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The Swedish slave trade mainly occurred in the early history of Sweden when the trade of thralls (Old Norse: þræll) was one of the pillars of the Norse economy. During the raids, the Vikings often captured and enslaved militarily weaker peoples they encountered, but took the most slaves in raids of the British Isles and Slavs in Eastern Europe. This practice lasted in the 6th through 11th centuries until formally abolished in 1335. A smaller trade of African slaves happened during the 17th and 18th centuries, around the time Swedish overseas colonies were established in North America (1638) and in Africa (1650). It remained legal until 1813.
The thralls from Western Europe were mainly Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and Celts. Many Irish slaves were used in expeditions for the colonization of Iceland. The Norse also took German, Baltic, Slavic and Latin slaves. The Vikings kept some slaves as servants and sold most captives in the Byzantine or Islamic markets. The slave trade was one of the pillars of the Norse economy during the 6th through 11th centuries. The Persian traveler Ibn Rustah described how Swedish Vikings, the Varangians or Rus, terrorized and enslaved the Slavs taken in their raids along the Volga River.
Thralldom was outlawed in 1335 by Magnus IV of Sweden for thralls "born by Christian parents" in Västergötland and Värend, being the last parts where it had remained legal. This however, was only applicable within the borders of Sweden, which opened up for later slave trade in the colonies.
Sweden had treaties with England and France concerning slave trade, with Swedish vessels involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Between 1784 and 1878, the country held minor colonies in the Caribbean. The Swedish colony of Saint Barthélemy functioned as a duty-free port and became a major center for the Caribbean slave trade. Slaves were brought in tax free by foreign vessels and the Swedish king made a profit by collecting an export tax when slaves were shipped out. Sweden was also a major supplier of iron chains used in the slave trade.
In 1847, slavery was abolished in all parts of Sweden, including the colonies, on the basis of a decision taken in 1846. Slavery was ruled in Saint-Barthélemy under the Ordinance concerning the Police of Slaves and free Coloured People dated 30 July 1787, original in French dated 30 June 1787. The last legally owned slaves in the Swedish colony of Saint-Barthélemy were bought free by the state on October 9, 1847.
In 1650, Sweden established trading stations along the West African coast, with bases in an area called the Swedish Gold Coast which was later a part of the West African Gold Coast, and which is today part of Ghana. Sweden and Denmark were competing for positions as regional powers during this period, and the Danes followed the Swedes to Africa, setting up stations a couple of years later. In 1663, the Swedish Gold Coast was taken over by the Danish colonial power and became part of the Danish Gold Coast. There is no historical documentation that shows that slaves were ever traded in the trading stations during their 13-year Swedish possession, rather it is assumed to be the case.
Swedish trading stations reappeared in the 18th century, when Sweden established a colonial presence in the Caribbean.
In 1771, Gustav III became the King of Sweden. He wanted Sweden to re-establish itself as a European "Great Power". Overseas colonies were a symbol of power and prestige at that time, so he decided to acquire colonies for Sweden. Denmark received large revenues from its colonies in the West Indies, so in 1784, Gustav acquired the West Indian island of Saint-Barthélemy from France.
On August 23, 1784, the king informed the Privy Council that Sweden now owned an island in the West Indies. This apparently came as a surprise for many of the Councilors. The first report concerning the island came from Simon Bérard, Swedish consul-general in L'Orient, the only town. He reported that:
According to Bérard, there was no possibility of agriculture because of the poor soil. The island's one desirable feature was a good harbor.
Bérard recommended that the island be made a free port. At that time, France had trouble providing sufficient slaves to its colonies in the area. Sweden could try to export a certain number of slaves to the French colonies in the area each year.
If Saint-Barthélemy was a success, Sweden could later expand its colonial empire to more islands in the area. Gustav also knew that the leading slave trading nations in Europe made large amounts of money from it.
In the autumn of 1786, the Swedish West India Company was established on the island. Gustav told investors that they could expect big profits in the future. Anyone who could afford it was allowed to buy shares, but Gustav kept 10 percent of the shares for himself, which made him the largest shareholder. The king received one quarter of all profits of the Company and the other shareholders three quarters, even though the king owned only 10 percent of the Company.
On October 31 of the same year, a privilege letter was made for the West India Company. The Company was granted the right to trade slaves between Africa and the West Indies. Paragraph 14 in the letter states: "The Company is free to operate slave trade in Angola and the African coast, where such is permitted."
On March 12, 1790, a new custom tax and constitution were introduced to the island. Both were designed to make Saint-Barthélemy into a haven for slave traders. The new laws gave astonishing opportunities for traders from all over the world.
There was no duty on slaves imported from Africa to Saint-Barthélemy: Free import of slaves and trade with black slaves or so called new Negroes from Africa is granted to all nations without having to pay any charge at the unload.
People from all over the Caribbean came to buy slaves. The government charged a small export duty on slaves sold from Saint-Barthélemy to other colonies. This duty was halved for slaves imported from Africa on Swedish ships, generating increased profits for the West India Company and other Swedish traders.
The new constitution stated: Freedom for all on Saint Bartholomew living and arriving to arm and send out ships and shipments to Africa to buy slaves on the places thus is permitted for all nations. That way a new branch for the Swedish trade in Africa and the Coast of Guinea should arise.
In 1788, the British Committee for the Abolition of Slavery sent a Swedish opponent of the slave trade, Anders Sparrman, to Gustav III. The committee feared that other nations would expand their trade if Britain stopped its own. They sent books about the issue and a letter, in which the king was encouraged to hinder his subjects to participate in this disgraceful trade. In the response letter, delivered through Sparrman, he wrote that no one in the country had participated in the slave trade and that he would do all that he could to keep them from doing so.
During the early 19th century, movements against slavery became stronger, especially in Britain. Slave trade was outlawed in Britain in 1807, and in the United States in 1808, after which other countries started to follow suit. Sweden made the slave trade illegal in 1813, but allowed slavery until October 9, 1847.
During the 19th century, the British Admiralty patrolled the African coast to catch illegal slave traders. The Swedish vessel Diana was intercepted by the British authorities close to the coast of Africa while engaged in carrying slaves from Africa to Saint Bartholomew during this period. The case was taken to court in order to test if the slave trade could be considered contrary to the general law of nations. However, the vessel was returned to the Swedish owners on the ground that Sweden had not prohibited the trade and tolerated it in practice.
Once the slave trade became a hot issue, the Swedish government abandoned the slave trade in the Caribbean, but did not initially outlaw slavery. The West Indian colonies became financial burdens. The island of Guadeloupe was returned to France in 1814, in return for a compensation in the sum of 24 million francs. A Guadeloupe Fund was established in Sweden for the benefit of the Swedish Crown Prince and Regent Charles XIV John of Sweden, born Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a French national and former Marshal of France under Napoleon I. He and his heirs were paid 300,000 riksdaler per year up until 1983 in compensation for their loss of prestige in France when Sweden joined Britain against France in the Napoleonic War. In Saint Bartholomew, the Swedish government bought the remaining slaves to give them freedom. According to Herman Lindqvist in Aftonbladet (8 October 2006), 523 slaves were bought free for 80 riksdaler per slave.
Exactly how many slaves were brought to the New World on Swedish ships is yet impossible to know, since most of the archives documents have not been investigated seriously in that respect, and many of them are by now not accessible because of their bad preservation and non microfilming. Nevertheless, some data, mostly concerning the former Swedish island Saint-Barthélemy, is now available online.