Book Spotlight: “Nordics in Motion: Transimperial Mobilities and Global Experiences of Nordic Colonialism, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 51/ 3, (2023)”

This special issue on Nordic transimperial careers and experiences investigates Nordic people operating in the world of empires ranging from Southeast Asia to Africa, and from Europe to the Caribbean and North America.[1] It focuses on border-crossing individuals, addressing inter-imperial questions of race, otherness, and the civilizing mission, and tying into existing networks, while seeking to create new ones. Nordics in motion sought access, opportunities, and new beginnings, for authenticity and acceptance. They found personal success and failure. They were part of the transimperial social scenes and knowledge production, while at times claiming a role as outsiders critical of colonial rule.

This special issue has its origins in two earlier special issues in Finnish and Swedish. Editors Janne Lahti and Rinna Kullaa (Finland) and Gunlög Fur and John Hennessey (Sweden) discovered each other’s projects just before publication of their respective special issues on the colonial entanglements of Sweden and Finland. These were published in each country’s leading historical journal,[2] but the guest editors’ ignorance of developments in their neighboring country convinced them that more international cooperation was needed in the field of Nordic colonialism. At the initiative of Janne Lahti, a group of historians working on colonialism from across the Nordic countries formed a network with funding from the Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NOS-HS). The network held several international workshops and planned an international special issue to bring together scholars of different facets of Nordic colonialism and present this to an audience outside of the Nordic countries.[3]

Inspired by transimperial history this special issue explores a variety of individuals originating in the Nordic countries whose lives became entangled with European imperial ambitions and networks.

Mikko Toivanen (University of Warsaw) explores the career of Hjalmar Björling, who attempted to make a career in East- and Southeast Asia in the late nineteenth century. A Swedish-speaking Finn, Björling had a multifaceted identity even before traveling east, and attempted to capitalize on both Swedish and Finnish contacts while abroad. Contrasting with better-known stories of successful international businessmen, Björling’s story reminds us of how international mobility was no guarantee for fame and fortune even for Europeans at the apogee of modern imperialism. His attempts to gain prominence as a merchant, a planter in the Dutch East Indies and even as an author were all foiled, and he returned to Finland in the wake of a series of failures.

The article by Malin Gregersen (Linnaeus University) focuses on another major group of transimperial Nordic individuals: missionaries. Despite their small size, the Nordic countries sent out numerous missionaries during the modern Age of Empire, with Norway sending out more per capita than any other country. Gregersen describes how Norwegian and Swedish missionaries interacted with other Europeans and local society in Changsha in the 1920s, arguing that their specific Nordic identities were for the most part subsumed by their Europeanness until a crisis in 1927 forced the evacuation of all foreigners in the city.

Diana M. Natermann (University of Hamburg) investigates notions of manliness and whiteness in her contribution on Swedish mercenaries and administrators who worked for the Congo Free State. These Swedes worked in a variety of capacities, whether mercenaries, missionaries, steamboat captains or traders. Using ego-documents such as letters and diaries, she explores how Swedes tried to uphold their self-image and perceived superiority to the local population through European dining practices and other customs.

There is a similar micro-historical focus in Raita Merivirta’s (University of Tampere) article on Bror and Karen Blixen, the latter of whom was the author of Out of Africa (1937). As upper-class, well-connected individuals, the pair had few difficulties establishing themselves among the mostly British colonial elite of Kenya after moving there to set up a plantation. As with the Missionaries in Changsha, the Scandinavian identity of the Danish-Swedish Blixtens became most apparent in conjunction with a crisis: in this case, their loyalties were questioned with the outbreak of World War I.

Class and race are also prominent themes in Janne Lahti’s (University of Helsinki) article on the transimperial sojourns of Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela and his family. The Gallen-Kallelas also interacted with colonial high society in British East Africa, especially through Akseli’s mania for big game hunting, but they often expressed ambivalence about their neighbors and the treatment of locals. The family’s later travels to New Mexico brought them into the heart of another settler community that Lahti revealingly compares to their earlier East African stay.

A recurring theme throughout the special issue is the multifaceted identity that Nordic individuals could take on in transimperial situations. Deliberate fashioning of a self-identity was thereby a key expression of their agency in colonial contexts. Our focus on Nordics on the move shows the situational identities and shifting parameters and meaning of whiteness in imperial spaces. This is certainly true of Finnish settlers in early-twentieth-century Cuba, as described by Aleksi Huhta (University of Helsinki). These settlers had ambiguous ties to the United States, often emigrating to Cuba after first emigrating to the United States, but frequently falling between the cracks of U.S. immigration law and protective tariffs that often destroyed their fledgling businesses. At the same time, while sometimes viewed desirably for their “whiteness,” the Finns often failed to make significant inroads into local society, leading most to ultimately abandon the country.

Victor Wilson (Uppsala University) complements the special issue’s emphasis on modern colonial history with an investigation of early modern Swedish involvement in the slave trade. Although the role of the Swedish Caribbean colony of Saint Barthélemy in the slave trade is well known (especially during periods of war in Europe when Sweden’s neutral status made it attractive), Wilson reveals that Swedes also attempted direct slaving voyages of their own. Drawing on previously forgotten voyages, Wilson demonstrates that Swedish maritime men were inexperienced with the slave trade and therefore relied on other Europeans for equipment and contacts, making the voyages transimperial endeavors. In the main example discussed, Swedish neutrality did not prevent their ship from being boarded and a number of slaves confiscated by belligerent European powers, leading, together with other misfortunes, to the failure of the voyage.

As a reminder of the heterogeneity of and colonialism practiced even within the Nordic space, the final piece, by Carl-Gösta Ojala (Uppsala University) discusses Sámi mobility through transimperial networks. This could be voluntary or forced, as in the case of Sámi artifacts and human remains that circulated throughout Europe and Sámi who were exhibited in traveling “human zoos” or performances.

Interesting themes run throughout the essays in the issue, including the malleability of identity (whether national, racial or religious), the importance of contacts in transimperial endeavors and the possible failure of colonial enterprises. This special issue contributes to ongoing discussions on “colonialism without colonies” and on the positions, mobility, and range of opportunities available for people on the move in the world of empires. It expands the horizons of existing scholarship on Nordic colonialism and invites parallels to other “marginal” European imperial players like Switzerland and Poland.

[1] Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 51:3 (2023), URL: <> (Accessed: 4 October 2023). The entire special issue is available open access.

[2] Historiallinen Aikakauskirja 4 (2020) and Historisk tidskrift 3 (2020).

[3] (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Author profile

Dr. Janne Lahti (PhD in 2009) is a historian who works at the University of Helsinki, Finland, as an Academy of Finland Research Fellow. He has also taught at the University of Arizona and recently at Free University Berlin. He has been awarded the Fulbright Fellowship, Huntington Library’s Mayers Fellowship, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions Distinguished Visiting Fellowship in Perth, Australia. His research focuses on global and transnational histories of settler colonialism, borderlands, the American West, and Nordic colonialism. He has published numerous articles and edited volumes, most recently editing a special issue, with Rinna Kullaa, on “Finland and Colonialism” for Historiallinen Aikakauskirja. He has also published six books, including German and United States Colonialism in a Connected World: Entangled Empires (Palgrave, 2021), Cinematic Settlers: The Settler Colonial World in Film, with Rebecca Weaver-Hightower (Routledge, 2020), The American West and the World: Transnational and Comparative Perspectives (Routledge, 2019) and Wars for Empire: Apaches, the United States, and the Southwest Borderlands (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017).

Author profile

John Hennessey is a historian based at the Department for the History of Ideas and Sciences, Lund University. His dissertation, "Rule by Association: Japan in the Global Trans-Imperial Culture, 1868-1912" (Linnaeus University, 2018) examines the transimperial exchange of ideas about the assimilation of colonized peoples between the Japanese Empire and various Western empires. His current project examines globally-circulating racial discourses about the Ainu people and their political ramifications.

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