Penal Slavery in Early Modern Scandinavia

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In Scandinavia, a penal institution known as “slavery” existed from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Penal slaves laboured in the creation and maintenance of military infrastructure. They were chained and often stigmatized, sometimes by branding. Their punishment was likened and, on a few occasions, linked to Atlantic slavery. Still, in reality, it was a wholly distinct form of enslavement that produced different experiences of coercion than those of the Atlantic. Such forms of penal slavery sit uneasily in historiographies of punishment but also offers a challenge for the dominant models of global labour history and its attempts to create comparative frameworks for coerced labour. This article argues for the need for contextual approaches to what such coercion meant to both coercers and coerced. Therefore, it offers an analysis of the meaning of early modern penal slavery based on an exceptional set of sources from 1723. In these sources, the status of the punished was negotiated and practiced by guards and slaves themselves. Court appearances by slaves were usually brief—typically revolving around escapes as authorities attempted to identify security breaches. The documents explored in this article are different: They present multiple voices speaking at length, negotiating their very status as voices. From that negotiation and its failures emerge a set of practiced meanings of penal “slavery” in eighteenth-century Copenhagen tied to competing yet intertwined notions of dishonour.

TidsskriftJournal of Global Slavery
Udgave nummer3
Sider (fra-til)343-368
Antal sider26
StatusUdgivet - 2021


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