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Sunrise on the Swedish Empire

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12:18 CEST+02:00
So you never knew that a small island in the West Indies was once a Swedish colony? Apparently, not that many Swedes do either. But the story, which has been largely wiped from school history books, is now being told to a new generation. Christine Demsteader reports.

From 1784 – 1878, war, enslavement, piracy and destruction ruled on the West Indian island of St Barthélemy. The Swedes had come to town.

Throughout their near-century reign, the nomads from the North also brought prosperity and order to a place that could hardly have been more different from their homeland.

It makes for a riveting read but it's a tale that has rarely been told, obscured by Sweden's bigger story of neighbourly conquests and decades of neutrality.

Now, though, a slice of Caribbean life can be found in the Swedish capital, bringing with it an insight into colonial times and debate on cultural identity today.

A small house stands on the man-made island in the bay of Djurgårdsbrunn; a replica of lodgings in 19th century St Barts. You may well spot curly-wig-clad enthusiasts parading in period costume for added effect.

The Colony Project is the creation of artist Fredrik Helander and architect Fredrik Pettersson.

“Our generation didn't read about it in school,” Pettersson says. “It's not really something that you talk about. You focus on other parts of history.”

Slavery is the unsavoury element of colonization that bothers the Swedes. “There are parts to it that are horrible and dark,” he adds. “But that's not a reason for not talking about it. It has totally escaped our schoolbooks, so it's a story we want to tell.”

Swedes did profit from the lucrative slave trade, which was crucial to the economy of Gustavia, the town they built. Indeed, the systematic Swedes soon put their organisational skills to task and a society was shaped in no time.

The town was named after the Swedish king Gustav III. He'd been shopping for a place to brag about to his European cousins for years. France finally succumbed to negotiations and got a share of Gothenburg harbour in exchange.

“Sweden had been an important country which had lost its kingdoms and wars, costing it a lot of money,” Helander says. “A colony would give them income and power back.”

But St Barts' dimensions didn't measure up impressively. At 24 square kilometres, it's the same size as Lidingö island, near Stockholm.

The population exploded when Gustavia was declared a free port in 1785. There were 739 inhabitants when the Swedes landed. In just 15 years, that number grew to 6,000. By 1800, Gustavia was the sixth largest Swedish town and its residents were a multicultural mix of Swedes, French, Brits, Danes, Americans and slaves of African origin.

Yet, an army of 26 men was never really going to be able to defend the place. Britain conquered the island in 1801 and the Swedes gave up without a fight. St Barts was British territory for a year until they got bored and gave it back.

The resumption of Swedish sovereignty coincided with the start of the Swedish Royal West Indian Company. The lively harbour saw a fair bit of action in the early 19th century. Some years as much as 20 percent of US exports sailed through St Barts.

The colony was economically sound and culturally thriving, yet the Swedish lingo wasn't making many inroads. Without the joys of free Swedish courses from SFI, most spoke English in the city and French in the countryside.

Island life wasn't a big draw for the Swedes; there were never more than 127 living there. This could have been something to do with the unfamiliar heat, but the rampant piracy and hijacking around the shores; or the earthquakes, or the hurricanes, or the droughts also provided good reasons to stay away.

Natural disasters plagued St Barts in the mid 1800s as did a fever epidemic, which claimed 300 lives. And then there was the great fire of 1852 (still remembered as Le Grand Incendie) when gale force winds turn Gustavia into a sea of fire, leaving 500 people homeless.

Weather conditions prevented the island from producing much in the way of food, although it did manage a small-time cotton and cacao production. The year 1855, however, was particularly fruitful. St Barts notched up a notable pineapple tally of 39,718 dozen. Times that by 12 and you've got a lot of tropical goodness.

Yet even such an exceptionally juicy crop couldn't sway the Swedes to stay. Political harmony as well as new Atlantic routes resulted in a barren port and a population on the wane. When decline set in, the insecure Swedes began to question whether another country would be better equipped to govern.

Having tried unsuccessfully to palm the island off to Italy, the US and Belgium, France eventually came to the rescue and a referendum was held in 1875. Of the 353 men entitled to vote, 352 ticked the France box. The Swedish flag was hauled down for the last time in 1878.

It can still be spotted, however, hanging outside the Hôtel de Ville in Gustavia today, where you can you also can take a stroll down Gamlagatan or Drottningatan. But the Swedish street signs erected in the 60s are mere souvenirs of the Swedish era. The post office doesn't use them and nobody can pronounce them.

The island remains in the hands of the French. It has a population of about 10,000 and an economy driven solely by tourism. The ultimate millionaire's paradise; it is said to be a playground for the rich who don't want to be famous.

According to Fredrik Helander, the high cost of living isn't the only parallel to be drawn with the former mother country. “Sweden has an international society today and the West Indies was really also a multi-cultural place back then. In a global context it also brings up the subject of free trade and the EU as well as slavery in some parts of the world today.”

The Colony Project is not about re-writing the history books but bringing the story to light.

“We can present the history, make people more conscious and curious,” says Pettersson. “But then it's up to everyone else to continue the discussion.”

“It's about learning something about history and identity that you didn't know,” Helander adds. “The interest has been extremely positive yet many are surprised and shocked.”

As was Helander's when he visited the island for the first time. The humidity, he says, “hit me like a hammer in my head.”

Indeed, you may think it ironic that cold, dark Sweden once ruled a hot and sunny West Indian isle. But there's a greater paradox that has weathered the storm.

The locals still rejoice over one lasting legacy of Swedish rule….the island's tax-free status.

The Colony Project runs until August 31. More information can be found here (http://www.kolonin.com/html_en/pkFrameset.html)

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