In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery in Danish America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Historiographies and Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • The Transatlantic and Interregional Slave Trade
  • Population, Demography, and Health Care
  • Labor, Economics, and Production
  • Planters
  • Resistance and Master-Slave Relations
  • Slave Culture
  • Slave and Free Black Families and Communities
  • Missionaries and Slave Religion
  • Abolition and Emancipation

Atlantic History Slavery in Danish America
Justin Roberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0195


Slavery in the Danish Americas was concentrated on three small islands in the Lesser Antilles: St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. Danish colonial rule began on St. Thomas and St. John in the 17th century. St. Croix was added in 1733. In 1917, these Danish islands became the US Virgin Islands. At its height of their development in the 1790s, there were approximately thirty thousand slaves in the Danish West Indies, which amounts to a little less than 2 percent of all slaves in the Caribbean. St. Croix had the majority of those slaves. Most planters were growing sugar and, on a smaller scale, cotton. The planters were a multiethnic mix. Planters with Dutch, Danish, French, and British backgrounds were spread across the island. The Danish had a slightly more significant role as carriers in the transatlantic slave trade, especially in the last two decades of the 18th century, when they delivered 2 percent of all slaves to the Americas. The Danish abolished the slave trade in 1803 and slavery ended in 1848. The surviving records of Danish slavery and the slave trade are among the richest of all nations, particularly the cartographical and statistical records. Most of the literature in Danish has focused on the relationship between Denmark and the Danish colonies and on the history of those colonies in the aggregate. Slavery is an element in these works but it is not the focus. There has been a significant amount of archaeological work done recently pertaining to slavery in the Danish West Indies, and scholars of Danish slavery are at the forefront of the movement to use a geographic information system (GIS) in their studies. Local historians and genealogists in the US Virgin Islands have been exceptionally enthusiastic about tracing the history of the former Danish islands. A recent reorganization of the Danish archives has made Caribbean source materials more accessible and this, in conjunction with the upcoming 2017 centennial anniversary of the US acquisition of the Danish West Indies, should bring significant growth in the scholarship. This bibliographical list privileges the literature available in English, but it includes some of the most important studies written in Danish.

General Overviews

There are several useful studies of the Danish West Indies which touch on slavery in the region, but there are few scholarly books written in English that might serve as overviews of slavery in the Danish Americas. Most of the best studies of the Danish West Indies as a region, such as Bro-Jørgensen 1966, Vibæk 1966, and Hornby 1980, are in Danish and have yet to be translated. Both Bro-Jørgensen 1966 and Vibæk 1966 are volumes in Brøndsted’s 1966 eight-volume series Vore Gamle Tropekolonier. These eight volumes remain classics in the field and the key point of departure for most scholars of Danish colonial history, but only two of them address slavery in the Danish Americas to any significant degree. One of the most ambitious efforts to contextualize the history of the Danish West Indies in a broad Atlantic context is still Westergaard 1917. Although it is somewhat dated, it remains a model of scholarship and it deserves to be read carefully by students of the subject today. The best work in English for scholars of slavery in the Danish Americas remains Hall 1992, which was published posthumously. Hall, a Jamaican-based scholar with a gift for languages, learned Danish in order to explore the records, which should serve as inspiration for scholars interested in the Danish West Indies. Scholars who specialize in slavery in the Danish Americas often publish in both English and Danish. Recent works by the small group of specialists in this field can be found in Danish in Nielsen 2001 and in English in Highfield and Tyson 2009. These serve as helpful introductions to kind of scholarship that has been done in the topic and the sources that are available. Given the small proportion of slaves in Danish territories in the Americas, there have been a remarkable number of shorter works produced by local and popular historians of slavery in the Danish Americas. Donoghue 2007, a collection of newspaper articles, offers an example of such work being done by local and popular historians.

  • Bro-Jørgensen, J. O. Dansk Vestindien indtil 1755: Kolonisation og Kompagnistyre. 8 vols. Edited by Jonannes Brøndsted. Vore Gamle Tropekolonier 1. Copenhagen: Fremad, 1966.

    Bro-Jørgensen, an archivist, catalogued the Danish West India and Guinea Company’s papers on which this survey was built. Mainly political, administrative, and economic history, but with sections on slavery and life in the colonies. Originally published in 1952–1953.

  • Donoghue, Eddie. Negro Slavery: Slave Society and Slave Life in the Danish West Indies. Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2007.

    A collection of newspaper articles exploring slavery in the Danish West Indies. Useful overview for non-specialists but aimed at a popular audience. Covers both the Danish slave trade and slavery in the Danish West Indies.

  • Hall, N. A. T. Slave Society in the Danish West Indies: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. Edited by B. W. Higman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

    One of the most important overviews. Covers the entire period of slavery in the Danish West Indies. Focused on questions of resistance and master-slave relations. Includes a chapter on urban slavery in the Danish West Indies, a topic on which little work has been done. Rich in statistics.

  • Highfield, Arnold R., and George F. Tyson, eds. Negotiating Enslavement: Perspectives on Slavery in the Danish West Indies. St. Croix, VI: Antilles, 2009.

    Impressive collection of cutting-edge scholarship on slavery in the Danish West Indies and on the Danish slave trade. The essays are focused on the slave perspective and the agency of the enslaved. Includes articles by most of the established specialists in the field. An important starting point for the subject.

  • Hornby, Ove. Kolonierne i Vestindien. Copenhagen: Politiken, 1980.

    Remains perhaps the best general introduction to the Danish West Indies. Includes sections on slavery.

  • Nielsen, Per, ed. Fra slaveri til frihed: Det dansk-vestindiske slavesamfund 1672–1848: Symposium den 3. juli 1998 på Nationalmuseet i anledning af 150-året for slaveriets ophør på de dansk-vestindiske øer. Copenhagen: Nationalmuseet, 2001.

    A wide-ranging collection of articles on Danish West Indian society from 1672 to 1848 by leading historians of the Danish West Indies.

  • Vibæk, Jens. Dansk Vestindien 1755–1848: Vestindiens Storhedstid. 8 vols. Edited by Jonannes Brøndsted. Vore Gamle Tropekolonier 1. Copenhagen: Fremad, 1966.

    Covers the period of the crown’s takeover of the colonial administration in 1755 until the emancipation of the slaves in 1848, with sections on plantation life and the circumstances of the slaves. Originally published in 1952–1953.

  • Westergaard, Waldemar C. The Danish West Indies under Company Rule (1671–1754): With a Supplementary Chapter, 1755–1917. New York: Macmillan, 1917.

    One of the first modern scholarly works on the Danish West Indies. Deeply researched. Still one of the best overviews available for the early period. Revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation. Incorporates Danish West Indian history into the larger history of colonial settlement in the West Indies.

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