Danish Empire

Though not a country often associated with colonialism, Denmark (or Denmark–Norway during the union between the two countries) had an empire. Today, the only two overseas lands that remain a part of the Kingdom of Denmark are Greenland and the Faroe Islands, both with varying degrees of autonomy.

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Denmark and its possessions in the mid-18th century at the empire's peak
Church of Norðragøta in the Faroe Islands with its roof containing a Faroese twist

Denmark (or Denmark–Norway during the union of the two crowns between 1524 and 1814) was not the most well-known of the colonisers, nor is it commonly associated with colonialism. For the most part, that's justified given the Danish Empire was not very large compared to other European empires. Excluding Danish Estonia, Denmark had first possessed colonies since 1536, and its last colony was granted full internal self-government in 1953.

In a sense, the Danish Empire can be said to have begun in 1380 when the Norwegian king died without an heir, resulting in the crown of Norway being passed onto King Olaf II of Denmark. Although Denmark and Norway were officially considered to be separate and equal sovereign kingdoms during the union of the crowns, in practice, Denmark was the dominant part of the union, with the king primarily based in Denmark, and a steward appointed to govern Norway in the king's absence.

Denmark–Norway's first colonial claims were first made in 1536, when Norway laid claim to Iceland and the Faroe Islands. While Norway claimed these two lands, when Norway eventually became a part of Sweden, the overseas colonies of Denmark-Norway went to Denmark, and as such, Iceland remained under Danish rule until it gained independence in 1944, while the Faroe Islands remain a part of the Danish realm to this very day.

The next major colony that Denmark possessed was in 1620, when it held the Indian city of Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi). For the most part, it was "just there", quietly sitting until it eventually was sold to the British in 1845, becoming a part of the British Raj.

Later that century, Denmark came into possession with the Danish West Indies, now the modern day US Virgin Islands, and it was the only colony that took up an entire landmass outside the Europe-Arctic region.

After the Napoleonic wars when Norway was ceded to Sweden, all of Denmark–Norway's overseas possessions remained under Danish rule, including colonies that Norway had colonised, leaving Norway with Svalbard (which was handed over to Norway after Norway was ceeded to Sweden) and the uninhabited possessions of Jan Mayen, Bouvet Island, Peter I Island and Queen Maud Land, with the last two only recognised by Australia, France, New Zealand and the United Kingdom (all of which recognise each other's Antarctic claims).

Denmark's empire finally came to an end after its last two remaining possessions, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, were granted autonomy. The Faroe Islands were granted self-government in 1948, while Greenland was granted self-government in 1979. After concerns by the UN's Special Committee on Decolonization in 2009, Greenland was given further autonomy. Today, both Greenland and the Faroe Islands have their own constituent parliaments, and are in practice self-governing. Denmark only manages currency, immigration, foreign affairs, defence, justice and pours a ton of money into both territories.


Map of Danish Empire

Danish West Indies (U.S. Virgin Islands)[edit]

Fort Christian from the north

The Danish West Indies was the only major colony that Denmark held outside Europe and Greenland, as its colonies in Ghana and India were no more than a few settlements. The first island of the modern-day USVI that Denmark possessed was the island of Saint Thomas, acquired in 1671. Saint John was later acquired in 1718, and Saint Croix was purchased from France in 1733.

In 1917, the Danish West Indies was sold to the United States of America for a cost of US$25 million, and is now a US organized territory.

  • 1 Blackbeard's Castle (Skytsborg). A castle erected in 1679 to protect the harbour and Fort Christian. The castle is on the highest point of Government Hill and served as a very effective vantage point for Danish soldiers to spot enemy ships. Blackbeard's Castle (Q2968446) on Wikidata Blackbeard's Castle on Wikipedia
  • 2 Christiansted National Historic Site (Christiansted Historic Site), Christiansted. The site consists of seven acres centered on the Christiansted waterfront, or wharf area. On the grounds are five 18th- and 19th-century structures in the capital of the former Danish West Indies: Fort Christiansvaern (1738), the Danish West India & Guinea Company Warehouse (1749), the Steeple Building (1753), Danish Custom House (1844), and the Scale House (1856). Christiansted National Historic Site (Q4241290) on Wikidata Christiansted National Historic Site on Wikipedia
  • 3 Fort Christian. Named after King Christian V, construction began in 1671 and it is today the first successful colonial Danish establishment in the US Virgin Islands. It became a museum in 1971, and was extensively renovated in 1983. Fort Christian (Q1773741) on Wikidata Fort Christian on Wikipedia
  • 4 Fort Frederik. This fort was built to mark presence in the Danish West Indies, as well as to protect the western part of Saint Croix from attacks by other European colonial powers. It was completed in 1760, after 8 years of construction, and was named after King Frederik V. At the fort is Freedom Square, where Peter von Scholten on July 3, 1848, declared that all slaves in the Danish West Indies were free. Fort Frederik (Q4994594) on Wikidata Fort Frederik on Wikipedia
  • 5 Creque Marine Railway (St Thomas Marine Repair Facility), Virgin Islands National Park. A railway constructed by Danish investors during Danish colonial rule. Creque Marine Railway (Q5184293) on Wikidata Creque Marine Railway on Wikipedia


Estonia was ruled as the Duchy of Estonia, a dominion of the King of Denmark from 1219–1346, when it was sold to the Teutonic Order.

  • 6 St Olaf's Church (Oleviste kirik) (Tallinn). Dating back to the 13th century, perhaps the most visible reminder of the history of Danish rule in Estonia's capital. It is named after King Olaf II of Norway. St. Olaf's Church (Q834511) on Wikidata St. Olaf's Church, Tallinn on Wikipedia

Faroe Islands[edit]

St Olav's Church – the oldest church in the Faroes
Torshavn Cathedral in front of some Faroese buildings

Though the Faroes are a collectivity of Denmark, the Faroe Islands have had a greater Norwegian influence than a Danish influence. The Faroe Islands were a part of the Kingdom of Norway between 1035 and 1814 – for almost 800 years. For much of this time period, Norway was in a union with Denmark, but after the Napoleonic wars, when Norway was ceded to Sweden, the Faroes remained a Danish colony. Still, to this day, there is a greater influence of Norwegian architecture.

One notable Danish and Norwegian influence that can be seen today is in the architecture of many churches, including of those found in tiny towns, which is indeed very Danish or Norwegian – although many have grassy roofs, giving them a Faroese twist.

  • 7 National Museum of the Faroe Islands, Brekkutún 6. Though not explicitly associated with colonialism, one can learn about the colonial times of the Faroe Islands here. Although many items, including those associated from its colonial times, were moved to Denmark proper, these have now been returned to the Faroes. National Museum of the Faroe Islands (Q946378) on Wikidata National Museum of the Faroe Islands on Wikipedia
  • 8 Saint Olav's Church, Kirkjubøur, Streymoy. Built in the 12th century, this church is the oldest church in the Faroe Islands. It was one of many sites of the Reformation (the transition between Catholicism and Lutheranism); some artefacts, including the pew ends, can be found in the National Museum of the Faroe Islands today. Saint Olav's Church, Kirkjubøur (Q631984) on Wikidata Saint Olav's Church, Kirkjubøur on Wikipedia
  • 9 Skansin, Tórshavn. Though built by a Faroese naval officer in 1580, many cannons were installed by the Danish. Just before the Second World War, the British installed some guns. Today, it stands as a historic fortress. Skansin (Q1187793) on Wikidata Skansin on Wikipedia
  • 10 Tórshavn Cathedral (Havnar Kirkja), Tórshavn. A Evangelical-Lutheran cathedral established in 1788 and has been the seat of the Bishop of the Faroes since the late 20th century. The original church was built in 1609 after directed by King Christian IV, but this was later demolished to build the cathedral that stands today. Although the design was changed, most of the furniture was transferred to the cathedral. Tórshavn Cathedral (Q1072725) on Wikidata Tórshavn Cathedral on Wikipedia

Gold Coast (Ghana)[edit]

The remains of Fort Kongenstein today
Fort Fredensborg can hardly be considered a "structure" today

The Danish Gold Coast wasn't overly large by most means, and Denmark only possessed a few fortifications along modern-day Ghana. Many of these forts had great strategic importance, and most were used to load enslaved Africans onto ships bound for the Americas, as part of the Atlantic slave trade. They were all eventually sold to the United Kingdom in 1850 at a cost of £10,000, and became part of the larger British Gold Coast, later to become the independent Ghana. Some of these forts have now been repurposed, and are visitable, at least from the outside, while others have been victims of erosion and climate change.

Some of these forts are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, under the title Forts and Castles, Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions, enlisted in 1979.

  • 11 Fort Augustaborg. This fort was built in 1787, on the coast at Teshie, just east of Accra. Unlike other Danish forts in the Gold Coast, while this fort was sold to Britain, Britain never utilised the fort. Fort Augustaborg (Q1438441) on Wikidata Fort Augustaborg on Wikipedia
  • 12 Fort Christiansborg (Osu Castle), Adabraka. Built in the 1660s, designed to serve as the capital of the Danish Gold Coast. Ownership between the fort had changed quite a lot, with it changing to Portugal, the Akwamu, Britain, and now Ghana. It used to be the seat of government of Ghana (since 1902), but it has since moved to the Jubilee House. Osu Castle (Q1082964) on Wikidata Osu Castle on Wikipedia
  • 13 Fort Fredensborg (Fort Fredenzburg). This fort was built in 1734. Like other forts in the region, it was used for the slave trade, but once that ended, it very soon decayed by 1835, to the point where there was only one man stationed to "maintain the flag". Fort Fredensborg (Q11970014) on Wikidata Fort Fredensborg on Wikipedia
  • 14 Fort Kongenstein, Ada Foah. Though half of the fort has been eroded, thanks to rising sea levels, this fort is one of the most accessible Danish forts. It was considered particularly important as that part of the Gold Coast was near a salt mining centre (which was just to the north). Fort Kongenstein (Q1438586) on Wikidata Fort Kongenstein on Wikipedia
  • 15 Fort Prinzenstein, Keta. A slave-trade fort built in 1784, for defensive purposes after the Sagbadre War. The fort was also a point of trade of imported and exported goods to and from the Gold Coast. Fort Prinzenstein (Q1438675) on Wikidata Fort Prinzenstein on Wikipedia


First settled by Norsemen in the 7th century, Iceland came under the rule of the Norwegian crown in 1262. Iceland was incorporated into the Kalmar Union with Denmark, Sweden and Norway when the Norwegian royal line was extinguished in 1380, and subsequently became part of Denmark-Norway when Sweden regained its independence as a separate kingdom in 1523. After the union between Denmark and Norway was dissolved in 1814, Iceland remained under the rule of the Danish crown, though it was granted full internal self-government in 1918. Iceland eventually gained complete independence from Denmark as a republic on 17 June 1944.

From 1602-1786, the Danish government imposed a trade monopoly on Iceland. Iceland was only allowed to trade with Denmark, and all trade in Iceland was only allowed to be conducted by Danish merchants. This led to much poverty for the Icelandic people as most of the profits from this trade were funnelled to Denmark.

  • 16 Básendar, Southwest Iceland. Former fishing village that became one of the trading posts of the Danish Trade Monopoly. A tidal flood destroyed it in 1799, and only ruins remain today. Sandgerði (Q1019466) on Wikidata Sandgerði on Wikipedia
  • 17 Eskifjörður (Eskifjördur), East Iceland. A fishing town of about 1,043 that was a trading port since 1786, which boomed after Danish company Örum & Wulff opened a trading post in 1798. Today, Eskifjörður has a museum that tells the history of the town's trade history on top of the town's current fishing industry. Eskifjörður (Q765521) on Wikidata Eskifjörður on Wikipedia


Map of Danish India
Fort Dansborg in Tharangambadi

When it comes to colonialism in India, very few associate Denmark with it, with that spotlight often going to Britain and sometimes France and Portugal. However, Denmark did have a few small colonies in India, with two on the mainland, and the third a few hundred kilometres offshore in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and the primary reason why the Danes fought for these colonies was spice trade. Like the several forts that Denmark possessed in Ghana, these three colonies were eventually sold to Britain and became a part of the British Raj in the mid-19th century.

  • 18 Nicobar Islands, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The set of 22 islands were first colonised by Denmark in 1754, under the name Frederiksøerne, and the colony was administered from the mainland in Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi), though it was not Denmark's most successful colony and the islands were repeatedly abandoned due to tropical diseases such as malaria. The Austrian Empire mistakenly thought these islands were abandoned, only to find out they weren't, but Denmark's rule to the islands came to and end when the Nicobar Islands were sold to Britain in 1868. Nicobar Islands (Q157286) on Wikidata Nicobar Islands on Wikipedia
  • 19 Serampore (Frederiknagore) (includes 20 Danmarksnagore Gondalpara on Wikipedia (now Gondalpara)). Though there are relatively few relatively few remnnants of Danish colonialism in this town, the Serampore College is a prime example of Danish architecture, and that college also happens to be Denmark's third university. Serampore (Q1815367) on Wikidata Serampore on Wikipedia
  • 21 Tharangambadi (Tranquebar, Danish: Trankebar). Tranquebar was the first Danish trading post in India, established in 1620 and there are large remnants of Danish colonialism in Tranquebar. By far, the most important Danish colonial historic site is probably Fort Dansborg, which is the second largest Danish fort ever constructed, and the largest outside Denmark. The Tranquebar Museum also features many Danish manuscripts, while New Jerusalem Church was a 1718-built church, and has services every Sunday. Tharangambadi (Q732594) on Wikidata Tharangambadi on Wikipedia


Akershus Fortress as seen from Oslofjord

Norway came under the rule of the Danish crown in 1380 as part of the Kalmar Union, as the previous king had died without an heir, thus resulting in the Norwegian throne passing onto King Olaf II of Denmark. Norway remained under the rule of Danish crown after Sweden pulled out of the Kalmar Union in 1523, and the resulting kingdom was known as Denmark-Norway, in which Denmark was the de facto dominant part with the king primarily ruling from Copenhagen. The union between Denmark and Norway was dissolved in 1814 as Norway was ceded to Sweden under the Treaty of Kiel in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. Norway would subsequently gain full independence from Sweden with its own separate king on 7 June 1905.

  • 22 Akershus Fortress (Akershus Castle), Oslo Sentrum, Oslo. A medieval castle that served as the principal Norwegian residence of the king during the years of union with Denmark. In the absence of the king (who was primarily based in Denmark), it served as the residence of the Steward of Norway. After the original city of Oslo was destroyed in a fire, it was rebuilt in a new location adjacent to the castle and named Christiania after King Christian IV of Denmark. The name of the city was reverted to Oslo following Norwegian independence. Akershus Fortress (Q644464) on Wikidata Akershus Fortress on Wikipedia
  • 23 Kristiansten Fortress (Kristiansten festning), Trondheim. Small fortress on a hill overlooking the centre of Trondheim, built in the 1680s. The only time the fortress has been in use was when the Carolean troops (the Swedish army during the reign of King Charles XII) tried to invade Norway in late 1718. Have a walk in the area for good views of Trondheim. If you can't be bothered with the hills, get bus 63 to Ankersgata, or rent a bike and use the bike lift! Kristiansten Fortress (Q2705932) on Wikidata Kristiansten Fortress on Wikipedia
  • 24 Fredriksten Fortress, Halden. After Bohuslän was lost to the Swedes in 1658 and the border was moved north, a new border fortress was needed. Fredriksten in Halden was built for this purpose, a basic fortification in 1659 which was enlarged during the rest of the 17th century. This is where the Swedish king Karl XII (Charles XII) was killed in 1718, which was a major turning point in the Great Northern War.

See also[edit]

Other colonial empires[edit]

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