A slave’s life – when people were property

The concept that all human beings are born with fundamental rights was not prevalent in the 1700s. If you were born at the bottom of society, you lived a life in poverty and with hard work and toil. Other people could be owned just like goods and money. This was a view of humanity that made life hard for servants all over the world – and not least for the enslaved laborers that worked under inhuman conditions in colonies in Africa, Asia, and America. The view of humanity that allowed for slavery is difficult to understand in our time.
The British slave trade opponents’ campaign logo shows a kneeling enslaved laborer in chains who asks: ”Am I not a Man and a Brother”.
The British slave trade opponents’ campaign logo shows a kneeling enslaved laborer in chains who asks: ”Am I not a Man and a Brother”. In Great Britain there was a powerful popular movement for abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. (The Danish State and University Library).

There have always been enslaved individuals throughout the history of man. But the mindset that was used to justify slavery has changed over time. In the beginning of the 250 years when Denmark was a colonial power in the West Indies, Africa was considered an uncivilized continent and the African population were considered “heathens”. Some actually believed that the enslaved laborers got a better life by being removed from Africa. For example did Zealand’s Bishop Pontoppidan refer to the slave trade in an introduction to Ludvig Rømers book about Guinea from 1760 as being something to regard as a benefit for the African heathens in the West Indies, who were given an opportunity to become Christians. Others believed that fate determined whether you were free or enslaved.


In the last part of the 1700s there were ideas about the inferiority of other races as the reason behind slavery. This kind of thinking contributed to creating the foundation of biological racism. For example did the planter Reimert Haagensen’s ”Beskrivelse over Eylandet St. Croix i America i Vest-Indien” (Description of the Island of St. Croix in America in the West Indies”) from 1758 describe among other things, how he thinks black skin indicates wickedness. At the same time, there was a dawning resistance to slavery and thoughts about giving enslaved laborers certain rights started to emerge. Ernst Schimmelmann’s 1792 Commission for the Improvement of the Slave Trade is an example of this trend.

Transporting sickness and death

Sailing from Africa to the Danish colony in the West Indies usually took three months. The enslaved laborers on board were stacked as if goods were being transported. They were side by side and could hardly move. Aboard the ship “Brookes”, for example each enslaved was given 182 centimeters x 41 centimeters (71 inches by 16 inches) to lie down, with 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) up to the next layer of people. They were only fed just enough food and drink to stay alive. Illness was rampant and many dead bodies were thrown overboard along the way.

A slave’s life

Upon reaching the colonies, life did not really improve. The first generation of enslaved laborers did not speak a language that the Europeans understood and were thus unable to protest when they were sold as goods. After that, they were not considered as people with a will of their own, but merely as other people’s property. Ownership in this sense was as absolute as for goods or money. Enslaved individuals could be sold, pawned, and rented out.

Servants worldwide

The hard and backbreaking work – many hours and every day – the enslaved laborers had in common with servants in large parts of the world in the 1600s and 1700s. It was a life characterized by illness and infant mortality. But the enslavement applied to all aspects of his or her life. Many slave owners considered it their right to rape the female enslaved. Children of enslaved could be sold to other plantations, thereby separating children from their parents.

The right to punish

Slave owners also had the right to punish their enslaved laborers – and any enslaved who broke the rules was severely punished. According to regulations from September 5, 1733 by Governor Philip Gardelin, enslaved laborers who committed grand larceny or who encouraged others to escape, for example, were to be pinched three times with red-hot iron tongs and then hanged. If you tried to run away, you were to have your leg amputated or – if your master forgave you – get 150 lashes and lose one ear.

Whipping – but not maiming

Actually, it was attempted to regulate conditions. But the distance from Denmark to the colony was great. In 1755, rules were made regarding, among other things, the independent rights of enslaved laborers (to go to church and having the day off on major holidays) and the obligations of the owners (clothing and meals to enslaved laborers). The rules also stated that the owners had to treat their enslaved laborers humanely.

The first Governor-General brought the rules with him to the West Indies in 1755 after having been informed that he could put as much of it into force as he found appropriate. That did not amount to much. It was determined, however, that enslaved laborers could be whipped and shackled but not maimed, and beating an enslaved to death was not allowed.

More rights

As time marched on toward the abolition of slavery, the almost absolute power of slave owners slowly decreased. There was increased focus on enslaved laborers having rights which their owners had to respect. Enslaved who complained about mistreatment could get their complaint recognized by the authorities and the slave owners punished – typically by a fine. In 1840, enslaved laborers were even given the right to own property as well as other individual rights.

Not until 1848 was slavery abolished in the Danish colony in the West Indies. At the time, there were voices all over the world in the public debate who spoke out vigorously against the barbaric and inhuman slavery. The thoughts of the Enlightenment about the freedom of the individual had gained a foothold in the thinking of many people.

But above all, a rebellion was brewing in the three islands that the local authorities were unable to control. The abolition of slavery was the end of a barbaric view of humanity but primarily was also meant to ensure peace and survival for Danes in the West Indies. It remains an object of intensive discussion among historians whether the prohibition of the slave trade resulted from a humanistic, economic and/or foreign policy explanatory model.