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The Danish colonial empire (Danish: danske kolonier) denotes the colonies that Denmark (or Denmark-Norway until 1814) possessed from 1536 until c. 1945. At its apex the colonial empire spanned four continents (Europe, North America, Africa and Asia) and had reached an area of around 3,000,000 square kilometres (1,158,306 sq mi) in 1800. The period of colonial expansion marked a rise in the status of Denmark and power unseen since the Viking Age.
In 1536, Denmark entered into a personal union with Norway and took possession of the Norwegian holdings of Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland. Orkney and Shetland, then held by Scotland, had originally been ruled by Norway until the 15th century, and several later attempts were made to retake them.
In the 17th century, following territorial losses on the Scandinavian Peninsula, Denmark-Norway began to develop colonies, forts, and trading posts in Africa, the Caribbean, and India. After 1814, when Norway was granted to Sweden following the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark retained the colonial holdings. Christian IV first initiated the policy of expanding Denmark's overseas trade, as part of the mercantilist wave that was sweeping Europe. Denmark's first colony was established at Tranquebar (Trankebar) on India's southern coast in 1620. Admiral Ove Gjedde led the expedition that established the colony.
Today, the only remaining vestiges of this empire are the Faroe Islands and Greenland; the Faroes were a Danish county until 1948, while Greenland's colonial status ceased in 1953. They are now autonomous countries of the Kingdom of Denmark with home rule, in a relationship referred to as the "Danish Realm".
Denmark maintained a number of tradings stations and four forts on the Gold Coast in west Africa, especially around modern day Ghana. Three trading stations were built: Fort Frederiksborg, Kpompo; Osu Castle by Accra in 1661, that was purchased from Sweden; and Frederiksberg. The forts were Fort Prinsensten built in 1784, Fort Augustaborg from 1787, Fort Friedensborg and Fort Kongensten, several of which are ruins today. Of these, only one is still used today, Fort Christiansborg, which is the Ghanaian president's residence in Ghana.
Plantations were established by Frederiksborg, but they failed. Fort Christiansborg became the base for Danish power in west Africa, and the centre for slave trade to the Danish West Indies. In 1807, Denmark's African business partners were suppressed by the Ashanti, which led the abandonment of all trading stations. Denmark sold its forts to the United Kingdom in 1850.
Denmark-Norway inherited medieval Norwegian claims to Greenland as the successor state to Norway. After the established Norse settlement in Greenland finally disappeared in the 15th century, Europeans did not settle the island again until 1721, when the Lutheran minister Hans Egede arrived and established the town now known as Nuuk. After Norway was given to Sweden in 1814 following the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark retained the old territorial claims as a condition of the Treaty of Kiel.
The colonization of Greenland accelerated in 1945 because at that point in time Greenland became a geostrategic base due to the US-Air base Thule and also because it had the technical possibilities of aircraft and icebreakers at its disposition, which gave it a supply situation similar to European conditions.
Danish West Indies
Denmark-Norway acquired the island of St. Thomas in 1671, St. Jan (now St. John) in 1718, and bought St. Croix from France in 1733. All of the islands' economies were based primarily on sugar. These islands were known as the Danish West Indies and were eventually sold to the United States in 1917 for 25 million dollars. The Danes had been looking to get rid of the islands for some decades as the economies of the islands had been declining. The United States hoped to use them as naval bases. Since 1917, the islands have been known as the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Denmark maintained a scattering of small colonies and trading posts throughout the Indian sub-continent from the 17th to 19th centuries, after which most were sold or ceded to Britain which had become the dominant power there. The most important economic aspect was spice trade and access to the east Asian area, including Imperial China situated farther to the east.
The colony at Trankebar (modern day: Tharangambadi) was kept for over 200 years, with a few interruptions, until it was sold to the British in 1845.
In 1755 Denmark acquired the village of Frederiksnagore (now Serampore), and later the towns of Achne and Pirapur. They are located about 25 kilometres north of Calcutta. In 1818 Serampore College was established at Serampore, which still exists today. These towns were also sold to Britain in 1845. Other colonial ventures include colonization attempts of the Nicobar Islands, called Frederiksøerne ("Frederik Islands") or Ny Danmark ("New Denmark") by the Danes between 1754 and 1868.
As with Greenland, Denmark-Norway inherited the medieval Norwegian claims to the Faroe Islands as the successor state to Norway. The Faroes had become part of the Kingdom of Norway in 1035. After Norway was given to Sweden after the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark retained the Faroes as a condition of the Treaty of Kiel. Status as a Danish county ended in 1948, and the Faroes were given a large degree of independence within the Kingdom of Denmark.
As with Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Norwegian claims to Iceland were inherited by Denmark-Norway. Also like those possessions, Iceland was retained by Denmark at the Treaty of Kiel. A growing independence movement in Iceland led to Denmark granting it home rule in 1874 and expanding that home rule in 1904. In 1918 Iceland became a fully sovereign kingdom, titled the "Kingdom of Iceland", in personal union with Denmark.
Danish Estonia and Courland
In the 13th-14th Denmark ruled parts of what is now Estonia. The colony was initially named the "Duchy of Estonia" (Danish: Hertugdømmet Estland) and is retrospectively called Danish Estonia by historians. In 1559 the bishop of Courland and Ösel-Wiek Johannes V von Münchhausen sold his lands to the King Frederick II of Denmark for 30,000 thalers. The Danish king gave the territory to his younger brother Duke Magnus of Holstein. After Magnus of Livonia died in 1583, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth invaded his territories in the Bishopric of Courland and Frederick II of Denmark decided to sell his rights of inheritance. In 1645, Saaremaa was ceded from Denmark to Sweden by the Treaty of Brömsebro.
Demise and legacy
The downfall of the Danish colonial empire was caused by a lack of resources. The empire was quickly eclipsed by those of France, Britain and the Netherlands. Eventually Denmark sold its colonies in India to Britain.
Greenland and the Faroe Islands are the last vestiges of the colonial empire. Greenland's colonial status ceased in 1953, and it became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark. It gained home rule in 1979 and further autonomy, including self-determination, in 2009. Likewise, the Faroes were incorporated into the Kingdom in the eighteenth century, with the status of a county, and then given home rule in 1948.
- How large was the Danish colonial empire at its greatest extent? - Find the data. Access date: September 4, 2012.
- Olson, James Stuart; Shadle, Robert, eds. (1991). Historical Dictionary of European Imperialism. Greenwood Publishing Group. Retrieved September 4, 2012.