Til bevillingsoversigt

Contracts, conquest and conversion: the ideological legitimation of Danish colonialism c. 1650-1850

Reintegration Fellowships


The aim of the project is to produce the first intellectual history of Danish colonialism and the political thought of the Danish colonial state. It investigates how its ideological legitimation shaped the history of Danish colonialism from Asia to the West Indies and from Greenland to West Africa, as well as how this in turn influenced early modern Danish intellectual history. In particular, it investigates the use of one especially significant discourse, "the law of nature and nations", in fashioning the ideological profile of the Danish colonial state; in defending Danish colonial claims; and in legitimating the Danish slave trade.


The intellectual history of Danish colonialism, how people thought about colonial endeavours and how they justified their actions, significantly shaped its expansion and consolidation. Likewise, colonialism had a profound significance for early modern Danish intellectual history, for how people thought about Danish society and politics. Neither of these have hitherto been the subject of a detailed and comprehensive study. The project thus brings a completely new perspective to the history of Danish colonialism as the first history of its political thought. Writing an important chapter of Danish history, it will show how Denmark’s development from a “confessional” to an “enlightened” state was fundamentally influenced by the need to legitimate its overseas colonialism.


The project adopts the methods of modern contextual intellectual history and applies them to a variety of archival, manuscript, and printed sources relating to Danish colonialism held in archives and libraries in Copenhagen, The Hague and Accra. The project will combine analyses of changes in natural law and other discourses with case studies of their uses legitimating specific aspects of Danish colonialism, including a new ideological profile of the Danish state in academic lectures and public journals; defence of Danish colonial claims and trading rights in polemical works and correspondence; and legitimation of Danish slave trade and slavery in legislation, legal opinions, and “learned” journals.


The project investigates a period of profound change in Danish society, the understanding of which has important consequences for how we understand ourselves today. In the period in question, Denmark went from being a kingdom in Northern Europe with a relatively homogenous, predominantly Lutheran population to being a colonial power with possessions across the world and with a population with unprecedented religious, cultural, and ethnic differences. Investigating how people thought about and negotiated these changes will give an important perspective on how Danish society was and came to be how it is. Likewise, investigating how actors at the time justified European colonialism will give a critical perspective on current controversies over the legacy of colonialism and the slave trade.