The Nordic Colonial Mind

There is a narrative about the Nordic countries in relation to Africa is that we had no colonies, and therefore are not tainted with colonial idelogy. Paternalism of the early missionary activities contrasts to the solidarity of the postwar Nordic policies. But how was the view of the Other influenced by the inter-war years of eugenics which aimed at ensuring the purity and health of the race? A workshop was organised on 12-13 October 2006 by the “Cultural Images in and of Africa” programme to start a network encouraging studies on the backround to the claims of this Nordic exceptionalism.

During the past few years it has been brought home in books, exhibitions and scholarly discourse that the Nordic countries indeed does have a colonial past. Or at least two of them. Sweden and Denmark were the original builders of slave forts, the Cape Coast castle and Christiansborg in today’s Ghana. Denmark colonised Greenland, and Sweden colonised Delaware (“New Sweden”) in North America. By some the incorporation of Finland into the Swedish kingdom should also be seen as a case of colonialism. Both Sweden and Denmark owned islands in the West Indies, to which Africans had been brought to be sold as slaves for plantation work in the heyday of slave trade.

The Nordic countries did not take part in the 19th century scramble for Africa, but it seems as if all Nordic countries shared in the colonialist eurocentric ideas of hierarchical pattern of development, and a concomitant hierarchical evolution of ‘races’. An assumption behind this network is that a “colonial mind” cannot be understood as a legitimation of material and political interests. The Nordic countries identified with the colonial project and in the inter-war years were in the forefront of eugenics, or (translated from Swedish) “race biology”, at the same time as the welfare state was built, with its emphasis on equality.

The 25 participants in the workshop came from all main five Nordic countries. Some were already involved in ongoing projects, such as the Bergen-based project “In the Wake of Colonialism. Norwegian Commercial Interests in Colonial Africa and Oceania” (represented by Anne K. Bang and Kirsten Alsaker Kjerland; the Nordic museum project “Congo Traces” (Kongospår), which is combined with scientfic conferences (represented here by Michael Barret from Stockholm, Espen Waehle from Copenhagen, and Lotten Gustafsson Reinius from Stockholm), and the KULT review from the cultural studies dept at Roskilde University (represented by Lars Jensen and Kirsten Holst Petersen). Others saw the theme of the network as a welcome complement to their other research themes. Another dozen scholars have expressed interest in being part of the network.

If you are interested in joining, write to Mai Palmberg (, and describe your research achievemnts and interests in the theme.

The network has the following aims:

  • To scan concluded and ongoing studies on the development, expression and influence of colonial ideology in the Nordic countries;
  • To encourage new case studies on colonial ideology in “classical” and popular culture
  • To find ways of disseminating the results and stimulating debate both in the academia, and in popular debate
  • To stimulate comparative studies between Nordic countries, and also comparisons with other European countries.
  • To take note of other efforts and networks in this field.

Besides continuous exchange of information and ideas through the NAI-Images list members of the network will assist in preparing a workshop on “Exploring the roots of the Nordic Colonial Mind” at the Nordic Africa Days in October 2007.

A bibliographical database is also initiated. The goal is to have a first version on this website before the (Nordic) summer.

The project is planned to last for two years, from the end of 2006 to the end of 2008.

Mai Palmberg

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