One hundred years ago today, Danish and US officials were finalising the details of the Treaty of the Danish West Indies, a $25 million sale of what are now known as the US Virgin Islands of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas.
While there will be various events throughout the year to mark the occasion, there are voices within Denmark calling on the nation to use the centennial to address its role in the slave trade, something that critics say has been conveniently swept under the rug in favour of focusing on the more flattering story of how Denmark became the very first nation to outlaw transatlantic slavery.
“The blood of slaves colours a dark chapter in Denmark's history,” the newspaper Politiken wrote in an editorial on Thursday.
“We know the truth even if we would rather not know it. Very few schoolchildren hear about Danish ships that sailed 120,000 slaves from Danish forts in Africa. How 50,000 of them ended in the Danish West Indies. How one in ten slaves died on the journey and were thrown overboard. Or how the rest of the slaves toiled on plantations or were sold off,” the editorial continued.
Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen used the looming centennial to acknowledge what he called “a gruesome chapter” in Denmark's history during his annual New Year's Day address.
“Many of Copenhagen's beautiful houses and palaces were built with money earned off the toil of slaves and exploitation on the other side of the world,” the PM said.
“It is not a proud part of Denmark's history. It is shameful,” Rasmussen added.
The prime minister did not formally apologize for Denmark's participation in the slave trade, following a position the Danish government has held for years.
Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen addressed Denmark's past participation in the slave trade during his New Year's address. Photo: Ólafur Steinar Gestsson/Scanpix
Historian Anders Bjørn, who co-counded the Centre for Colonial History, is one of a number of Danes who have called on the country to give an official apology.
“It's important that we don't forget that Danes have been behind the gross explotation of people in the old Danish colonies. And it is important that Denmark's officials don't forget it,” he told Politiken back in August.
“All other slave-owning nations have either a museum or a statue that bares witness to the slave era. We don't have that sort of memorial in a public space in Denmark. It's missing,” he added.
Denmark's minister of culture, Mette Bock, said a formal apology "just doesn't make sense" and what's more important is to enter into a dialogue with the descendants of slaves.
“I think what the prime minister did is even stronger [than an apology]: to say precisely that it was shameful. And that's because an apology, if it is to have meaning, should be given by the one who carried out the offence,” she told broadcaster DR. “One cannot apologize on behalf of others.”
Bock said that the Culture Ministry has earmarked money for projects that will tell the story of Denmark's role in the slave trade. She said she hoped that marking the occasion would give rise to confronting the nation's past sins.
“Our children and youth today should not forget or ignore that Denmark has some dark chapters in its own history. My advice to all teachers in Danish schools is to use this occasion to tell the students that this is the way Denmark was once,” she told DR.
“We need to look it in the eyes,” she added.
Politiken's editorial echoed that call and said that modern Denmark needs to come to grips with its slave-trading past, “better late than never”.
“Denmark wants to be known for its defence of basic human rights and underlying humanism. That battle is difficult if the same country is not able to look at itself critically and with self-awareness about a period in our history in which we practised everything that we fight against today,” its editorial stated.