Denmark Abolishes the Slave Trade Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Denmark was the first European nation to outlaw the trade in slaves. Other nations soon followed suit, but neither Denmark nor the other nations outlawed slavery itself at this time. They merely put an official end to their colonies’ importation of slaves from Africa and elsewhere.

Summary of Event

On March 16, 1792, King Christian VII of Denmark signed an ordinance banning the slave trade in his country and its colonies. Slave owners would be allowed ten more years to transport slaves from Africa, however, so that they might have an adequate supply of slaves on hand once the ban went into effect. Despite this provision, the king’s order represented a major step forward in the movement to ensure better treatment for slaves and an eventual end to the brutal system altogether. [kw]Denmark Abolishes the Slave Trade (Mar. 16, 1792) [kw]Trade, Denmark Abolishes the Slave (Mar. 16, 1792) [kw]Slave Trade, Denmark Abolishes the (Mar. 16, 1792) [kw]Abolishes the Slave Trade, Denmark (Mar. 16, 1792) Denmark, abolition of slave trade Slave trade;Denmark’s abolition of[Denmarks] [g]Denmark;Mar. 16, 1792: Denmark Abolishes the Slave Trade[3020] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 16, 1792: Denmark Abolishes the Slave Trade[3020] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 16, 1792: Denmark Abolishes the Slave Trade[3020] Christian VII Pitt, William, the Younger Wilberforce, William

European involvement in the slave trade had begun in the early 1500’s. Portuguese and Spanish traders inaugurated the system and enjoyed a monopoly in the business for the next century. Their ships brought thousands of Africans to sugar plantations in Cuba, Colombia, and Brazil. Beginning in the early 1600’s they were joined by Dutch, French, and English slaving vessels.

The Danes became involved in the New World in 1640, when they annexed the uninhabited island of St. Thomas, part of the Virgin Islands chain. Not until 1671, however, did Danish ships transport slaves to their tiny colony. That year, the Royal Chartered Danish West India and Guinea Company Danish West India Company was granted a monopoly on the slave trade by King Frederick III. During the next ten years, Danish planters established forty-seven sugar plantations Sugar plantations;West Indies and brought 175 slaves onto St. Thomas to work the land. Eventually, the small group of white settlers, who numbered only 156 in 1680, built a small town called Charlotte Amalie and sent tobacco and cotton to their homeland, though they continually experienced financial problems.

The island’s economy had grown a bit by 1708, when a free trade ordinance signed by the king gave St. Thomas planters permission to ship and sell goods anywhere in North America and Europe, rather than just in the mother country. Ten years later, the Danish government annexed the neighboring island of St. John and a few small plantations were established on it. The third and final Danish possession in the New World, St. Croix, was purchased from the French in 1733. Slavery and sugar were prominent features of all three outposts. A small slave revolt broke out on St. Thomas that year, although it was quickly quelled and slaveholders restored the peace.

By the 1750’s, the Danish West India Company was bringing about one thousand slaves a year to its colonies from Danish Guinea, Danish Guinea a very tiny outpost located on the west coast of Africa (modern Ghana). Danish Guinea had been established in 1659. It included one town, Frederiksborg, the port from which most slaves were exported to the colonies. Danish merchants traded Africa;slave trade with the Assante, Accra, and Akim tribes in Africa. Slaves were the most important “product.” They were customarily prisoners of war or criminals, as was true with most slaves in traditional African societies. Only rarely did Danes or other Europeans abduct Africans themselves. Most were bought from African rulers for guns, jewelry, or tools.

The Danish share of the slave trade amounted to no more than a small percentage of the total European traffic. Total numbers are hard to estimate, but most experts believe that between 1500 and 1870, approximately fifteen million to twenty million Africans were carried out of their homelands and brought to the New World as slaves. The first calls for abolition Slave trade;abolition of of the slave trade and eventually of slavery itself came from religious groups in Europe, especially the Society of Friends (Quakers) Quakers;antislavery stance in England and Lutheran Pietists Pietism Lutheranism in Scandinavia and the German states. Members of these fervently religious communities argued that since all human beings had the light of God within them, all were equal. For human beings to hold other humans as property violated the idea of equality and was therefore sinful and immoral.

Opponents of the slave trade wrote several books beginning in the 1750’s that denounced the horrors found on slave ships heading out of Africa to the New World. These accounts depicted cruel captains, bloodthirsty crew members, and nothing but sickness, death, and disaster for the unfortunate people condemned to a lifetime of bondage. Many of these charges were true, although historical scholarship has found some instances of exaggeration in the anti-slave-trade accounts. Death rates on the infamous Middle Passage, Middle Passage that part of the trip where slaves crossed the Atlantic Ocean after their capture in Africa and before they embarked on the last part of their journey, were high. Most of the deaths resulted from diseases, such as dysentery, measles, smallpox, and scurvy.

On Danish ships life for slaves was monotonous, perilous, and severely restrictive. Male slaves were shackled together in pairs and were allowed no more than fifteen minutes a day for exercise. Their food consisted of beans boiled in lard provided twice a day, along with water. Revolts on ships were few but there were many suicides. Some mothers threw their infants into the sea rather than have them face the horrors that awaited them in the New World. On an average voyage, approximately 8 to 10 percent of the slaves died before reaching the West Indies, and death rates for crew members were equally high. Africa was considered “the white man’s grave” by Europeans because of the many communicable tropical diseases to which they had no immunity.

William Pitt the Younger, the British prime minister, called the slave trade “the greatest practical evil that ever afflicted the human race.” Other opponents of slavery, such as William Wilberforce, the leading English reformer, argued that ending the slave trade would lead to improved conditions for existing slaves. Planters would realize that they would have to provide proper care for slaves they already owned because they would no longer be able to import more slaves from abroad. Improved conditions would encourage slaves to have more children, thus increasing the domestic slave population and making further importation unnecessary. Opponents of the slave trade even suggested that slave owners might eventually come to recognize the evils associated with enslaving others and end the institution of slavery itself. The first consideration, however, was to abolish the slave trade by making traffic in human beings illegal.

Christian VII, king of Denmark, thus issued his decree to end the slave trade on March 16, 1792. The first European monarch to abolish the slave trade, Christian VII considered himself to be an enlightened despot Enlightened despotism who looked out for the welfare of his subjects. Informed of the cruelties of the voyage from Africa to Danish possessions in the New World, the Danish king was convinced to ban the slave trade forever. Believing that an immediate end would increase the burden on the existing slave population and cause economic ruin for many planters, however, Christian agreed that planters in the Danish West Indies would be given ten years to build up their supply of slaves before the trade would cease. As a result, slaves were allowed to be imported to the Danish West Indies until 1802.


With Christian’s decree, Denmark became the first European nation to abolish the slave trade. Great Britain followed in 1807, the Netherlands abolished the trade in 1814, and Spain and Portugal finally eliminated the trade to their overseas possessions in the late 1820’s. In 1807, the United States passed legislation that prohibited the importation of slaves beginning in 1808.

The slave trade had never been especially profitable for any of the nations involved; the deaths of crew members and captives and the constantly fluctuating prices paid for slaves kept profits for Danish slave traders to less than 10 percent per year. Sugar plantations, which generated the largest demand for slaves, also faced economic challenges. Prices for sugar fell substantially each year because of increasing production and the introduction of sugar beets that could be grown in more temperate regions such as Europe, thus eliminating the costs of importation. Sugar and tobacco crops also took a heavy toll on the soil, thus exhausting the resources of islands such as St. Croix and St. Thomas by the early 1800’s. These conditions curtailed some of the demand for imported slaves.

It was not until 1848, however, that the Danish government abolished slavery itself in its West Indian possessions. By that time, the African population of the islands outnumbered the European population by a ratio of ten to one. Thus, it appeared that the abolition of the slave trade had accomplished the aims of Christian VII. With Africa cut off as a source of supply, planters were forced to pay more attention to the care and living conditions of their own slave labor force.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. One of the finest statistical studies of the transatlantic slave trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966. Examines the full story of the crusade against the slave trade, placing the Danish abolition decree in a larger historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Derry, T. K. A History of Scandinavia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979. Includes a brief discussion of the campaign waged in Denmark against the slave trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gobel, Erik. “Danish Trade to the West Indies and Guinea, 1671-1754.” Scandinavian Economic History Review 31 (1983): 21-49. A scholarly assessment of the history of Danish involvement in the slave trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jespersen, Knud J. V. A History of Denmark. Translated by Ivan Hill. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Chronicles five hundred years of Danish history, beginning with the Reformation in 1500.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Rawley provides an objective, balanced view of the transatlantic slave trade that assesses the participation of various European nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. London: Picador, 1997. Massive, nine-hundred-page examination of the slave trade includes information about Denmark’s participation in, and eventual abolition of, the trade.

Expansion of the Atlantic Slave Trade

New York City Slave Revolt

Slaves Capture St. John’s Island

Caribbean Slave Rebellions

Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded

Northeast States Abolish Slavery

First Fugitive Slave Law

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

William Pitt the Younger; William Wilberforce. Denmark, abolition of slave trade Slave trade;Denmark’s abolition of[Denmarks]

Categories: History