Spring 1800. A business plan and the profits of sugar and slavery
|(You need to read the previous parts to make sense of this.)
The last decade of the 18th century had been comfortable and prosperous for the citizens of Christiania*[Christiania is the capital of the kingdom of Norway, now named Oslo.]. Granted, growing tensions with England worried some, but overall the kingdom enjoyed amicable relations with neighboring states. France had settled down after the Great Terror, partly thanks to First Council Bonaparte overthrowing the remnants of the Directory. French ambitions in Southern Europe caused little concern to the average Norwegian. To us, Russia posed a more imminent threat, with imperial agents openly sniffing around in the country’s territories. But with the death of Empress Catherine four years ago, the beast in the east had gone dormant again. Most saw them as a problem for the Swedish king to deal with.
Thus far, the spring had been dry and less chilly than the norm for the last few decades. Optimists claimed the years of cold climate were over, and few suspected what difficult times lay ahead for Europe in general and Norway in particular. I was blissfully ignorant about the part I would play in terrible events that would sweep over Europe and the future promised only leisure. With sweet summer only weeks away, the upcoming trip to grandfather Einar’s place was the only thing on my mind.
The family would always gather for supper unless work kept Father occupied—in which case he would sup alone in his study. A meal on a pleasant April evening is the event that marks the beginning of my long journey. For such a mundane affair, I remember it with surprising clarity. Mother had prepared a nice turkey and carefully supervised its preparation. The potatoes and pickled vegetables were all from last year’s crop and somewhat shriveled, but a thick, savory gravy with sweetened goat cheese and cowberries made the meal wholesome nonetheless.
Unexpectedly, Father gave me the eye and began lecturing me on sugar. It took a moment before I realized I needed to pay attention. Most times he talked at me, rather than to me, and I could get away with alternating between sounds of agreement and wonder. “Martin,” he said. “You passed your confirmation last year and you are now an adult. Your mother and I agree it’s time you took an interest in the family business.”
Mother smiled encouragingly at me, and I stifled a groan. Father tended to drone on and on once he got started. Only this morning I’d liberated a bag of gunpowder from a poorly guarded storeroom at the fortress. Till now, I’d been busy figuring out a good use for it.
But I knew full well what he expected and looked him in the eye while feigning interest. “Splendid news, Father. My 15th birthday finally made me a man.” For a second I feared I’d overdone it with my jest, but he failed to notice.
“As you know, I have worked hard since your grandfather left the family businesses to me. My goal is to elevate the Nores to the position we deserve—to be counted among the city’s finest.” He let this sink in while helping himself to the last piece of meat.
Mother made a discrete gesture. The one which meant—pay attention, dear. Mother had suffered through all this already, possibly several times. But when the head of the family shared his thoughts, he expected everyone to sit straight and look sharp.
The turkey securely on his plate, he made certain I was still mindful before continuing. “I have considered many ways to increase our family fortune. Now I have settled on a plan that can’t fail. Can you guess what it is?”
Gustav Nore was what one charitably refers to as a man of books, although he could be charming on occasion. I believe his peers liked him well enough, and he enjoyed some respect among the upper levels of society. He was not a practical man in any sense of the word, and his business acumen was not the best. I know he saw himself as an astute merchant prince, but he never made much profit from his many ideas and ventures. What income the household had, was secured by a set of competent managers hired by my grandfather when he still owned the family businesses.
Whatever it might be, I suspected his idea would not be a practical one. However, to suggest such heresy would not be a wise of action—Mother had a great sense of humor, but not so much Father. So I furrowed my brows and shook my head, pretending I was giving the question serious thought.
“Sugar!” he said, clearly not expecting an answer. “Sugar,” he repeated, in case I missed it the first time. “If there is one commodity that creates fortunes, it’s sugar. If you control it, it’s like minting your own coin.”
“What about timber and fish, Father? Don’t people make a lot of money selling those?” I asked reasonably. Both were abundant here. Sugar—probably less so.
Clearly, this wasn’t worthy of a response. “Do you have any idea where sugar comes from, Martin?” This time it sounded like he actually expected a reply.
I had no idea where the stuff came from but suspected ‘the grocer’ was not the correct response. To avoid looking ignorant, I mumbled, “Everyone knows…” I felt confident he’d answer his own question, given time.
Father had become animated now and stabbed his fork in my direction. “The West-Indies Specifically, our colonies there.”
The Kingdom of Denmark-Norway owns three small islands in the Caribbean Sea; all had names starting with ‘Saint’. This immediately conjured images of pirates, Spanish treasure galleons and tropical island paradises. I’d spent many an afternoon down at the docks, listening to sailors’ tales.
Father must have noticed my thoughts drifting, for he rapped the table. “Wake up, boy!”
Mother, ever the diplomat, smiled at him. “Please continue, dear. I am sure Martin has your undivided attention.”
His eyes narrowed, but he pressed on. “Most people think no further than the sugar refineries. There are two in operation: One north in the city of Trondhjem*[Now the city of Trondheim.] and another to the south in the town of Fredrikshald*[The town called Halden today. A far more important place at the time.]. There was a third in Bergen, but it was so ineptly managed, they had to close after a short time. Which wasn’t unexpected.” For reasons unknown, he held a low opinion of Bergen and its citizens.
“The national market for sugar is insatiable and I see no reason to import a single gram of refined sugar from Denmark or England. But our refineries face a huge problem: they depend on imports of unrefined sugar. The powerful Danish merchants control the flow, and they always favor their own factories and markets over us.”
I nodded to show I was hanging on his every word. This had turned out to be just as much of a bore as I’d feared.
“The brilliant part of my idea is to control all business segments involved: Production; Transport; and Refining.”
The soft dusk of spring gradually filled the room while the servant girl cleared away the dishes. As she returned to light the candles, Father elaborated on his Grand Strategy. “I have spoken to several local businessmen as well as an old friend of mine in Copenhagen; Herr Casper Meyer, and we all agree my plan is solid. We’ll form a joint business here in Christiania, and we’ll begin the construction of a refinery next to the river Aker, as soon as we have the capital on hand.”
With a look of smug satisfaction, he delivered his coup de force, “I have approached none other than Herr Bernt Anker*[Bernt Anker was widely regarded as the wealthiest man in the country.] on the matter, and he’s expressed great interest. When they learned of his involvement, several smaller investors, previously on the fence, have also joined the venture.”
Given Father’s business record, I had serious questions about the wisdom of these men. “What a relief,” I said.
“Back in January, Herr Meyer learned of a man willing to sell his sugar plantation on the island of St. Croix. The seller quoted a favorable price—citing health reasons.” Lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, he added, “I suspect a more likely explanation for the sale is the man senses trouble for the sugar business in the next few years.”
“Why would we want to spend money on trouble?”
“I’ll go into this later, but it ties into the core of this opportunity.” Father smiled, pleased I’d come up with a sensible question. “With an eye on purchasing this property, I have exchanged letters with my friend in Copenhagen, and we have agreed to purchase the plantation together. Herr Meyer’s influence with von Schimmelmann*[Although a slave owner himself, von Schimmelmann was also a reformer who argued for Danish withdrawal from the slave trade.], the King’s Minister of Finance, ensures the necessary permits to buy and run the estate. He’ll also make sure our Christiania refinery receives the Letter of Privilege it needs to operate.”
To my surprise, Father’s enthusiasm had rubbed off, and I voiced my genuine approval. “Bravo, Father. Bravo!” I cried. Praise always put him in an amiable mood.
There was another crucial component to his idea, as I learned the next day. It was one he neglected to mention earlier, possibly due to Mother’s presence. She had watched his monolog in silence, and I suspected she had misgivings about the whole affair. But if so, she kept them to herself in my presence. It was not her way to argue in front of others.
“The King has decreed that from 1803, Danish ships can no longer carry slaves from the African coast to the Indies. As slaves are essential to the profitable production of raw sugar, both challenges and opportunities present themselves,” Father said.
We bent over his favorite world-map, now spread over the big desk which dominated his study. “The King’s edict doesn’t cover ownership and trade with slaves within the Caribbean region, but it will drive prices up. Getting fresh stock out of Africa while the law permits means both savings and profit in the long run,” he continued, tapping the map. “The present owner has decided to free his slaves when he sells the property. The way I hear, this may not be as bad as it sounds, because most of his work-force is old or ill-disciplined.” He looked grim as if envisioning the horror of owning unproductive people. “Instead of sailing directly from Copenhagen to the West-Indies, my trip follows the so-called Triangle Route: Europe to Africa to the West-Indies. Then back to Norway with our first cargo of unrefined sugar.”
He pointed to spots on the colorful map, bearing exotic names like Bristol, Portsmouth, Madeira, Guinea, and St. Croix. “If all elements of the plan prove as successful as I expect, we’ll make one or two more trips before the ban goes into effect. By then, the Norwegian sugar market should be in our hands.” He smiled, smacking his lips as if he already tasted the sweet crystals. “Should our own refinery not be ready when I return, we’ll sell the first shipment to the factory in Fredrikshald for a tidy profit.”
“The only downside is I’ll be absent for at least twelve months to manage all proceedings,” he concluded. “Perhaps more, if I must wait for the new slaves to harvest our first crop.”
I had no objections to getting away from under his eye and could see no downsides to the plan at all. Happy with what he told me, I again expressed the amount of enthusiasm expected from a faithful son.
* * *
We still own a lumber-mill; a few dairy farms; and a shop dealing in imported tobacco and wines. Everything purchased with loot brought back by Grandfather from his various military campaigns. This yield enough income to make us well-to-do, although Christiania society never considered Gustav Nore more than a wealthy merchant. This didn’t please my ambitious father, and he inevitably schemed about climbing the social ladder.
He was as God-fearing as the next man; bowing head in church on Sunday and saying grace at every meal. On weekdays, he left God alone to go about His business. I never saw him drink excessively, and he disliked violence. That said, when he applied his cane to his spirited offspring’s backside, he often showed too much zeal for my liking.
As a young boy, my real issue with Father was his determination to give me the best education available in Christiania. Which meant him tutoring me in mathematics, geometry and the mysteries of probability calculation. As the sole heir, I was also expected to know the basics of bookkeeping, a subject I considered far beneath my notice. When the mood struck him, he lectured me on the subjects of history, science, religion, and politics. The former two held my interest somewhat, but I dreaded having to endure his speeches on the latter topics. He possessed considerable knowledge, but to call him a talented teacher would be entirely too charitable.
In all fairness, I’d say he was no worse than most patres familias and a damn sight better than most.