5. Economic development, colonies and agrarian reforms

In 1660, the Danish state faced major economic difficulties. In order to secure the survival of the absolute monarchy and to build a strong state, tax policy was prioritised, and the former ‘Crown domains state’ (domænestat), which to a large extent lived off the revenues from the Crown manors, made way for the ‘fiscal state’. Within a few decades, the absolutist fiscal state was able to increase tax revenue significantly, and approximately two thirds of this revenue went towards the army and the navy. The state knew that establishing a solid tax base was crucial for safeguarding the interests of power, and that this in turn required prosperous subjects. To this end, a mercantilist business policy was launched in an attempt to create a positive trade balance. This policy included trade with the overseas colonies and, from the middle of the eighteenth century, agrarian reform.

Recession, agricultural crisis and plague

From the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century, the economy was characterised by stagnation, and the country experienced long-term decline in its dominant sector, agriculture. The international economic climate had been affected by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which had destroyed traditional markets and credit mechanisms, leading to falling demand and prices. Sales of grain and cattle – the main Danish export goods – fell drastically, and grain exports to western Europe in particular declined, due to import duties in many of the recipient countries. This led to a re-organisation of trade, so that grain produced in the kingdom of Denmark was sold to Norway, where the government gradually established a monopoly on grain imports by imposing duties on foreign grain. It was possible for Norway to maintain a significant export of timber for shipbuilding to the British and Dutch merchant and navy fleets. Despite this, exports fell overall; by the end of the seventeenth century, export figures had halved compared with the beginning of the century, and goods were sold at lower prices.

Agricultural production was hampered by harsh climatic conditions, including colder winters and increased rainfall. The seventeenth century, just like the period before, saw low average temperatures, which reached their nadir in the middle of the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, average temperatures once again increased. The low average temperatures from the mid-seventeenth century negatively affected harvests and contributed to a long-term agricultural crisis. This crisis worsened in the 1730s with drastic price reductions, and, in the 1740s, the country was hit by cattle plague, which killed approximately 300,000 animals. The Danish population had suffered during the Swedish wars due to looting and destruction by soldiers and the enforcement of tax payments. In addition, the troops brought plague, which broke out in 1659 and killed between 25% and 30% of the population. Over half the population died in the worst-affected parishes in Schleswig. Epidemic disease, combined with unfavourable economic conditions, falling prices and declining exports, meant that in many places parts of the population were living close to the subsistence level. A major epidemic of bubonic plague hit Sjælland in 1711 and killed more than 23,000 people, which corresponded to approximately a third of the population of the capital.

Economic boom, 1750–1800

In the early 1750s, the former period of economic stagnation gave way to an economic boom. This lasted until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the Napoleonic Wars drastically changed the country’s economic situation once again. Around the mid-eighteenth century, international economic conditions developed positively and created fertile ground for growth in international and domestic trade. One of the main sea trading routes went via the Øresund, and the number of ships that called in at Helsingør in order to pay transit duties more than doubled between 1750 and c. 1800. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Sound toll amounted to around 10% of the country’s tax revenue. At the same time, crop yields and grain prices increased significantly during the period, contributing to a general upturn in living standards.

Colonial trade and mercantilism

The overseas colonies were an important factor in the kingdom’s economic recovery. In the eighteenth century in particular, trade flourished in the colonies in the Caribbean, West Africa and India that Denmark had acquired in the seventeenth century. The acquisition of these colonies was economically motivated. The mercantilist requirement to be as self-sufficient as possible stimulated attempts to gain a share in the lucrative overseas trade, which was dominated by the Netherlands and Britain in the seventeenth century, and later also by France. In the North Atlantic, economic motives were supplemented by a geopolitical interest in upholding established territorial rights. Hans Egede’s colonisation of Greenland from 1721 should be seen in this context.

Colonial trade was organised by companies that functioned like a type of joint-stock enterprise. They were robust enough to withstand short-term adversities, such as shipwrecks, and large enough to operate colonial facilities. They were closely connected to the Crown, which granted them privileges and monopolies until trade became sufficiently stable in the mid-eighteenth century. The location of Denmark’s colonies in India, Africa and the Caribbean – as well as its emerging trade with China from the 1730s – meant that merchants (particularly those from Copenhagen) could profit from the import and re-export of spices, cotton, silk and tea from the Asian market and sugar and rum from the Caribbean, where enslaved Africans worked in sugar production. Colonial trade flourished especially in the final decades of the eighteenth century, because the larger colonial powers’ involvement in wars made it possible for Denmark to trade in their place for as long as it could remain neutral. The Danish capital was briefly a northern European hub for goods from the colonies, which contributed to strong economic growth.

The Growth of the Capital

Watch this film in which Niels Brimnes talks about the growth of capital, the colonies, and colonial trade in Copenhagen in the late 18th century. The film is in Danish with English subtitles, and lasts about ten minutes. Click 'CC' and choose 'English' or 'Danish' for subtitles.

The slave trade ban in 1803

Denmark established itself in the Atlantic trading system, which is also referred to as the ‘triangular trade’. Enslaved African people were transported from the West African coast to colonised islands in the Caribbean, where they were used in physically demanding sugar production. From here, raw sugar was sailed home to be refined in Europe.

Denmark established the first trading fort on the west coast of Africa in 1659. At its largest extent in the 1780s, Denmark had six sites, the most important being Christiansborg near present-day Accra. However, it would be inaccurate to describe Denmark as a real colonial power in West Africa, since it did not control any rural areas of importance, and it had to adapt to existing power relations between the African states to a large extent.

The forts in Africa were the starting point for the Danish slave trade. Between 1660 and 1803, ships bearing the Danish flag transported more than 100,000 enslaved people on four hundred and thirty vessels to the Caribbean. This corresponded to 2.3% of the total slave trade in the period. Conditions on the slave ships were horrendous, and we know of eight cases of revolt on Danish slave ships, which were ruthlessly suppressed.

In the Caribbean, Denmark founded colonies on the islands of St Thomas in 1672, St John in 1718 and the somewhat larger St Croix in 1733. Here the systematic and brutal oppression of enslaved people continued in the sugarcane fields and boiling houses. From an economic perspective, the production of sugar and rum was a success; the plantation owners made good money, and in Copenhagen a sizeable and profitable sugar industry was built up.

A diagram of the British slave ship Brooks from c. 1808

A diagram of the British slave ship Brooks from c. 1808. The ship could transport four hundred and fifty-two slaves in one load by exploiting the available space to the utmost. In similar ways, Danish ships transported approximately 100,000 enslaved African people across the Atlantic. Upon arrival at the colonies in the Caribbean, many of the slaves were so weak that they died within a short period of time. On average, between 16% and 20% of enslaved people on board Danish ships died during the voyage due to dehydration, malnutrition or diseases such as malaria, yellow fever or dysentery. Photo: Royal Danish Library

The slave trade and sugar production

As a slave-trading nation Denmark was no different to others, so it may seem surprising that Denmark was the first country to ban the transatlantic slave trade in 1792. The ban was due to come into force only in 1803, however. The idea was that plantation owners should have the opportunity to intensify their import of enslaved people before the law was applied, so that, eventually, the slave population in the Danish West Indies would be able to reproduce itself. The immediate result of the ban was thus that the Danish slave trade culminated between 1793 and 1802. In this period, Danish ships transported almost 25,000 enslaved across the Atlantic. The main figure behind the ban was the finance minister and count Ernst Schimmelmann, whose family had four plantations in the Danish West Indies and who was Denmark’s largest slave owner. Schimmelmann’s motives have been vehemently discussed over the years but the current consensus is that economic and political considerations played a vital role in his push to ban the slave trade. By itself, and by contrast with the larger slave trading nations, the Danish slave trade made a loss, and the expectation among Schimmelmann’s associates was that a ban was imminent in Britain and that it would be opportune to align with the most important naval power of the time.

Banks and state bankruptcy in 1813

Bank notes gained ground in the course of the eighteenth century. Denmark’s first bank, Kurantbanken, was founded in 1736, followed by a number of other banks that could meet the needs of the business community. After the outbreak of war in 1807, the economic situation changed; government revenues were dramatically reduced and the opportunities to borrow abroad were limited. The government was forced to print bank notes to finance the cost, which led to massive inflation and depreciation of the currency. In 1812, inflation had reached such a high level that a radical monetary policy intervention was required. The state was bankrupt, and on 5 January 1813 the ‘decree on changing the currency system’ (forordning om Forandring i Pengevæsenet) was issued in order to restore confidence in the monetary system. However, the effect of this monetary reform was limited, and the currency was not fully stabilised until the late 1830s.

A rigsbankdaler banknote issued by the newly established Rigsbank (Danish central bank) in 1813

A rigsbankdaler banknote issued by the newly established Rigsbank (Danish central bank) in 1813. On 5 January 1813, a new currency system was introduced that replaced the rigsdaler with the rigsbankdaler. The entire monetary system was re-organised with this new unit of currency, which corresponded to half a rigsdaler. At the same time, a new central bank was set up, Rigsbanken, which was to administer the currency conversion and issue the  new banknotes. Photo: Royal Collection of Coins and Medals, National Museum of Denmark

Agrarian reforms and absolutism in practice

Economic and social conditions in Danish rural society were radically changed between the 1750s and approximately 1813. These changes were triggered by comprehensive agricultural reforms that, in the long run, resulted in the liberation of the Danish peasants. In the course of just one generation, most peasants went from being the tenants of estate owners to becoming owners of their own land (selvejere) or hereditary tenancies (arvefæstere), even though the transition to land-ownership was only completed approximately a hundred years later. Hereditary tenant farmers were given a type of extended right to use the farm and the right to bequeath it to family members.

Traditional peasant agriculture was characterised by a lack of resources, and the village community as well as the attachment to manors constituted an obstacle to economic growth. Agrarian reforms took place in three main areas: land reforms, the transition to private self-ownership and the establishment of a new and more regulated tenant system. The Danish agrarian revolution was a far-reaching and long-term reform process, inspired by similar reforms in parts of the duchies and other parts of the world, such as England. The reforms were shaped by contemporary thinking about enlightenment, freedom and equality, and only a minimal amount of coercion was required to implement them. The government created the framework for the new reforms via legislation, but they also gave the process consideration and time, and they were responsive to societal reactions. All parties – the estate owners, government officials and peasants – were consulted to some extent during the reform process, as part of opinion-guided absolutism.

From the early 1750s, agriculture enjoyed favourable climatic conditions, with an economic upturn and population growth. This created a desire to expand production by means of increasing the productivity of the land and turning it over to new uses. Until this point agriculture had relied on tenant farming and a collectively regulated system for cultivation in the villages, where the majority of the peasants had their farms. The peasants’ land was divided into many small lots, distributed around the village fields based on the principle that everyone should have a share in both the fertile and the less fertile soil. Before the reforms, the land mainly belonged to the manor owners and, to some extent, the king; tenant farmers merely had the right to cultivate the land. The tenant paid land rent (landgilde) to the estate owners in money or in kind, and they also had to supply hoveri (corvée), draft animals and tools for the cultivation of the manor farm fields.

Around 10% of the land belonged to and was run directly by the manor. The remaining 90% of agricultural land was run by tenant
farmers; the reforms targeted this land in order to have the greatest effect. Even though each peasant household cultivated his own land, the village community collectively decided on matters of crop rotation and cultivation. Such collective decision-making could be sluggish and left little room for the more enterprising farmers who wished to experiment with new methods. The old form of peasant agriculture had suffered from manure shortages, and thus nitrogen and other nutrients for the soil. This meant that the fields had to lie fallow at intervals once they had been cultivated. Throughout the eighteenth century, new methods of crop rotation, fertilisers and new crops were introduced, minimising the need to leave fields fallow. This made it possible to increase agricultural yield and reduce the necessity of collective production in the village community.

Public debate and early agrarian reforms

In 1755, in order to collect new ideas for the rationalisation of agricultural production, the government encouraged the population to submit in writing ‘all the matters that might be useful in maintaining the country’s prosperity’. In an absolutist society with restrictive censorship, this was a fairly liberal initiative that was intended to stimulate debate on economic and agricultural issues. The numerous submissions were published in the newly established Danmarks og Norges Økonomiske Magazin (Economic Journal of Denmark and Norway) between 1757 and 1764. The debates about political economy and the ideas regarding new cultivation methods that were published in this journal came to influence future work on the economic and technical development of agriculture and, as such, on the overall welfare of the country. From the mid-eighteenth century, several of the manorial lords from government circles developed their own initiatives to modify their practices and improve agricultural conditions. This was the case for A.G. Moltke’s Bregentved estate in southern Sjælland and foreign minister J.H.E. Bernstorff’s estate in Gentofte, where enclosure (udskiftning) and relocation of farms (udflytning) were initiated and trialled, and where peasants could buy themselves free of hoveri (corvée). In the duchies, enclosure and the redistribution of the village fields was already underway in the middle of the eighteenth century, providing valuable expe-rience on which to draw. With the udskiftning the former, fairly small pieces of scattered farmland were joined into larger fields in order to make agricultural production more efficient.

The first reforms in the kingdom of Denmark were launched between 1758 and 1760. Legislation permitted the abolition of the village community and the redistribution of land, allowing it to be brought together to make individual farms. This process relied on a land survey, followed by redistribution of the land and cultivation of new areas. The allocation to individual peasants of larger, contiguous plots surrounding their own farms, which were sometimes relocated, and the utilisation of land from uncultivated areas and field boundaries led to significant gains in productivity. In many areas, the farms remained in the village, with each farm being allocated a triangular-shaped plot that spread out from the centre (known as stjerneudskiftning). In other places, farms were relocated from the villages and farmhouses built on newly allotted land. Land enclosures did not always entail relocation, however. In Danish villages, enclosure began in 1781 and was largely complete thirty years later.

The question of regulating hoveri

One of the potential improvements highlighted by the tenant farmers themselves in the public debate on agricultural reforms was the abolition of unpaid labour – hoveri – which was an obligation for tenant farmers. Yet this became an extremely difficult issue to solve. A large part of the landowner’s income was based on demesne land, where the labour was supplied free by peasants. In addition, as part of the tenant system, peasants paid an annual land rent (landgilde) to the estate owner and a one-off duty (indfæstning) to the manorial lord when the tenant farm changed hands. Around the mid-eighteenth century, many lords had intensified their operations at their manor farms in an attempt to benefit from rising grain prices. The actual amount of work the peasants had to perform for their tenancies was not fixed, and when the estate owners wanted to increase their yield, they increased the amount of unpaid labour expected from the individual tenant farm. This meant that peasants bound by hoveri had less time to cultivate their own farms. For the manorial lords, their tenant farmers’ unpaid labour was the only option they could exploit if they wanted a share in the booming economic climate.

Between 1769 and 1773, the government tried to reform the system of unpaid labour. Initially, they wished to assess its extent by collecting information on each manor’s hoveri and the amount of work performed. Under Struensee’s term in office in 1771, hoveri was regulated by a decree that stipulated the number of working days and the nature of the work. The typical tenant farmer, or his labourers, was expected to offer three days of unpaid labour a week. To the great relief of the manorial lords, this law was revoked after Struensee’s fall the following year.

The reform of hoveri

In the late 1780s, the unresolved problem of hoveri was once again addressed. In 1786, the Great Agricultural Commission (Den Store Landbokommission) was given the task of improving and clarifying the legal status of the relationship between the estate owner and the tenant peasant, and the commission members were obliged to address the question of hoveri. Serving on the commission, among others, was one of the driving forces behind the agrarian reforms, the pro-reform leader of the Financial Chamber and estate owner Christian D.F. Reventlow. Work on clarifying the issue was made more difficult by the fact that both manor owners and tenant peasants began actively to engage in the situation, and the government therefore had to proceed with caution. In several places across the country, peasants conducted hoveri strikes and withdrew their labour in anticipation of the imminent abolition of unpaid work. And, in 1790, one hundred and three manorial lords in Jutland jointly submitted a protest address to the crown prince in response to the rumour of an impending hoveri reform. The parties on both sides were subsequently held legally accountable.

While the government claimed to reject the estate owners’ protest address and to support reform, the protest address led to its abandonment of its planned legislation on the regulation of hoveri. In the first instance, the solution was a 1791 law that made the matter of hoveri a voluntary agreement between the owner and the tenant farmer. If the two parties were unable to reach an agreement, mediation had to be carried out, and the final decision could be taken by a special hoveri commission. In 1799, the final corvée order was issued, which stipulated that the Financial Chamber needed to approve all extensions of hoveri. Thus hoveri did not necessarily decrease, but the estate owners lost their right freely to determine the extent of the unpaid labour provided by tenant peasants.

The abolition of the stavnsbånd

Among the most well-known agrarian reforms was the abolition of the stavnsbånd in 1788, which allowed the male section of the rural population to move from manorial land. The stavnsbånd was imposed in 1733 as part of the re-introduction of national conscription for military service. It was the estate owner’s responsibility to ensure that a certain number of peasants were available for military service; this number depended on the size of the estate. Only the men and boys of the rural peasantry had to perform compulsory military service, and it was far from popular. With the introduction of the stavnsbånd, peasants were bound to their place of residence and the estate on which they were born to prevent them running away and evading their military obligations. The introduction of the law also coincided with the crisis in agriculture, during which it was difficult for owners to find enough peasants to work their land. The stavnsbånd forced peasants to remain on their estate – initially between the ages of fourteen and thirty-six and, later, between the ages of four and forty – and thus ensured that estate owners had enough labour to run their farms and could provide the required number of men for military service.

The Great Agricultural Commission recommended the abolition of the stavnsbånd. Despite resistance from more conservative estate owners, an act to abolish it was passed on 20 June 1788, and it was finally phased out in 1800. As a result, the estate owners lost their formal power over peasants, who could now travel freely between manors and perhaps acquire better working conditions elsewhere. This development was an important step in peasants eventually becoming citizens with their own rights who could communicate independently with the state. With the abolition of the stavnsbånd, the state took over responsibility for conscripting soldiers through public systems, whereas it had previously been the estate owners who were required to select soldiers for the army from among the peasantry’s young men. In this way, estate owners had been able to exercise power on behalf of the state; it was an important development that the system for drafting soldiers was transferred from estate owners to the public authorities between 1788 and 1800.

Liberty Memorial (Frihedsstøtten), erected between 1792 and 1797 in memory of the abolition of the stavnsbånd in 1788

Liberty Memorial (Frihedsstøtten), which was erected at the western gateway into Copenhagen (Vesterport) between 1792 and 1797 to commemorate the abolition of the stavnsbånd in 1788. The obelisk was built as a symbol of the emancipation of the peasants and as a tribute to Christian VII. On one side of it is written: ‘THE KING ORDERED THE ABOLITION OF THE STAVNSBÅND’  (‘KONGEN BØD STAVNSBAANDET SKAL OPHØRE’). In fact, the state’s assumption of responsibility for the conscription system when the stavnsbånd was abolished meant that many more young men from the peasantry became soldiers than had done so previously. The young men in the towns were exempt from military service until 1849. Engraving by Frederik Ludvig Bradt (1747–1829), c. 1800. From: National Gallery of Denmark

The new rural community

The most important aspects of the agrarian reforms were udflytning, udskiftning and the transfer to self-ownership with the tenants’ purchase of their farms. Work on implementing these reforms continued throughout the 1790s and the 1800s. Aided by the favourable economic conditions of the time, the tenant farmer system was gradually replaced by self-ownership or hereditary tenancy. The first purchases of tenant farms on private estates took place in the 1750s; by 1807, approximately half of the country’s tenant farms were self-owned. Implementing the reforms was a lengthy process: in the 1830s, approximately a third of the peasants were still bound to their tenant farms, and half of these had to supply unpaid labour.

The new tenant system varied considerably across the country; self-ownership was most widespread in Jutland, whereas hereditary tenancies were predominant on Sjælland and Bornholm. On a number of manors in Jutland, the subdivision of the land and the sale of the tenant farms led to property speculation and ended with the abandonment of the manor farms. In western Jutland in particular, there were so-called ‘estate slaughters’ (godsslagtninger) which meant that, in this part of the country, manorial agriculture almost disappeared around 1810. The same development also took place on a number of private estates in the north and centre of Jutland.

Most of the many reform laws were aimed primarily at improving conditions for the country’s peasants, but not for the growing group of landless cottars (husmænd). By 1800, around half of these had been assigned small plots of land, but they were still dependent on paid work on the estates in order to maintain their livelihoods. As casual workers, they therefore formed a significant part of the labour reserve, while, at the same time, the tenant peasants began to buy their own farms and no longer had to offer unpaid labour to the estate owner.

A comprehensive reform process

The agrarian reforms of the second half of the eighteenth century generally helped to modernise society, improve the legal rights of tenant farmers and emancipate tenant farmers from manor owners. The initiative for the generally successful reform process came from both above and below in society – both the government and the population itself drove its implementation. The development was influenced by the principled, humanistic ideas of the Enlightenment about peasants’ rights; the government was prepared for the reforms and saw the need for fundamental economic and social changes in the rural community. The fact that they managed to implement the reforms – walking a narrow path between the interests of the parties involved – may well have helped to avoid creating fertile ground for the type of discontent and unrest that would lead to revolution, as was the case in France in 1789. In Denmark, there was fear of real resistance to the absolutist regime, which may have affected decisions about the reform process. At the same time, in the wake of the reforms, the increasingly strong Danish state showed that it could manage important tasks associated with the drafting of soldiers, which had previously been delegated to the estate owners.