In my last post, I wrote about some of my reflections from this last year in Norway. Today, I want to take a moment and look at what’s next, specifically in regard to things that I want to continue researching and exploring as I return to the United States. Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but it consists of various items that arose during my time in Norway. These lines of inquiry each correlate to my scholarship, specifically the construction of race and the transmission of racial thought.
Upon arriving in Norway, one of the first items that I spotted was Friele Kaffe. The package states, “Norges eldste kaffehus, est. 1799.” When I saw this label, my mind instantly went to the colonial period and slavery because 1799 firmly fits within that period. Friele is Norway’s leading producer of coffee, and Norway is the second most coffee consuming nation, per capita, in the world. Later, I discovered that Friele’s current coffee plantations are in Kenya and Brazil. I do not know where their plantations were in the nineteenth century.
Seeing Friele Kaffe made me dig deeper into Norway’s colonial past, a past that took place during the Danish-Norwegian period that lasted from 1537-1814. When I started talking with Ernesto Semán, an Associate Professor of Latin American History at the University of Bergen, the connections and lack of historical memory regarding Norway’s colonial past began to take shape. He pointed out that Møhlenpris, the neighborhood near the university, is named after Jørgen Thor Møhlen, a slave trader who bascially bought up the waterfront in Bergen and established numerous businesses in the late seventeenth century.
These connections caused us to get into contact with Bjørn Enge Bertelsen a professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen. Bjørn, along with Kirsten Alsaker Kjerland , edited Navigating Colonial Orders: Norwegian Entrepreneurship in Africa and Oceania in 2015. While Norway never had colonies during the colonial period, that does not mean that they did not have colonial aspirations. Bjørn ‘s term “noncolonial colonial” is an important term when thinking about nations such as Norway. Essentially, “noncolonial colonial” refers to nations that partook in colonization through various means such as shipping, trading posts, farms, and other entities. However, these nations never had colonies of their own. These connections seem obvious conisdering that Norway had the third largest fleet in the later part of the nineteenth century in terms of tonnage transported.
All of this led Bjørn, Ernesto, and me to start a research group entitled “Norway and Slavery.” The research group, which now consists of scholars from around Scandinavia, from the United States, from Cuba, from South Africa, and more, examines both the historical linkages with Norway during the colonial period and the continued effects of that past in the current moment. As we started this group, more and more things kept popping up in my research, research which I must stress is still in the very early stages.
For me, I have become intrigued by the historical amnesia that perpetuates Norwegian exceptionalism and egalitarianism while ignoring the racism that underpinned the nation’s noncolonial colonial past. At the local library, I came across a few books, basically graphic novels and children’s books, that seek to correct this memory loss. During one of my first visits to the library, I found Slaveskipet Fredensborg Den siste reisen 1767-68 by Kurt Aust, Leif Svaesen, and Kin Wessel. The graphic novel tells the story of Erich Ancker, a 14 year-old Norwegian who set sail and worked upon the slaveship Fredensborg during its trip from Copenhagen to Africa and back. It wrecked off the coast near Arendal in December 1768.
Along with Slaveskipet Fredensborg, I also found Anders Totland’s Den Norske Slavehandelen (The Norwegian Slave trade). Totland’s book is not a graphic novel, but it does have illustrations. The back cover points out that when most people think about slavery they think about the United States. However, it moves to point out that Norwegians partook in the slave trade both in shipping and on plantations, causing sickness, death, oppression, and strife. The illustrations are disturbing, and I have not been able to translate this work or the graphic novel yet, but my plan is to translate both and examine the ways that each presents Norway’s involvement with the slave trade.
Along with these texts, I also read Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867), a play that Ibsen wrote during the Norwegian romantic period and a play that has constructed images of Norway’s traditional past and national imagination. Upon reading Peer Gynt, act four stuck out. In Act 4, Peer Gynt has become a businessman, rising from nothing to place of prominence. He meets with representatives from colonial powers and lets them know that he made his money in the transatlantic slave trade, even running a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. In the play, we do not see the images of Peer Gynt in South Carolina, we only hear his experiences.
In 2014, David Zane Mairowitz and Geir Moen made a graphic novel adaptation of Peer Gynt. Unlike Ibsen’s play, Mairowitz and Moen’s adaptations shows Peer Gynt actively involved in the buying and selling of enslaved individuals. We see panels on him working in South Carolina and various other images. The incorporation of these panels highlights the ways that Peer Gynt made his wealth, through the exploitation of other humans. Again, I have not translated this text yet, so I do not know the entirety of the ways that the adaptation interrogates Norway’s noncolonial colonial past.
While each of these books focuses on Norway’s past, they help us to interrogate Norway’s present as well. There are numerous examples that highlight the ways that past influences the present in Norway. One such example is the case of Joshua French and Tjostolv Moland, two former military servicemen who began work as private contractors in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2009, both men were convicted of murder and espionage in the DRC. Moland committed suicide in custody and French was released in 2017. This case highlights the continued residual effects of colonialism, and you can read Sindre Bangstad and Bertelsen’s “Heart of Darkness Reinvented?” for more information.
The other example is Norway’s xenophobic and islamaphobic policies regarding asylum seekers and immigrants. Last month, on June 15, the Norwegian authorities worked to forcibly deport Atefa Rezaie and her children to Afghanistan. Only one of Atefa’s three children had ever been to Afghanistan. The family left in 1999 and came to Norway in 2012. Since then, their requests for asylum have been denied by the Norwegian government.
When the police took the family, Atefa, who has a medical condition, passed out. The government appointed doctor deemed her clear to fly, even though she was unconscious, and the family were put on a plane for Istanbul then Kabul. She was still unconscious upon arrival in Istanbul, and the Norwegian government sent her back to Oslo. The children kept on towards Kabul. At Kabul, the Afghan authorities refused to accept them because their mother was not with them, so the children returned to Norway.
This is a very brief discussion of what occurred to Atefa and her family. For a more detailed account, and for the ways that Norway’s policies and even detention facilities appear similar to the United States, read Sindre Bangstad’s piece “Norway: The Force Deportation Machine.” In the article, Bangstad chronicles the family’s ordeal, the racist rhetoric of the doctor who cleared Atefa to fly, the government’s move towards the acceptance of such rhetoric and policies, and the inadequate standards of detention facilities.
All of these items highlight the ways that images and memories become constructed. They highlight the modes of creating and maintaining the images of a nation and or region. They highlight the fact that these creations arise not from a historical record that merely relays facts about the past. They highlight how those in power construct those narratives to fit their own purposes. This is nothing new, and it is something that has interested me for a while, as you know if you have been reading my blog.
Stay tuned for updates on these projects. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham. Stay tuned for updates on these projects.
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