Book Review: Thorkild Hansen’s “Slaves Trilogy”

Slaves trilogy covers

This is one of the fruits of my visit to Elmina Castle last month;  a (relatively) new edition of Thorkild Hansen’s classic trilogy, originally published in Danish between 1965 and 1969 and here translated into English by Kari Dako of the University of Ghana, Legon.

Hansen’s work is often described as a novel, and he thought of himself as a novelist. However, what he has produced here is a valuable work for the historian, even though a good bit of what we knew about the slave trade in the 1960s has been overtaken by newer research.

Few people in the US know that Denmark was a player in the Atlantic trade in slaves and tropical products. By no means the largest, but still an important participant throughout the era of the slave trade. Danish presence on the African coast, in today’s Ghana, dates from 1663 when they took over Swedish trading posts that had been established in the 1650s. At the same time, Danish settlers arrived in St. Thomas, in today’s US Virgin Islands. An early settlement failed but subsequent settlements in 1672 and 1675 established a Danish presence in the Virgin Islands. The Danes bought St. Croix, the third of the USVI, in 1713 from the French at the end of Louis XIV’s wars. The three islands were quickly filled with slaves brought from the Gold Coast. The principal product of the islands, sugar, became Denmark’s most important import during the late 1700s and through the era of the Napoleonic Wars, triggering a Danish Golden Age of unparalleled wealth and artistic creativity in the early 19th century. All built on the backs of Ghanaian, Burkinabé, Ivorian, and Togolese people.

Hansen, a Dane himself, was aware of the history, of course. One thing that Danes pride themselves on is that Denmark was the first European participant country to ban the slave trade, in 1792, although the ban was only slowly and incompletely implemented. In the early 1960s, as Ghana became independent under the pan-Africanist socialist leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, Hansen went to Ghana to explore the remains of the Danish colonial presence there. Britain took over the Danish Gold Coast colony in 1850, after the end of the legal slave trade, and in part because the Danish had been unable and/or unwilling to completely wipe out the illegal slave trade in their domain. The Danish slave fort, Christianborg, was Kwame Nkrumah’s official residence and office, the Ghanaian White House. The Danish-African village of Osu, right outside the walls of Christianborg, has become a bourgeois neighborhood of metropolitan Accra, full of bars and restaurants patronized by wealthy Ghanaians and expats (including myself, when I was there last month). But people haven’t forgotten about the Danes. As Hansen shows through alternating between sections detailing his visits to Danish slave trade sites in Ghana and stories of important players in the Danish colonial effort, the legacy of Danish colonialism is still important to today’s Ghana. The slave trade was, of course, incredibly brutal and violent, and Danes participated in full measure, taking around 110,000 people from Africa during their presence there – not counting slaves sold from their forts to ships from other countries. Total Gold Coast embarkations were about 1.2 million, although as I mentioned when discussing my visit there, Elmina was the biggest embarkation port in the region, and Cape Coast, the British fort just up the coast from Elmina, was second. But Christianborg and the collection of smaller posts the Danes established between Accra and the mouth of the Volta River, was probably third in importance. Many thousands gone, and Danes were just as cruel as anybody else. However, Hansen’s book also has some heroes, and some people who do the right things for the wrong reasons, and other people who do foolish things for good reasons, in other words, the whole range of human behavior.

One example can suffice for all: Paul Erdmann Isert, actually German by birth but an employee of the Danish company, worked in Ghana from 1783 to 1787 as the doctor at Christianborg Castle. He was an Enlightenment man, with broad scientific interests, and also a believer in the Enlightenment principles of human rights (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”). On his return from Ghana in 1787, he wrote a powerful anti-slavery tract that sparked Danish public opinion to oppose the slave trade. Not incidentally, during his return voyage from Africa via the West Indies, the ship he was on experienced an unsuccessful slave uprising, in which he was seriously injured. Rather than embittering him, his experience helped him realize that the slaves wanted their freedom as much as anybody else. So, he proposed something basically wrong-headed to Denmark’s prime minister, Ernst von Schimmelman, who was preparing to issue a decree ending the slave trade. Isert suggested that Denmark should establish plantations in Ghana, taking advantage of the availability of slaves on the coast and the enormous amount of land available, in a climate similar enough to the Caribbean that the same crops would grow there. Ignoring the fact that, while cutting out the horrible Middle Passage, his solution would not end slavery but might in fact increase it. The irony of this solution was similar to the more familiar case of Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish friar who argued that, because Indians were dying so quickly in 16th century Mexico, Spain should stop enslaving them and instead bring in African slaves to supply the labor needed. Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Isert, by the way, got his chance to implement his idea, but entrenched interests in the slave trade in the Danish community in Ghana meant that he was blocked at every turn – he was, of course, a competitor for the acquisition of slaves with those Danish traders – and Hansen suggests that his death and that of his wife and child in 1789 was murder, procured by one of the more notorious coast traders. Hansen describes Isert’s dilemma very movingly, making you feel the conflicts and basically good motives of the man.

The first volume, Coast of Slaves, covers the Ghana experience, up through the end of the legal trade, the difficult and dangerous (as for Isert) suppression of the illegal trade, and the final sale of the colony to Britain. The next, Ships of Slaves, is a pioneering work because, several years before my old teacher Philip Curtin began looking into the archives of the slave trade in search of a real understanding of how the system worked, Hansen was already trying the same thing. This is one of the very first books about the slave trade that was informed by actual archival research. Hansen was handicapped by not being a trained historian, so in some cases he didn’t know what to look for, but as a literary person he is very good at character and motivation. The third and largest volume is Islands of Slaves. This tells the story of the Danish Virgin Islands. Again, there is a good bit of archival material here that probably hadn’t been looked at between the 1700s when it was put away in the files and the 1960s when Hansen got it out again. The depiction of character and motivation, combined in this case with the contrast between the Danish sugar islands of old and the modern American tourist traps, is a strong point. A particularly interesting story is the tale of Kong Juni, a chief from a village in Akwamu, along the Volta. Taken prisoner by the Ashanti, the rising power in the region, Juni was sold to the Danes and shipped to St. John (St. Jan to the Danes). There, he rapidly rose to the position of bomba, or overseer, giving him the liberty to move around the island. He was able to establish his authority over the other Akwamu people on the island and organize a slave uprising in November, 1733. His goal was not to end the slave system, but instead to put himself and his people at the head of the system. He was successful in capturing most of the island and holding it for several months, until a force of French troops came from Martinique in May and drove him into hiding. He and his people finally committed suicide in order to avoid capture in August, 1734. This is a classic pattern for early slave revolts – based around ethnic ties and often charismatic leadership from the homeland, they failed on their inability to unite the slave population. In St. John, many slaves actually fought on the side of their Danish masters, preferring the devil they knew to the devil they didn’t know, I guess. The Maroon societies in Jamaica were similarly ethnically based in the beginning, as were the Bush Negroes of Surinam. Hansen tells the story of Kong Jumi with feeling and the insight of a novelist, without inventing anything and sticking close to his sources.

Sadly, Hansen died shortly after Islands came out, during another voyage to the Caribbean like those he uses as bridging passages in the books (he liked to travel on tramp steamers). It’s a shame, but as a master work to define a career, this trilogy holds up well.  These books are really worth reading, even today 45 years after they came out, not only for historians or people living in the places, like me, but for anybody who just wants a good adventure story with exotic flavor. You want conch shells blowing in the night, the whisper of the trade wind in the palm fronds, tense confrontations between piratical slave traders and government officials trying to control them – all the stuff of Pirates of the Caribbean, but for real.

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