The pantomime ballet Mirza och [and] Lindor was performed at the Stockholm Royal Opera in January 1793. The programme stated that ‘the scene is set on the island of Saint Barthélemy’.1 Sweden had recently acquired its only Caribbean colony from France. Upon taking possession of the island in March 1785, Sweden became a slave nation for the first time since the abolishment of serfdom in the fourteenth century. The ballet was a localised performance of Maximilien Gardel’s Parisian success Mirsa. As its cast list included several enslaved persons, Swedish slaves were thus represented on Stockholm stages. Although this was the first time Saint Barthélemy was used as a stage setting in a Stockholm theatre, it was far from the first time slavery and colonialism appeared on Swedish stages.

Stockholm slavery theatre consisted of plays common to stages all over Europe, as well as originals by Swedish authors. Stockholm stages participated in what Elizabeth Maddock Dillon defines as an ‘Atlantic performative common’, where plays circulated and were adapted to local conditions.2 Mirza och Lindor is a typical example of such circulation: the year after the Stockholm premiere, it was performed in Charleston by a troop of fugitives from the rebellions at Saint-Domingue, the French colony that became independent Haiti within a decade.

I will give a brief introduction to slavery and colonialism in Stockholm’s Swedish-language theatre during 1774–1816, the same decades in which Sweden’s colonial ambitions reached their apogee. The subject is unchartered territory in Swedish theatre and literary history. The aim of this chapter is to establish an inventory of relevant plays, a necessary step before making a detailed analysis of the Stockholm repertoire.3 In addition to the ‘Atlantic common’‚ I include several plays set in the Ottoman Empire in this analysis of the theatre performed in Stockholm, thereby extending the geographical scope into the Eastern Mediterranean.

Slaves in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic

Today, slavery is mostly associated with the Atlantic slave trade and forced labour in the Americas. In eighteenth-century Sweden this perspective was less predominant, as reflected in the large number of plays performed during the second half of the century that introduced elements of Ottoman slavery to the capital’s stages. I intentionally avoid making a clear distinction between Mediterranean and Atlantic slavery, as that would be premature in this first effort to establish an overview of the Stockholm repertoire. While such Ottoman-themed plays are now often considered to be examples of orientalising exoticism, this may not have been so evident to eighteenth-century Swedish spectators. Indeed, Mediterranean and Atlantic slavery was often represented in quite different ways in Stockholm theatre performances, but there are also common themes in plays with Ottoman, American and African settings.4

Being enslaved in the Mediterranean was a real risk for Swedish seamen. Between 1650 and 1770, around a thousand Swedes were captured by North African corsairs. Appeals for money to ransom Swedish slaves were common during church services. Sweden eventually signed peace treaties with the North African Ottoman provinces and by the 1760s the risk of capture had diminished. However, the fate of these captives remained an element of the popular imagination; as late as 1773, a bylaw impelled the inhabitants of a provincial town not to trust journeymen collecting ransom money.5

The first play discussed here eloquently tackled the relationship between Mediterranean and Atlantic slavery. Sébastien-Roch-Nicolas de Chamfort’s Slafhandlaren i Smirne [Le marchand de Smyrne] was first performed in Swedish in 1774; it was a success, running for 36 performances until 1794. Its Swedish title underlined that the merchant’s main goods were slaves.6

In the play, several Frenchmen have been captured in the Mediterranean and put up for sale in Smyrna. When a French prisoner criticises the trader, Kaled, for selling him as a slave, he retorts: ‘But what do you mean? Do you not sell negroes? I sell you for the same reason …. is it not all the same? The only difference consists in that they are black, and that you are white.’7 What later became viewed as Chamfort’s incisive political criticism was already present in the play that was premiered in Paris in 1770.

During the same period, colonialism and slavery were frequently reported upon in Swedish newspapers and in a wide range of books – especially travelogues – by both Swedish and translated authors. The majority opinion expressed in print was negative. An article on colonialism dating from 1781 in one of the main Stockholm papers was unambiguous: ‘Yet there are countries on earth to be discovered. […] Yet there are riches to be stolen, counties to plunder, heads to be baptised, throats to strangle, blood to shed.’8 In 1782, the culprits were specified: ‘Spaniards, Englishmen, Dutchmen and Frenchmen call themselves Christian, and yet they keep thousands of humans prisoners in this gruesome state [of slavery], and trade them as dumb animals.’9

Knowledge of colonialism and the conditions of slavery can be taken for granted amongst the wider reading audience in Stockholm. Printed editions of the combined Stockholm newspapers in the 1780s numbered at least 30,000 copies every week, for a population of around 75,000 inhabitants; in addition, a single newspaper copy was often read by several persons. Literacy was comparatively high in Sweden at about 80 per cent in around 1800; the Lutheran Church promoted reading skills at all levels of society.

Yarico and Inkle in Stockholm

The sources of information on slavery were not restricted to news and travelogues. In addition to plays there were also stories about slavery, such as the Inkle and Yarico tale that circulated in the Atlantic world before reaching Sweden, where it served as inspiration for three Swedish plays centring on slavery. The original story introduces a young English trader, Inkle, on his way to the Caribbean to make his fortune. He becomes stranded on the American coast, where he is taken care of by a young Indian woman, Yarico. When a ship eventually saves him, he takes Yarico with him and, upon arrival at Barbados he sells her, happy to get higher price for her as she is pregnant with their child.10

The tale was first translated into Swedish (1735) from an English version and then twice subsequently from Gellert’s German fables (1767, 1793).11 A 1780 prose version entitled Den orangeröda flickan: eller Variol och Yaricko [The orange-red girl: or Variol and Yaricko] was printed as a translation of a text by an author given as De Lille, but I have not been able to identify the original (if it even exists).12 In it, Inkle’s name was changed to Variol, possibly in reference to smallpox as a metaphor for Inkle’s destructive behaviour; this version exposed the cruelty of the slave trade more explicitly than the original story.

Later the in same decade, Claude Joseph Dorat’s adaptation set in the Ottoman Empire Lettre de Zeïla, jeune sauvage, esclave à Constantinople and its continuation Lettre de Valcour were published in Swedish (1789, 1802).13 The story was also recounted in Raynal’s Histoire de deux Indes which, although it was prohibited in Sweden in 1781, gained a wide readership.14

The first Swedish play to include Inkle and Yarico plot elements is Andreas Hesselius’ 1740 Wänskap och trohet i döden, eller Den indianske printzessan Zaletta [Friendship and fidelity until death, or, the Indian princess Zaletta].15 Hesselius was born in and spent his first ten years in Delaware. His father was a priest sent out by the government to serve the Swedish-speaking congregations in the area of the former Swedish colony in what today is Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Hesselius’ play is based on an episode in the adventures of a British seaman stranded on the Antillean island of Dominica.16 The shipwrecked Captain Falconer is saved by the Indian princess Zaletta, who falls in love with him. After a complicated intrigue, Zaletta is eventually killed by her uncle and Falconer is left grieving. The beginning of the play, in particular, bears similarities to the Inkle and Yarico tale that had already been published in Swedish.

When Hesselius was a young boy in Delaware, his life had been saved by an indigenous woman named Chicalicka Nanni Kettelev, who cured him with local remedies. His description of Dominica’s inhabitants, which is more positive than in the book narrating Falconer’s fictionalised adventures, might have been inspired by his own American experiences.17 Zaletta is the first Amerindian-themed Swedish play; it reflects the art of Hesselius’ uncle Gustaf, who had travelled with his father to the Americas and in the 1730s painted the first individualised portraits of Native Americans.18

The next Inkle and Yarico-inspired dramatic work is Bengt Lidner’s opera Milot och [and] Eloisa, which contains plot elements borrowed from the tale. Set in Dutch Batavia, both protagonists are enslaved after being shipwrecked but eventually freed, together with their enslaved servants.19 Lidner visited the Cape Colony in 1776 and witnessed slavery and the slave trade. He was critical of colonialism and a firm supporter of American independence. Although Milot och Eloisa was never performed, it serves as early testimony to how stories circulating that concerned slavery were used in a Swedish context.20

A closer adaptation of the core narrative of the Inkle and Yarico story is De Mexikanska Systrarne [The Mexican Sisters], first performed in October 1789 (running for eleven performances up to January 1791). It was written by the Stockholm litterateur and sometime theatre employee Nils Birger Sparrschöld. As with many of the plays discussed here, it was never printed but two manuscript copies are extant in the Royal Swedish Opera Archives. The tone is set from the first scene, in which the colonial overlords are lambasted: ‘Odious Europeans! When you brought death in the form of foreign thunder, when you destroyed our altars and trampled our freedom, you also brought formerly unknown vices to our country.’21

The plot is transplanted to Mexico, shifting the original story’s denunciation of British greed and cruelty to blaming Spanish colonisers for the same misdeeds. Yarico is given a sister, Zelda, who is in love with the Spaniard, Don Estrados, who in turn desires Yarico, who is herself in love with an indigenous man, Zamor – all of which complicates the romantic intrigue considerably.

The play criticises the slave trade and the enslavement of both the indigenous population and Africans. An elderly Spaniard admits: ‘Because they are purchased they are treated very cruelly by some [of the owners], they hardly get any fresh air to breathe. […] They are forced to do hard and laborious work day and night, and they are not given enough food to appease their hunger.’22 In addition to the behaviour of the perfidious Spanish colonisers, the greedy Dutch bounty hunter van der Kaas betrays both his employer and the play’s ‘good’ Spaniard, who tries to protect enslaved Indians. Don Estrados eventually captures Zamor to entrap Yarico, but when he is called back to the court in Madrid he finally concedes Yarico and Zamor their freedom, accepts Zelda’s love and takes her with him to Spain.

De Mexikanska Systrarne was performed without announcing the author’s name and there were even rumours that the Swedish king himself had written it. Swedish theatre and cultural history has traditionally placed Gustav III (r. 1771–92) in a predominant role.23 Cultural life circled around the court and the institutions founded or promoted by the king included the Stockholm Royal Opera, inaugurated in 1782 with the colonial-themed production Cora och Alonzo. It was based on an episode from Les Incas, ou, La destruction de l’Empire du Pérou (1777) that Marmontel had dedicated to Gustav, whom he had met in Paris. The Swedish version was sanitised and only contained very vague criticisms of Spanish colonialism.24 Gustav III, often called the ‘theatre king’, was an ardent promoter of Swedish expansion. The acquisition of Saint Barthélemy was to a large extent a result of his desire to gain a foothold in the Americas.

Gustav III was a frequent visitor to Stockholm theatres – a royal protégé who attended a performance of the Mexican Sisters flattered him: ‘Les deux Américaines [i.e. the Mexican sisters] a des morceaux d’une touche charmante digne de V[otre] M[ajesté]. L’auteur est encore très inconnu.’ Another commentator wrote to the king: ‘I have seen The Mexican Sisters, it is in the same genre as La Jeune Indienne, a play that I could not like despite its pleasant traits introduced by Mr. Champfort [sic].’25

He was right, Chamfort’s La Jeune Indienne (1764) is indeed one of the more famous theatrical adaptations of the Inkle and Yarico theme. The play had been performed in French in Stockholm twelve times during the 1766–1789 period and the Swedish translation, Den indiska flickan, was performed twice in 1794. The translation was never printed and no manuscript is extant.

The Swedish adaptations of the Inkle and Yarico tale dealt more explicitly with slavery than the original. Lawrence Marsden Price concludes in his excellent Inkle and Yarico study that the extension of the original story resulted in a loss of its literary impact: ‘what it gained in breadth it lost in depth’.26 Nevertheless, the adaptations are eloquent on how colonialism and slavery were represented in a Swedish context. These plays are also testimony to the geographical interests of Swedish authors who set their versions in America and the Far East.27 The Swedish versions were never localised; one of the main attractions was, after all, the exotic setting. This was not the case in plays whose plots were based on fortunes made in the West Indies and their repercussions on European societies.

Caribbean fortunes in Sweden

An example of a play where Caribbean enrichment is central is Det vestindiska arfvet [The West Indian Inheritance], performed nine times between 1796 and 1799. This play also indicates the dearth of sources for theatre history in Sweden: several plays had similar titles in their Swedish translations, and sometimes no author or original title was given. We often lack texts – as in the case of the Swedish version of La Jeune Indienne – and sometimes it is only possible to infer the original source play through circumstantial evidence.

Det vestindiska arfvet was most probably a translation of Richard Cumberland’s London success The West Indian (1771).28 Indeed, Cumberland’s play has a West Indian inheritance – and the audience is told that this fortune was made through Jamaican slave plantations – as a major plot component. It was translated by Eric Ulric Nordforss (translator of La Jeune Indienne two years earlier), who also knew English. He was well aware of the cruelties of the Caribbean plantation economy and vehemently criticised the practice of slavery and the slave trade in other contexts.29

It is likely that the staging of Cumberland’s play in Stockholm (if we accept the attribution) was inspired by the localisation of Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’habitant de la Guadeloupe. The Swedish version, entitled Westindie-fararen: eller Dygdens belöning [The West Indies Traveller: or the Reward of Virtue], was a great success, performed on forty-seven occasions during 1791–1799.30

The Stockholm production of L’habitant de la Guadeloupe was a ‘free translation’ [fri öfversättning] and adaptation of the French original by Didric Gabriel Björn, one of the major Swedish actors, translators and theatre entrepreneurs of the 1780s–1790s. The play was itself based on an episode in Frances Sheridan’s novel Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1761), and is a telling example of how stories of Caribbean enrichment travelled throughout the Atlantic world.

The protagonist, Swedish merchant Nordengren, returns from the Caribbean to Stockholm, proclaiming himself ruined. In reality, he had made a fortune but wanted to know which of his relatives would help him without knowledge of his wealth. Not surprisingly, his poorer relatives are more sympathetic to his plight than his rich kin. The play struck a chord with Stockholm audiences, and it was often mentioned in diaries and letters. Following the success of Westindie-fararen, Björn localised August von Kotzebue’s Papegojan [Der Papegoy], in which the lost son, Georg, returns to Sweden accompanied by a free black man called Neri, after having made and lost a fortune on Caribbean slave plantations (this play was performed thirty times during 1794–1798).31 The play is critical of slavery and the character of Neri, who had been George’s slave in the Caribbean, was the play’s third-biggest part and present on stage throughout the drama. Neri gives, for example, an account of his childhood in Africa, his enslavement by Portuguese slave traders and the conditions of plantation work in Jamaica.

Competition was cut-throat on the Stockholm stage: another less successful translation of Der Papegoy premiered the night before Björn’s version (this one ran for seventeen performances during the period 1794–1798).32

Plays staged in Stockholm touching upon Caribbean enrichment also include Voltaire’s Skottländskan eller Caffehuset i London [Le Café, ou, L’Écossaise, 1760] in which rich British merchant Friport [sic] gives away a tenth of the money he has made in Jamaica (the play ran for twenty-nine performances during the period 1783–1794).

Several Swedish merchant houses participated in the colonial trade, and some also in the slave trade. Enrichment in the Caribbean was on many people’s minds – this was, after all, the main reason for the Swedish acquisition of Saint Barthélemy in 1784. A large number of the Stockholm merchant aristocracy invested in the Swedish West India Company, which was chartered to run commerce and the slave trade on the island. The royal family was the company’s largest shareholder.33

News about advantageous trade was trickling in from the colony and so advertising also played a role in fuelling commercial ambitions. Close to the capital of Gustavia – named after the king, and a name it still retains – a ‘cotton plantation with all necessary buildings and with a very pleasing view over the neighbouring islands’ was advertised in Stockholm papers.34 The small island of La Fourchu off Saint Barthélemy was also put up for sale. After the abolition of the slave trade, this island would gain fame as a place where illicit trade in captives occurred far into the 1820s.

The success of Westindie-fararen, based on Mercier’s L’Habitant de la Guadeloupe, spread to smaller towns. It was performed in Norrköping in January 1792. Due to audience demand it was performed again a few days later, now together with Slafhandlaren i Smirne. Atlantic and Mediterranean slavery were thus combined in this double bill.35

Censorship, revolution and colonial propaganda

Gustav III’s reign became increasingly autocratic in the 1780s and the theatre became subject to censorship. Censors particularly edited plays that questioned royal authority.36 Following the murder of the king in 1792, print censorship was considerably relaxed for a brief period, yet theatrical censorship remained in place. Johan Henrik Kellgren, an important poet and playwright himself, had been appointed theatre censor by the king and retained his appointment after Gustav’s death. Feodor och Lisinka, eller Det räddade Novogrod [Féodor et Lisinka, ou Novogorod sauvée, 1787], written by Pierre Jean Baptiste Choudard (Desforges) and translated by Björn, was submitted for approval in 1793.37 The play contains a depiction of a peasant revolt, led the by the serf Petruska, which is then suppressed and Petruska sentenced to death. Russian serfs – usually referred to as thralls [trälar] in Swedish – were instead called slaves throughout the play, as they had been in the French original. Although the original play dated from pre-revolutionary times, a few years later in Stockholm its contents were immediately associated with the revolution. Kellgren wrote to a colleague: ‘It does appear to me that it has a little odour of sans-culottism, as all of its content is against domestic servitude and threatens the masters with the threat of revolt, murder and arson, and the only reason to perform it at a Swedish theatre is to let the viewer believe that there is domestic servitude in Sweden, and that our farmhands are slaves and their masters tyrants, words that are repeated in every line.’ To associate farmhands with slavery and rebellion was controversial, but Kellgren found it pointless to censor the play as that would create more commotion than letting it be staged. It was performed four times from March to June 1793. Kellgren concluded that the theme was so foreign that the play was not to be feared and concluded his judgement with a general observation on the Swedish political situation: ‘even considering all that has been done in this country, intentionally or by foolishness, to sans-culottisise the populace, it has not been possible, and probably never will be, to push this good and honest populace to go further than to – use invectives.’38 Nevertheless, the populace’s knowledge of revolution and rebellion was regarded as problematic. To put this in context, the Swedish king had been shot at the Stockholm Opera in March 1792 and news about Louis XVI’s execution in January 1793 had only reached Stockholm a few days before Kellgren sent his letter of 3 March.

Kellgren was very much au fait with the king’s Caribbean ambitions and had published a tract promoting Swedish colonisation in 1784.39 He was also an editor of the capital’s main newspaper publishing foreign news, Stockholms posten, which reported extensively on the slave rebellions in the French colonies, on the revolution on Saint-Domingue and Haiti’s subsequent independence.40 Kellgren was a fierce critic of religious mysticism, including the Christian Swedenborgian movement. The Swedish abolitionists Carl-Bernhard Wadström and Anders Sparrman were connected to this movement. They visited Senegal in 1787 to investigate possibilities for Swedish participation in colonising projects meant to supplant American slave plantations’ products with African-grown sugarcane and other colonial goods. Such idealism generated satire and Kellgren reputedly wrote a play mocking the Swedenborgians’ African projects, which was staged at the royal Drottningholm Palace in 1791.41

Stockholm litterateurs and the town’s upper classes were generally well informed about both slavery and colonialism, as well as Swedish colonial ambitions. The theatre discussed here is yet further proof of how slavery and colonialism were present in society in manifold ways. Stockholm theatres catered to a varied audience, including the middle classes and also, for instance, shop assistants and craftsmen.42 The plots of Mercier’s Westindie-fararen or Kotzebue’s Papegojan were based on fortunes that had been made in the Caribbean and presupposed knowledge of plantation slavery and exploitation. Other plays, such as Slafhandlaren i Smirne and De Mexikanske systrarna, their happy endings notwithstanding, conveyed the brutality of European colonisation and the vicissitudes of the slave trade in both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

Abolitionist drama

Plays performed in Stockholm at this time also included abolitionist dramas such as Kotzebues’ Neger-slafvarne [Die Negersclaven]. In the foreword, the author underlines that, to spare the audience, many events had to be omitted in the theatrical performance as such cruelties would be too gruesome on stage.43 The play was performed nineteen times during 1796–1798.

The play, set in Jamaica, was outspoken on the inhuman treatment of Caribbean enslaved populations and mirrored the information that Swedish readers could have gained from the press and travelogues. A book about Swedish Saint Barthélemy published in Stockholm the year before Neger-slafvarne premiered described the punishments meted out by the colonial government and confirmed that the mistreatment of slaves was also a fact in the Swedish colony:

The [enslaved] criminal is placed face-down on the ground […] the clothes are removed so that the body is bare, he who hits him has a whip with a short handle but the lash is 6 or 7 ells long [about 4 metres] and stands some distance away with the whip and hits the slave’s naked body and the whip cracks every time sounding like a pistol shot and often it takes away large pieces of skin and flesh. The slaves are made to suffer 30, 50 or 100 such lashes, according to major or minor crimes.44

Further plays were similarly forthright about the conditions endured by black populations, and not only in the Atlantic world. Edmond Guillaume François Favières’ play based on Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s novel Paul et Virginie set on Ile-de-France [Mauritius] was adapted by the ubiquitous Björn (it ran for eleven performances during 1794 and 1795).45 The treatment of the black protagonist Zabi is such that there can be little doubt that a Swedish audience would have seen the play as critical of slavery. Its setting confirmed that the mistreatment of enslaved populations was also the rule in Indian Ocean colonies.

Another play touching on the slave trade and its motivations was an adaptation of Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s Selico, nouvelle africaine. The novella was translated twice into Swedish, but the story reached Stockholm stages as Seliko och Berissa eller Kärleken bland Negrerne [Seliko and Berissa, or Love among the Negroes] via Gustav Hagemann’s 1798 adaptation Seliko und Berißa, oder die Liebe unter den Negern, which in turn had been inspired by Guilbert de Pixerécourt’s French theatrical version (no text preserved, but it ran for eight performances during 1807 and 1808).46

Black roles – white actors

The black roles in Stockholm were generally performed by white actors, but there were exceptions. One of the most famous black eighteenth-century Swedes was Adolf Ludvig Gustav Fredrik Albert Badin (c.1750–1822). He was probably born enslaved in the Danish West Indies and was subsequently brought to Sweden as a child, where he grew up with the royal family at Drottningholm Palace. During the 1770–1771 season, he played the main role in Louis-François Delisle de la Drevetière’s Arlequin sauvage where a man ‘tiré des forêts de l’Amérique’ arrives in Marseille and mocks French customs and civilisation, mirroring his own history of arriving in Europe as a captive.47 (Figure 1)

Figure 1 

Gustaf Lundberg, Portrait of Adolf Ludvig Gustaf Albert Badin, 1775, NMGrh 1455, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

A play in which a white Swedish actor played an African was the less than successful Den hvita Negren (two performances in 1794).48 This was a localisation of Louis-François Archambault’s (Dorvigny) Le nègre blanc (1774), which had enjoyed certain success in Paris. Dorvigny was well equipped to write about the subject as it was said that he himself had been enslaved by corsairs.

The far-fetched premise of the play is that the Swede, Wärne, returning from the Americas, masquerades as a mute African albino – the white negro of the title – to win back his fiancée, Lovise, by wooing her guardian. During his absence this guardian, Madam [fru] Simplex, the only name retained from the French original, has promised Lovise to another man. Wärne, masquerading as the white negro, was played by Lars Hjortsberg, one of the period’s most famous Stockholm actors. He was furnished with a quiver and supposedly African jewellery. Madam Simplex eventually buys the albino man and promises not to make him work too hard. Eventually, the fake albino and his beloved Lovise admit to the fraud and are allowed to marry. The play mocked prejudices against black people and, again, its translator was Nordforss.

Swedish Moors in the Caribbean

Many of the plays discussed here contained musical elements. In the case of The Mexican Sisters, an aria by the composer Johan Martin Kraus is the only reason the play’s name is ever mentioned today.49 Dance performances were also common and the pantomime ballet Mirza och Lindor, mentioned in the introduction, was first performed in 1793. Its author Maximilien Gardel was one of the early promoters of ballet d’action, which was introduced on Stockholm stages by French dancers. Jean-Rémy Marcadet staged Mirza, setting it in Swedish Saint Barthélemy and playing the lead male role of Lindor.50

The original had been a success in Paris in 1779. It was set ‘dans une [French colonial] Isle de l’Amérique’ during the American War of Independence, when French and American troops were allies. The Stockholm version faithfully followed the original’s love story plot between local girl Mirza and the Swedish Colonel Lindor, who ends up in a duel with a rival corsair captain. Mirza arrives at the abandoned scene of the fight and believes, like Pyramus or Juliet, that Lindor has perished. She intends to kill herself but is saved and marries Lindor.

The localisation to Swedish Saint Barthélemy is tantalising but there is no detailed information on the decor as with the Mexican setting in De Mexicanska Systrarne (‘The stage is a wild but beautiful forest by the ocean beach’) or on the Indian ocean island in Paul och Virginie (‘The scene is on a wild part of the island by a wide creek […] the surroundings should appear wild and picturesque with several banana trees’).51 We know of elaborate stage decors from these decades, but there are no images of the sets of the plays discussed.

The original Frenchmen were replaced by Swedes allied with Americans. Following the French revolution it became impossible to present France as a Swedish ally. The translator of the ballet’s French scenario mainly followed the original and used the word slott [chateau] for the governor’s house, a building type that did not exist on Saint Barthélemy in the early 1790s. More points like these could be made, but it is clear that the translator knew little about the Swedish colony, or intentionally depicted the island as more prominent than it was in reality.

The main black role is filled by the female protagonist Mirza’s servant, une négresse, who in the Stockholm version is Mirza’s moor confidante. The other black roles were unnamed and while called ‘nègres’ in the original they were termed ‘moors’ in the Stockholm version. These black people were obviously enslaved in the French original, and though called moors in Swedish the Stockholm audience would have recognised them as slaves given the common knowledge that most black people in the Caribbean were indeed enslaved. Thus, the first time Swedish slaves were represented in the metropole they were mute.

The Stockholm production of Mirza appeared a year before its American debut in Charleston, where the ballet took on yet another meaning as it was performed in a slaveholding society and in the context of the rebellions on Martinique and Saint-Domingue.52 However formulaic, the Stockholm version represented a new Swedish colonial society. Many of the plays with slavery themes staged in Sweden belonged to a repertoire that migrated between European and sometimes American stages. This was also true for the plays representing Mediterranean slavery that were performed in many European theatres.

Sámi in the seraglio

Jean-François Sedaine de Sarcy’s Le Sérrail à l’encan (1781) was staged in Stockholm in 1796 as Den bort-auctionerade serailen, running for four performances. A key scene in any slavery theatre set in the Mediterranean is the slave sale, as seen in Chamfort’s Le Marchand de Smyrne. Sedaine takes this to the extreme, as the entire play represents a slave auction at which an Ottoman vizier sells off his harem after losing his office and becoming exiled. The manner of enslavement of the females being auctioned in the play was sometimes specified. The Italian singer Leonora Vanina had, for instance, been captured by an Algerian corsair. Among the female slaves put up for sale at the auction were women from Circassia, France, Georgia, Mingrelia, Peru, Poland, Spain and Venice.

They were valued differently according to their sexual attractiveness. Virginity commanded a high premium in the case of the fifteen-year-old Circassian Nedoua. Six female dancers were sold as one lot, followed by ‘un des plus jolis pettis bijoux, le seul enfin de son espèce qu’on ait pu conduire jusqu’ici des confins [de] la Laponie’.53

I first read the Swedish version, where this women put up for sale was defined as a lappska [une lapone], that is, a woman from the northern Scandinavian indigenous Sámi population. After having read innumerable plays set in the Ottoman empire and staged in Stockholm during the eighteenth century, I thought this might be an example of a partial localisation. Sámi – or rather actors dressed as Sámi – occasionally appeared on Stockholm stages. They were both part of the cast lists of Swedish plays and used for localised substitutions. A few years earlier, the Swedish librettist of a localised Piccinni Roland parody had replaced the librettist Marmontel’s orientaux with Sámi.54

Although added female roles did appear in the Swedish version, La lapone was in fact part of Sedaine’s original cast list. Lappskan criticises the slave buyers and manages to convince a judge to purchase her as a daughter, instead of as a concubine, at the auction’s highest price. Her exotic background is matched by her ingenuity and persuasive powers. Ideas about northern Scandinavia had been disseminated through travelogues, scientific accounts and even by Sámi people and their reindeer being sent as ‘gifts’ to European courts.55 Indeed, Chamfort used Sámi to underline both geographical and cultural differences: ‘Quel est l’être le plus étranger à ceux qui l’environnent ? Est-ce un Français à Pékin ou à Macao ? Est-ce un Lapon au Sénégal ?’56

In the play, La lapone is the last woman to be sold at the auction. A messenger arrives while the auction is adjourned; after a long day of selling sex slaves, a declaration is made that the sultan has reinstated the vizier in all his offices and the buyers of his female slaves subsequently flee. The slaves praise the vizier as they are restored to his property; he frees the Peruvian Nadine and marries her.

The buyers’ comments on the female slaves cut through time, but it is difficult to hypothesise what the 1790s’ audience might have felt when observing the auction. The similarity to slave auctions in the Atlantic world is obvious to us, but would a Stockholm spectator have perceived such connections? That enslavement in the Mediterranean still was a risk soon became clear again when the Swedish peace treaty with the Bey of Tripoli collapsed the year after the play was performed in Stockholm. By 1800 more than 130 Swedish seamen had been taken prisoner in North Africa.57

The Swedish version of Le Sérrail à l’encan is an example of how where the play was staged mattered. The French exotic lapone took on another meaning in a Stockholm setting where Sámi were both present in the city’s streets and markets and occasionally appeared on theatrical stages.58

Slavery, colonialism and theatre in Stockholm

The quantity of plays and the number of performances confirm that issues around slavery and colonialism were topical and often found an interested audience in Stockholm. Several Swedish authors used tales that were criss-crossing the Atlantic world at this time. Hesselius’, Lidner’s and Sparrschöld’s pieces, which borrow elements from the Inkle and Yarico story, are the most revealing examples.

Translators and companies engaged in the quick uptake of first French, and later German and British plays. A few translators and adaptors were instrumental in bringing several slavery-themed plays to Stockholm stages. In the case of Nordforss’ translations and adaptations, I believe he chose plays that criticised slavery and mocked racism. Although such a stance is less apparent in Björn’s adaptations, his choice to stage Kotzebue’s Papegojan after Mercier’s Westindie-fararen did, however, go from presupposing Caribbean slavery as a means to enrichment in the French play to explicit criticism of the Atlantic slave trade in the German play. It should be noted, too, that Björn, after the turn of the century, came to be considered a radical who espoused revolutionary sympathies.

The suggestion in this chapter is also that the geographical space of analysis may benefit from including Ottoman-themed plays. The Swedish case poses the question of to what extent can plays touching upon Mediterranean slavery broaden the perspective on how slavery and bondage were seen and elaborated upon in theatre and literature in countries yet to be included in the slavery theatre research field.

French theatre had traditionally been the major source for Swedish productions, but it is not surprising that some of the most famous French plays touching upon slavery never reached Stockholm stages during the 1790s. For instance, Olympe de Gouges’ dramas would not have passed the censors – not just because of their content but also with regard to the author being a female revolutionary. Hence, both the diminishing importance of genre rules and the impact of the French Revolution gave space to German and British plays. Growing awareness of the conditions of slavery and increased knowledge in both Germany and Sweden about the British abolitionist movement led to the staging of plays that were explicitly critical of slavery.

Research on slavery and theatre is a growing field, but there is no work treating the subject in the Swedish context. This chapter may resemble a catalogue aria, but such an exercise is necessary before a critical analysis of the Swedish plays in particular can be undertaken. The connections between Swedish Caribbean colonialism and theatre are likewise unexplored. This can be compared to the increasingly investigated history of Sámi people and culture in Sweden and Scandinavia. Swedish historiography is still struggling with contextualising Swedish participation in Caribbean colonialism. As this chapter testifies, taking the step that connects metropolitan colonial discourse and culture with the Swedish slave colony is still proving difficult.