Living in Denial: Sweden and the slave trade
October 16, 2012
Sweden is the country which is neutral, open-minded and anti-racist, if not in reality, at least in its self-image. Gustav lll, Queen Kristina, Axel Oxenstierna and Luis de Geer are known as national heroes. They were either royalty or intellectuals and extremely wealthy. Little do the Swedish people know that these heroes were the frontier concerning Sweden’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
I was only twelve when I read the information provided at Cape Coast Castle. After a second my stomach ached. I read it over and over again to make sure I was not imagining it. Overall, the sign said that Swedes built Cape Coast Castle, that Sweden colonised a part of which is today present-day Ghana and that Sweden was one of the main providers of iron during the transatlantic slave trade. I questioned the facts and asked the tour guide as this was information I had not read about at school and he confirmed what I was dreading. Every step I took in the slave fort and every shackle I saw I started to think of why this information had been withheld from me in Sweden.
After the flight back to Sweden I gathered my pictures from Cape Coast Castle, prepared a presentation and went with uneasy steps to school because I felt that I had a mission to spread this information but simultaneously I felt that I would confront defiance. My intuition was correct as my teacher disregarded the information I had gathered and claimed that it was false and therefore there was no point of holding a presentation about this subject at school. In that moment my teacher made me neglect my past and surpass the reasoning that the racism I faced at school and other parts of society actually was deep-rooted and intertwined with our past.
In due time, I have realised that Sweden’s involvement in the slave trade was more complicated than I had previously comprehended. Up until the 9th of October 1847 Sweden had a colony in the West Indies called Saint-Berthélemy where there were thousands of slaves. When Gustav lll was asked to end slavery in the beginning of the 19th century by Great Britain where the abolitionist movement had grown strong the Swedish king firmly neglected that Sweden had had any participation in having slaves. This denial has lived to our days in Sweden as well on the former Swedish colony Saint-Berthélemy.
Our school books in Sweden mention the presumed Swedish heroes but the significant part of the slave trade is surpassed. Queen Kristina is recognised as a woman who was raised as a man to be able to rule Sweden but who despite this chooses to convert and abdicate. She is not recognised as, together with Luis de Geer, being an initiator for Sweden taking on slaves. Louis de Geer is not known for this initiative either, instead he is solely known as a merchant and industrialist. Axel Oxenstierna, a friend of Louis de Geer, was famous for being Queen Kristina’s confidant but it is not mentioned that he received four slaves as a gift from Luis de Geer. Gustav lll, the Swedish king, who not to mention bought Saint-Berthélemy in 1784 with the intention to trade slaves and other goods connected with the transatlantic slave trade.
In the former Swedish colony Saint-Berthélemy the ignorance on this particular part of history is just as immense. Most of the inhabitants on the island do not know that their ancestors were slaves as this is not taught of school. This denial is prominent on the island as well in Sweden. This denial has left Swedes to believe that racism does not exist in Sweden as Sweden “does not” have a colonial past. This denial has led to having a careless attitude towards malicious images of black people and derogatory words as the Swedish people generally have a hard time realising what is racist. Racism has been presented as something a few crazy people believe in and support and by that Swedes can comfortably close their eyes to the structural racism which dictates everyday life.
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