Swedish slave trade

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The Swedish slave trade mainly occurred in the early history of Sweden when the trade of thralls (Old Norse: þræll) was one of the pillars of the Norse economy. During the raids, the Vikings often captured and enslaved militarily weaker peoples they encountered, but took the most slaves in raids of the British Isles, Ireland and Slavs in Eastern Europe. This practice lasted in the 6th through 11th centuries until formally abolished in 1335. A smaller trade of African slaves happened during the 17th and 18th centuries,[1] around the time Swedish overseas colonies were established in North America (1638) and in Africa (1650). It remained legal until 1813.

The thralls from Western Europe were mainly Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and Celts. Many Irish slaves were used in expeditions for the colonization of Iceland.[2] The Norse also took Baltic, Slavic and Latin slaves. The Vikings kept some slaves as servants and sold most captives in the Byzantine or Islamic markets.[citation needed] The slave trade was one of the pillars of the Norse economy during the 6th through 11th centuries.[citation needed] The Persian traveler Ibn Rustah described how Swedish Vikings, the Varangians or Rus, terrorized and enslaved the Slavs taken in their raids along the Volga River.

Basil I had over 3000 slaves probably some procured by the Rus. [3] Swedish tribes also did sell slaves to other eastern peoples such as Arabs, Persians and Georgians.

Thralldom was outlawed in 1335 by Magnus IV of Sweden for thralls "born by Christian parents" in Västergötland and Värend, being the last parts where it had remained legal.[4] This however, was only applicable within the borders of Sweden, which opened up for later slave trade in the colonies.

In the 17th century, Swedish slave traders started to become involved with the Atlantic slave trade. 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. Sweden was also a major supplier of iron chains used in the slave trade.[5] In the early 19th century, Sweden signed treaties with the United Kingdom[6][7] and France to abolish the slave trade.[8]

In 1847, slavery was abolished in all parts of Sweden, including her colonies, on the basis of a decision taken in 1846.[9] Slavery was legislated in Saint-Barthélemy under the Ordinance concerning the Police of Slaves and free Coloured People[10] dated 30 July 1787, original[11] in French dated 30 June 1787. The last legally owned slaves in the Swedish colony of Saint-Barthélemy were bought and freed by the Swedish state on October 9, 1847.[12]

Swedish early medieval slave trade[edit]

The inflow of Slavic slaves by Rus or Swedish Vikings into Byzantine empire made the etymology of Slave be the same as the demonym for the name of the entire ethnic groups Slavs.[13] Thousand upon thousands of Slavs were enslaved by the Rus. Making it probably the time in Swedish history when the slave trade flourished the most. Byzantine empire imported a gigantic amount of Slavic slaves for different purposes. The Svitjod nations prosperity during the Viking age was founded upon human trafficking of Slavic and British slaves. [14][15] Ibn Fadlan describes how the Rus cruelly sacrificed a slave girl to her dead master. Over 3400 Slaves a year was transported threw the bulgar rivers by Varangians and that was just one of the main transport hubs. [16] Which would make Swedish slaves sold under one hundred years equal to 340000 men and women. Which would make it a hundred times larger than the later Swedish slave trade.

Before trafficking of Slavs by Rus became common the English word for a slave was thrall [17] Ibn Fadlan describes how Rus frequently rape theirs, slaves. Also that the so-called Angel of death stabbed a slave sacrifice several times. According to him, the Rus let their dogs consume the bodies of a dead slave male and do not treat the body with an ounce of respect. While free men get a boat burial. They also force their slave women to tie a painful knot around their breasts to constrain breast growth. Due to them thinking small breasts to be attractive and large breasts unattractive. They also have sex with their slaves all the time. In front of their colleagues according to Ibn Fadlan. According to Ibn Fadlan, the slave girl screamed to get killed while she was forced to go to all tents and have sex with each man. Even thou she did not want too. She also cried before she got stabbed by the angel of death. Screaming to stop her sacrifice and seem to have had doubts. [18]

Trading Stations in Africa[edit]

In 1650, Sweden established trading stations along the West African coast, with bases in an area called the Swedish Gold Coast which was later a part of the West African Gold Coast, and 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. There is no historical documentation that shows that slaves were ever traded in the trading stations during their 13-year Swedish possession, rather it is assumed to be the case.

Swedish trading stations reappeared in the 18th century, when Sweden established a colonial presence in the Caribbean.

Slave trade under King Gustav III[edit]

Gustavia harbor, Saint-Barthélemy, present day
Seal of the governor of the Swedish colony, 1784–1877.

In 1771, Gustav III became the King of Sweden. He wanted Sweden to re-establish itself as a European "Great Power". Overseas colonies were a symbol of power and prestige at that time, so he decided to acquire colonies for Sweden. Denmark received large revenues from its colonies in the West Indies, so in 1784, Gustav acquired the West Indian island of Saint-Barthélemy from France.

On August 23, 1784, the king informed the Privy Council that Sweden now owned an island in the West Indies. This apparently came as a surprise for many of the Councilors. The first report concerning the island came from Simon Bérard, Swedish consul-general in L'Orient, the only town. 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 was no possibility of agriculture because of the poor soil. The island's one desirable feature was a good harbor.

Bérard recommended that the island be made a free port. At that time, France had trouble providing sufficient slaves to its colonies in the area. 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. Gustav also knew that the leading slave trading nations in Europe made large amounts of money from it.

Saint Barthélemy – NASA NLT Landsat 7 satellite photo

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, which made him the largest shareholder. The king received one quarter of all profits of the company and the other shareholders three quarters, even though the king owned only 10 percent of the company.

On October 31 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 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 into 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 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.

In 1813, Sweden was awarded control of Guadeloupe, a nearby French colony temporarily under British occupation. In 1814, though, with the fall of Napoleon, Sweden gave the island back to France.

Swedish slaves and slave traders in the Barbary coast[edit]

There were over 1500 Swedish slaves in the Barbary Coast. Many would never see their homeland again. [19] The Turks also frequently castrated their slaves. [20] The Ottomans also bought black sex slaves by the Swedes. [21] Russians also sometimes enslaved large parts of the Finnish population both swedes and Finns. Swedish boys were praised for their high literacy and almost all Swedish slaves being able to read. Being considered luxury goods by Russians nobles and Crimean nobles for their beautiful blonde eyes and blonde hair. Slavery was banned, in Sweden in the 14 century. But the primitive ruling system in Russia enabled slavery to remain economically feasible. During the Swedish and Russian wars, Swedes were frequently sold into slavery by Russian Tatars. Due to the Swedish kingdoms, higher morals and political pressure concerning slavery created a demand to stop the slave trade of Finnish and Swedish slaves in Russia among Russian noblemen. Swedish slaves were the most expensive of all slaves due to their high literacy rates and used as a sign of status. Only rich men could afford Swedish child slaves or men. approximately 30000 swedes and Finns were sold at Russian slave markets. A normal Turkish girl went for 6 altyns while a Swedish girl could be bought for 6666 altyn in Russia or Turkey. Due to the great strength and territorial integrity of Sweden as a great power. Swedish slaves were very hard to enslave. Most tries ended in complete failure due to Sweden's strong army during the Great power era. [22] [23]


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 that 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 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.

During the early 19th century, movements against slavery became stronger, especially in Britain. Slave trade was outlawed in Britain in 1807, and in 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.

During the 19th century, the British Admiralty patrolled the African coast to catch illegal slave traders.[24] The Swedish vessel Diana was intercepted by the British authorities close to the coast of Africa while engaged in carrying slaves from Africa to Saint Bartholomew during this period. The case was taken to court in order to test if the slave trade could be considered contrary to the general law of nations. However, the vessel was returned to the Swedish owners on the ground that Sweden had not prohibited the trade and tolerated it in practice.[25]

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, in return for a compensation in the sum of 24 million francs. A Guadeloupe Fund was established in Sweden for the benefit of the Swedish Crown Prince and Regent Charles XIV John of Sweden, born Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a French national and former Marshal of France under Napoleon I. He and his heirs were paid 300,000 riksdaler per year up until 1983 in compensation for their loss of prestige in France when Sweden joined Britain against France in the Napoleonic War. In Saint Bartholomew, the Swedish government bought the remaining slaves to give them freedom. According to Herman Lindqvist in Aftonbladet (8 October 2006), 523 slaves were bought free for 80 riksdaler per slave.

Exactly how many slaves were brought to the New World on Swedish ships is yet impossible to know, since most of the archives 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.[26] Nevertheless, some data, mostly concerning the former Swedish island Saint-Barthélemy, is now available online.[27]

Further reading[edit]

  • Göran Skytte Det kungliga svenska slaveriet (The Royal Swedish Slave Trade) ISBN 91-7684-096-4 Stockholm : Askelin & Hägglund, 1986 157 pp.(Swedish)
  • Jan-Öjvind Swahn, Ola Jennersten Swahn, Saint-Barthélemy: Sveriges sista koloni (Saint-Barthélemy : Sweden's Last Colony) ISBN 91-7024-178-3 Höganäs : Wiken, 1985 155 pp. (Swedish)
  • Per Tingbrand Vem var vem på Saint-Barthélemy under den svenska tiden? (Who was who in Saint-Barthélemy During the Swedish Epoch?) S:t Barthélemy-sällskapet (pub) (The St. Barthélemy Society (pub). (Swedish)
  • Ben Raffield (2019) "The slave markets of the Viking world: comparative perspectives on an ‘invisible archaeology’." Slavery & Abolition, 40:4, 682-705
  • Thomas K. Heebøll-Holm (2020) "Piratical slave-raiding – the demise of a Viking practice in high medieval Denmark," Scandinavian Journal of History

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harrison, Dick (2007). Slaveri - en världshistoria om ofrihet: 1500-1800. Historiska media. (In Swedish).
  2. ^ See Iceland History
  3. ^ Marcus Louis Rautman, Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire, (Greenwood Publishing, 2006), 22.
  4. ^ Träldom. Nordisk familjebok / Uggleupplagan. 30. Tromsdalstind - Urakami /159-160, 1920. (In Swedish).
  5. ^ Integrations- och jämställdhetsdepartementet. Dir.2007:114, Kommittédirektiv: Tilläggsdirektiv till Delegationen för mänskliga rättigheter i Sverige (Ju 2006:02), s. 2. In Swedish.
  6. ^ Traité d'Alliance Entre Sa Majesté Le Roi de Suède et Sa Majesté Le Roi du Royaume Uni de la Grande Bretagne et de l'Irlande (1813). [Source: 'Mémoire St Barth', Saint-Barthélemy. URL : http://www.memoirestbarth.com/st-barts/traite-negriere/archives-legislation]. (in french)
  7. ^ Traité, Pour la répression de la Traite des Noirs, entre Sa Majesté le Roi de Suède et de Norvège d'une part, et Sa Majesté le Roi du Royaume uni de la Grande Bretagne et de l'Irlande de l'autre (1824). [Source: 'Mémoire St Barth', Saint-Barthélemy. URL : http://www.memoirestbarth.com/st-barts/traite-negriere/archives-legislation]. (in french)
  8. ^ Traité pour la répression de la Traite des Noirs entre Sa Majesté le Roi de Suède et de Norvège et Sa Majesté le Roi des Français (1836). [Source: 'Mémoire St Barth', Saint-Barthélemy. URL : http://www.memoirestbarth.com/st-barts/traite-negriere/archives-legislation]. (in french)
  9. ^ Cobb, Thomas Read Rootes. An Inquiry Into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America To which is Prefixed An Historical Sketch of Slavery, 1858. Page cxcii.
  10. ^ Ordinance concerning the Police of Slaves and free Coloured People (Swedish «Black Code»). Source: 'Comité de Liaison et d'Application des Sources Historiques', Saint-Barthélemy.
  11. ^ Le « Code Noir » suédois de Saint-Barthélemy. Source: 'Comité de Liaison et d'Application des Sources Historiques', Saint-Barthélemy.
  12. ^ L'abolition de l'esclavage à Saint-Barthélemy : jusqu'au 9 octobre 1847. Source: 'Comité de Liaison et d'Application des Sources Historiques', Saint-Barthélemy. (In French).
  13. ^ ^ “slave” in Dictionary.com Unabridged, Dictionary.com, LLC, 1995–present. ^ “slave” in Merriam–Webster Online Dictionary. ^ “slave” in Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001–2021. “slave, n.1 (and a.)” listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989
  14. ^ https://books.google.se/books?id=qjWdAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT22&lpg=PT22&dq=svitjod+slave+trade&source=bl&ots=XIEHIp299l&sig=ACfU3U2VbxRQUlywzsAvUAZY_Me5Cz-SMw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiSv9mN6KDuAhVqk4sKHQtfBJoQ6AEwCHoECAcQAg#v=onepage&q=svitjod%20slave%20trade&f=false
  15. ^ Rotman, Youval (2009). Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World. Harvard University Press. p. 66. ISBN 9780674036116.
  16. ^ Gregory W. Frux (Peotr Alexeivich Novgorodski) 1999 http://www.conflicts.rem33.com/images/Russia/slavery_in_kievan_rus.html
  17. ^ "slave | Origin and meaning of slave by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Archived from the original on 2020-05-26. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  18. ^ Ibn Fadlan, Ahmad, Ibn Fadlān and the land of darkness: Arab travellers in the far north, Penguin Books, London, 2012
  19. ^ Radio, Sveriges. ”Svenska slavar i Nordafrika - Vetenskapsradion Historia”. sverigesradio.se. Läst 10 mars 2020.
  20. ^ https://books.google.se/books?id=KFvBDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA241&lpg=PA241&dq=ottoman+castration&source=bl&ots=ptcGYG40Wm&sig=ACfU3U1jLT8QbTY4KMplnuriNUKMHHKLlA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjB1ty3rJvuAhXl-ioKHYJKCNsQ6AEwC3oECB4QAg#v=onepage&q=ottoman%20castration&f=false
  21. ^ https://sverigesradio.se/artikel/4897006#:~:text=Swedish%20ships%20took%20actively%20part,the%20daily%20Dagens%20Nyheter%20reports.
  22. ^ https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-11/uoef-stc112318.php
  23. ^ https://mikedashhistory.com/2015/01/15/blonde-cargoes-finnish-children-in-the-slave-markets-of-medieval-crimea/
  24. ^ Phillips, Mike. Slavery: Catalogue reference (PRO) FO 84/1310. Migration Histories: Caribbean. Origins. Moving Here, United Kingdom. Retrieved 29 November 2007.
  25. ^ Kent, James (1987). Commentaries on American Law. 4 vols. New York, 1826-30. Online at The Founders' Constitution, Volume 3, Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1, Document 26. The University of Chicago Press, 1987. Retrieved 29 November 2007.
  26. ^ Mémoire St Barth : La longue agonie des archives suédoises de Saint-Barthélemy (In French)
  27. ^ Mémoire St Barth : "Répertoire" des expéditions négrières Saint-Barthélemy (Suède)

External links[edit]