CHANGE CAN HAPPEN

I’ve just watched an extraordinary documentary series about the great African-American boxer, Jack Johnson.  At the turn of the last century, he was not only fighting his way to the top in the ring but he was also fighting to be allowed the chance to become the world heavyweight champion in the face of overwhelming white opposition.  Two existing champions wouldn’t even consider defending their titles against Johnson because of the colour of his skin.  Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the fact that some aspects of racial prejudice haven’t changed since Johnson’s time.  Of course, in light of the movement, Britain has been re-evaluating its race relations as well as soul-searching about how the slave trade affected the country; something that generated a massive source of wealth over nearly two centuries.  Though Britain was at the forefront of its abolition with William Wilberforce’s Slave Labour Act of 1807, the country had been one of the greatest beneficiaries of the trade.  Yet in Europe it wasn’t confined to the British, French, Portuguese, Spanish and the Dutch.  Surprisingly, Scandinavian nations were also involved.

It has to be said that Sweden only dabbled in the trade.  Saint-Barthélemy, one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, was bought from France by the Swedes in 1784 then sold back to the French a century later.  Its coat of arms still bears the Three Crowns (the Swedish national emblem) and the island’s main town is still called Gustavia after Gustav III of Sweden.  In the 18th century, it was Sweden’s fifth largest town.  Though it is difficult to quantify the numbers involved, there are estimates that between twelve and thirteen thousand captives were transported on Swedish ships.  Though the number is tiny compared to the millions transported by other countries, the figures show that the Swedes did have ambitions in that quarter.

The first Swedish slave trader arrived back from the Caribbean and landed at a quay in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan with four black children on board.  At nearby Slussen, iron ore from Swedish mines was sent to countries like Britain to be used for shackles and chains.  However, at the end of the day, the slavery project was an economic failure and the Saint-Barthélemy colony was a loss-maker.

Neighbouring Denmark (which included Norway at the time), on the other hand, was far more ambitious and far more successful.  Some of the large brick warehouses you see in the port area of Copenhagen were built with money from the slave trade. The Danish West India Company was chartered in 1671.  As well as forts and trading posts in West Africa, they possessed a number of Caribbean islands known as the Danish West Indies (now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands) before being sold to the United States in 1917 for $25 million.  The Danish also had small colonies and trading posts in India and China.  The excellent National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen has displays of their colonial history.

But back to Jack Johnson.  When white America couldn’t find a good enough fighter of their own to defeat Johnson (now the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World), they brought the full force of the state to bring him down.  When he skipped America after being spuriously charged with moving women over state borders for the purposes of prostitution, the boxer fled to Europe.  The top hotels of Paris and London, which had once welcomed this larger-than-life personality with open arms, refused to open their doors.  One country even denied him entry – Sweden.

In recent decades, Sweden has been the most generous of nations, letting in large numbers of immigrants.  This has caused some difficulties, but the country should be very proud of its humanitarian record.  The son of one of those immigrants is Badou Jack.  Born in Stockholm, Jack has held world boxing titles in two weight classes.  The fact that he is black shows that change can and does happen.