Christiansenpark – A garden of the colonial era

In autumn 2018, Flensburg’s city parliament approved the redevelopment of the green spaces on the western Geesthang under the project name “Christiansens Gärten”. This was completed in summer 2023. The area is named in the project concept as a unique cultural-historical ensemble. In addition to the barrier-free connection of the three green spaces and the upgrading as a recreational area, an “upgrading of the historical green spaces of Museumsberg, Alter Friedhof and Christiansenpark” should also be realised. (see Website of the city)

This green space above the old town is a much-visited public space whose origins are directly related to Danish colonialism. Its visibility as colonial heritage was not the focus when it was decided to renovate the park according to the ideals of horticultural art with municipal, state and EU funds. The project name “Christiansen’s Gardens” was also intended to symbolically honour a Flensburg merchant family, although the garden no longer belongs to them for a long time.

Now an information board reminds us that the designers and former owners of the garden around 1800 were among the richest families in the city, who gained their wealth by exploiting enslaved people on Caribbean sugar cane plantations.

During the final phase of the renovation, the Flensburg Postcolonial Network was invited to support the design of the information board “A Garden of the Colonial Era”. The board was placed at the park entrance and transforms the recreational and adventure space also in a postcolonial place of remembrance. The following more detailed presentation of the colonial dimensions of the park is intended to complement the information board in the park and invites all readers to engage with the site and its multifaceted significance.

Bild der Tafel, die im Christiansenpark aufgestellt wurde. Die Tafel hat einen grauen Hintergrund und ist schmal und hoch. Oben ist ein schwarz weißes Bild des Hafen von St. Thomas zu sehen. Die Tafel trägt die Überschrift "Ein Garten der Kolonialzeit". Darunter sind drei Textabsätze.

Picture of the information board that was erected there in July 2023 as part of the redevelopment of Christiansen Park. The short text on the board now reminds us that the gardens were created in the context of the racist system of enslavement and plantation economy. Readers can read more about the colonial history of the garden on this website. Photo: private.

The gardens of the merchant family Christiansen

Flensburg’s green space, which today extends over the old cemetery, Christiansenpark and parts of the Museumsberg, is used by many Flensburg residents as a leisure and recreation area in the middle of the city centre. This area was already used for promenading by bourgeois society 200 years ago. The question of the origins of these gardens leads back to the end of the 18th century and to the merchants Stuhr and Christiansen. The park is still named after them today, even though it has long since ceased to be their property. Andreas Christiansen Sr. designed the surrounding of the 1799 built Boreas Mill as a mill garden, which was initially used for agricultural purposes (Messerschmidt 1996). Later, from 1810 to the mid-1820s, the area was redesigned and extended several times as a landscape garden by his son, Andreas Christiansen Junior. In the course of this, the park cemetery with chapel was created (1810-1813, today “Alter Friedhof”) and the Geesthang area on the Museumsberg and the Südergraben were included (1811-1816). The park thus extended to the historical settlement boundary at “Holm”. The park was finally extended with the purchase of Peter Clausen Stuhr’s landscape garden in 1820, which had already been laid out above the Old Cemetery in 1797 (see Figure 1).

At first glance, the question about the origins of the gardens seems easy answered: wealthy merchants from Flensburg laid out a park in the early 1800s. The park was intended for their own recreation, but could also be used by other citizens, thus creating prestige and gratitude towards the merchant family. The landscape garden is a typical example for representation strategies of the rising European bourgeoisie around 1800. Strolling around in a garden was no longer just an occupation of the aristocracy. Merchants who had become rich aspired to this lifestyle and wanted to show off and enjoy their growing prosperity with gardens and mansions.
But this answer does not provide any information about the origin of the wealth and the urban-political importance of the merchant family, which made the creation of the gardens on the settlement border of the then densely populated city possible. The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie drew attention to the danger of a one-sided story in her famous TED Talk (“The danger of a single story”, Adichie 2009). The story told so far is such a single story. At this point, the other stories of the creation of these landscape gardens should also be told.

Figure 1. Detail from the city plan (1849) by O. Wergeland (Flensburg City Archives). The plan shows the gardens after the purchase of the Stuhr landscape gardens (visible above the churchyard). The garden around the Boreas Mill, laid out by Christiansen senior and extended by Christiansen junior, can be seen below the churchyard. Access here was through the garden of Christiansen’s palace on the Holm. The sarcophagus-shaped churchyard, today the old cemetery, connects the two landscaped gardens.

The transatlantic enslavement trade between West Africa and the Danish colonies

The path of profits to finance the original garden leads to the west coast of Africa and the Caribbean in the mid-17th century. It shows Flensburg’s global connections during Danish colonialism. The sugar cane trade was an extremely profitable business for European merchants at that time. This was linked to the deportation and enslavement of thousands of people from the African coasts and their brutal exploitation on the sugar cane plantations. In the 17th century, royal Danish companies (such as the Guinea Trading Company or the Danish West India Company) began to build forts on the west coast of Africa from where they deported people to South America, the Caribbean and North America and sold them to companies and plantations there. This marked the beginning of Denmark’s participation in European colonialism. Between the late 17th century and the early 18th century, Denmark took over the three Caribbean islands now known as St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John (now US Virgin Islands) from other European colonial empires.

From 1755, the Danish royal dynasty allowed Flensburg merchants to trade with the sugar cane plantations in the Danish colonies. For 109 years, Flensburg merchants and shipowners had direct access to the three Caribbean islands, which were called the “Danish West Indies” and the sailing route was named “West Indies voyage”. Shortly after this privilege came into force for Flensburg seafarers and merchants, Andreas Christiansen Sr. (1743-1811) began an apprenticeship as a merchant (Messerschmidt 1996) and undertook his first voyage to St. Croix in 1766 as an employee of the Flensburg merchant Feddersen (Albrecht 1995). At that time, almost 35,000 Africans had already been deported to the three Caribbean islands and more than 9,000 had died during the Atlantic passage (Emory Centre for Digital Scholarship 2010). Most of these people were held in the Danish forts on the coast of Ghana. The best known and oldest of these forts is Fort Christiansborg, also known as Osu Castle, in today’s capital Accra (Degn 1974: 120f). There, the prisoners were forced onto ships specially equipped for human transport, on which they were deported to the Americas and the Caribbean.

When Christiansens sen. arrived 1766 on St. Croix island, there were estimated 15,000 enslaved Black people living (Flensburg Maritime Museum 2009), who were forced into hard and dangerous work on the sugar cane fields and in the sugar refinery and usually only survived for ten years. Sugar cane plantations covered the entire islands (see Figure 2). The reed-like plants grew in rows up to five metres high on extensive fields (Degn 1974: 60). Since the sugar cane had to be processed quickly after harvesting, the infrastructure for further processing was also located on the plantations. Windmills or horse mills to press the juice from the cut cane, a boiling house to boil the juice and bring it to crystallisation, a drying chamber where the crystallised sugar could dry, a warehouse where the sugar was stored until it was shipped to Europe, and finally a distillery where the sugar molasses was processed into cane rum (ebd; Mintz [1986] 2007; see also Figure 3).
The term plantation describes not only the area where cane sugar was cultivated and processed in monocultures, but also a racialised, violently enforced land expropriation and global division of labour that dehumanised Black people and degraded them to commodities and low-cost production factors (Ferdinand 2021: 46). The physically demanding and tightly timed work in the sugar cane fields and in the boiling house was predominantly done by enslaved Black people, as was the construction of the port and settlement infrastructure on the islands.

The transatlantic enslavement trade between West Africa and the Danish colonies
Colonial entanglements of Flensburg

From 1755, the Danish royal dynasty allowed Flensburg merchants to trade with the sugar cane plantations in the Danish colonies. For 109 years, Flensburg merchants and shipowners had access to the three Caribbean islands, which were called the "Danish West Indies" and the sailing route was named "West Indies voyage".

Explanation of the term "Black"

"Black" is capitalised here as a political self-designation and thus denotes an effective social reality rather than a classification of external appearance. In contrast, "white" is written in lower case as a description of social positioning (Sow 2018).

Figure 2. Detail of the map of St. Croix (1754, signatures from 1766) with plantation boundaries and signatures for horsemills and windmills. Flensburg ships docked in the harbour of Christianstæd (detail top right). (Kgl. Bibliotek København, Id 523067, own alteration).
After trade with St. Croix was opened to Flensburg merchants in 1755 the former mahogany forests had already been largely cleared and sugar cane plantations dominated the landscape of the island run by European entrepreneurs or companies (e.g. the Danish West India Company). At the time of mapping around 9,000 enslaved Black people were forced to work on St. Croix (Flensburger Schifffahrtsmuseum 2009).

Flensburg's merchants and enslavement

The living conditions of the enslaved people could not be overlooked by Christiansen sen. as well as all other Flensburg seafarers and merchants involved in the colonial trade. They were profiteers of this system of exploitation and helped to organise it.

Merchant family Christiansen and Caribbean sugar cane plantations

The living conditions of the enslaved people could not be overlooked by Christiansen sen. as well as all other Flensburg seafarers and merchants involved in the colonial trade. They were profiteers of this system of exploitation and helped to organise it. Christiansen sen. negotiated with the plantation owners on St. Croix in the 1770s in the interest of his business and, as the agent of the Flensburg merchants, ensured the expansion of relations and an intensification of trade with the Danish colonies (Albrecht 1995). Christiansen sen. made a total of six trading trips to St. Croix in the period from 1766 to 1775 and stayed on the island for up to a year and a half (Flensburger Schifffahrtsmuseum 2009). At the same time, there are hardly any accessible documents from this period that provide information about how Christiansen sen. experienced the conditions on the island (Schmalen 2023). In the late 1770s Christiansen sen. also traded with the Danish colonies with his own ships (Albrecht 1995).

During this period, trade with the Danish colonies increased more and more: from 1773 to 1783, there were 43 ventures with 17 ships from Flensburg and a first Flensburg trading post was founded on St. Thomas (Flensburger Schifffahrtsmuseum 2009). Christiansen senior was also able to triple his sugar production by the end of the 18th century. In order to be able to realise the increasing amount of traded sugar, the number of Black people forced to work on the plantations also increased. Between 1755, the beginning of the Flensburg overseas trade, and 1773, the number of enslaved people on St. Croix almost tripled (Flensburger Schifffahrtsmuseum 2009). Until 1807, ships under the Danish and British flags arrived on the three islands colonised by Denmark with deported people from West Africa. Many were also sold on from there to other European colonies in the Americas.
Christiansen senior owned sugar refineries in the Danish colonies, trading estates and shipyards in Flensburg, operated oil mills and owned numerous ships trading colonial goods. The Christiansen family’s main business was “cost-intensive shipping and [the] risky overseas trade” (Albrecht 1995: 122).
The Christiansens were extremely successful until 1807. With the merchant ship “St. Croix”, they owned the largest ship in the Flensburg merchant fleet until 1807. Correspondingly central to the Christiansens’ commercial activities and thus also to their wealth was the work done by Black enslaved people on the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean.

As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, trading opportunities for Flensburg ships were severely limited. In 1807, after Denmark gave up its neutrality and fought alongside France against England, this first profitable phase in colonial trade ended for the Flensburg merchants. Due to the Continental Blockade, an economic embargo imposed by Napoleon on the United Kingdom and its colonies, no ships could set sail and the danger of being attacked was high. From 1814 onwards, however, the number of ships sailing from Flensburg to the Caribbean quickly increased again (Gesellschaft für Flensburger Stadtgeschichte 1966: 244) and Andreas Christiansen Junior (1780-1831) soon became one of the main players in Flensburg’s West Indies trade once again. In 1823, for example, six of the thirteen ships that were to bring sugar from the Caribbean plantations to Flensburg were equipped by Christiansen junior (ebd.: 245). The globalised trade in sugar and other colonial goods remained a risky business, however, despite the financial security provided by trading companies. Merchant Stuhr, for example, went bankrupt with the sea blockades by the British (ebd.: 242f.). Thus Christiansen junior, who successfully continued the colonial goods trade through clever stock-keeping and diversified enterprises, had the opportunity to buy and redesign the Stuhr gardens in 1820 and thus expand his park area.

Resistance of plantation workers

The European colonies in the Americas, the sugar plantations operated there and the enslavement ships between Africa and the colonies have always been places where enslaved people have resisted violence and dehumanisation. This resistance to tyranny and exploitation took many forms: be it escape and a self-determined life away from European-controlled areas (e.g. Maroon communities in all American and Caribbean colonies), the expulsion of the colonisers (e.g. Haitian Revolution in 1791), which often took place violently in guerrilla-like struggles against the colonisers, the destruction of the plantations, suicide on the enslavement ships crossing the Atlantic, or cultural practices of resistance and solidarity in stories, songs and dances (e.g. capoeira dance) (Beushausen/Brandel/Farquharson/Littschwager/McPherson/Roth 2018).

These forms of resistance also existed during the colonial period of the Danish Caribbean islands. In 1733, enslaved Black people were able to gain control of the island for several months through a revolt on St. John (Sebro 2013). The artist La Vaughn Belle, who works on the US Virgin Islands and whose work questions colonial hierarchies and the invisibilisation of racist relations, reports in her work We are the monuments that won’t fall  about William Davis, who planned a rebellion on St. Croix in 1759. The Danish colonial masters became aware of the plans and publicly tortured Davis as a warning. William Davis was not the only one who resisted. La Vaughn Belle emphasises that many brutal punishments were threatened and implemented only because enslaved people “dared to see themselves as human beings in a society that did not consider them as such” (Belle 2020, own translation). The curator of the exhibition Rum, Schweiß und Tränen, Dr. Imani Tafari-Ama, also interpreted the brutal neck irons that were placed around people’s necks to tie them up not only as instruments of punishment, but also as evidence that there were numerous uprisings.

The most famous revolt on St. Croix took place in 1878 and is known as the Fireburn Revolt. Although slavery no longer existed in the Danish Caribbean islands at this time (it was abolished in 1848 after a rebellion by the enslaved, Holsoe 2009), racist, dehumanising labour conditions continued to prevail on the Danish Caribbean islands (see Figure 3). The basis for many restrictions on freedom had been laid down in the Labour Act of 1849 after emancipation (Tyson 1995). For example, labour contracts could only be terminated or renewed once a year (on October 1st). The duration of contracts as well as wages and working hours were fixed by law and could not be negotiated. On October 1st 1878, workers protested on St. Croix against the restrictions on freedom and the harsh working conditions. This protest turned into a two-week uprising led by four women workers – Mary Thomas, Axeline Elizabeth Solomon, Susanna A. Abrahamson and Mathilda McBean (called “Queen Mary”, “Queen Agnes”, “Queen Bottom Belly” and “Queen Mathilde”) – in which nearly 360 hectares of sugar cane fields were burned and many plantation owners were forced to flee (Nielsen 2020).

The Danish colonialists countered this resistance to continued exploitation and restriction of freedom with cruel violence and repression on the islands and a prison sentence for the leaders of the Fireburn revolt in Copenhagen. This reaction served as a deterrent in the colonies and to confirm power in the colonial centre. The European plantation owners feared for both their lives and their wealth in the face of the uprisings. The suppression of the uprisings thus also ensured that Black people remained exploitable and thus the necessary labour force on the plantations was secured. Even after the abolition of slavery, racist, dehumanising labour conditions continued to prevail on the Danish islands in the Caribbean. In the US Virgin Islands, the annual commemoration of the Fireburn Rebellion is an important date for the descendants of enslaved plantation workers. Black artists La Vaughn Belle and Jeannette Ehlers erected the monument “I am Queen Mary” at the West Indies Warehouse in Copenhagen in 2017 to memories the revolters. Furthermore, in the USVI Studies Collective, feminist scholars work together to reflect on history(s) of resistance and in connection with contemporary struggles.

Widerstand der Plantagenarbeiter:innen
The Fireburn Revolt

The most famous revolt on St. Croix took place in 1878 and is known as the Fireburn Revolt. Although slavery no longer existed in the Danish Caribbean islands at this time (it was abolished in 1848 after a rebellion by the enslaved, Holsoe 2009), racist, dehumanising labour conditions continued to prevail on the Danish Caribbean islands.

Figure 3. Painting of Mary’s Fancy plantation on St. Croix (ca. 1850) by Fr. Melbye (Handels- og Søfartsmuseum på Kronborg, HS no.: 1949:0303).
Fritz Melbye was born in Denmark in 1826 and went to St. Thomas in 1849. He lived there for just under three years. Even though slavery had been banned in Denmark shortly before, in 1848, racist, dehumanising working conditions continued to prevail. For example, people were only allowed to change jobs, i.e. plantations, once a year (on October 1st). Moving from one Danish (or other) island to another, as was easily possible for Melbye to make the painting, but was much more difficult for Black people. The poor working conditions, unfair pay and extreme restrictions on freedom for workers on the plantations led to what is probably the most famous uprising on St. Croix, the Fireburn Revolt, in 1878. After this uprising, the Labour Act of 1849 was abolished and after a general strike in 1879, regulations for freely negotiable labour contracts came into force.

Construction activities in the Christiansenpark

Construction of the Boreas Mill with adjoining mill garden

Creation of the old cemetery

Redesigning of the site, including the Südergraben and the Geest slope on today's Museumsberg

Purchase of the Stuhr landscape gardens

Construction of several farm buildings

Landowner Fromm acquires the western part of the park

Mayor Funke acquires the eastern part of the park

ab 1880er:
Development of the eastern part

Purchase of the western part by the city of Flensburg and accessibility for all Flensburg residents

Redesign of the garden area

Financing landscape garding from profits of the colonial trade

It is striking that landscape gardening took place during the period of the Continental Blockade and thus the standstill of Flensburg’s shipping operations in the colonial trade from 1807 to 1814. For example, Christiansen junior, who in the meantime ran the family’s trading business, was a member of the commission charged with laying out the Old Cemetery between the Stuhr and Christiansen gardens from 1810 to 1813 (Redlefsen 1964). In addition, redesigned in 1811 the mill garden created by his father around 1800 and made extensive extensions to the garden (ibid.). It can be assumed that, on the one hand, the decline in overseas trade made stored sugar an even more profitable commodity and, on the other hand, the profit from the colonial goods business could not be invested directly in the shipping company and shipping. This meant that financial resources were available for the representative design of the gardens. Even in these years of economic crisis, these made it possible to celebrate the social status and the self-conception of the newly rich bourgeoisie in the wake of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Christiansen junior died in 1831. At the same time, the Christiansen’s importance in overseas trade and sugar production also declined (Albrecht 1995). At the time of his death, Christiansen Jr. was nevertheless described as a “benefactor” who “had a sense of the noble that elevated him far above the class of the one-sided speculating merchant” and to whom the people of Flensburg would be grateful for his English park (quoted in Redlefsen 1964: 42). This description exposes an ideal of the bourgeois merchant who bears responsibility and helps to shape bourgeois culture. Christiansen junior was thus able to fulfil this ideal, above all through the design of the gardens, which brought him recognition and demonstrated his cultural affinity. At the same time, he always remained involved in speculative business by participating in colonial trade.

Even today, the perception of the merchants Christiansen senior and Christiansen junior focuses on gratitude for the park and its importance as a green space and meeting place in Flensburg. An article in the local newspaper Flensburger Tageblatt in 2009 described the Christiansen family as follows: “They were extraordinarily successful merchants, shipowners and entrepreneurs, but had retained their civic spirit and were also interested in art and culture. The magnificent Christiansen Park, which the people of Flensburg can still enjoy today, goes back to the initiative of members of this family.” (Philipsen 2009). Absent from the public memory of the Christiansen family (for the most part until today) is its connection with the racist system of the plantation economy.

Flensburg’s colonial trade finally declined from 1838 onwards due to a lack of sales opportunities and a drop in the price of sugar after the introduction of sugar beet and low-cost sugar production (Gøbel 2018: 136). Andreas Christiansen III, the son of Christiansen junior continued together with his mother Jeanette the Christiansen family’s trading business (Messerschmidt 1996). After bankruptcy in 1850, the landowner Fromm acquired the western part of the park, which remained in the possession of the Fromm family as a green space over the following seven generations (Sturm/Schwensen/Oeding 2009: 43) and is preserved today, reduced in size, as Christiansenpark. The eastern part of the park was acquired by Mayor Funke in 1866 (ibid.). From the 1880s onwards, the park was developed with a museum, court, prison and schools (ibid.). In order to protect the western part of the park from development plans and to make it accessible for the people of Flensburg, the city acquired the park in 1992. It is significant that the public history narrative of the park ignores both the colonial history and the subsequent owners. Even today, the project name ascribes gratitude for the park’s existence to the Christiansen merchant family, but does not emphasise the public investment in maintaining the park in 1992.

English landscape gardens as a nature formation ideal of European merchants

With the purchase of the Stuhr Landscape Gardens in 1820 and the subsequent redesign of the entire grounds and buildings, the landscape gardens finally became a landmark in Flensburg (Redlefsen 1964: 28ff.). Christiansen Park was designed according to the ideal of the English landscape garden, which was supposed to express the longing for the lost paradise and the ideal of a humane and liberal society. This horticultural ideal had – at least originally – a moral-enlightenment claim and was an expression of a social development that began in 18th-century England and spread to the northern European colonial states. From the middle of the 18th century, English moral philosophers exaggerated nature as a moral force. This was a new ethical and at the same time political claim of the new garden art. Nature was to be experienced in its own essence and beauty with the landscape gardens (Buttlar/Meyer 1996).

The English landscape garden was not originally designed for the general population. In the early phase, nature in the landscape garden was mirrored in poetry, painting and history, the comprehensible perception of which required a trained aesthetic sensibility and a comprehensive, almost elitist education in the viewer. The gardens offered panoramic views of magnificent oaks and beeches as trees of national identity, but also introduced plants from the colonies, especially American hardwoods and conifers. They contained recreated ruins of Roman and Greek antiquity or relics of Egyptian or Phoenician antiquity (cf. sarcophagus in Christiansen Park) as a reference to the region constructed as the European civilisation of origin, elements of Masonic aesthetics (cf. mirror grotto in Christiansen Park) and agricultural buildings of a romanticised peasant life. All elements that refer to the social ideals and virtues of the liberal Enlightenment and nature romanticism. Unlike strictly symmetrical Baroque gardens, landscape gardens favoured wavy terrain with curving paths. This was intended both to convey a sense of spaciousness in the grounds and to express a liberal disposition. The garden was to become a work of art of sensations such as grace, grandeur, serenity, wildness and melancholy, to be experienced individually as one walked through it.

The first Englishmen to remodel their country residences around London in the new style were oppositional noblemen, poets and politicians with liberal sentiments. Many of them were organised in the enlightened Freemason lodges (Freimaurerlogen) that had been formed since 1717 (the first lodge was also founded in Flensburg in 1809, with a residence directly below Christiansenpark). These first landscape gardens were created only for the very educated, liberal class of society. It was not until the emergence of “garden tourism” in the mid-18th century that these gardens were opened to a wider public and the landscape garden quickly became fashionable and English landscape gardeners were hired in many European port cities of the colonial trade. In Altona, also in Denmark, numerous landscape gardens for merchants of the colonial trade were created during the period and, like Christiansenpark, were placed on the Geesthang overlooking the arriving ships (see Figure 4).

English Landscape Gardens

Christiansenpark was designed according to the ideal of the English landscape garden. These landscape gardens were originally intended for the highly educated, liberal classes and their elements were intended to refer to the liberal Enlightenment and the emerging romanticism of nature.

Figure 4. Painting by Matthias Kriegsmann (1825-1835, Museumsberg Flensburg, inventory no. 17701). The painter is standing at the old cemetery and looking towards Flensburg. To the right of the cattle pasture, out of the painter’s field of vision, is the Boreas Mill together with the mill garden. The Boreas Mill was built in 1799/1800 by Christiansen senior above the Geesthang area on what is now Museum Hill. The surrounding garden was mainly used for agriculture. At the time the painting was created (1825-1835), the former Stuhr gardens already belonged to the Christiansen family. Thus the landscape gardens continued to extend behind the painter’s back. The people strolling or riding through the gardens in the picture obviously belong to the middle-class, educated population of Flensburg. The picture thus also gives an indication of who primarily used the gardens laid out by Christiansen.

Synchronicity of the emergence of landscape gardens and colonial plantation economies
Contradictory gardens

The ideal of sensitivity for nature as a new virtue of the Enlightenment in the 18th century and the simultaneous destruction and degradation of nature in the conquered colonies, the murder of the indigenous population and the brutal exploitation of Black people on the plantations are in stark contradiction, which could only be legitimised by a racist view of the world and humanity. This thinking continues to have an effect today, when only one-sided memories are given of the prosperity and the brilliant achievements of the merchant families who were involved in this plantation economy of the colonial era.

Synchronicity of the emergence of landscape gardens and colonial plantation economies

The European landscape gardens are also places of representation of the colonial plantation economy. They materialised the synchronicity of the gardening art of the bourgeoisie and the enslavement trade as well as the synchronicity of the Enlightenment in Europe and the brutal rule in the Caribbean around 1800. In accordance with this synchronicity, the builders of the landscape gardens are in personal union colonial profiteers and creators of a landscape idyll in the centres of the globalised plantation economy. Flensburg’s colonial trade caused landscape changes in different places, often far away from each other: The emergence of landscape gardens in Flensburg, which are commonly regarded as an expression of a specific human-nature relationship and served bourgeois representation, must be seen in the context of interventions in natural resources, the exploitation of Black people in the Caribbean and the unfolding of global trade activities (vgl. Walden 2000).

In order to plant the extensive sugar cane fields, large areas of forest were cleared beforehand, thus completely transforming the landscape of St. Croix. The missionary Christian Oldendorp stayed on the three Danish colonised islands in 1777 and described that hardly anything was left of the former mahogany forests (Oldendorp 1995 [1777]). The cleared mahogany wood was first used for the construction of the plantation buildings and the surplus wood was then sold to Europe for a profit (Grigull 2018). As a result, mahogany wood was also processed into furniture in Flensburg, which was then often shipped back to the Caribbean as so-called “colonial furniture” to serve as furniture for the plantation owners there (ebd.). Massive ecological destruction was caused not only by the establishment of plantations, but also by the operation of the plantations: the cultivation of sugar cane in monocultures leached the soils, caused severe erosion on the slopes and ultimately led to such a severe decline in soil fertility that some plantations were no longer productive after 50 to 75 years (Moore 2000: 416ff).

The ideal of sensitivity for nature as a new virtue of the Enlightenment in the 18th century and the simultaneous destruction and degradation of nature in the conquered colonies, the murder of the indigenous population and the brutal exploitation of Black people on the plantations are in stark contradiction, which could only be legitimised by a racist view of the world and humanity. This thinking continues to have an effect today, when only one-sided memories are given of the prosperity and the brilliant achievements of the merchant families who were involved in this plantation economy of the colonial era.

In colonialism studies, there are still large gaps in research on the context of origin of European landscape gardens in relation to the participation of their builders in the colonial plantation economy. What this knowledge can mean for the current design of these parks, which in many cases have passed into municipal hands and have become publicly accessible, multifunctional recreational spaces, is an open question for the entire urban society. This also includes addressing the consequences of the appropriation of wealth by Flensburg merchants in the Caribbean under conditions of acquisition and exploitation for contemporary life on St. Croix, St. Jan and St. Thomas as well as in Flensburg.

Flensburg's culture of memory

The practice of denying racist conditions in Flensburg’s present culture of remembrance is an expression of the coloniality of everyday life. Colonial relations of violence cannot be understood as having been overcome in the time being, or as being outside of what constitutes European societies. They continue to have an effect – in the colonised places as well as in the colonising countries of Europe and in the experiences of Black people. To speak of a “dark chapter in European history” or to emphasise that the colonised islands were very small compared to the English colonial empire is a form of disassociation and relativisation of responsibility and prevents a confrontation with racism. Gloria Wekker describes the deflection of responsibility by profiteers of colonial and post-colonial structures as a strategy of “white innocence”, which manifests itself in the attitude of denying structural racist discrimination and colonial violence and at the same time legitimising the exclusion of so-called “foreigners” (Wekker 2016).
In many European port cities, former port quarters such as harbour heritage, old warehouses, Kontor houses and landscape parks are being renovated, reconstructed, put on display and named after colonial actors as part of urban development projects. In this way, the colonial era is positively remembered and its racist context faded out.

This form of selective memory is also called colonial amnesia: Connections to colonial structures of violence are disconnected from historical persons, events and places of local identity (Bauriedl/Carstensen-Egwuom 2023). However, reflexive and connective remembering is important for a diverse, inclusive and transnationally integrated urban society and to understand the culture of memory in the Caribbean islands. The narrative of the “rum city of Flensburg” is only complete with a connected and active remembering of historical injustice – always in linked to today’s injustices. Black people are permanently reminded of racist and colonial violence. This experience is reinforced when the colonial legacy in Flensburg is remembered as a heroic history.

The positive honouring of the Christiansen merchant family by naming a central city space and preserving the elements of the English landscape garden, which has so many traces of colonial history, is one example of many of selective memory. Remembering colonial entanglements triggers discomfort – both among people who tend to identify with the profiteers of the plantation economy and the descendants of the formerly enslaved people. In some European cities, ways are being tested to make this discomfort productive for a more inclusive urban society. Curated exhibitions like the one in 2017/18 at the Schifffahrtsmuseum (“Rum, sweat and tears – Flensburg’s colonial heritage”), postcolonial city tours or information boards in the city that go beyond the one-sided focus on the success story of the seafarers and merchants can contribute to this. From our point of view, making the memory of colonial conditions visible in public space can contribute to addressing the responsibility for anti-racist, solidarity-based justice in Flensburg and the Caribbean islands.


Coloniality describes the persistence of European cultural and economic dominance, and the retention of power by white ruling classes despite formal decolonisation (Quijano 2016).

Sybille Bauriedl, Lara Wörner, Inken Carstensen-Egwuom, Nelo Schmalen (Europa-Universität Flensburg, Institut für Umwelt-, Sozial- und Humanwissenschaften, AG Sozialgeographie)


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