In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Danish Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Reference Works and Repositories
  • Digitized Sources
  • Printed Sources
  • Chartered Companies and Atlantic Commerce
  • The Transatlantic Slave Trade
  • Coast Society in West Africa
  • The Danish West Indies
  • Abolition
  • Atlantic Denmark
  • Historiographical and Public Debates

Atlantic History The Danish Atlantic World
Gunvor Simonsen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0409


In 1672, the Danish West India Company (as of 1674, the West India and Guinea Company) managed to establish a colony on the island of Saint Thomas in the eastern Caribbean. With the colonization of Saint Thomas, Denmark (until 1814, Denmark-Norway) added a decisive third node to its Atlantic trading ventures. From 1660, a Danish company had held slave-trading forts in West Africa. With the settlement of Saint Thomas, Denmark came to possess a triangular empire, connecting labor markets in Africa and crop production in the Caribbean with European consumers. The Caribbean settlement was enlarged in 1718 when Saint John was colonized and in 1733 when Saint Croix was purchased from the French. In 1755, the Danish state took over the Atlantic possessions. Racial slavery came to dominate the islands with enslaved captives arriving from the Danish slave-trading establishments in West Africa and through transit sale from surrounding Caribbean islands. The three islands of the Danish West Indies followed different trajectories. Saint Thomas was conceived as a plantation colony, yet the production of export crops proved challenging. Instead, the island became a regional trade center and was declared a free port in 1764. The mountainous island of Saint John was not ideal for plantation production. Consequently, it held opportunities for people with few resources, who could find a measure of independence rare on the other two Danish islands. Meanwhile, Saint Croix was better suited for sugar production because of its large flat plain, and it developed into a profitable plantation island. The Danish transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1803 while slavery came to an end in 1848 after a successful uprising on Saint Croix. Post-emancipation society was marked by harsh labor regulations, economic hardship, and population decline. In 1878, rural laborers on Saint Croix revolted. The revolt was violently repressed and was followed by largely unsuccessful reforms. The West African enclaves had been sold to the British in 1850, having proved a burden on state finances, and in 1917, the Danish Caribbean colonies were sold to the United States and became the US Virgin Islands. The sale of the islands occurred after a referendum in Denmark, while the inhabitants of the islands were not given a vote. The early dismantlement of the Atlantic possessions, through sale to larger empires, by and large explains why Denmark is not home to an African Caribbean diaspora.

General Works

There is a well-established tradition for writing multiauthored and multivolume works in Danish about Denmark’s Atlantic colonies and settlements. A general introduction to the history of the Danish West Indies and the Danish possessions in West Africa (as well as the possessions in Asia) is provided in Brøndsted 1966–1967, Volumes 1–8. This work, although it is surpassed by newer studies, is still important because of its wide documentary basis. Volume 8 on West Africa is translated into English as a stand-alone study, Nørregård 1966. While Brøndsted 1966–1967 emphasizes the development of colonial institutions, the general works on Danish colonial history, published in 1980 as part of the series Danmarks Historie (The history of Denmark), were more diverse. Hornby 1980 focuses on the commercial and economic aspects of the Danish West Indian colonies, while Justesen’s contribution to Feldbæk and Justesen 1980 offers an, for its time, innovative history of the African peoples with whom the Danes had contact. The five-volume series Danmark og kolonierne (Denmark and the Colonies), published during the centennial for the sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States, includes works on Denmark, the West Indies, West Africa, Asia, and Greenland. Hence Olsen 2017 presents a history of the Danish West Indies that centers on enslaved Africans and their descendants. Hernæs 2017 maps the interactions between various West African peoples and staff at the Danish forts along the coast. As a first, Pedersen 2017 looks at how Danish colonialism has shaped Denmark proper. Hall 1992 is an excellent study of the Danish West Indies during slavery, in English, while Dookhan 1974, also in English, extends the presentation up to the 1960s.

  • Brøndsted, Johannes, ed. Vore Gamle Tropekolonier. 2d ed. 8 vols. Copenhagen: Fremad, 1966–1967.

    Covers the whole period of Danish rule. Volumes 1–4 provide a detailed presentation of Danish West Indian history, while Volume 8 focuses on West Africa. Above all, focus is on the administrative and institutional aspects of the colonies, while the social and cultural history of the enslaved population is rarely included. Originally published 1952–1953.

  • Dookhan, Isaac. A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States. Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands: Caribbean Universities Press, 1974.

    The work mainly focuses on the Danish period of US Virgin Island history but also includes chapters on the pre- and post-Danish history of the islands. It is mainly based on older Danish works, such as Brøndsted 1966–1967, yet the focus is on the society of the US Virgin Islands, in particular the role played by the African Caribbean population.

  • Feldbæk, Ole, and Ole Justesen. Kolonierne i Asien og Afrika. Danmarks Historie. Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag, 1980.

    The second part of this work, by Justesen, is a broad presentation of the Danish presence in West Africa that concentrates on the interaction with various West African states and political figures. As such, the work departed from an earlier tradition of focusing mostly on Danish administration and trade. Good as an introduction.

  • Hall, Neville A. T. Slave Society in the Danish West Indies: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1992.

    Arguably the most important work written about the Danish Caribbean as a slave society. It focuses on Saint Croix, 1755–1848, and combines thorough knowledge of general Caribbean historiography with detailed archival studies. The central focus of the work is the dynamic of oppression and resistance played between enslaved and their enslavers in the Danish West Indies.

  • Hernæs, Per, ed. Vestafrika: Forterne på Guldkysten. Danmark og kolonierne. Copenhagen: Gad, 2017.

    This multiauthored volume of Danmark og kolonierne presents the history of the interactions between the Danish slave-trading forts and the African polities involved in trade with Danish agents from early settlement in the 1660s until the sale to the British in 1850. A concluding chapter focuses on the legacies of Danish slave trading in Ghana.

  • Hornby, Ove. Kolonierne i Vestindien: Danmarks Historie. Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag, 1980.

    In many ways adopting the focus found in Brøndsted 1966–1967, yet with a more sustained interest in the commercial and financial aspects of colonial society and colonial rule in the Danish West Indies.

  • Nørregård, Georg. Danish Settlements in West Africa, 1658–1850. Translated by Sigurd Mammen. Boston: Boston University Press, 1966.

    Originally published 1952–1953, this is the most detailed empirical study of the Danish administration and trade on the coast, with some passages concerning Gold Coast peoples and politics. However, as pointed out by Ivor Wilks, utmost care must be taken in relation to those parts of the book dealing with African culture, society, and politics.

  • Olsen, Poul Erik, ed. Vestindien: St. Croix, St. Thomas og St. Jan. Danmark og kolonierne. Copenhagen: Gad, 2017.

    Presents the history of the Danish West Indies from 1672 to c. 2000, with a strong focus on the living conditions, experiences, and cultural outlooks of enslaved Africans and their descendants. The work is strongest for the period until 1848, reflecting the fact that the post-emancipation period has received less scholarly attention. The volume attempts to set the islands into a regional Caribbean context.

  • Pedersen, Mikkel Venborg, ed. Danmark: En kolonimagt. Danmark og kolonierne. Copenhagen: Gad, 2017.

    Presents aspects of Danish imperial experiences with chapters on Danish colonial expansion, consumption, and administration. Key chapters explain Denmark’s early dismantlement of its Atlantic possessions with reference to the state’s territorial losses in Europe during the nineteenth century. Concludes with a strong chapter on the legacies of colonialism in Denmark.

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