What was distinctive about the governing of colonized populations? To what extent did colonial officials rely on forms of power that were also used to govern ‘whites’ in their European homelands? Was there a change over time in the relationship between colonial and European rationalities of governing? In Kristoffer Edelgaard Christensen’s dissertation, Governing Black and White, these questions are dealt with in the context of the colony of the Danish West Indies and its metropole of Denmark in the period 1770–1900, before and after the Danish abolition of slavery in 1848.

Theoretically, the dissertation relies upon Michel Foucault’s conception of ’governmentality’ and the way this approach to governing, and to state power more generally, has been employed in colonial and European settings, particularly within the field of colonial governmentality studies. The dissertation distinguishes itself from this field, however, by comparing metropole and colony in a more even, in-depth, and open-ended way; one which is sensitive to changes over time. The aim of this mode of comparison is to explore on a more solid foundation what was unique (and what was not) about colonial governing at particular points in time and space.

The dissertation consists of two parts. The first deals with the period between 1770 and 1800. It offers an in-depth comparative account of the Danish state’s governing of seigneurial relations at home and master-slave relations in the colony; the state’s attempts to reform criminal laws; its investment in the maintenance of racial and social hierarchies; its regulation of the everyday public lives of slaves and peasants; and lastly, its governing of the productive lives of enslaved and unpropertied laborers. In the second part, which deals with the period between 1840 and 1900, focus is on the making of a free labor market in metropole and colony and the associated apparatuses of poor administration and policing.

Essentially, the comparative analyses of the governmentalities, which were at the heart of these projects and domains of governing, point to a profound historical shift in the relationship between metropole and colony. In the late eighteenth-century, colonial officials in the Danish West Indies could still draw upon the governmentalities that were essential for the governing of ‘whites’ back home. Thus, although colonial and metropolitan governmentalities were far from identical, there were significant points of overlap and commensurability in the governing of ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’.

Over the course of the nineteenth century however, these overlaps and commensurabilities vanished. After the abolition of slavery in 1848, colony and metropole had become ‘worlds beyond compare’, each requiring its own particular ‘handbook’ of governing. On this basis, the dissertation points to the importance of exploring not only the distinction between colonial and non-colonial governing, but also the history of the distinction itself.


Kristoffer Edelgaard Christensen, PhD Candidate at the Department of History, Lund University.

Edelgaard Christensen holds an MA in History from the University of Copenhagen and is currently curator at the National Museum of Denmark. He will defend his thesis on May, 17, 2023.


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