialism without colonies. Examining blank spaces in colonial studies, in: National Identities 18 (2016), pp. 1–9.
3 See e.g. the pioneering study by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen, Det danske Imperium. Storhed og fald, Copenhagen 2004.
4 The editors clearly distance themselves from earlier accounts of Danish colonialism, notably: Johannes Brøndsted, Vore gamle tropekolonier, 2 vols., Copenhagen 1952/53.
5 See e.g. Volker Barth / Roland Cvetkovski (eds), Imperial co-operation and transfer, 1870–1930. Empires and encounters, London 2015.

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Danmark og kolonierne: Vestindien
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