By expansive, I mean in terms of land area.

On the Wikipedia pages of Norway's, Sweden's, and Denmark's colonies, it shows they had very few parcels of land around the globe, compared to the colonies of the Spanish, Portuguese, French, British, and even nearby Dutch. And the few small lands they did colonize were very quickly taken over by the British or French (i.e. Porto Novo lost in a month).

Why was Scandinavian colonization less expansive?

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    Greenland was a Norwegian colony, later a Danish one. So at least in one case the land area was quite large. Danish West Indies existed some hunddred years (for more colonies see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danish_overseas_colonies. Sweden also expanded in Northern Europe. In summary, I'm not sure if your assumption is correct.
    – knut
    Jan 9, 2021 at 21:30
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    Perhaps because the Scandinavian countries were much less populous than Britain & France, In 1750, about 1.7 million in Sweden vs about 8 million in Britain? Sweden also had an empire in the 1700s that encompassed Finland, the Baltic states, and parts of what are now Russia & Germany: timewisetraveller.co.uk/kiel.html
    – jamesqf
    Jan 10, 2021 at 4:53
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    Historically, the richest scandinavian country were Denmark including Scania (and Norway), due to their export of food stuff. Having colonies, in a worlld of thiefs (ie the Netherlands and England) is expensive. One method to discourage from thiefery is either an alliance with a strong sea power or building your own fleet to do the same. Jan 10, 2021 at 17:41

2 Answers 2


Short Answer:

There was a sum of factors:

  • War
  • Weather
  • Population
  • Willingness

Long Answer:

Population, as highlighted in the comments, is part of the answer. But only a part, because the Netherlands and Portugal had not a big population, and still they developed quite extended colonial empires. Their small population played a more important role, when they had to defend their empires against France, United Kingdom and Spain.

War is linked to the population issue, and the overall capability of a country to undertake a colonial project. If I trust this list, Sweden had a lot of war. So had Denmark/Norway. Two things are important with those wars:

  • They exhausted the countries
  • The battlefield was the Baltic Sea: nobody controlled it, so nobody could use it as a safe base from which to start colonial operations. In contrast France, Spain and United Kingdom had an extensive Western coast from which to operate. The Netherlands had not, but they ruled the sea.

The second thing is that those wars were not conclusive: Spain finished the Reconquista and started colonies. France finished the Italy wars and started colonies. UK did the same after it unified under Elisabeth the 1rst. In Scandinavia, Poland and Russia, wars repeatedly arose because no peace was found. Note that the new set of wars that came with Louis XIV played a role in reducing Spanish and French colonies.

Weather put Scandinavian harbours unable to work all year long. This had some effects on the capacity to colonize lands far away, because the time to travel back and forth was so long: it needed months to reach America, so only a few convoys could have reached the homeland nor the colonized country.

Willingness eventually is a key factor: by those time, population was not well educated and did not know a lot about geography: to put such a population in boats and send them overseas, you need propaganda and efficient enforcement authority. France for example used it police forces to send thiefs, prostitutes and other low-considered urban population in its colonies, because the rest of the population had no willingness to go there. So willingness of the population is commanded by the willingness of the governements: I have no information about the state of mind of Sweden or Denmark's kings, but it could be interesting to search about that.

  • 3
    Swedish criminals were sent to mines in Norrland for forced labor. Working accidents were common and most convicts working in the mines didn't return. Also, there was a Swedish East India Company setup like the British or Dutch East India Company. It went bankrupt in 1813. Maybe because the demand for East Indian luxury goods wasn't high enough, due to the relatively small urban population. Jan 11, 2021 at 1:15
  • Good answer. I would add that the distance between Scandinavia and a lot of the most desirable colonies (e.g.the Carribean) was much longer (easier to see on a globe than on a Mercator projection). North Atlantic winds and currents did not favor passing from East to West in the far north. Also Scandinavia was comparibly tolerant on religion (e.g. allowing Hueguenotte Calvinists into Sweden) leading to less settlers from minorities. In the case of Sweden: Sweden already held possessions or had ambitions in North Germany (30 Years War) and Poland (the Deluge)
    – R.K.
    Jan 12, 2021 at 14:02
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    @R.K. Sweden was Protestant, so they allowed Hugenotte Calvinists as did other Protestant states. They were not tolerant wrt Catholics, Jews, etc.
    – 0range
    Jan 12, 2021 at 18:53
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    @0range In 1782, Gustaf III signed the Judereglementet which permitted jews to move to Sweden, reside here and work here without converting to christian protestantism. Though they were baned from the domains of the different guilds. The Toleransediktet came one year earlier and which concerned the Swedish states relation to catholics. Jan 13, 2021 at 19:56
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    @StefanSkoglund Exactly, and before that it was not legal for Catholics or Jews to live in Sweden. Norway had similar policies until 1851 while Denmark lifted the ban earlier, but also forced Jews to attend Lutheran services for a time. My point is that the early days of Protestantism were not exactly marked by tolerance, either in Scandinavia or anywhere else. You are right that things started to change in the 1700s.
    – 0range
    Jan 13, 2021 at 20:28

I would venture that one reason is the alternatingly dominating fleets of the Spanish, English, French and the Dutch over the centuries. They would simply not want this to happen and had the means to stop it. They all have much better access to the Atlantic and are ideally positioned to project naval power.

Given the geography and politics, it is very easy how one could sideline a country by bottling up a navy, and blockading sea trade, within the Baltic Sea. This would have an enormous impact on the ability and desire of countries which would primarily be based out here and would essentially deny them any capacity to maintain a global empire.

Historically it is easy to see that many Scandinavian (e.g. Sweden) and close neighbors (e.g. Germany) have been mainly land armies with not much in terms of naval power. The only realistic way for them to compete in this theater given all their disadvantages would be asymmetrically (u-boats as an example).

Most of this can be exemplified by Germany in WW1/2, as an example of a country being blockaded and bottled up in the Baltic, with grave military and economic consequences.

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    Actually, there was a considerable period of time when Scandinavian navies were the best in Europe, the time of Vikings. The 20th century comparisons are really unfounded in the context of the question. Jan 23, 2021 at 14:52
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    There is no question the Vikings were very sea worthy, but there is a vast difference during that time (8th/9th centuries) with respect to maintaining or establishing what we would consider global colonies and trade.
    – Hefewe1zen
    Jan 23, 2021 at 15:24

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