Interrogation of a runaway convict, Copenhagen 1776

Johan Heinsen <>, Aalborg University (Denmark)

A photo of an original page

From 1741 to about 1860 a prison known in its time as “Slaveriet”, translating simply to The Slavery, existed in Northern Copenhagen. The Slavery was one of many similar extramural convict institutions littering early modern Scandinavia and Northern Germany. During their stays in these institutions, chained men, “slaver” (slaves), performed hard labour for the military states. They helped build and maintain key infrastructure such as ships and fortifications. The Slavery in Northern Copenhagen was run by the Danish army, though many of the slaves had civilian backgrounds prior to conviction. Slavery, which denoted both the institution and the state in which these men found themselves, could be for life or for a set term. The chains were the distinctive mark of a slave.

Because of the outdoor nature of the labour performed by slaves, escapes were quite common. About one in six slaves ran away at some point during their punishment. By the late eighteenth century, their success rates were about one in three. The rest were caught. Upon return, runaways were interrogated in Copenhagen’s garrison court, a form of court martial, mostly in order to figure out if they had stolen while away, but also to grasp whether the escape itself owed to negligence or collusion on the part of guards or other security breaches. Formally, torture was not allowed without a case-by-case acceptance from Denmark’s absolutist king. However, a few cases against slaves reveal that in such particular cases the threat of torture or violence was sometimes key to making the runaway talk, possibly conditioned by their prior loss of status upon entry into slavery. Interrogations in the garrison court were usually held as preparatory acts for actual court meetings that would conclude with a verdict by a jury of officers. In cases against runaway slaves, such follow-up meetings were usually not held. Rather, the interrogation itself sufficed to hand out customary punishments of whippings and heavier chains for the convict.

The interrogation below concerns the slave Bertel Henrichsen, who briefly recounts his life in the source. The prison’s entry books supplement these biographical details as they reveal how he had arrived in the Slavery on 8 December 1772. They also note that he died there, still a slave, on 26 November 1788. Prior to his conviction, he had been a farmhand.

The original document is held in Denmark’s national archives, Rigsarkivet, in Copenhagen as part of a bound minute book. It is written in Danish on coarse pages in gothic handwriting by a court scribe. The text of this specific interrogation reads as continuous prose, but from other cases we know that such narratives were, typically, the result of stringent questioning from the examiner. In this sense, the text is a composite, in which we often cannot tell with certainty whose words we hear.


Copenhagen 24 June 1776.

To interrogate dishonoured slave Bertel Henrichsen who on 12 August 1773 has deserted from this slavery, but in recent days has been brought back, this garrison court was gathered at Hovedvagten at the order of the governorship. The aforementioned slave, who was presented to the court by prison warden Bræsten, answered the following upon being questioned: His name is Bertel Henrichsen, born in Rungsted, 27 years old, unmarried, about four and a half years ago he was pilloried and put in the Slavery for life on account of theft.

On 12 August 1773, when he along with another slave, Friedrich Schröder, was cleaning the moat at the Citadel below Østerport, under the eye of guard Wulff, he had crossed over to the glacis on a small raft they used for this work, and had run away after having left his slave dress by the raft, and having beaten off his slave irons with a rock in the field, he had, wearing an old grey shirt and a pair of old soldiers trousers, walked to the village of Slaglunde, which is about four and a half miles from this city. A farmer in this place by the name of Jens Nielsen had immediately taken on his service, and he had served this man until last New Year and in this period he had gone to confirmation and then to the alter in the church at Slaglunde by the priest Mr. Henrich Pram, having pretended to being Swedish by birth and not yet having received confirmation. Last New Year he had come to serve Torkel Pedersen in the same village and to this farmer he had stood in service as farm foreman until the other day, when he drove his master’s cart with a load of logwood to the harbour here by Proviantgården, when a farmhand from Rungsted, by the name of Ole Svendsen, recognised him at Kultorvet and then brought him to the commandant in this city. At the farmer Torkel Pedersen, the deponent still had a brown homespun dress, a pair of linen pants, a shirt and a cap which he had bought with his pay, and he presumed that some of his pay is still due, as he was to get 17 slettedaler by next New Year for piecework, of which he had to this day only received 9 slettedaler in money, even though Torkel Pedersen had vouched for him for the aforementioned dress, which he had bought from the smallholder Lars Christophersen for 2 rigsdaler. Regarding his first master, Jens Nielsen, the deponent presumes to also be owed something, but he cannot precisely say how much. The deponent assures that he has not committed any excesses since he escaped from here, but to have made a living, as mentioned, in a legal way. He added that in order not to be known he had given himself the name of Henrich Eilers, and had for as long as he had been in Slaglunde been called that.

Thereby the interrogation was ended and signed.

Translated by Johan Heinsen.


Kiöbenhavn den 24de Juny 1776.

For at examinere en uærlig Slave navnlig Bertel Henrichsen som den 12te Aug. 1773 er deserteret her af Slaveriet, men i disse dage igien bleven indbragt, var nærværende garnisons-forhör paa Gouvernementets Ordre i dag forsamlet paa Hovedvagten. Bem te Slave, som af Arrestforvahrer Bræsten blev sisteret, giorte paa Tilspörgsel fölgende Forklaring: Hans Navn er Bertel Henrichsen, föd i Rongstedt, 27. Aar gammel, ugift, for omtrent halv 4 de Aar siden ere han for begangne Tyverie bleven pidsket til Kagen og derpaa indsadt i Slaveriet paa Livstid.

Den 12. Aug. 1773. da han tillige med en anden Slave navnlig Friderich Schröder, rendsede Graven i Citadellet needen ved Österport, under Opsigt af Gevaldiger Wulff, havde han med en liden Flaade, som de brugte til dette Arbejde, sadt sig over paa Glaciet og var derpaa löbet bort efter at han havde kastet sin Slavekiortel fra sig ved bemelte Flaade, samt paa Marken med en Steen afslaget sit Slavejern, var han, klæd i en gl graae brystdug og et pr gamle Soldater-buxer gaaet hen til Landsbyen Slaglund, som ligger halv 4 de Miil herfra Staden. En bonde sammesteds navnlig Jens Nielsen, havde strax taget ham i Tieneste, og havde han tient hos samme indtil sidstafvigte Nyeaar, samt imidlertid gaaet til Confirmation og derpaa til Alters i Slagslund Kirke hos Præsten Hr. Henrich Pram, saasom han havde foregivet at være en Svendske af födsel, og at han ej havde været til Confirmation. Sidst afvigte Nyeaar var han kommen at tiene hos bonde Torkel Pedersen i samme bye og hos samme bonde havde han staaet i Tieneste som Avlskarl indtil i forgaars da han med denne sin Hosbondes vogn kiörte et læs faugne-brænde ind til ved havnen her ved Proviantgaarden, da en bondekarl fra Rungstedt, navnlig Ole Svendsen som kiendte ham paa Kulvtorvet, og derpaa bragte ham hen til Hr Commandanten her i Staden. Hos Bonden Terkel Pedersen havde Deponent en brrun Vadmeels kiol, 1 pr Lærreds buxer, 1. skiorte og 1. hue liggende, som han havde anskaffet sig af sin lön, og formenede han og endnu at komme noget tilgode af sin lön, saasom han til næstkommende Nyeaar, efter Accord skulle have 17 slette daler hvor af ham til dato ikke havde bekommet mere end 9 sd i Penge, dog havde Terkel Pedersen sagd god for ham for den ermeldte Kiole, som han havde kiöbt af en Huusmand, navnlig Lars Christophersen for 2r hos hans förste Hosbonde Jens Nielsen formeener deponent ogsaa endnu at have noget til gode, men kand ikke egentlig bestemme hvor meget. Deponent forsikkrer ellers, ikke at have begaaet nogle Excesser siden han undvigte herfra, men at have, som ovenmeldt ernæret sig paa en lovlig Maade. Endnu tilföyede han dette, at han for ey at blive kiendt, havde givet sig det Navn Henrich Eilers, ligesom han ogsaa længe han har været i Slagelund er bleven kaldt saaledes.

Hermed blev forhöret sluttet og underskrevet.