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  • “Plant ikke Upas-Træet om vor Bolig”1:Colonial Haunting, Race, and Interracial Marriage in Hans Christian Andersen’s Mulatten (1840)2
  • Pernille Ipsen

In Hans Christian Andersen’s (1805–1875) play Mulatten (The Mulatto) from 1840, Eleonore, the Euro-Caribbean wife of a wealthy sugar planter on Martinique named La Rebelliere, begs her husband not to buy any more slaves because, as she says, they hate him:

Du er forhadt! den Sortes AftensbønEr den: at Du maa døe! Hans Drøm er skjøn,Naar Du fortvivlet bider i din Læbe!Hans Morgenbøn er, Dig at kunne dræbe!Plant ikke Upas-Træet om vor Bolig,Det er hver Slave, og ved Dig! ved Dig!Vær mere mild!—(fatter sig.) For Dig er jeg urolig.

(Andersen 1878, 379)

(You are hated! The black’s evening prayeris this: that you might die! His dream is beautiful, [End Page 129] when you bite your lip in despair!His morning prayer is to be able to kill you!Do not plant the upas tree by our home,it is every slave, and by you! By you!Be more gentle—[composes herself]. I am worried for you.)

Eleonore’s equation of buying and owning slaves to planting a upastræ (upas tree, Antitaris toxicaria) speaks to the disturbing and haunting effects that slavery and colonialism had on those who benefitted from them. For the upas tree is not just any tree. Not only does the word upas in Danish relate to upasselig or utilpas and upassende, meaning “unwell or indisposed and inappropriate,” but in 1840 as today, the upas tree also metaphorically signified a poisonous or harmful influence or institution.3 The tree could, as the Danish author Adolph Meyer (Meïr Aron Goldschmidt) wrote in his bitter first novel En Jøde (1845; A Jew), poison and kill all hospitality (Goldschmidt 1896, 53).4 But it could apparently also, as in the quote above, signify waves of haunting hatred caused by slavery.

Slavery planted a upas tree by the home of Eleonore’s husband, a colonial planter on Martinique, but the poison from the tree could not be contained in the plantation colonies. Quite to the contrary, as historians and literary scholars of colonialism and empire have argued, European colonialism and imperialism did not only happen elsewhere, externally to European culture, identity, or literature (McClintock 1995, 5). Colonial slavery impacted Europe and Europeans in a myriad of direct and indirect ways. Paléme, the mixed race leader of a group of runaway slaves, hævnerne (the avengers), who lives in the hills of Martinique and seeks revenge against white planters, announces it this way in Mulatten: “Vort Friheds-Raab naaer til Europas Lande” (Andersen 1878, 327) [Our cry for freedom reaches Europe]. After centuries of colonial engagement, including the slave trade in Africa and the sugar colonies in the West Indies, Denmark felt the reverberations [End Page 130] of its colonial involvement in ways similar to other, larger European colonial powers, like England or the Netherlands.5

H. C. Andersen wrote Mulatten at a time when Denmark was still actively engaged in colonialism and slavery. The Danish slave trade had officially been abolished in 1803, but the institution of racialized slavery was alive and well on the sugar plantations in the Danish West Indies. Since the acquisition of Saint Croix from France in 1733, the number of sugar plantations under Danish authority had steadily grown, accompanied by a need for more enslaved labor. The sugar industry in Copenhagen truly took off in the second half of the eighteenth century, and in the century to follow, sugar production proved tremendously important for the economic development of the city—at times, the export of refined and unrefined sugar made up to 90 percent of the net worth of all exports of industrial products from Copenhagen (Sveistrup and Willerslev 1945, 40–1; see also Ipsen 2015, 90–2). In 1840, the question of slavery was vigorously debated in the Danish capital. Slavery had been abolished in the British West Indies in 1833, and the Danish abolition movement, established in 1839, was provoking debate about the moral implications...


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