Denmark's forgotten immigration history
Exploring the rich legacy of internationals in Denmark.
Text: Heather Storgaard
When discussing the challenges faced by internationals in Denmark, I am often told by Danes that Denmark is a very homogeneous country and isn't used to immigration. When I first accepted this, I wondered how accurate it was. But, of course, every international experiencing a new country is a kind of a pioneer. Still, the more I read, the more I realised that as a community, we have a long history and heritage in Denmark than it first seemed.
The North Sea and the Baltic
Geographically, my native country sits just across the North Sea from Denmark. Back when travel by ship was quicker than over land, the journey to Denmark could be easier than neighbouring England. As the Scottish King was married to a Danish Princess, Scots were considered automatic citizens of the Kingdom of Denmark for a time! Especially after Brexit, that sounds like a deal our ancestors should never have given up. These Scots lived lives as varied as modern-day internationals. Thomas Kingo was half Scottish, half Danish, with a dad and a surname from the Scottish Kingdom of Fife. He became a bishop and hymn writer, whose songs are still included in the High School Song Book issued to all Danish children. Linguists and historians believe that you can hear his roots, as Kingo used slightly odd Danish due to the Scots' influence on his language.
Also over the sea, Polish women in the early 20th century travelled across the Baltic to do seasonal work on Lolland. They have had a noticeable effect on the heritage of Lolland, as Polish-Danish families made their homes there for over 100 years.
"Denmark has also received refugees for a long time, accepting those fleeing religious or political persecution."
Refugees and religious minorities
Denmark has also received refugees for a long time, accepting religious or political persecution. For example, in the 17th century, Fredericia in Southern Jutland was designated as a town where religious minorities could claim asylum and enjoy religious freedom, allowing Jewish, Catholics and, most prominently, French Huguenots to settle there.
Not far from there, the charming UNESCO world heritage town Christiansfeld was founded by a religious order in the 18th century. The Moravian Brethren had been invited to move to Denmark to build a town after the King saw how economically prosperous they were. The town is famous for its honey cakes, also originally introduced by these internationals, who came most prominently from the modern-day territories of Germany, the Netherlands and Czechia.
The Gold Coast connection
During the slave trade, Denmark had several trading posts on the Gold Coast, modern-day Ghana, and a colony in the Danish West Indies. Records from Accra show how Danish men entered into relationships with local upper-class women, creating a hybrid Danish-African society. Many of these Afro-European children grew up to also marry Danes. Some found their way to Denmark, as some Afro-Danish children from the Caribbean did. Their reception varied - some were educated and settled in Denmark, while others felt unwelcome. Although they did not make up huge numbers, in terms of history, I believe it's important to point out that black and mixed-race people have been present in Denmark for centuries.
I hope you feel a sense of kinship with the internationals who made Denmark their home over the last few hundred years. While they may not be so present in Danish public memory, they left behind a rich legacy of song, literature and even an entire town for us to enjoy and celebrate as we follow in their footsteps.
Nella Larsen was born in the USA to a mother from Denmark and a father from the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands). Her 1928 semi-autobiographical novel Quicksand discusses her identity as a mixed-race, Danish-American woman living in the USA and Copenhagen. Her discussions about race, Danish language challenges, and the struggle for acceptance in Denmark continue to be relatable today.
Daughters of the Trade by Pernille Ipsen explores the Danish-African families and society over the centuries of Danish presence in Accra during the slave trade and doesn't shy from covering complicated topics.
Visit Thomas Kingos Church in Odense and if your Danish is good enough, listen to a hymn to see if you can tell where Kingo made some second-generation immigrant language slip-ups! Christiansfeld is a whole town built by immigrants to Denmark, offering beautiful surroundings and tasty honey cake to those who visit.