Colonized by the Vikings (II): The Two Kings

Updated: Apr 1

(Photo by Morket via Pixabay)

A recap of Part I


In part one, we looked at some of the Viking colonies from the early days. The Vikings took over the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and built a settlement on Greenland. Denmark invaded Estonia, which subsequently fell into the hands of Sweden.


But perhaps more remarkable was the union and dissolution of the Kalmar Union, which joined Denmark-Norway and Sweden together. Following its dissolution in 1523, Denmark-Norway and Sweden began to wage wars against each other, starting with the Northern Seven Years' War which ended in 1570.


By the year 1600, the Spanish had settled on all major islands of the Caribbean, including Hispaniola (now Haiti & Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, and Trinidad. But other major powers were only at the start of their colonial journey. The East India Company, the most famous chartered company in history, was founded in 1600. It was not until 1607 that the English had set up their first overseas colony in Jamestown.

One man in Denmark-Norway looked on. He was also interested in doing some global businesses.


First look outside


King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway came to power in 1588. He was known as the Builder King since he built many new cities around the country, including Oslo (then known as Kristiania) and Kristiansand in Norway as well as Christianshavn in Denmark, amongst others.

Christian IV of Denmark. (Public Domain)

Christian IV had the vision of making Denmark-Norway a colonial power, just like other European powers. He commissioned three expeditions to Greenland, Denmark-Norway's colony, from 1605 to 1607. The original Norse settlements in Greenland had already collapsed at around the year 1500, and Christian IV wanted to locate the lost Norse settlements and re-assert Denmark's sovereignty over Greenland.


The trips were led by an Englishman, James Hall, but these expeditions were unsuccessful. Sailing to the arctic represented a different challenge to sailing across the Atlantic. The crew's leaders lacked experience with the weather conditions and had difficulty in reaching the location where the Norse people had originally settled. Nevertheless, the Danish navy expanded considerably and was one of the biggest in Europe.

With the growth in naval power, Denmark continued to control the Sound, and Swedish ships passing through had to pay Denmark each time. So, Sweden sought an alternative trade route to avoid paying the Sound dues and profiting its rivals. It decided to go north instead, through Norwegian territories.

This angered the Danes. In 1611, their army rapidly conquered two major Swedish fortresses in present-day Gothenburg of Sweden. A peace treaty was signed between Denmark and Sweden in 1613, with Sweden paying a ransom to redeem its fortress back.


One of the results coming out of this war was the establishment of Denmark as a competent army recognized throughout Europe. The Sound dues, along with the ransom payments from Sweden to Denmark, made Denmark one of the richest countries in Europe. On the other hand, because Denmark did not achieve a total overall victory, Sweden would recover soon and the rivalry would live on.

Danish adventures

The Kalmar War ended with a peace treaty in 1613, which brought a break to wars between Denmark-Norway and Sweden. The treaty imposed onerous obligations on Sweden, but for now, the rivals would each turn their attention elsewhere.

In Denmark, despite earlier naval setbacks in Greenland, King Christian IV followed other major powers and set up the Danish East India Company in 1616. The company was given permission to trade with East Indies, China, and Japan.

With the company set up, opportunities started to arrive. A Dutchman, Marchelis de Boshouwer, had just returned to Europe from Ceylon. He claimed to be in great standing with the King of Kandy in Ceylon, and he had returned to Europe in order to negotiate on behalf of Ceylon.

This was an interesting opportunity for King Christian IV, and he decided on a treaty with the King of Kandy. Denmark would protect Ceylon with a warship and 300 soldiers, and Ceylon would allow Denmark to trade, as well as to convert its citizens to Christianity. When the Danish ship arrived, the King of Kandy also was to repay Denmark's expenses.

So three merchant ships from the Danish East India Company, along with two warships set sail for Ceylon. The ship Øresund left in August 1618, under the command of a Dutchman, Roland Crappé. The rest of the fleet left in November 1618, under the Danish Admiral Ove Gjedde.

The journey was rough. Over 300 members of the expedition dying during the journey, including Marchelis de Boshouwer, King of Kandy's representative. Eighteen months later, on May 16, 1620, Gjedde finally arrived at Ceylon.

But Gjedde arrived to find out that King of Kandy was only one of many kings in Ceylon, and he had already agreed to a treaty with the Portuguese. In fact, the crew from Øresund had been attacked by the Portuguese, and Crappé had only narrowly escaped with thirteen other men. King of Kandy agreed to sign a new treaty with the Danes, but another area called Trincomalee was ceded to Denmark.

Some men were left behind to build a font at Trincomalee. Gjedde and the others ended up in Tranquebar of Southern India instead. There, they built a fortress called Fort Dansborg.

Fort Dansborg in South India (Credit: I, Eagersnap, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

But the biggest challenge remained. Over time, the Danes simply lacked the same resource to grow their business. The company had raised only 180,000 rixdollars, whereas the Dutch East India Company had started with 6.5 million guilders, or in other words, the Dutch had raised 14 times as much capital.

A lack of capital means a lack of ships and sailors. In fact, Gjedde was so out of money that he had to trade some of his cannons for some of the pepper to bring back to Europe. Of the five ships that sailed to Ceylon in the second half of 1618, two of them finally arrived back in Copenhagen in March 1623. This meant that the Danes were simply accumulating their profits too slowly compared to their rivals.

By 1624, some of the investors began to pull out, and King Christian IV was left financing left of the company by himself. The situation was so bad that in 1629, the company came close to selling Dansborg, only for the deal to fall through.

Besides his Asian adventure, King Christian IV also commissioned an expedition to North America in 1619, which was captained by Dano-Norwegian navigator and explorer, Jens Munk. His ships were searching for the Northwest Passage, a sea route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic. The expedition arrived in Hudson Bay landing at the mouth of Churchill River, settling at what is now Churchill, Manitoba. But it was another disastrous voyage, with cold, famine, and scurvy killing most of the crew.

Following these adventures, King Christian IV was understandably less interested and less financially capable in setting up further expeditions. Merchants in Copenhagen asked King Christian IV for permission to establish a West Indian trading company in 1622. But it took three years to agree on the terms. By then, the expedition failures had dried up any interest and resource in exploring the world.



Thirty Years' War


The year 1618 marks the start of the Thirty Years' War, one of the deadliest and most destructive wars ever in history. More than eight million people died, including 20% of the German population. The war was broadly fought along religious lines, with the Catholic countries pitted against the Protestants rebels. In a war that spanned across Central Europe, it was inevitable that Denmark-Norway and Sweden, now two major forces, would eventually be involved.

The Catholics had scored major victories early in the war. In 1625, King Christian IV of Denmark, the leader of a Protestant country, decided to lend his support to the Protestants. This turned out to be a poor decision. The Danish army suffered a series of defeats and the Catholics would close in on Copenhagen. King Christian IV negotiated for peace in 1629 and agreed to no longer interfere with the war. This was viewed as the beginning of Denmark's downfall as a great European power.

With Christian IV failing, Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, a Protestant himself, saw an opportunity. The Swedes were interested in stopping the Catholics. But they were also interested in leveraging Denmark's failure to further projecting Sweden's power in mainland Europe.

King Gustavus Adolphus, known as "the father of modern warfare", was one of the greatest military minds in history. He was just a teenager when he first came to power, but he would soon begin a military reform program. Besides Denmark-Norway, Sweden's biggest rival at the time had been Russia and Poland. In 1617, Sweden defeated Russia, regained Ingria (modern-day St. Petersburg) and negotiated peace.


Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus on the battleground. (Public domain)

Gustavus then turned to Poland. Sweden and Poland had been at war since 1600, although a truce was negotiated twice. From 1621, Gustavus' army marched south from Swedish-Estonia down towards Livonia (modern-day Latvia and Lithuania). After capturing Livonia, a truce was agreed in 1629, and Sweden became a major continental power by taking possession of the entire Baltics region.

So, in 1630, with Russia and Poland defeated, Sweden joined the 30-year war with a plan to invade Eastern Germany. It enjoyed some early successes and even captured a new colony called the Swedish Pomerania. The Swedish army reached as far as Bavaria by March 1632. But here, Gustavus would meet a worthy opponent in Bavaria. Albrecht von Wallenstein, who fought for the Holy Roman Emperor, was the man who defeated King Christian IV of Denmark.

Wallenstein met Gustavus at the Battle of Lützen. The day was foggy and with the smoke from gunfire, it was impossible to see anything. But when he looked up, Gustavus suddenly noticed that he was alone and separated from his army. A bullet went through his arm, another went through his horse. Soon, he was stabbed and killed. His army did not even realize that he was dead. They fought on and earned the victory, but they would have lost one of their greatest leaders forever.

With the loss of their king, Sweden's effort collapsed in 1635. But the Thirty Years' War, started in 1618, was just halfway through.


End of Part II


Denmark-Norway was now on the decline. None of its overseas voyages were working out. In Europe, it suffered a series of setbacks in the Thirty Years' War. More importantly, its rival, Sweden, had broken through as the main Scandinavian power. On the other hand, Sweden was on the rise until King Gustavus Adolphus was killed.


Besides a protestant victory, Gustavus also did not live to see his North American colonization plan come to life. The Swedish South Company was formed in 1626 to support trade between Sweden and North America, but the project did not take off before the King headed off to war. Gustavus brought the Baltics and Pomerania into Sweden, but he could not expand beyond Europe.


On the other hand, other European powers, especially the British and the French began to expand their possessions in North America and the Caribbean. The British arrived in St. Kitts, known as the mother of all colonies, in 1623. They would use it as a base to further colonize Barbados (1627), Nevis (1628), Montserrat (1632), and Antigua (1632). Similarly, the French also used St. Kitts as a base to colonize Martinique (1635) and Guadeloupe (1635).


Up next, Denmark-Norway and Sweden would each try their luck in the New World.

This article is part of the Tracing the Vikings' Footsteps series.