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Thu, 01.27.1650

The Swedish African Slave Trade, a story

Swedish Seal of Saint Barthélemy

*The Swedish African slave trade began on this date in 1650. This was a business venture that many white European countries involved with the Middle Passage.

In the mid-17th century, Sweden established trading stations along the West African coast, with bases in an area called the Swedish Gold Coast, which is today part of Ghana. Sweden and Denmark were competing for positions as regional powers during this period, and the Danes followed the Swedes to Africa, setting up stations a couple of years later. In 1663, the Swedish Gold Coast was taken over by the Danish colonial power and became part of the Danish Gold Coast. Swedish trading stations reappeared in the 18th century when Sweden established a colonial presence in the Caribbean. In 1771, Gustav III became the King of Sweden. He wanted Sweden to re-establish itself as a European "Great Power." He decided to acquire colonies for Sweden. Denmark received large revenues from its colonies in the West Indies.

Between 1784 and 1878, Sweden maintained possession of a handful of colonies in the Caribbean. The Swedish colony of Saint Barthélemy functioned as a duty-free port and became a major destination center for slave ships. Slaves were brought in tax-free by foreign vessels, and the Swedish Crown made a profit by collecting an export tax when slaves were shipped out. On August 23, 1784, the king informed the Privy Council that Sweden now owned an island in the West Indies. In the autumn of 1786, the Swedish West India Company was established on the island. Gustav told investors that they could expect big profits in the future. Anyone who could afford it was allowed to buy shares, but Gustav kept 10 percent of the shares for himself, the largest shareholder. On October 31 of the same year, a privileged letter was made for the West India Company. Sweden was also a major supplier of iron chains used in the slave trade. Slavery was legislated in Saint-Barthélemy under the Ordinance concerning the Police of Slaves and free Coloured People dated July 30, 1787, original in French dated June 30, 1787.

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 in Angola and the African coast, where such is permitted." On March 12, 1790, a new custom tax and constitution were introduced to the island. Both were designed to make Saint-Barthélemy a haven for slave traders. The new laws gave astonishing opportunities for traders from all over the world.

There was no duty on slaves imported from Africa to Saint-Barthélemy: Free import of slaves and trade with black slaves or so-called new Negroes from Africa is granted to all nations without having to pay any charge at the unload. People from all over the Caribbean came to buy slaves. The government charged a small export duty on slaves sold from Saint-Barthélemy to other colonies. This duty was halved for slaves imported from Africa on Swedish ships, generating increased profits for the West India Company and other Swedish traders.

The new constitution stated: Freedom for all on Saint Bartholomew living and arriving at 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.  In 1788, the British Committee for the Abolition of Slavery sent a Swedish opponent of the slave trade, Anders Sparrman, to Gustav III.

The committee feared other nations would expand their trade if Britain stopped its own. They sent books about the issue and a letter in which the king was encouraged to hinder his subjects from participating 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.

During the 19th century, the Swedish vessel Diana was intercepted by the British authorities close to the coast of Africa while carrying slaves from Africa to Saint Bartholomew. The case was taken to court. However, the vessel was returned to the Swedish owners on the ground that Sweden had not prohibited the trade and tolerated it in practice. Once the slave trade became a hot issue, the Swedish government abandoned the slave trade in the Caribbean but did not initially outlaw slavery. The West Indian colonies became financial burdens. The island of Guadeloupe was returned to France in 1814 for compensation of 24 million francs.

According to Herman Lindqvist in Aftonbladet (October 8, 2006), 523 slaves were bought free for 80 riksdalers per slave. During the early 19th century, movements against slavery became stronger, especially in Britain. The Slave trade was outlawed in Britain in 1807 and the United States in 1808, after which other countries started to follow suit. Sweden made the slave trade illegal as part of the Treaty of Stockholm with Britain in 1813 but allowed slavery until October 9, 1847.

Sweden was not involved in the Berlin Conference’s ‘race for Africa’ episode, which occurred 37 years later. Exactly how many slaves were brought to the New World on Swedish ships is impossible to know since most of the archive’s documents have not been investigated seriously in that respect, and many of them are by now not accessible because of their bad preservation and non-microfilming. Nevertheless, some data, mainly concerning the former Swedish island Saint-Barthélemy, is now available online.

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