Abu Kwanza: Anti-blackness in Denmark

Would it come as a surprise that Denmark was once the 7th largest slave dealing nation that participated in the transatlantic slave trade? For some reason, there seems to be a void in Danish society’s collective consciousness, which perhaps isn’t so strange since most of us don’t see the immediate effects of slavery around us. For a country whose involvement in the transatlantic slave trade was of significant proportions, how is it that we don’t pay as much attention to our history as a colonial power as we do to the war in 1864, WW1 and the occupation during WW2?

In our pursuit for truth, we, the very inheritors of this post-colonial reality, must vigorously question the essence of our forefathers’ actions during the Transatlantic slave-trade. Firstly, we will explore which part of Denmark that is built on the backs of slaves:

Across Frederiksstaden district, you’ll find yourself surrounded by many old urban mansions at Broad Street, St. Ann’s Square, House Street, Amalienborg Square and the Equestrian statue of Frederick V. What is important to note is that such elaborate mansions are not constructed under a Scandinavian welfare state, rather are constructed under a hierarchical society where few privileged individuals dictated the construction of these aforementioned buildings.

During the 1700s, slave-trade was a lucrative business that only few families could monopolize by virtue of a royal decree. Let’s have a look at one of the country’s most visited tourist attractions; the Amalienborg complex.

Billedresultat for amalienborg palace

The complex consists of four palaces, which are built around an octagonal courtyard that provides a framework for the royal family’s private and official lives.

Right from the Queen’s front door, and all the way into what serves as her majesty’s fashionable representative palace, silent cries from enslaved Africans echo through its halls.

Some may wonder what the palaces ever have had to do with the slave trade. Especially considering that one of the palaces belonged to Christian VII, the king who signed the famous declaration to “cease” the slave-trade.

Despite the signed legislation, the trade did in fact continue ten additional years, even with financial support from the government.

The answer lies in the name of the palace itself. Before the palace was handed to Christian the VII, it previously belonged to non-other than Lord Adam Gottlob Moltke (1710-1792), a name known by few.

Billedresultat for Adam Gottlob Moltke

AG Moltke was the president of Danish West India Company, who on behalf of the Danish nation administered the colonies on the Danish West Indies and became the middleman between the king and wealthy Danish slave-owning families such as the Bargum family.

The Bargum family built and lived in the Yellow Palace, sometimes referred to as Bergum’s mansion, in the late 1700s. This site lies close to the Amalienborg complex which indicates close ties between the royal family and slave traders. This family almost had a complete monopoly over the transatlantic slave-trade between the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) and the Danish West Indies.

 The Yellow Palace

Throughout centuries the Bargum mansion has been at the royal family’s disposal. Today it serves as a centre for the administrative part of the royal court.[1] Once the bleak history of these elegant buildings becomes clear, silent truths become evident around Copenhagen as well as outside of it.

Most slaveowners, who returned with fortunes from the colonies, also built country houses for the nobles. One need not look further than the official residence of the prime minister, Marienborg.

Marienborg was set up for the director of the Danish Asiatic Company, Olfert Fas Fischer (1700-1761) who also acquired fortunes from the colonies on the Danish East Indies.

So why are these historical facts so absent from the collective consciousness of Danish society?

Primarily, the collective memory of society is based on experiences of the elderly generation which are passed down to the next. This is why there is such a strong awareness of the wars that have ravaged Denmark throughout history. Most Danes have parents or grandparents, who have experienced them at firsthand.

However, although Denmark as a nation played a pivotal role in slavery, most Danes never had the opportunity to meet a slave from the West Indies. Only a few were brought to Denmark while most remained on sugarcane plantations in the West Indies.

Those slaves, who were brought to Denmark, often came as individuals who would work as valets in the mansions of their slave masters. Hence there would be little chance for reproduction and moulding future generations of blacks to challenge the oppression and set a historical mark to let it be known what had transpired.

There are no official figures that point to the exact number of slaves who came to Denmark, but among the most mentioned that sometimes appear in Danish literature are:

The black Henriette Jensen who came to Denmark in 1896, to serve as a maid. [2]

James Thompson from St. Croix who came in 1901.

4-year old Alberta and 7-year old Victor Cornelins who were taken away from their families on St. Croix and brought to Denmark for a grand exhibition in Tivoli Gardens where they were to appear in a cage for public amusement. Much like the story of Ota Benga.[3]

Since Danish scenery doesn’t explicitly show the history of slavery, it has little relevance to the collective consciousness of Danish society. If we are to compare the Danish adherence to its former colony in Greenland, many Greenlandic Danes are found on the streets, on television, at work and school. Much like the ethnic minorities in the UK and France, this community from a former colony are present and participate in shaping and challenging the commemorative culture. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the descendants of the Danish Colonies in Africa and the West Indies.

For some Danes, it may be a source of pride to know that Denmark was the first nation to declare the transatlantic slave trade illegal in 1792. A declaration passed by Count Heinrich Carl von Schimmelmann (1724-1882). But were his intentions benign or was it just a matter of cost-benefit? Especially considering that he himself was still a slave owner – even after the declaration had been signed.

Schimmelmann owned around 1000 slaves on the plantations of St. Croix. From his wealth, he was able to acquire the Odd Fellow Mansion.

The only slave owner who could rival him in trade was Christopher Mac Evoy (1760-1838) who owned the famous Dehn Mansion.

Dehns Palæ - Wikipedia, den frie encyklopædi

Yet this information about some of the country’s glorious sights, is rarely imparted to the Danish public and time and time again, the Danish National Museum has had to respond to criticism, where for whatever reason their contribution to the dissemination of this vital part of history has been exceedingly small.

Since traces of slavery lie beneath the surface and there hasn’t been a sufficiently large generation of descendants present to challenge the status quo like there has been in the US, France and the UK, this places Denmark and its people of African descent (PAD) in a unique situation. The past cannot be separated from the present because the current condition is directly predicated upon historical circumstances.

Status Quo

As of today, there is a lack of legislation in Denmark protecting PADs from racial abuse. The use of the n-word is not treated seriously by law-enforcement. We are essentially living in a nation where black people are called the n-word by politicians and by the media. The use of the Danish word Neger translates to negro in English but is considered as a racial slur by experts.[4]This means that a PAD can be attacked by being called the n-word, and the offence would be treated like an assault and not a hate crime.

While facing criticism over an election poster that only included white people, MP Søren Espersen from the right-wing Danish People’s party responded quite openly

“…We could have thrown in a Neger and they would’ve said it’s an alibi…” [5]

In 2013, Espersen participated on national television where the debate centered around whether Denmark should apologize for its role in slave trade. To that question the spokesperson for foreign affairs said:

“…they are in an advantageous situation having grown up in the US with American passports in a free and prosperous country. After all, the alternative was that they were raised in some hut in Ghana.”[6]

In another quote he said:

“…That’s completely nuts. You could say that these people should feel lucky that they are now American citizens in a free country and not in Ghana…”[7]

In Summer 2017, controversy also spiked when a local radio station, LOL DK, opened its line to callers to call in and compete in the most offensive jokes they could think of. An individual called in to tell that the similarity between a negro and a saw is that both work more effectively when in chains. [8] This is not to mention a 2012 headline in the local newspaper stating ““Neger” steals car from 80-year old” that led to a national debate, though nothing changed. [9] One could also recollect the time when mayor candidate Holger Gorm Petersen had to apologise for referring to non-western nations as “Hulabula-countries”.[10]

What is also concerning is how far right extremists like the Hard-Line party, seemingly managed to gather over 65000 votes. Though that wasn’t enough for them to win thier leader Rasmus Paludan a seat at the parliament, it was more than enough to get governmental party funding over the next few years. Let it be emphasised, this is the same Paludan who multiple times has been caught using the term Neger to attack black people, and who was also caught making monkey noises at black by passers at his gatherings- [11 the same political candidate whose followers consistently have been harassing Bwalya Sørensen and gathering in front her house, after Rasmus disclosed her address on his website.[12] (Bwalya Sørensen is the spokesperson of Black Lives Matter in Denmark).

Anti-blackness in public life

In 2016, a survey was financed by the African Empowerment Center (AEC) in Denmark, to map the anti-black discrimination against People of African descent (PAD) in Danish society.[13] In examining the life situation of their respondents, the survey showed 92% of them had experienced anti-blackness regularly from every day to at least once a year while only 8% responded that they had never been exposed to that type of discrimination.[14]

In educational settings, 62.7% thought they were exposed to Afrophobia, while 37.3% were thought not to have been exposed. This pertains to the opportunity for internships and the opportunity to pass an entry requirement.

The lack of attention given to the problems many PADs face, leaves many Afro Danes with social and psychological pressure which manifests itself as stress, isolation, deterioration and depression – the type of social ills not uncommon to the black diaspora at large.

To demonstrate the severity of the issue, on the 14th of February 2015, Patrick Koaukou a hardworking father, was on his way home after midnight from work. While riding on his bike, a car pulled up in front of him and three masked men got out of the car. As he was being beaten to the ground, he heard them calling him a black hog. One of the assailants pulled out an 11-inch knife and threateningly said to him that if he made a sound, they would cut his tongue out. Fortunately, they fled after they saw a white car approaching which they mistook for police. [15]

How does systematic racism work in Denmark?

There are many stories that don’t make it to the news. In the recent decade, the EU and UN have issued a set of recommendations and legally binding directives which Danish politicians don’t move forward on and silence from public debate. To this day, Denmark has yet to accept the UN CERD 34 (Committee on the elimination of racial discrimination) recommendations which were made in 2011 to UN member states. The CERD 34 entailed measures for combating discrimination against people of African descent.[16]

Following the CERD 34 was the UN concluding observations on Denmark 2015 where PADs were still recognised as an ethnic group.[17] However as it turns out, the governmental Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) was working on a parallel report to the UN’s concluding observations while excluding the recommendations pertaining to PAD, let alone making any mention at all of black people of African descent.

It is important to note that the DIHR had been fully aware of the international decade for people of African descent as well as the CERD 34 from 2011. The CERD 34 was delivered to UN member states including Denmark as a response to a periodic report Denmark delivers every 4 years on their specific dealing on racism with specific groups of people living in the state. Likewise, the 2015 report highlights areas of concern to remind Denmark that there is missing work on groups such as people of African descent. Yet the DIHR found a way to evade the recommendations by excluding the points made about the African diaspora in Denmark.

Those of us from the black diaspora shouldn’t be surprised especially when we more than others know how racism works. Racism operates from a position of denial. Once being able to deny ethnic races in the statistics, racism becomes invisible.

When the DIHR was inquired by the AEC about the matter, they responded,

“…The measures which are taken to combat racism and ethnic discrimination do not make a distinction whether an individual is of African descent or not. – The protection is irrespective of race and ethnic origin…”[18]

This is the same subtle tactic that even people of colour use to obscure their racism against PAD. Usually it is under the pretext that racism is experienced by everyone and that we are all affected the same way, ergo specific representation does not matter and therefore we do not need terms like People of African descent or anti-black racism.

This thought-pattern is one that does not want to highlight PAD as existing and experiencing a certain form of racism which is anti-blackness. But somehow terms like islamophobia and anti-Semitism are widely accepted and frequently mentioned in the public debate. Moreover, politicians enact laws to these forms of discrimination and funds are being accepted within these communities to protect them to some degree.

To conclude, one can see the importance of recognizing Antisemitism and Islamophobia, so is it important to recognize Afrophobia i.e. anti-blackness which in 2020 has yet to be realised. Since the state has not meet the deadline that was given by UN[19], then it is up to black organisations in the country to take the government to court with the backing of the international community.

On November 23, 2017, ENAR Chair Amel Yacef said at the United States Regional Meeting on the International Decade for People of African Decent:

“Given the scale of racism and discrimination faced by Black people in Europe, it is shocking that so little has been done so far to end this situation. As United Nations Members, EU Member States have committed to ensuring Black people enjoy rights to equal treatment and non-discrimination. We are still waiting to see that commitment materialise into concrete action before the end of the decade in 2014.”

Special thanks goes to the African Empowerment Center and to activist and author, Victor Benett, for providing assistance.


[1] http://kongehuset.dk/menu/nyheder/historien-bag-det-gule-pala

[2] https://nyheder.tv2.dk/samfund/2017-03-31-de-sendte-bud-efter-to-negerboern-og-udstillede-dem-i-bur-i-tivoli

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/03/the-man-who-was-caged-in-a-zoo

[4] https://nyheder.tv2.dk/samfund/2016-05-21-forsker-derfor-maa-man-ikke-sige-neger

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSQnVbBRs2U

[6] https://ekstrabladet.dk/nyheder/politik/danskpolitik/article4582366.ece

[7] https://jyllands-posten.dk/uknews/article6174359.ece/

[8] https://www.bt.dk/danmark/mary-raser-over-populaert-p3-program-jeg-er-fuldstaendig-mundlam-og-virkelig-vred

[9] https://www.thelocal.dk/20160519/danes-stop-saying-neger-n-word-once-and-for-all

[10] https://ekstrabladet.dk/nyheder/politik/danskpolitik/article4738208.ece

[11] https://www.bitchute.com/video/Ah2MW-QXn7E/

[12] https://arbejderen.dk/indland/paludan-forf%C3%B8lger-politisk-modstander

[13] http://aec-denmark.dk/eng/?p=246

[14] http://aec-denmark.dk/pad2015aecenglish.pdf

[15] http://navisen.dk/blog/hvis-du-siger-ordet-danmark-skaerer-vi-din-tunge-ud/


[17] http://aec-denmark.dk/CERD%20Concluding%20observations.pdf

[18] Afrodane – Succesfull story, Victor Benett, page. 53

[19] https://www.ft.dk/samling/20191/almdel/REU/bilag/195/2136703/index.htm?fbclid=IwAR141XGwOGlRUr4psfJ4G8O7IwWHxJG8HPm484VKA07BCxwHYY_5BCBS3YY

Abu Kwanza was born in Uganda, and is of Ugandan and Danish descent. He converted to Islam in 2017 and has a background in economics, middle eastern studies and hold a degree in Arabic the language. He is currently studying information technology and has formerly been a member of the pan-African organisation, African Empowerment Centre in Denmark.

Abu Kwanza: Anti-blackness in Denmark

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