As a people, Swedes pride themselves on being one of the most equal, peaceful and caring people on the planet, a people who in stark contrast to other nations has never been engaged in any major forms of colonialism, and who has always opposed racism and sexism. The reality, however, is less flattering, and any serious attempt to study Swedish history will show that the general idea of Sweden as a utopian non-racist state without a colonial heritage is far from true.
Historically speaking, Sweden has been a key colonial force throughout Europe, occupying the majority of all countries bordering the Baltic Sea and to this day Sweden continues its colonial occupation of the ancestral homelands of the Saami which began with a decree issued by the King Magnus Eriksson in 1340 where it was stated that every Christian Swedish citizen was allowed to settle in Sápmi, back then referred to as Lappmarken, as long as they paid taxes to the king. Nowadays, the term Lapp is considered to be a racial slur, but many Swedes continue to use the term despite repeatedly being told not to by members of the Saami.
The actual full-scale colonisation of Sápmi, which includes the use of Saami reindeer herders as slaves in the silver mines in northern Sweden and the more or less complete destruction of the traditional religious practices of the Saami started in the 16th century, and exploded in the 17th century when the Swedish king Carolus XI declared that everyone who settled in Sápmi would be exempt from military service for life and that they would not have to pay taxes for 15 years, and thereafter pay less taxes than the Saami. Moreover it’s worth noting that Finland remained a Swedish colony until 1808, when Finland was turned into a Russian Grand Duchy.
The Swedish treatment of anyone who was considered non-Swedish was and in many ways still is appalling. Until the 1960’s, the Saami were denied the same basic rights as other Swedish citizens, and for a long time Saami reindeer herders were forced to pay taxes to both the Norwegian and Swedish state. The Saami who as an effect of this decided to give up reindeer herding as a profession were stripped of all their rights to refer to themselves as Saami, but were not granted Swedish citizenship rights. In the early 20th century, the Swedish state founded a race biological institute, whose main task was to study the Saami in order to prove that they were less human than ethnic Swedes.
In addition to this, the treatment of Jews and Romani people – both national minorities – has been characterised by discrimination and racism for years, and while the current favourite pet hate object of the casual Swedish racist has shifted somewhat from these groups to immigrants from Muslim countries, the fact that these groups face racism on a daily basis is an indisputable fact. Earlier this winter, a Romani woman was prohibited from renting a car, because of her ethnicity, and synagogues throughout Sweden have been vandalised frequently in the last ten years. The same goes for mosques, and full-blown, outspoken Islamophobia forms a major part of the current Swedish discourse.
What is perhaps even less commonly known is the fact that it was only in 1878 that the last Swedish colony, the Caribbean island Saint Barthélemy, shifted hands and became a French colony, now referred to as a French overseas department, and that slavery wasn’t outlawed in Swedish colonies until the 9th of October 1847, in turn not a decision taken based on a belief in human rights but rather a way to assure that the French and British would continue to trade with the Swedes in the Caribbean.
The Swedish Slave Trade was significantly smaller than that of the British and the Dutch, but it was nonetheless a n important member of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Sweden has had short-term colonies in a large number of African states, primarily on the African West Coast. Sait Barthélemy was essentially a slave trade port and the Swedish king at the time stated that “free import of slaves and trade with black slaves […] is granted to all nations without having to pay any charge at the unload.”
But racism is far from a purely historical issue; as recently as today, the news reported that immigrant officers and police had been seen at stations on the Stockholm metro, questioning anyone who seemed to be a non-ethnic Swede, and forcing them to produce their ID’s and immigration papers.
Ever since the racist party the Sweden Democrats gained a couple of seats in the Swedish Parliament, casual racism has been on the rise. At the moment the Sweden Democrats is the third largest political party in Sweden, this despite a number of recent scandals in which members of the party threatened immigrants with iron bars and shouted racist and sexist abuse at members of the public.