Swedish slave trade

From Academic Kids


Viking and pre-Viking slavery

In pre-Viking times, as well as during the Viking period, Swedish tribes regularly made slaves of members of neighbouring tribes. Viking society was to a certain extent a stratified caste system. The Thralls, who according to Viking mythology were descended from a god of the same name, were at the bottom of the caste system. Thralls could be born into slavery, or become slaves by committing crimes. These conditions were common in Scandinavia and Danelaw-controlled England.

Swedish Vikings travelled east into Russia (the name Russia coming from the name for these Vikings - the Rus, the word Slave coming from Slav), and were known to have traded extensively in Slaves. Slaves also came from Germanic, British and other northern European tribes, and were sometimes sold to Arab and Jewish traders, who in turn traded them further afield.

Slavery in Sweden was made illegal in 1337.

Beginning of African slave trade

During the 16th century, Sweden and Denmark were competing for positions as world powers. Both countries established trade colonies along the west African coast. The Swedish slave trade in Africa was never very significant, and when the Swedish colony in North America, New Sweden, was taken over by the Dutch in 1655, the conditions for the trade disappeared. Sweden abandoned the business in favor of focusing on its wars at home. Denmark, on the other hand, managed to keep its colonies and continued the trade.

Slave trade under King Gustav III

In 1771, Gustav III became the King of Sweden. He wanted Sweden to re-establish itself as a European power. Inspired by Denmark's large profits from its colonies in the West Indies, he planned to establish colonies of his own, which were a symbol of power and prestige at that time. In the year 1784 he went to the king of France and bought the West Indian island of Saint-Barthélemy.

On August 23rd, 1784, the king met with the Privy Council, and explained that Sweden now owned an island in the West Indies. This apparently came as a surprise for many of the council members. The first report concerning the island came from the Swedish general council in the French town of L'Orient, Simon Bérard. He reported that:

It (Saint-Barthélemy) is a very insignificant island, without strategic position. It is very poor and dry, with a very small population. Only salt and cotton is produced there. A large part of the island is made up of sterile rocks. The island has no sweet water; all the wells on the island give only brackish water. Water has to be imported from neighbouring islands. There are no roads anywhere.

According to Bérard, there where no significant opportunities to start farming there because of the poor soil. The island's one desirable feature was a good harbor.

Bérard recommended that the island be made into a free trade area. At that time, France had trouble delivering all the slaves it needed to its colonies in the area because of rampant smuggling. Sweden could try to export a certain number of slaves to the French colonies in the area each year.

If Saint-Barthélemy was a success, Sweden could later expand its colonial empire to more islands in the area. The Swedish king also knew that the leading slave trading nations in Europe -- England, France, Portugal, Spain and Holland -- made large amounts of money from the slave trade. Gustav III followed Bérard's recommendations and tried to make Saint Bartholomew into a center for slave trading.

In the autumn of 1786 the Swedish West India Company was established on the island. The king told stockholders that they could look forward to big profits in the future. Anyone who could afford it was allowed to buy stocks, but the kings kept 10 percent of the stocks for himself, which made him the largest shareholder.

On October 31st of the same year a privilege letter was made for the West India Company. The Company was granted the right to trade slaves between Africa and the West Indies. Paragraph 14 in the letter states: "The Company is free to operate slave trade on Angola and the African coast, where such is permitted"

All profits of the West India Company was shared so that the king got one quarter and the Company got three quarters, even though the king owned only 10 percent of the company. On March 12, 1790, a new custom tax and constitution were introduced to the island. Both were designed to make Saint-Barthélemy into a haven for slave traders. The new laws gave astonishing opportunities for traders from all over the world.

Anyone who sold direct imported slaves from Africa on Saint Bartholomew did not have to pay any fee: Free import of slaves and trade with black slaves or so called new Negroes from Africa is granted all nations without having to pay any charge at the unload.

People from all over the Caribbean would come to this island to buy slaves. People who came from other islands to buy their slaves on Saint Bartholomew had to pay a small duty when they exported slaves from the island. There was also a difference between a slave who had been taken to the New World on a Swedish ship and a slave who have been transported on a foreign one. The duty to export a Swedish-owned slave was only 50% that of a "foreign". In that way the Swedish king tried to stimulate the Swedish slave trade.

The new constitution stated: Freedom for all on Saint Bartholomew living and arriving to arm and send out ships and shipments to Africa to buy slaves on the places thus is permitted for all nations. That way a new branch for the Swedish trade in Africa and the Coast of Guinea should arise.


During this time, movements against the trade became stronger and stronger, especially in the leading slave trading nation, England. More and more nations were starting to consider abolishing the slave trade.

In 1788, the English committee for the abolition of slavery sent a Swedish opponent of the slave trade, Anders Sparrman, to Gustav III. The committee feared that other nations would expand their trade if England abolished its own. They sent books about the issue and a letter, in which the king was encouraged to hinder his subjects to participate in this disgraceful trade. In the response letter, delivered through Sparrman, he wrote that no one in the country had participated in the slave trade and that he would do all that he could to keep them from doing so.

Once the slave trade became a hot issue, the Swedish government decided it was better to stay out of it, and the slave trade on Saint Bartholemew was abandoned. Moreover, the empire's finances were not that good at that time, meaning the government had more pressing issues than the economy of a small island in the West Indies to deal with.

Exactly how many slaves were brought to the new world on Swedish ships is impossible to investigate, since most of the documents which could shed light on it have disappeared. It is estimated to be not more than a couple of thousand people.

See also

sv:Den svenska slavhandeln


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