Review: Nonbo Andersen, Astrid. “We Have Reconquered the Islands”

Review: Nonbo Andersen, Astrid. “We Have Reconquered the Islands”

Nonbo Andersen, Astrid.“We Have Reconquered the Islands”: Figurations in Public Memories of Slavery and Colonialism in Denmark 1948-2012, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, vol. 26, 2013, 57–76.

In “We Have Reconquered the Islands”, Astrid Nonbo Andersen focuses on the relations between Denmark and its former colonies, as well as Denmark’s revisionist take on its own colonial history. She analyses this contemporary presentation in media and policy regarding the former colonies from a Danish viewpoint.

Nonbo Andersen presents the hypothesis that Denmark never expressed explicit forms of regret such as other former colonial states like England and France have done. However, Denmark did neither repress its colonial past, as has been posited by other researchers.

The author points to several examples of the manifestations of the relation between Denmark and its former colonies. Here, former colonies mainly refers to the Danish West Indies. The relationship between Denmark and its (former) North Atlantic colonies is mostly not discussed. Even though some comparison is drawn between Denmark’s treatment of the West Indies and Greenland.

  1. The article begins with certainly the most controversial example of Danish attitude towards its past colony. In 2012 a travels agency in Christansted on St. Croix, one of the islands formerly belonging to the Danish West Indies and now a territory of the USA, hung a sign reading We have reconquered the islands. It is abundantly clear that the sign refers to the islands’ past as a Danish colony. Such a sign, or the referral to the islands as Dansk Vestindien, as is often done on Danish websites concerning the territory, could not be imagined in an English context. The backlash, which would ensue if a British travels agency offered voyages to British India, would be enormous.
  2. By means of presenting the festivities for round number anniversaries concerning the islands, Nonbo Andersen shows how the reception of these official festivities changed over time. In the newspaper coverage of the Emancipation Day commemorations in 1948 a postcolonial nostalgia dominated. This nostalgia was expressed through the concept of a progressive narrative, which saw in the Danish colonization of the West Indies a chance for the islands to reach a higher form of civilization. Therefore, Danish colonialism was benign and, if of longer duration, could have shaped the islands into a modern welfare state after Danish example. Gradual reforms were preferred over any type of revolution. This narrative of Denmark as a benign colonial power was little by little challenged, first by left wing publications, later also by right wing papers.
  3. This progressive narrative also dominated in scholarly works. These works often focused on Peter von Scholten, who was the Governor-General of the Danish West Indies and was characterised as a progressive man, who wanted the islands and its slave population emancipated. Also standard works such as Vore Gamle Tropekolonier (1952–1953) lauded the “mild treatment” enslaved people experienced on the Danish West Indies. Critical works focussing on the often horrific living conditions enslaved people and workers alike are much younger.

A critical engagement with the Danish colonial history of the US Virgin Islands has not happened until recent years, as the islands did not have the opportunities and the means to make their voices heard. One of these opportunities which caused a lot of discussion in the Danish public, were the festivities for the Emancipation Day in 1998, during which a riot broke out. This riot was caused by a speech of the Danish ambassador given in Fredriksted in St. Croix. His speech lacked any statement of regret regarding the treatment of the islands and its inhabitants under Danish rule. Moreover, the ambassador began with delivering greetings from the Danish queen; in all, an utterly tone deaf speech. The pictures of the tussle which ensued were widely distributed in the Danish press. Now even the most right wing politicians pleaded for an official apology. Until this day, however, the Danish state has not yet issued an official apology or given reparations to its former colonies. Nonbo Andersen’s article successfully shows that while it is true that Denmark has not repressed its past, reappraisals of its history have been slow going and are certainly not yet finished. The current climate surrounding Denmark’s colonial history, however, is a lot more charged, with protests in Greenland and lasting aspirations for independence in Greenland and on the Faroese Islands.

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