Colonized by the Vikings (III): The Two Colonies

Updated: Apr 1

A recap of Part II

In part II, we saw Denmark-Norway and Sweden both getting involved in the Thirty Years War. Denmark-Norway was quickly defeated, while Sweden lost its inspirational king. Still, Sweden was now a rising power overseeing territories including Finland, western Russia, the Baltics, and even part of Poland and Germany. Separately, under King Christian IV, Denmark-Norway took on a few discovery expeditions and had managed to build a trading post in Asia. But those efforts have been largely muted.

In the meantime, the Dutch began their domination in trade in Asia. The Dutch, along with both the English and the French have expanded their presence into the New World.

But finally, the two Nordic rivals were both looking to explore the New World.

The first Swedish expeditions

The idea of a Swedish colony in the New World was first formed in the 1620s. Willem Usselincx, one of the founding fathers of the Dutch West India Company, was commissioned by the great King Gustavus Adolphus to raise capital for the Swedish South Company as early as 1626. But when the King headed off to the Thirty Years' War, this effort was stalled.

After Gustavus died in the Thirty Years' War, Swedish chancellor Axel Oxenstierna held great influence over political matters. With his support, the first Swedish expedition to America sailed with 25 colonists from the port of Gothenburg in late 1637. This was Sweden's first effort to colonize a territory outside of Europe. The colonists settled in the Delaware River Valley, a piece of land that was claimed by the Dutch. Fort Christina, named after Sweden's new queen, was built in 1638.

Swedish settlers arriving in New Sweden, in Delaware today.
Arrival of the Swedish colonists in the New World. (Source: Public Domain)

But New Sweden was always struggling. Part of the problem was a near-constant lack of manpower and government support. The colony’s population never exceeded 1,000 and was often less than 200. Unlike other European countries that were dealing with issues such as religious prosecution, interest in immigrating was almost non-existent in Sweden. The Swedish government was also not very interested, and they did not send a single supply ship for seven years between 1648 and 1654.

Map of New Sweden (1654). Produced with New Geacron Project.

In 1654, the Governor of New Sweden, Johan Risingh, led soldiers from New Sweden to capture the Dutch fortress Fort Casimir. This proved to be unwise. The next year, with the pretext of a European war between the Dutch and Sweden, the Dutch invaded New Sweden and put an end to Sweden's first and only colony in mainland America.

“New Sweden was the last of the European colonial empires to be founded in North America, as well as the smallest, least populous, and shortest-lived.” - historian Hildor Arnold Barton

Besides New Sweden, the Swedish Africa Company set up Swedish Gold Coast in 1650 and built a few trade posts in present-day Ghana. But Sweden was pre-occupied with the Second Northern War between 1655 to 1660, and most of the trading posts were lost to its Danish and Dutch rivals by 1663.

Denmark's venture into the Caribbean

Merchants in Denmark had held an interest and asked for permission to set up a trading company in the Caribbean as early as 1622, but it never took off due to the Thirty Years' War. After the war, both a trade mission in 1647 and an expedition in 1651 turned out to be unsuccessful.

The first success in trading in the Caribbean finally came in 1652, when a ship captained by Erik Nielson Smit, managed to make the trip out to the West Indies and returned. This led to the idea of a Danish colony on one of the uninhabited islands in the Caribbean. But it took another 13 years before the Danish king agreed to build a settlement on Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands in 1665.

But building a settlement was tough business. The Danish ship carrying the first batch of settlers hit two storms and suffered from fire. Upon arrival, the settlement was raided by English privateers. The Danes had to flee St. Thomas, with their possession stolen by the Dutch. With this experience, the Danes would not attempt to build a settlement on the island again until six years later.

On May 25, 1672, a second Danish ship, Færøe, arrived in St. Thomas to once again attempt to establish the first Danish Caribbean settlement. Of the 190 passengers, only 104 survived. During the first seven months in St. Thomas, another 75 people died, leaving only 29 on the Danish colony by 1673.

Similar to New Sweden, the Danish colony suffered because Danes had little desire to move out to the Caribbean. Instead, Dutch colonists arrived from other islands to St. Thomas. According to the census conducted on St. Thomas in 1688, there were 90 plantations with a total white population of 148, of which 66 were Dutch and only 20 were Danish.

Over time St. Thomas grew and the settlers started looking for new pieces of land. Right next to St. Thomas is the island of St. John. This island was de facto British but was uninhabited. So in 1718, twenty planters arrived from St. Thomas, and Denmark claimed the island. The settlers grew sugar cane, cotton, and other crops on St. John.

St. Croix, another island located less than 70km away from St. Thomas, was also uninhabited. It was abandoned by French settlers in 1695 due to a war between the French and the English-Dutch alliance. So, in 1733, the Danish West India Companies bought Saint Croix from the French for 750,000 livres.

Together, the three islands completed what was known as the Danish West Indies.

Virgin Islands map. Danish West Indies.
Map of the Virgin Islands, with Danish West Indies in red. (Source:

Life in Danish West Indies

Like many other Caribbean islands, sugar cane cultivation was the major economic activity in the Danish West Indies. In particular, the island of St. Croix came to be known as "The Garden of the West Indies".

But sugar plantation was hard work. Major droughts were frequent and it made life rather difficult. The islands were also on hit by hurricanes. Life was tough for the plantation owners, but perhaps even more so for the slaves which were ruled under a harsh slave code:

If a slave attempted to run away, the punishment was to have a leg amputated or – if forgiven by the master – be given 150 lashes and lose one ear. When the slaves encountered a European, they had to step aside and stand still “with all subservience”. If not, they were given a proper beating.

A slave rebellion shook the island of St. John in 1733, where the female rebel leader Baffu and her people were able to seize the island for 6 months. Denmark was only able to re-gain the island with help from French troops.

Read More: Slave rebellions in Danish West Indies were special. They had female leaders

By 1755, the population of the Danish West Indies had grown to become significantly larger at 16,875. St. Croix was the largest due to its sugar plantation activities. On the other hand, St. Thomas was declared as a free port in 1764, and that overtook agriculture as the most vital economic activity on the island.

Danish West Indies. Sugar Cane Production. Daily Life.
Sugar cane workers in the Danish West Indies (Photo: John Lee / Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Sweden's entry into the Caribbean

Although Sweden's American and African colonial possessions collapsed, Sweden went through a period of boom in its European territorial holdings through a series of wars in Europe. It marginalized Denmark-Norway through the Dano-Swedish war fought in 1657, and also gained full control of the Baltics by defeating the Polish. By 1660, Sweden was arguably at its peak in terms of territory.

Territory of Sweden (dark pink) in year 1660. Map created using The Geacron Project.

But the country was also struggling to finance all these years of war, and a major challenge was emerging for Sweden as its neighbours were threatened by its rapid expansion. In 1700, the Great Northern War began with three of Sweden's neighbours joining in an alliance against it. The alliance included Russia, Poland, and of course, Denmark-Norway. By the end of this long war, twenty-one years later, Sweden lost the Baltics to Russia and was bankrupt as a nation. This was seen as the beginning of the end for the Swedish Empire.

Now bankrupt, Sweden belatedly turned to trade as a way to rebuild the country. The Swedish East India Company was established in 1731 to do trades with China and the Far East, but it never established any colonies. Similarly, the Swedish Levant Company was set up in 1738 for trades in the Levant, Eastern Mediterranean.

Sweden also had huge ambitions in the Caribbean. Seeing Denmark's success with the Danish West Indies, Sweden tried to establish its own settlement on the island of Tobago. Twenty-five Swedish families and their slaves arrived in December 1733. But the Swedes were rebuffed by the Carib Indians and had to leave the island.

But fifty years later, a new opportunity came. French settlers originally colonized Saint Barthélemy in 1763, but the island was a constant target of pirate attacks. The French King, King Louis XIV, deemed that it was worth too little. He was happy to offer St. Barts to Sweden, in exchange for French trading rights in Gothenburg.

On July 1, 1784, St. Barts officially become a Swedish possession and five months later, Swedish officials, including the island's first Swedish governor, Salomon von Rajalin, set sail from Gothenburg. He would finally arrive in St. Barts on March 6, 1785, marking the setup of Sweden's first overseas colony since the collapse of New Sweden and the Swedish Gold Coast.

In St. Barts, the Swedes found a small island that had poor soil and a lack of fresh water. Some plantations were set up to grow cash crops, such as indigo, tobacco, and cotton, but it was very different from other large Caribbean islands which had set up major sugar plantations.

So instead of focusing on agriculture, the colony focused on trade. The port was to be renamed Gustavia, named after the Swedish King, Gustav III. It was to be a port where anyone, even the powers who had no possession in the Caribbean, could come and trade. The island was not heavily militarized either. Further, immigration and religious policies were more liberal in Gustavia.

As such, the island eventually came to be dominated by English and French, rather than the Swedes. Interestingly, the Swedish government actively discouraged its own citizens, especially farmers, from moving out to the new colony by highlighting the lack of resources and space on the island.

In September 1785, Gustavia was open for business.

Gustavia, St. Barthelemy. Swedish heritage. Swedish style houses.
Gustavia today still carries a Swedish vibe. (Photo: David Stanley / Flickr)

End of Part III

The 17th century was a century that saw the Scandinavians rose to the top in Europe, starting with Denmark-Norway and followed by Sweden. Yet, they did not become an overseas colonial power. Expedition and colonization efforts failed as they were largely reliant on the government for financing, but the governments themselves were struggling with financing for wars and often failed to support the colonies at key moments. This was especially the case for New Sweden as they faced competition from the Dutch.

But with vast land and a sparse population, there were also far fewer incentives for the Scandinavians to leave their homes for the New World. When the Danes finally arrived in the Caribbean, they were outnumbered by the Dutch in their own colony. So beyond taking over two uninhabited islands, the Danes were never in a position to further expand. The Swedes, on the other hand, were actively discouraged by their government to move to St. Barts.

The Danes and the Swedish were a bit late to the game, but they finally managed a foothold in the Caribbean. But the world was on the verge of another big change, one that would upset the balance in both the Caribbean and Europe.

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