The Danish slave trade occurred separately in two different periods: the trade in European slaves during the Viking Age, from the 8th to 10th century; and the Danish role in selling African slaves during the Atlantic slave trade, which commenced in 1733 and ended in 1807 when the abolition of slavery was announced.[1] The location of the latter slave trade primarily occurred in the Danish West Indies (Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and Saint John) where slaves were tasked with many different manual labour activities, primarily working on sugar plantations. The slave trade had many impacts that varied in their nature (economic and humanitarian), with some more severe than others. After many years of slavery in the Danish West Indies, Christian VII decided to abolish slave trading.

Danish slave trade during the Viking Age

Map showing the major Varangian trade routes: the Volga trade route (in red) and the Trade Route from the Varangians to the Greeks (in purple). Other trade routes of the eighth-eleventh centuries shown in orange.
Samanid coins found in the Spillings Hoard.
Vikings captured people during their raids in Europe.
Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs. Pictures of Russian history. (1909). Vikings sold people they captured in Europe to Arab merchants in Russia.

During the Viking Age, thralls (Norse slaves) were an important part of the economy and one of the main reasons for the raids on England in which slaves were captured. This practice was largely abandoned once Denmark became Christian in the 10th century, but continued into the 14th century.[1]


Slavery was common in the Viking age period, and one of the main reasons for the Viking expansion was the search for slaves in other countries. One of the reasons Kievan Rus came to be was that Scandinavian settlers established themselves and traded with captured slaves. Arabic merchants from the Caspian Sea and Byzantine merchants from the Black Sea bought their goods to the trade markets in Rus, where they met the Viking traders and warriors known as Varangians, and traded their goods for the slaves captured by the Vikings in Europe.

The Vikings used the demand for slaves in the Southern slave markets in the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Middle Eastern Caliphate, both of whom craved slaves of a different religion than their own. During the Middle Ages, organized alongside religious principles. Both Christians and Muslims banned the enslavement of people of their own faith, but both approved of the enslavement of people of a different faith;[2] both did allow the enslavement of people they regarded to be heretics, which allowed Catholic Christians to enslave Orthodox Christians, and Sunni Muslims to enslave Shia Muslims.[3] However, both Christians and Muslims approved of enslaving Pagans, who came to be a preferred target of the slave trade in the Middle Ages, and Pagan war captives were sold by Pagan enemies into the slave trade.[3]

The Viking slave trade

See also: Saqaliba, Dublin slave trade, Balkan slave trade, Prague slave trade, Al-Andalus slave trade, and History of concubinage in the Muslim world

The Vikings trafficked European slaves captured in Viking raids in Europe via Scandinavia to the East in two destinations via present day Russia and the Volga trade route; one to Slavery in the Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle East via the Caspian Sea, the Samanid slave trade and Iran; and one to the Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean via Dnieper and the Black Sea slave trade.[4][5] Until the 9th-century, the Vikings trafficked European slaves from the Baltic Sea in the North or the North Sea in the West via the Wisla or the Donau rivers South East through Europe to the Black Sea.[6] The Viking slave route was redirected in the 9th-century, and until the 11th-century the Vikings trafficked European slaves from the Baltic Sea via Ladoga, Novgorod and the Msta river via the Route from the Varangians to the Greeks to the Byzantine Empire via the Black Sea slave trade, or to the Abbasid Caliphate via the Caspian Sea (and the Bukhara slave trade) via the Volga trade route.[6]

People taken captive during the Viking raids in Western Europe, such as Ireland, could be sold to Moorish Spain via the Dublin slave trade[7] or transported to Hedeby or Brännö and from there via the Volga trade route to present day Russia, where slaves and furs were sold to Muslim merchants in exchange for Arab silver dirham and silk, which have been found in Birka, Wollin and Dublin;[8] initially this trade route between Europe and the Abbasid Caliphate passed via the Khazar Kaghanate,[9] but from the early 10th-century onward it went via Volga Bulgaria and from there by caravan to Khwarazm, to the Samanid slave market in Central Asia and finnally via Iran to the Abbasid Caliphate.[10]

Archbishop Rimbert of Bremen (d. 888) reported that he witnessed a “large throng of captured Christians being hauled away” in the Viking port of Hedeby in Denmark, one of whom was a woman who sang psalms to identify herself as a Christian nun, and who the bishop was able to free by exchanging his horse for her freedom.[11]

This trade was the source of the Arab dirham silver hoards found in Scandinavia and functioned from at least 786 until 1009, when such coins have been found there, and it would have been so lucrative that it contributed to the continuing Viking raids in Europe, which was used by the Vikings as a slave supply source for this trade with the Islamic world.[12] Among such hoards can be mentioned the Spillings Hoard and the Sundveda Hoard.

One of the only accounts describing Norse slave practices in detail and first person is the Arabic merchant Ibn Fadlan meeting Volga Vikings. Describing Vikings using the Volga trade route using Saqaliba or Slavic slaves as translators when trading. There he describes the Norse ship burials only known in Norse society before the Viking expansion in 800 AD into present day Russia and Ukraine and that a slave girl was sacrificed to follow her master. Norse burials found in Sweden and Norway indicate that slaves were sacrificed in Sweden to follow their masters to the afterlife. However, Swedish archaeology shows that mostly male slaves were killed to follow their master into the afterlife and not females. Sacrificed female slaves have however been found sacrificed in Norway, where a woman found in the grave showed signs of having her throat slit in a similar manner to the execution described by Ibn Fadlan.[13][14]

During the 11th-century, the Viking nations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden became Christian, which made it impossible for them to continue to conduct slave raids toward Christian Europe and sell Christian Europeans to Islamic slave traders. Slavery as such was gradually replaced by serfdom (hoveriet) in the 13th-century.


Few sites remain that are directly linked to the Viking Age slavery, but the circular forts known as Trelleborge (Slave fortresses), have since 2023 been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Danish transatlantic slave trade

The involvement in the transatlantic slave trade began in the mid-1700s when they would transport African peoples to what was known then as The Gold Coast (located in the city of Accra in Ghana).[15] Fort Christiansborg was the Danish fort that controlled the incomings and outgoings of slaves; the base in Ghana for the Danes.[1]

Danish West Indies

Depiction of landscape during Danish Slave Trade
Danish slave trade
LocationSaint Croix, Saint Thomas, Saint John (Danish West Indies)
IncludingAfrican slaves

The Danes had control over the Danish West Indies for around 250 years, from 1672 up until its sale to the U.S. in 1917.[16] The Danish West Indies played a significant role in the Danish slave trade as this was the final destination for many of the slaves. The three islands that made up the Danish West Indies included Saint John, Saint Thomas, and Saint Croix.[16]

Sugar, coffee, and tobacco were the primary resources that were cultivated on the islands as they all provided the Danes with significant returns. Plantation work was perceived as extremely demanding, especially for female slaves who were unable to maintain the high degree of manual labour that was required.[17] The standard of living on the islands was very poor, with many slaves often catching fatal diseases or dying from exhaustion and malnutrition. A common misconception was that slaves were given enough food provisions weekly that would sustain them during their work, however, according to Martens (2016), these provisions were unsatisfactory and did not meet the minimum requirements to live healthily.[18]

In 1915, negotiations between America and Denmark began over the sale of the three islands (Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, Saint John). The U.S. became increasingly concerned Germany would make an attempt to acquire the islands and decided to act upon their instinct. Eventually, the U.S. bought the islands for US$25,000,000 of gold coin.[16] The islands are now known as the U.S Virgin Islands.

Saint Thomas

Saint Thomas was the first island in the Danish West Indies that was used by the Danes for slave labour. It was the order of then King Christian V to seize the island with the sole aim of acquiring the plantations on the island, which included primarily sugar and tobacco produce.[19] A problem the Danish West India Company soon encountered was that convicts were terrible workers, and it is for this reason that they came to the realisation that colonists from neighbouring countries who had access to African slaves were much better suited to the nature of the work.

Before sugar plantations became the most popular crop, the Danish government established Taphus. Taphus were essentially beer houses and halls that produced vast amounts of the alcohol to be transported overseas.[19] However, the beer halls quickly became very unpopular with the Danish government as it attracted pirates to the islands, and also the economic benefit of producing beer was outweighed by the costs of building the infrastructure for the halls. In the early 1700s, sugar quickly became the most popular crop, with plantations scattered all over the island. With strict Danish government officials overseeing workers in St Thomas, slave traders would visit St. Thomas to purchase slaves as they were known to be good workers.[19]

Saint John

One of the first locations where the Danes brought African slaves was Saint John. In 1717, 150 African slaves from Akwamu (now Ghana) were brought to the islands to work on the plantations.[20] At the time, the island only cultivated cotton and tobacco.[21] During the transition from Saint Thomas to Saint John, the Akwamu slaves all revolted against the owners of the plantations by taking over the property and deploying slaves from other African tribes to complete the work. Reasons for this revolt came from the introduction of harsh slave policies, new African slaves who would have rather died than be slaves, and a summer of natural disasters.[20] However, by 1734, the plantation owners eventually regained control of the island.[22][circular reference] The primary reason for revolts such as these was due to the fact that owners did not reside on the island. Instead, they would rely upon overseers, who were known as “mesterknægte” ['master knaves'].[21]

Saint Croix

In 1733, the Danish West Indies Company bought Saint Croix from the French government.[23] A key attribute of Saint Croix was its independent government, which differentiated it to Saint Thomas and Saint John. Planters soon became frustrated with this and demanded the King of Denmark buy the company.[23] As Saint Croix was the most lucrative island out of the three, the King decided that it should be the capital of the three islands. This meant the capital was to be moved from Saint Thomas to Saint Croix.

Saint Croix's wealth was heavily attributed to its production of sugar, but also rum.[23] The other commodities it exported included cotton, molasses, and hard woods. By 1803, there was a total of 26,500 slaves on the island (the most out of the three), but as Denmark's role in the slave trade began to fade, this number reduced significantly.

Impacts of the slave trade

The Danish Slave trade had a range of impacts, ranging from humanitarian consequences to economic changes. Also, the severity of these impacts ranged massively as some were fatal and others purely menial consequences that arose as a result of a significant power imbalance.

Human impact

For the duration of the slave trade, it is estimated that over 100,000 African slaves were transported to the Danish West Indies, with approximately half of them dying due to the inhumane conditions.[24] From 1733 (after the concept of New World Slavery was introduced), owners of the sugar plantations would threaten any slave that was abusive or disrespectful towards white people.[25] For those who did not obey these orders, they were scored with red-hot iron tongs or even hung if the slave owner did not see the need for the slave.[25]

Economic impact

A key motive for the Danish government to transport slaves to the West Indies was the potential economic gain. The production of sugar was a key objective for the Danes as it provided them with high returns from buyers and investors.[25] Trading sugar with other nations for other commodities such as rice, rum and cotton meant that Denmark had a means of negotiation when purchasing commodities.[26] On top of the significant returns produced by the sugar production, many Danish citizens were employed on the plantations, contributing to a low unemployment rate in Denmark at the time.[25] Historians are still unsure as to the profitability companies actually made, yet it is estimated that the profit margins were around 2.58% annually.[25]

Slave trade abolition

In 1792, Christian VII of Denmark announced the Danes would be abolishing their slave trade practices in the Danish West Indies.[27] The announcement declared from the start of 1803 the Danes would no longer partake in slave trading on the African coast.[27]

Economic and humanitarian concerns are seen as the primary reasons why the Danish slave trade was abolished. Economically, politicians no longer saw the slave trade as a profitable means of improving the nation's economy.[27] On a humanitarian level, the conditions and treatment of workers were beginning to become heavily scrutinized by the world's population. As such, Denmark wanted to become the first European nation to abolish the slave trade and ensure they did before the British, which would, in turn, provide them with international recognition.[27]

Denmark's apology

For many years, historians and citizens of the world questioned why Denmark never apologised for the slave trade that took place for over 70 years. However, in 2017, foreign minister, Anders Samuelsen, apologised for the many years of torture and treatment of African slaves. In his apology to the Ghanaian president, Nana Akufo-Addo, Anders claimed “Nothing can justify the exploitation of men, women and children in which Denmark took part”.[28]

Many years before the apology, Denmark (through its DANIDA Agency) had been helping Ghana with both social and economic sectors, human rights, and good governance.[29] More recently, Ghana and Denmark formulated a partnership aimed at supporting COVID-19 responses across Africa.[30] Since the Danish slave trade took part, Denmark has felt indebted to Ghana which is the primary reason why Denmark has been investing both economically and socially for many years.

See also


  1. ^ a b c "The Danish slave trade - timeline for teaching purposes". Rigsarkivet. Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  2. ^ Slavery in the Black Sea Region, C.900–1900: Forms of Unfreedom at the Intersection Between Christianity and Islam. (2021). Nederländerna: Brill. 5
  3. ^ a b Korpela, J. (2018). Slaves from the North: Finns and Karelians in the East European Slave Trade, 900–1600. Nederländerna: Brill. 242
  4. ^ Pargas & Schiel, Damian A.; Juliane (2023). The Palgrave Handbook of Global Slavery Throughout History. Tyskland: Springer International Publishing. p. 126
  5. ^ The Palgrave Handbook of Global Slavery Throughout History. (2023). Tyskland: Springer International Publishing. p. 126
  6. ^ a b Korpela, Jukka Jari (2018). Slaves from the North – Finns and Karelians in the East European Slave Trade, 900–1600. Studies in Global Slavery, Band: 5. Nederländerna: Brill. p. 35
  7. ^ "The Slave Market of Dublin". 23 April 2013.
  8. ^ The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 3, C.900-c.1024. (1995). Storbritannien: Cambridge University Press. p. 91
  9. ^ The World of the Khazars: New Perspectives. Selected Papers from the Jerusalem 1999 International Khazar Colloquium. (2007). Nederländerna: Brill. p. 232
  10. ^ The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 3, C.900-c.1024. (1995). Storbritannien: Cambridge University Press. p. 504
  11. ^ The slave trade of European women to the Middle East and Asia from antiquity to the ninth century. by Kathryn Ann Hain. Department of History The University of Utah. December 2016. Copyright © Kathryn Ann Hain 2016. All Rights Reserved. p. 244-246
  12. ^ The slave trade of European women to the Middle East and Asia from antiquity to the ninth century. by Kathryn Ann Hain. Department of History The University of Utah. December 2016. Copyright © Kathryn Ann Hain 2016. All Rights Reserved.
  13. ^ Simone Liw de Bernardi (2020) Vikingatidens begravningsritualer – avrättad för att följa en annan i graven, Uppsala university
  14. ^ " British Archaeology magazine. Vol. 59. June 2001. Archived from the original on 2011-02-13. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
  15. ^ Gøbel, Erik (2017). The Danish slave trade and its abolition. Brill. pp. 1–33. ISBN 9789004330566.
  16. ^ a b c "Slavery". The Danish West-Indies. Retrieved 2022-05-11.
  17. ^ Harris, William A, Ashton (1992). Slave Society in the Danish West Indies: St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. Kingston, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, Jamaica. pp. 1–50. ISBN 9764100295.
  18. ^ Martens (2016). "Royal slaves in the Danish-Norwegian West Indies 1792-1848: Living in autonomy". Scandinavian Journal of History. 41 (4–5): 1–50. doi:10.1080/03468755.2016.1210885. S2CID 151826728 – via CAUL.
  19. ^ a b c "St. Thomas, Virgin Islands: Facts & History".
  20. ^ a b "St. John, Virgin Islands: Facts & History".
  21. ^ a b "The occupation of St. John".
  22. ^ "1733 slave insurrection on St. John".
  23. ^ a b c "St. Croix, Virgin Islands: Facts & History".
  24. ^ Madsen, Maj Bach (2012-08-27). "Denmark cannot apologise for slave trade". (in Norwegian Bokmål). Retrieved 2022-05-12.
  25. ^ a b c d e Stawski, Scott (2018). "Denmark's Veiled Role in Slavery in the Americas: The Impact of the Danish West Indies on the Transatlantic Slave Trade" (PDF). Harvard Library. Retrieved 29 April 2022.
  26. ^ Eltis, David (1994). "Seventeenth-century west African trade: The relative importance of slaves and commodities in the Atlantic trade of seventeenth-century Africa". Journal of African History. 35: 237–249. doi:10.1017/S0021853700026414. JSTOR 183218. S2CID 162875043.
  27. ^ a b c d Roge, Pernille (2014). "Why the Danes Got There First - A Trans-Imperial Study of the Abolition of the Danish Slave Trade in 1792". Routledge. Vol. 35, no. 4. pp. 576–592. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2013.852709.
  28. ^ "Danish Government apologises to Ghana for slave trade".
  29. ^ "Denmark - Ghana Partnership Policy 2014-2018".
  30. ^ "The Government of Ghana, the Embassy of Denmark and UNICEF launch a partnership to support the COVID-19 response".

Further reading