Blind spots Images of the Danish West Indies colony

The unfree bodies of colonial life


1667 - 1848


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Resistance and identities made invisible

Jeannette Ehlers. Still. Whip it Good. Videoinstallation. 2014.

Research has estimated that over eleven million enslaved Africans were brought to European colonies in the Americas during the transatlantic enslavement trade. Here they were traded and exploited as forced labour. In pictures at the time, the enslaved were presented as anonymous commodities stored on ships, as cogs in the machinery of the sugar production – or as victims of slave owners’ brutality.

In the Danish West Indies, slavery was the foundation of the plantations’ economy until 1848. However, only very few pictures of enslaved labourers from these islands exist in the archives, and slavery takes up very little, if any, space in the Danish collective memory. In Danish schools, only the abolition of the slave trade in 1792 is compulsory reading. If Danish children are taught about the emancipation of 1848, the narrative often centres on the idealism of a white Governor-General and not the rebellions of the enslaved.


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Present as absence

Frederik von Scholten Plantagen Castle / The Castle Plantation Coloured drawing, 1833 Courtesy of Maritime Museum of Denmark

Idyllic depictions of the plantations leave out the violence and oppression of slavery, which forms the basis for the industrious production.

At the Castle Coakley plantation a group of men are driving donkeys laden with sugar canes up to the mill. The sails on the mill’s wings show that the process of pressing juice from sugar cane is well underway. No coercion seems to be involved. Everything seems well-ordered and calm.

Like the vast majority of images from the era of slavery in the Danish West Indies, von Scholten’s coloured drawing conjures up a rural scene of peaceful harmony. The foundations of slavery – oppression, injustice and violence – are all entirely absent.

Nevertheless, practically everything in pictures such as this has to do with slavery. The fields are cultivated by enslaved African or Afro-Caribbean labourers. Enslaved craftsmen built the sugar mills, and yet other enslaved workers toiled inside them to produce sugar. As such, Frederik von Scholten’s idyllic scene has plenty of traces of slavery, but the cruelty associated with it is kept out of the picture.


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Runaways

Adverts in Royal Danish Gazette, 1771. Sanct Thomæ Tidende, 1828.

Advertisements about runaway slaves in Danish West Indian newspapers are illustrated by anonymous icons. At the same time the text offers detailed information about the missing enslaved labourers.

Hundreds of newspaper advertisements about runaway slaves were run in the Danish West Indies between 1770 and 1848. This could be found in any slave colony. Running away was a widespread form of resistance. American manufacturers of printing supplies sold small wooden blocks or movable metal types featuring icons of the things referred to in the advertisements.

Several versions of the icon for a slave on the run existed. They all depict a person trying to escape on foot, carrying only a small bundle or sack and possibly a stick. The portrayal is as anonymous as any letter or other form of typography. The facial features of the escapee are obliterated by black ink.

However, in order for the advertisement to have any effect the text must enable readers to recognise the runaway. Hence, these captions list personal traits such as skin colour, clothes, any scars and other visible mutilation, country of origin, languages spoken and other skills. Each advertisement offers a detailed portrait of an enslaved individual. In contrast, the advertisements in themselves demonstrate that the persons depicted were the property of someone else. Running away was regarded a serious form of theft in which the enslaved labourer stole himself from his owner.

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Suffering victims

William Blake Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave. Engraving. Illustration for John Gabriel Stedman: Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, 1808 The print shown is a reproduction as the original has gone missing from the Royal Library’s copy of the book.

Graphic illustrations of cruel punishments are used to criticise slavery, but at the same time they reinforce the view of enslaved labourers as passive victims.

A female body twists in agony. The curves of the body are sharply outlined against an unnaturally bright sky. White rags draw attention to the woman’s genitalia, forming a contrast to her dark skin. They accentuate the dripping blood and the eyes rolling heavenwards, making the woman resemble a martyr. Behind her are four devil-like figures. They block the road towards a boat and a cottage where the woman might have found help. The scene is a nightmarish scenario of explicit violence where the tortured, bound body can prompt desire as well as horror.

The print is an illustration from the Scottish-Dutch soldier John Gabriel Stedman’s description of his experiences in the Dutch colony of Surinam, where he witnessed very brutal punishments of runaway slaves. The descriptions provided in his influential books were used as documentation by the abolitionists, who opposed slavery and its horrors. The book was also read in Denmark. The imagery of abolitionism typically depicted the enslaved labourers as passive victims without recognising their strength or their ability to put up resistance.


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Cogs of flesh and blood

Sébastien Le Clerc Sugar Production Engraving. Illustration for Jean-Baptiste du Tertre: Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par les François, 1667

An influential representation of enslaved labour reflects the racist world view of the book it was in: here the enslaved Africans are shown to be cheerfully taking part in producing the Europeans’ wealth.

This print shows enslaved people working what seems to be voluntarily in sugar production – like flesh and blood cogs in a machine. Semi-naked, anonymous black bodies attend to manual tasks, demonstrating their health and strength to us. A white man oversees their work, but there is no need for coercion. The individual steps of the production process are numbered, presented with scientific precision like exotic plants.

Hierarchies and the firmly fixed distribution of roles are regarded as part of nature’s order within this exotic landscape.

The artist, Sébastien Le Clerc, never visited the Caribbean himself. Nevertheless his drawings had a strong impact on how the colonies are portrayed in pictures. The clear-cut, informative prints were created for the French monk du Tertre’s descriptions of the Antilles. Du Tertre was one of the first Europeans to publish books about his experiences there. His books and their illustrations came to influence the way slavery would be described and depicted. He believed that the enslaved Africans were particularly well suited to such hard labour: as long as they were treated gently and well fed, they would be the happiest people on earth.


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Bodies as commodities

Unknown artist Plan of the Slave Ship ‘Brookes’ Engraving. Illustration for Thomas Clarkson: The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, 1808

This famous picture of a slave ship is commissioned to demonstrate the inhumanity of slavery. However, it reiterates the idea of the enslaved as commodities rather than as human beings.

This stowage plan may be the one image most frequently used to illustrate transatlantic enslavement trade. It offers a sober depiction of a tightly packed shipload of enslaved people, their bodies placed side by side as in a mass grave. The print was disseminated by those who opposed slavery in order to call attention to the inhuman brutality of the practice. But at the same time it reiterates the idea of the enslaved as commodities rather than human beings.

This version comes from a British book that was sent out to influential people in Europe. According to its dedication it belonged to Ernst Schimmelmann, one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Denmark. His family owned slaves and plantations in the Danish West Indies, making fortunes from the production of sugar. As Denmark’s Minister of Finance he contributed to Denmark’s ban against slave trading in 1792. Schimmelmann was not against slavery as such. He was against the transports because they were inhuman and caused economic losses.