What Is the History of Swedish Colonialism?

While Sweden is imagined to be untainted by colonialism, it nonetheless played a small, but significant, part in the history of European imperialism.

Dec 24, 2023By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology


Colonialism is seldom associated with Sweden. Yet the Swedes were involved in various colonial ventures, from the short-lived West African Swedish Gold Coast (1649-1663) to New Sweden (1638-1655) in present-day Delaware, and the more successful colonization of the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy (1784-1878). Closer to home, the “Era of Great Power” (1611-1718) was defined by a Swedish Empire around the Baltic Sea. Around the same time, Sweden began to exert greater control over the indigenous Sámi people and their lands in the northern Swedish province of Lapland. 


The Era of Great Power

The Swedish Empire around the Baltic Sea (1560-1815).


The Swedish “Era of Great Power” commenced in 1611 with the reign of King Gustav Adolf II and concluded in 1721 following Sweden’s territorial losses in the Great Northern War (1700–1721). Admired and studied by military greats from Clausewitz to Napoleon Bonaparte, Gustav Adolf was one of the greatest military commanders in modern history. During his rule, Sweden was transformed from a regional Baltic power to one of the Great Powers of Europe. At its height, the Swedish Empire around the Baltic Sea encompassed modern-day Finland, and parts of Russia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Germany, and Norway. 


Eventual defeat in the Great Northern War and the subsequent division of Sweden’s dominions between the victors brought the empire to an end. However, defeat in the Baltic failed to dampen Swedish ambitions to develop colonial rule in more distant lands. 


New Sweden

Present-day Delaware as part of New Sweden, 1638 (in blue). Source: Nationalgeographic.org


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New Sweden was intended as the first step towards a Swedish empire in the New World. On 29 March 1638 two Swedish ships, the Fogel Grip and Kalmar Nyckel, sailed into Delaware Bay and dropped anchor at Swedes Landing. The Swedes promptly built Fort Christina, and shortly thereafter met with a group of indigenous Lenape chiefs to purchase and secure sixty-seven miles of Delaware riverfront. 


New Sweden initially flourished. Successive Governors expanded the colony and established strong trading relations with the Lenape. Multiple ships arrived full of goods to trade, and new settlers, from Forest Finns to vagrants and criminals, were rounded up by the Swedish authorities and sent to colonize America. However, in 1655, disaster struck when seven Dutch ships full of soldiers arrived on the Delaware River. Victory was swift, and with the fall of New Sweden, came the end of Swedish colonial ambitions in the New World.  


The Swedish Africa Company

Bredewa, the King of Fetu, with the Swedish commissioner Neumann in or near Degou (the contemporary Cape Coast in Ghana) in 1648.


In 1649, Louis De Geer founded the Swedish Africa Company (SAC) to trade with West Africa, under the protection of the Swedish Crown. A year later the company arrived in Cabo Corso (present-day Ghana). The SAC swiftly signed a treaty with Bredewa, the local King of Fetu to erect a “stoney house” for the purpose of trade. Fort Carlsborg was constructed in 1653, with the express aim of participating in the slave trade. The master plan of the Swedish Africa Company was to cross the Atlantic, bypass the mercantilist European powers, and illegally sell their slaves to markets in Spanish America.


The plan failed. However, the SAC nonetheless pioneered the transformation of the Gold Coast into the slave coast – a principal hub of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1663 the Swedish Gold Coast was sold to the Dutch and the SAC was abolished. 


Saint Barthélemy

The Swedish free port of Gustavia (1799). Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1784, Sweden acquired the island of Saint Barthélemy in exchange for trading rights in Gothenburg. The island remained a Swedish colonial possession for almost a century. Without a large empire of its own Sweden had to navigate between imperial powers, and rely on its neutral status, or the needs of other Imperial powers. Saint Barthélemy served to grant the Swedes a place at the table. During times of war, mariners and foreign merchants came to Saint Barthélemy to do business. This allowed the Swedish colony to earn a significant income as a facilitator of the slave trade. 


Saint Barthelemy was too small to support a plantation economy. Instead, slaves were sold in the free port of Gustavia and retained on the island, or exported to nearby colonies. For a time, Saint Barthélemy prospered. However, by the 1840s the colony was in serious decline. In 1877 Saint Barthélemy was sold back to France. 


The Colonization of Sámpi

Sami people traveling with reindeer and sleighs on the ice on Lake Luossajärvi near Kiruna in Swedish Lappland (1930). Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Sámi are the indigenous inhabitants of Sámpi, a region that stretches across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The Swedish part of this region is known as Lapland. While the colonization of Sámpi by southern-dwelling Scandinavian Swedes dates to the era of Gustav Vasa (1523-1560), the prospect of abundant natural resources during the industrial era rapidly accelerated the process. Successive government legislation has affected the livelihoods of the Sámi, from the first Reindeer Grazing Act (1886) and the Nomad Schools Act (1913), to the targeting of the Sámi as a “scientifically” inferior race by the Swedish State Institute for Race Biology in the 1920s.


Today, the Sámi continue to fight against large-scale land projects and extractive industries, for the right to their lands. A Truth Commission was set up by the Swedish government in 2021 to address the legacy of historical injustices faced by the Sámi people. It is due to report in 2025.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.