Danish decision to abolish transatlantic slave trade in 1792

From the 1650s onward, Denmark participated in the transatlantic slave trade. A total of approximately 120,000 enslaved Africans were transported from Africa to the West Indies on ships flying the flag of Denmark. On the other hand, Denmark was the first slave-trading nation that prohibited the barbaric traffic.
Cargo plan for the slave ship "Brookes".
Cargo plan for the slave ship “Brookes”. By using space to the utmost on this not particularly large ship, 452 enslaved laborers could be taken on board. Each adult man was only allotted 182 centimeters x 41 centimeters (71 inches by 16 inches) to lie on and only 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) up to the next layer of people. The enslaved laborers lay here for months on the journey to the West Indies (Thomas Clarkson, The History of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 2, 1808).

Despite Denmark’s active slave trading, there was largely no public debate about the subject in Denmark for many years. Even in 1760, the Bishop of Zealand defended this traffic in human beings. This changed, however, at the end of the 1700s. In 1788, a book was published by the physician Paul Erdmann Isert which condemned the slave trade.

Commission for living conditions

There were also new measures on the part of the government. Count Ernst Schimmelmann, appointed Denmark’s Minister of Finance in 1784, was very well-to-do and owned some of the best plantations in the Danish West Indies colony, with approximately a thousand enslaved laborers. In 1791 he had a commission established to secure “a better arrangement for the trade in blacks”. In a comprehensive report, authored mostly by Schimmelmann himself, the commission argued for better living conditions for the enslaved laborers in the West Indies. The purpose was not solely humanitarian, however. The desire was primarily to avoid the many fatalities in the colony, which resulted in a constant need for expensive shipments of enslaved laborers from Africa. In addition, savings were sought on the expensive forts on the Guinea Coast.

King Christian VII signs a decree on “the trade in blacks”

In March 1792, Christian VII signed a new decree on “the trade in blacks”. The transatlantic slave trade under the Danish flag was to cease, but very pragmatically not until 1803 – ten years later. In the interim, the islands could import all the enslaved laborers they wished. Financial support was even available from the national government so that the enslaved population could become as large and as balanced as possible with respect to gender and age.

The result was, paradoxically enough, that the enslaved population grew from 28,000 to 36,000 during the winding-down period of 1792-1803. Afterward, there was only limited illegal transatlantic slave trading under a Danish flag.