Trade and shipping

Ships loaded with riches

Initially only a few goods came back from the colony on St. Thomas. But eventually goods were frequently transported between Denmark, the west coast of Africa and the West Indies. The trade was immensely profitable - also for the Danish state and Danish society.
The frigate “Fredensborg” sailed in the slave trade on the triangular route in 1778-1790. Barricades have been constructed across the ship at the foremast and mainmast in order to control the enslaved laborers during short walks in the air on deck. The three high, round devices are canvas air intakes for guiding fresh air down into the stuffy cargo hold (Private collection, photo in the Maritime Museum of Denmark).

The cargo documents from the ships that sailed out to the colony tell the history of the extensive trade that occurred, both in the direct sea trade between Denmark and the West Indian colony and in the triangular sea trade between Denmark, the west coast of Africa, and the West Indies. A typical cargo for a ship that sailed from Denmark directly to the colony is described for the packet boat “Kronprins Christian” in 1764. It contained provisions for both the military and the Danish Royal Navy sailors on the islands. The military’s supplies were 71 barrels of salted beef, 80 barrels of smoked pork, 107 small barrels of butter, and 14 barrels of rye flour. The Royal Navy sailors got slightly more generous provisions: beef, pork, butter, hardtack, flour, tallow, peas, oats, salt, vinegar, and spirits, in all 203.5 barrels. The ship also brought 168 boards and 54,050 bricks.

The cargo of “Fridericus Quartus”

The cargoes were different in the triangular trade from the direct route to the West Indies. See The voyages across the Atlantic to learn about the various routes. Goods were brought to Africa to purchase enslaved laborers with, particularly Asian cotton textiles.

A typical example is the ship “Fridericus Quartus”, which was dispatched in 1699 with an enormous cargo: Textiles at a value of 15,000 rix-dollars, 2849 large iron bars at a value of 1700 rix-dollars, 13,430 pounds of gunpowder at a value of 1600 rix-dollars, dishes and bangles (arm rings) of brass at a value of 2000 rix-dollars, corals for 1300 rix-dollars and 500 mirrors at a value of 1000 rix-dollars. There were also other goods in smaller quantities valued in total at 3400 rix-dollars.

When the ship sailed from Africa, it carried a cargo of 27 kilograms (59.4 pounds) of gold at a value of 14,000 rix-dollars and 3.5 metric tons of ivory valued in total at 2000 rix-dollars. This cargo was to be brought all the way home to Denmark. The ship also carried 547 enslaved laborers to the colony in the West Indies. The enslaved laborers had a total value of 15,000 rix-dollars. There were 263 men and boys, 279 women and girls plus 5 “babies”. After a rough crossing, only fewer than half – 238 enslaved laborers – arrived alive at St. Thomas, where they were sold.

For the trip home to Denmark, the gold and ivory from Africa were supplemented by goods from the West Indies. Among other things, 68 metric tons of raw sugar, 67 metric tons of dyewoods, 4 metric tons of indigo, 4.5 metric tons of tobacco, 12.5 metric tons of cotton, 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of tortoise shell, and 473 cowhides.

Return cargo directly to Denmark

The “Kronprins Christian” sailed home from the West Indies in 1761 with a typical return cargo on a direct voyage. It was loaded with 711 barrels of raw sugar and 10 bales of cotton, 8 barrels of young rum and 11 casks and 23 sacks of coffee. At this time in the middle of the 1700s, raw sugar normally accounted for 80-90 percent of the value of all West Indian goods brought back to Denmark.

Raw sugar and refined sugar

The profit in both the direct West Indian trade and the triangular trade lay overwhelmingly in the raw sugar brought home, which was reserved for sugar refineries in Denmark. The re-export of refined sugar from Denmark was also an important source of income.