Johan Heinsen – A “Multitude of Indomitable People” How Convicts Shook the Danish Atlantic


Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Johan Heinsen (Aalborg) – A “Multitude of Indomitable People” How Convicts Shook the Danish Atlantic

From 1672, when the Danish West India Company began populating the small Caribbean island of St. Thomas, the colonial enterprise relied heavily on the forced transportation of subalterns from Copenhagen’s prisons: The “iron prisoners” from Trunken, a prison located at Copenhagen’s naval dockyard where male felons from the entire Danish-Norwegian state served life-sentences of hard labour; and women from the bridewel Børnehuset (The Children’s House) convicted of theft, insubordination or sexual transgressions. They filled up the ships headed for the colony which quickly acquired a reputation of being “worse than Barbary” – due to the lethal combination of hard labour, tropical diseases and abusive authoritarian rule.

This paper considers the experiences of convicts during their forced migration. Further it examines the ways in which their agency shaped the Danish Atlantic from 1672 to 1688 when convict transportation was abandoned. Central to this is the mutiny on the ship the Havmanden (The Merman) in January 1683. The Havmanden transported around 100 convicts, but en route a coalition of convicts and common sailors successfully mutinied. The new captain was a convict who had earlier served as a quartermaster on a disastrous slaving voyage to Denmark’s Gold Coast castles, but had since become what was described as a “scandalous human.” He and his fellow convicts attempted to bring the ship to Ireland, but failed. Ultimately, the ship was wrecked on the Swedish coast.

This was a tough economic blow to the hard pressed Company which for the remainder of the 1680s kept floundering until the island of St. Thomas was eventually leased to Brandenburg. Hence, convicts almost wrecked the empire. When around 1700 the Company regained its strength (in part through the successful transportation of slaves) the directors explicitly rejected the use of convicts referencing the mutiny. The spectre remained. In the 1740s, the absolutist King enquired more than once if the Danish West Indies could be used to house convicts. Each time, the company conjured the example of the Havmanden. Hence, this wound became part of the institutional memory of the Danish Atlantic.


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