Thorkild Hansen’s slave trilogy

Medial scapes and the imprint of history

In the late 1960s the Danish author Thorkild Hansen wrote the docu-fiction trilogy Slavernes kyst (1967, transl.: Coast of Slaves, 2002), Slavernes skibe (1968, transl.: Ships of Slaves, 2007), and Slavernes øer (1970, transl.: Islands of Slaves, 2005).

Thorkild Hansen wrote his much lauded documentary book trilogy, for which he received the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 1971, on the basis of archival research, and we must remember in a time when access to archival material was practically more difficult – compared to today, when many sources have been digitized – due to the plain fact that one had to move physically about from institution to institution. Yet, he painstakingly researches his way through the archives, as a historian, and perhaps more extraordinarily he also travels to significant historical sites along the former Trans-Atlantic trade route between Denmark, Ghana, and the US Virgin Islands, conversing like a journalist with people he meets on his way.

The books are published at a time when very little critique had been raised in the national historiographic discourse about Denmark as a colonial power, as Marianne Stecher-Hansen writes in History Revisited: Fact and Fiction in Thorkild Hansen’s Documentary Works: “In this work Hansen challenges the cherished notion that Denmark led the way in 1792 by abolishing the slave trade. He produces an antidote to traditional historiography by countering textbook assertions with previously untapped documentary accounts regarding the slave trade” (Stecher-Hansen 1997, 80). In the book historical documents are interwoven with Thorkild Hansen’s own observations from his travels, and so the narrative glides back and forth in time to and from imagined historical scenes, often constructed on the basis of archival material, which gives voice to the archival documents, for instance when written documents become part of a dialogue (Hansen 1967, 65-66), and the time of composition.

An important effect of the style is that the reader is invited into the process of historical inquiry. The Danish literary scholar Thomas Bredsdorff suggests that twentieth-century media-technology created the foundation for the documentary method. He points out that the emergence of television, radio, film, and instantaneous news coverage reaches us artfully rearranged and interpreted through the media: “the more arranged and organized this reality becomes, the more art forms and documentary forms tend to merge” (Stecher-Hansen 1997, 23).

According to Stecher-Hansen “The emphasis on epistemological concerns went hand in hand with new narrative strategies. The creation of an illusion of authenticity, the interjection of an interpretative narrator, the focus on the difficulties involved in a factual inquiry, and the invitation to the reader to take a critical look at the research process itself, these are all characteristics of the documentary method and of Thorkild Hansen’s historical works in particular” (Stecher-Hansen 1997, 22).

It seems reasonable to assume that the media climate, but also the political circumstances of the late 60s, influence the approach to history we find in these books. The trilogy is written in the post-cold war era charged with a cultural angst perhaps not so dissimilar to our own, thus according to Thorkild Hansen: “If our times unexpectedly were hit by the other misfortune, to be remembered 200 years later, it would be for its odd, almost historical eagerness to be forgotten” (Stecher-Hansen 1997, 49).

Manuscripts shown with permission from the estate of Thorkild Hansen & Gyldendal

Another quote from Hansen with reference to his travel book En kvinde ved en flodwhich he wrote about an expedition to an archeological site in Sudan, might shed light on his frequently used method of research for his books of visiting the places where history took place and so to speak imprinted itself in the ground: “History is the story of mankind’s reality … and in archeology there exists a wonderful world of real and concrete things, which are dug out of the earth” (Stecher-Hansen 1997, 21).

In order to draw out a potential for new narrative imaginations from this complex and composite literary work, I want to focus on a few select writerly and readerly aspects by asking what does it do, in effect, to our perception of history, when Hansen visits historic places like an archeologist on the look for historical deposits. I would like to tentatively call them medial scapes, places such as the slave fort ruins on the African coast or plantations in the Caribbean, because this is how they are used in his work as anchors and conveyors of the traumatic history. We go back to them to commemorate events but also to search for some palpable remnants that will aid our relation to history and memory going forward.

An apparent condition for the writerly method is the media horizon of the 1960s, and the possibility for international travel available to the author, but we could also ask to the conditioning effects for reading of the method chosen by Hansen; how do we perceive history, in its aesthetic form, through which we access it, differently by his approach. What kind of voice or meaning-overflow is created by this measure? That we at all return to a physical source, a real or imagined imprinted landscape, as the writer actually does, and that we as readers do in our minds, invites us to think of history as layered and not strictly linear, I would argue.

Obviously, there are other medial circumstances and media-specific traits of ThorkildHansen’s trilogy, which condition the readerly reception, namely that the work is published in the book medium with its tactile qualities, which invites a special type of calm, immersed interaction with the reader at a distance in space and time, differing from the more simultaneous sharing of knowledge on the web, closer to speech (Emerson 2014; N. Katherine Hayles 2012) and in the Danish language, which defines an audience and immediate ecology for the work.

In fact, I believe Hansen’s main concern was a corrective and direct address to the Danish national self-perception with a then, and still, subdued understanding of its imperialist past. As the Danish historian Astrid Nonbo Andersen observes: “The Danish colonial rule in the Danish West Indies was challenged by the locals throughout the history of the Danish West Indies. The most well-known examples are the slave insurrection on St. John in 1733, the emancipation of the enslaved in 1848, the Fireburn on St. Croix in 1878, and the union leader D. Hamilton Jackson. On the other hand, it is only from 1998 that West Indian voices actively begin to interfere with the Danish narratives about the common colonial era. With a few exceptions, people in the Virgin Islands do not speak Danish and have therefore not been able to participate in the public debate” (Nonbo Andersen 2017, 57).

From these readings, let us take note of a development changing the conditions for writing history from the 60s to today: An erosion is played out in the transition from analog to digital media in which new ways of accessing cultural heritage archivalia become prevalent, and new constellations of material, new materialities even, and channels of distribution appear, which cater for new communities in the making. As anthropologist Arjun Appadurai writes in “Archive and Aspiration”: “Through personal websites, digital archives of all sorts of collectivities (both paid and free), storage sites in cyberspace for large data sets, and the possibility of sending pictures, sounds and text to multiple users with high speed and large amounts of high quality information, the archive is gradually freed of the orbit of the state and its official networks. And instead of presenting itself as the accidental repository of default communities (like the nation), the archive returns to its more general status of being a deliberate site for the production of anticipated memories by intentional communities” (Appadurai 2003, 17).

Even Thorkild Hansen’s books can today be accessed online and read on e-readers, so the changed media landscape is not so much characterized by ruptures as by slow erosions that, however, do impact accessibility and concordantly relationality between work and reader in major ways.

Manuscripts shown with permission from the estate of
Thorkild Hansen & Gyldendal