• Sweden's news in English

Sunrise on the Swedish Empire

Christine Demsteader · 25 Aug 2007, 12:18

Published: 25 Aug 2007 12:18 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

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.

Story continues below…

“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)

Christine Demsteader (christine.demsteader@thelocal.se)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Today's headlines
Sweden wants emission-free cars in EU by 2030
Photo: Jessica Gow/ TT

Sweden's environment minister on Saturday urged the European Union to ban petrol and diesel-powered vehicles from 2030.

Hundreds protest Swedish asylum laws
Around 1,000 people protested in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Persson/ TT

Hundreds of people on Saturday demonstrated in Stockholm and in many other parts of the country to protest Sweden’s tough new laws on asylum-seekers.

Dylan removes Nobel-mention from website
The American musician has more or less responded to the news with silence. Photo: Per Wahlberg

American singer-song writer Bob Dylan has removed any mention of him being named one of this year’s Nobel Prize laureates on his official website.

Refugee crisis
Asylum requests in Sweden down by 70 percent
Sweden's migration minister Morgan Johansson. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Sweden received 70 percent fewer requests for asylum in the period between January and September 2016 than it did during the same time last year, the country’s justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson has revealed.

The unique story of Stockholm's floating libraries
The Stockholm archipelago book boat. Photo: Roger Hill.

Writer Roger Hill details his journeys on the boats that carry books over Stockholm's waterways and to its most remote places.

Refugee crisis
Second Stockholm asylum centre fire in a week
The new incident follows a similar fire in Fagersjö last week (pictured). Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Police suspect arson in the blaze, as well as a similar incident which occurred last Sunday.

More misery for Ericsson as losses pile up
Ericsson interim CEO Jan Frykhammar presenting its third quarter results. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

The bad news just keeps coming from the Swedish telecoms giant.

Facebook 'sorry' for removing Swedish cancer video
A computer displaying Facebook's landing page. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

The social media giant had censored a video explaining how women should check for suspicious lumps in their breasts.

Watch this amazing footage of Sweden’s landscapes
A still from the aerial footage of Sweden. Photo: Nate Summer-Cook

The spectacular drone footage captures both Sweden's south and the opposite extreme, thousands of kilometres north.

Sweden could be allowed to keep border controls: EU
Police ID checks at Hyllie station in southern Sweden. Photo: Stig-Åke Jönsson/TT

Sweden could be allowed to keep ID controls on its border with Denmark beyond the current end date of November, following discussions among EU leaders in Brussels last night.

Sponsored Article
This is Malmö: Football capital of Sweden
Fury at plans that 'threaten the IB's survival' in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
Here's where it could snow in central Sweden this weekend
Analysis & Opinion
Are we just going to let half the country die?
Blog updates

6 October

10 useful hjälpverb (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! I think the so-called “hjalpverb” (auxiliary verbs in English) are a good way to get…" READ »


8 July

Editor’s blog, July 8th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hej readers, It has, as always, been a bizarre, serious and hilarious week in Sweden. You…" READ »

Sponsored Article
7 reasons you should join Sweden's 'a-kassa'
Angry elk chases Swede up a lamp post
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
The Local Voices
'Alienation in Sweden feels better: I find myself a stranger among scores of aliens'
People-watching: October 20th
The Local Voices
A layover at Qatar airport brought this Swedish-Kenyan couple together - now they're heading for marriage
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Swede punches clown that scared his grandmother
Sponsored Article
Swedish for programmers: 'It changed my life'
Fans throw flares and enter pitch in Swedish football riot
Could Swedish blood test solve 'Making a Murderer'?
Sponsored Article
Top 7 tips to help you learn Swedish
Property of the week: Linnéstaden, Gothenburg
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swedish school to build gender neutral changing room
People-watching: October 14th-16th
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
Man in Sweden assaulted by clowns with broken bottle
Sponsored Article
‘Extremism can't be defeated on the battlefield alone’
Nobel Prize 2016: Literature
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Watch the man who discovered Bob Dylan react to his Nobel Prize win
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
Record numbers emigrating from Sweden
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
People-watching: October 12th
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
The Local Voices
'Swedish startups should embrace newcomers' talents - there's nothing to fear'
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How far right are the Sweden Democrats?
Property of the week: Triangeln, Malmö
Sweden unveils Europe's first elk hut
People-watching: October 7th-9th
The Local Voices
Syria's White Helmets: The Nobel Peace Prize would have meant a lot, but pulling a child from rubble is the greatest reward
Missing rune stone turns up in Sweden
Nobel Prize 2016: Chemistry
jobs available