Ownership history

The end of slavery – Compensation to the slave owners

In 1848, Governor-General Peter von Scholten abolished slavery in order to avert a slave rebellion in the Danish colony in the West Indies. The slave owners had with one stroke lost their property – a fortune for many. They wanted indemnification, but ended up only receiving a minor compensation.
Danish Act on compensation to the former owners of enslaved persons in the Danish possessions in the West Indies.
Everyone who owned enslaved laborers on the Danish West Indian islands on July 3, 1848, received a sum of 50 West Indian dollars under Section 1 in the “Danish Act on compensation to the former owners of enslaved persons in the Danish possessions in the West Indies” – The Act is depicted here. (Danish National Archives).

In 1847, the enslaved laborers in the Danish colony received a promise of emancipation – they would just have to wait for twelve years. It was desired in that way to give the slave owners a long period of notice, and the colonial administration had a deadline to prepare itself for the new conditions. Therefore, it had not yet been decided in 1848 whether the slave owners were to be indemnified, as the English slave owners had been. But circumstances overtook the process from the inside. A large rebellion was simmering among the enslaved laborers, and on July 3, 1848, Governor-General Peter von Scholten abolished slavery on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John.

Demand for indemnification from the slave owners

Only a short time passed before the government in Copenhagen received the first demand for indemnification from the former slave owners. But a civil war raged in Denmark and a position could not be taken on the question. After the peace of 1851, a legislative proposal was drafted, however. The slave owners argued that slavery in the Danish colony had been recognized by the national government, which itself had owned enslaved laborers. They also asserted that the abolition of slavery was entirely unnecessary, because the rebellion among the enslaved could have been suppressed, in their opinion. Nor was it the owners themselves that had caused the uprising or the relinquishment of their ownership rights. The national government thus had a clear obligation to pay compensation for the property that it had taken from the slave owners. The Danish government did not accept this view. “Slavery is itself an institution in conflict with religion and justice, and which therefore should be maintained in a civilized and Christian society only as long as consideration for the general welfare forbids abolishing it,” stated the comments on the proposed legislation.

The slave owners were dissatisfied with the compensation

But the Danish Parliament decided nevertheless in 1853 “on the grounds of reasonableness” to give the former slave owners “compensation”, not indemnification. It was 50 dollars per enslaved person. The slave owners were not pleased with the size of the sum, but it was not changed. The compensation was generally paid in government bonds, in cash only in exceptional cases.