On Thursday, I had the chance to attend the event “In The Footsteps of Slavery.” This was a city walk that traces Sweden’s long involvement in the transatlantic slave trade using Gamla Stan (Old Town) as a background.
We had a tour guide take us to different monuments and locations in the city and talk about their connection to slavery, and we also learned about some of the earliest Africans who resided in Stockholm.
Having gone to Ghana 18 months ago to study slavery in West Africa during my interim at St. Olaf, it felt like a good opportunity to continue to learn about this long story here in Sweden.
I think that Sweden (and all the Nordic countries) are held on such a pedestal, I keep hearing people say “Sweden is so progressive.” We think of universal healthcare, gender equality, paid parental leave, environmentalism, and more. These are certainly important things, but we must remember that no place is perfect.
For instance, I have recently found out the Sweden is fairly colorblind. Instead of looking at the ways in which we are different and the ways in which our differences can make us special, many Swedes choose to ignore these very differences. I was pretty shocked to learn this about Sweden. And, after hearing this, I was even more intrigued to find out about Sweden’s history in the slave trade.
To start off, Sweden was not nearly as involved in the transatlantic slave trade as places like the US, England, Portugal and Spain. However, they were still involved and for this reason, it should be talked about. Sweden’s involvement was primarily along the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana).
In fact, it was actually the Swedes who built and constructed the Cape Coast Castle, which was one of the largest slave dungeons in Ghana. It is actually only about 20 minutes from Elmina Slave Castle and Dungeon, which I visited while I was in Ghana. It was surprising to see these two study abroad experiences blend together.
In addition to Sweden’s slave dungeon, Sweden also had one colony in the Caribbean, Saint Barthélemy. Sweden controlled this colony for about a century between the late 1700s and late 1800s.
Additionally, during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Sweden was the major supplier of iron, often trading with other European empires. This iron went on to create chains for weapons and shackles.
By the end of the 1800s, Sweden has abolished slavery and was no longer involved in the slave trade. It is important to note that Norway and Denmark also were involved in the transatlantic slave trade, and that they too had cruel, oppressive and exploitive pasts.
One final thing that I found interesting from this experience was the role that monuments play in retelling our history. We started our tour at the statue of King Gustav Vasa I. Vasa has often been called “the father of Sweden” and people say that Sweden is the country it is today because of his work.
However, Vasa was also the king that first started Sweden’s involved in the transatlantic slave trade. When we look at him in this light, he does not seem to be a person that we should admire.
People argue that taking down (or changing) monuments will erase our history. I disagree, I think that changing monuments (in the US or in Sweden) can help to tell the truth about history.
By no means am I an expert in Sweden’s history or the transatlantic slave trade. In fact, I’m not even a history major. But, I think it is so important that we actively learn about both the good and the ugly of where we are or where we come from.
If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few good sources: