A small gripe. I get a bit fed up with Swedish friends suggesting – even jokingly – that I must have some latent ‘imperialist’ DNA in me because I’m British, and even more when they learn that I write about the British Empire. If they read my books (especially the latest, British Imperial) they’ll know that’s not true. More irritating, however, is the high moral ground they take to shoot these barbs (or jokes) down from. Sweden – that paragon of liberal social-democratic virtue – is entirely innocent of imperialism, even in the past. Isn’t that so?
Well, actually, it isn’t. OK, the Vikings were a long time ago; as were the Normans, who were ‘North-men’ originally, and subjected England to her most brutal colonial conquest in the eleventh century – amounting to almost a genocide in Yorkshire, where I live; and, in addition, bequeathed to her most of the noble families whose descendants became the leading British imperialists later on. (So, going back, our imperialism was all the Scandinavians’ fault.) Don’t be fooled, by the way, by the excuse that the Swedish Vikings, as opposed to the Danes and Norwegians, were peaceful traders rather than marauders. They did their share of raping and pillaging, albeit in an easterly direction; and traded in slaves. Later Sweden took several ‘proper’ colonies in Africa, eastern North America and the West Indies, abolishing slavery in the last of these a full twenty years after Britain abolished it in her empire; had an ‘East India Company’ just like England’s; ruled over Norway, Finland, northern Germany and the Baltic states at various times; did much of the dirty work in other nations’ colonies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (like the awful Belgian Congo); were the leading colonial settlers in Wisconsin and Michigan; and still could be said to exert what today is often called an ‘informal’ imperial sway all over the world, through IKEA, H&M and Clas Ohlson. (Far-fetched? But if the spread of American MacDonalds eateries can be described as ‘imperialism’, then so can this.)
All this isn’t to denigrate the Swedes in particular (God forbid!); but merely to show that any people can be ‘imperialistic’, and most have been at one time or another, ever since the Cro-magnons displaced the apparently much nicer Neanderthals (we’re not sure exactly how) 30,000 years ago. Imperialism, in other words, is a normal, and maybe even a ‘natural’, collective human activity. Sweden was implicated too.
But not of course any of my Swedish friends, who can’t be blamed for crimes committed before their time; as neither, however, can I. – There, that’s off my chest.
PS. Researching some time ago for a conference paper on historical British attitudes to Scandinavia – alas, never published – I found a couple of late-mediaeval/early-modern sources claiming that the European peoples as a whole originated in the forests of Scandinavia, swarming down imperialistically in hordes (waving their flat-pack swords, no doubt) to populate the whole of a previously quite empty continent. One of the names given to Scandinavia then, deriving from this, was vagina gentium. Oh dear.