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  • Sweden and St. Barthélemy:Exceptionalisms, Whiteness, and the Disappearance of Slavery from Colonial History
  • Lill-Ann Körber

In November 2016, I went on a short research trip to the former Swedish colony of St. Barthélemy in the Lesser Antilles. St. Barthélemy, a small island of 25 square kilometers and 9,000 inhabitants, is today a French overseas collectivity. I had the opportunity to participate in several events linked to "Piteådagen," an annual festival dedicated to the memory of the island's Swedish period (1784–1878) and to present-day friendly relations between the Caribbean island and Sweden, among others with its sister city Piteå. The purpose was to contribute to the growing field of Nordic colonialism research with a study of how the Swedish legacy continues to shape St. Barthélemy, and how the island in turn shapes imaginations and representations of Swedish colonialism.

The former Caribbean colony is often described as being absent, invisible, or forgotten in Swedish collective consciousness. But the island exists, and its Swedish legacy is alive. During my research, I found indications of the role this particular colony has played in developing national narratives of exceptional whiteness and exceptional innocence. Thus, instead of pursuing an argument that Sweden's colonial past in the Caribbean has been eclipsed by amnesia, I will provide an experientially as well as theoretically grounded assessment of how an impression of the innocence, irrelevance, and ineffectiveness of Swedish colonialism has been achieved and maintained in the first place. Another related aim of my study is to consider Sweden's entanglements with other European, and particularly French, imperial endeavors, in [End Page 74] order to contribute to a de-exceptionalization of Swedish and Nordic colonialism.

Inhabitants of St. Barthélemy

The history of St. Barthélemy is characterized by the island's specific topographical and hydrological situation: due to mountainous terrain and a lack of fresh water, St. Barthélemy was never well suited for agricultural use either by Indigenous peoples from the region or by European settlers who ultimately found other ways to utilize the territory. Yet St. Barthélemy's history is deeply embedded in the settlement and economic history of the Caribbean. Facts about the island's inhabitation and utilization, and their public representation, are important in order to understand the particularities as well as the typicalities of Swedish colonial history.

It has proven difficult to gather information about indigenous settlement on the island before and after European conquest. Three Amerindian ethnic groups are frequently mentioned as having lived in the area—Carib, Arawak, and Taíno—but there is no readily accessible information about pre-Columbian history or archeological findings on the island, and I have not been able to find evidence of islanders self-identifying as indigenous. References to Indigenous peoples are made in the form of the island's Arawak name, Ouanalao, in the coat of arms, of a public sculpture of an Arawak warrior on a prominent roundabout close to the airport at St. Jean, and of brand names; I will later return to the last of these uses of references to Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. The island's aridity is recurrently mentioned as responsible for the impermanent character of indigenous settlement. Recent research suggests that pre-Columbian settlement patterns in the Caribbean were generally characterized by movement and diversity rather than permanent settlement (see, for instance, Hofman and van Duijvenbode 2011). But only few sources on St. Barthélemy comment on the dispossession and near-eradication of Caribbean Indigenous peoples during the first centuries of European colonization as a possible reason for their disappearance from the island. Georges Bourdin mentions the use of St. Barthélemy as "relay station" for Caribs during their fight against European colonizers (2012, 8). A number of popular and scholarly sources mention a violent act of Carib resistance that drove away a first group of settlers in the 1650s—but it is most often conceptualized not as resistance against dispossession and genocide, [End Page 75] but as an "attack" on resilient settlers: they were "slaughtered by a group of passing Caribs" (Maher 2013, 12, xv). A table showing the development...


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