Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Imperial Sweden

Most people today would not think of the Kingdom of Sweden as a major power. Today it is a member of the European Union with a tradition of neutrality, never having fought a war since 1814. Even in recent times, however, the Swedes have been known for having an independent streak when it comes to national defense and in the past the Kingdom of Sweden was the dominant power in northern Europe. Astute students of history will probably recall that Swedish power once stretched across Norway, Finland, the Baltic states and parts of northern Germany but perhaps fewer are aware that, at times, the Kingdom of Sweden stretched its hand out to lands far beyond the shores of Europe to establish a modest colonial empire, albeit a relatively short-lived one. Of course, the Kingdom of Sweden was never a major colonial competitor on the world scene, though if things had gone just a little differently that might not have been so and the fact that the sparsely populated Scandinavian kingdom was able to project a Swedish presence overseas at all is quite remarkable given that they had the dominant land power of Russia to the east and the dominant naval power of England (later Great Britain) to the west. And, even without formal colonies of their own, the Swedes were able nonetheless to spread their culture and traditions around the world.

Queen Christina
Under King Charles IX, Sweden became zealously Protestant and much more militaristic. Not much was accomplished right away but it was under Charles IX that divisions were eliminated and Sweden got serious about being a major power. Under his successor, Gustaf II Adolph or King Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden came down with an acute case of awesome. He forged the Swedish army into a matchless military machine, highly innovative and swept his enemies from the field, changing the course of European history by his victories in the Thirty Years War. In conflicts with Poland he extended Swedish rule over Estonia and Latvia which, combined with Finland and Swedish lands in Germany, made the Baltic almost a Swedish pond. Dominating northern Europe, after the death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden first reached out overseas during the reign of his daughter Queen Christina. In 1638 a group of Swedish and Finnish settlers established the colony of New Sweden on the east coast of North America on land claimed by the Dutch. Fort Christina was established in what is now the state of Delaware. The idea was to get a piece of the action on all the tobacco and furs being traded in the region by the British, French and Dutch. There was also some pay-back included in it as the first governor was Peter Minuit, formerly of the New Netherland colony, who was anxious to cause trouble for his old bosses as many an embittered ex-employee would like to do. He was still a fair choice for the Swedes though as he knew the area and, at the time, very few Europeans did.

Unfortunately for Sweden, their Finno-Swedish foothold in the New World was not to last. In an effort to secure control of the Delaware Valley, in 1654 Swedish colonial forces attacked and captured the Dutch-held Fort Casimir. The Dutch got angry and retaliated, conquering New Sweden the following year. However, by that time, the Kingdom of Sweden had secured some colonial holdings on another continent. In 1650, still while Queen Christina was on the throne, a Swedish colony was founded in Africa on the Gulf of Guinea by Hendrik Carloff in what is now Ghana. The area became known as the Swedish Gold Coast and consisted of six forts and a couple of trading posts. The endeavor was backed by the Swedish Africa Company, founded in 1649 by Louis de Geer, and it obtained the land these forts and outposts were built on by a purchase from the Akan King of Futu. The Swedes were, evidently, pretty popular with many of the local Africans as they seemed to prefer dealing with Sweden over the Dutch or Danes. Several years later Ft Carlsborg (the oldest Swedish fort in the region) was captured by Denmark which prompted King Charles X Gustav to declare war on the Danes. The peace agreement made in 1660 called for the Swedish territory in Africa to be restored, however, it was discovered that the local agent in charge for Denmark (another disgruntled ex-employee but this time of Sweden) had sold the land to the Dutch and absconded with the loot to Portuguese West Africa. However, Swedish rule was restored when the local Africans rose up in rebellion against their new masters, driving them out and again offering Sweden a good deal to come back and set up shop again, which they did. Unfortunately, this situation did not last very long as only a few years later the Kingdom of Denmark seized the colony again in 1663 (though the Swedes made them work hard for it) only to ultimately lose the colony themselves to the British later on.

King Gustav III
In the next century, after things had calmed down a bit, under the reign of King Frederick, Sweden began taking another look at the American neighborhood. In 1733 a Swedish attempt to establish a colony was made on the island of Tobago. Unfortunately the local Carib natives were experienced at fighting off foreigners and the effort was a failure thanks to their fierce resistance. A more lasting Swedish presence, however, was established on St Barts starting in 1784 during the reign of King Gustav III. It was in exchange for trading privileges in Gothenburg that King Louis XVI of France traded St Barts to the Swedes and, as it turned out, Swedish ruled proved to be a great blessing for the island. The Swedish West India Company was founded, the King declared Gustavia to be a “free port” and for a time it was the sight of booming business in trade and great prosperity. The population doubled and when the Napoleonic Wars broke out in Europe, profits grew even larger through both legitimate trade as well as a lucrative market for contraband. In 1813 the Swedish presence in the Caribbean grew a little larger when King Carl XIV John was given the island of Guadeloupe in thanks for his support for the Allies against France (his former country). This did not last long though as the island went back to France only a year later though thanks to the settlement made with Britain over the deal, Sweden still received money from the “Guadeloupe Fund” until 1983!

St Barts was the most long-lasting Swedish overseas colony and it was quite a successful one. It was a very free sort of place with more personal and economic freedom that Sweden itself. An enterprising businessman could make a fortune on trade and, whereas Lutheranism was strictly mandatory in Sweden, on St Barts there was religious freedom and eventually many, many more Catholics than Lutherans. The Swedish government decided not to mess with a system that was working and so even employed a Catholic priest to visit the island. In time, however, competition increased and after the Napoleonic Wars ended and the contraband market died down, the economy on St Barts began to suffer. This was critical as trade was all the island had going for it at the time, unlike other islands in the area which usually relied on plantations for the backbone of their economy. When slavery was abolished on the island this lack of a market for manual labor meant many of the freed slaves ended up being worse off for lack of employment. The Swedish island in the Caribbean eventually lost its luster and in 1877, under King Oscar II, a referendum was held on turning the island over to France. It passed with only one contrary vote and St Barts has belonged to the French Republic ever since.

New Sweden
By that time the Swedish empire in Europe had long since receded. The Baltic states were lost to Russia as was Finland with Sweden being given Norway, taken from Denmark, as compensation. This was, however, a personal union, with Norway still being a distinct country of its own but sharing a monarch with Sweden. The last Swedish colony was given up in 1877 and in 1905, after another referendum, Norway broke away from the Swedish crown to become a totally separate kingdom with a Royal Family of its own. Still, even without many or long-lasting Swedish colonies around the world, Swedish immigrants have carried the flavor of their homeland with them to many different countries. Some moved to Argentina, many moved to Brazil during the reign of Emperor Pedro II but most moved to the United States of America with the majority settling states that are not too dissimilar from Sweden itself. From the late Nineteenth to early Twentieth centuries more than a million Swedes came to America to settle, the majority in the state of Minnesota. As a result, the Swedish culture is quite strong in many parts of the Upper Midwest and even today, long after any sizeable Swedish immigration has stopped, there are still nearly four million Swedish-Americans living in the United States and the Swedish Royal Family maintains many ties with the community. The Swedish empire may not have lasted long on the map of the world but the influence of the Swedish people is still felt in many parts of the world to this day.

1 comment:

  1. I am a descendent of Swedish colonists from what is now Delaware. Before doing genealogy I didn't know about the Swedish colonies. The story of those early settlers is very interesting.


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