Colonial Williamsburg acquires rare Danish abolitionist medal

Colonial Williamsburg

The male head depicted on the face of the 1792 medal is likely the oldest Danish naturalistic portrait of an African. Image courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – One of the most important items related to the Atlantic slave trade is now part of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s collections. Designed by the Danish artist Nicolai Abildgaard and struck in bronze in 1792 from dies by the Italian medalist Pietro Leonardo Gianelli, the rare medal commemorates that year’s royal edict ending trade in enslaved persons on Danish ships.

Only a handful of these medals produced in a variety of metals are known to exist: White metal examples are in Danish museums and others, held in private collections, were struck in bronze and silver.

“The items of Colonial Williamsburg’s collections capture tangibly our complex, shared history,” said Mitchell B. Reiss, Colonial Williamsburg president and CEO. “In this rare 1792 medal we see an Atlantic power affirming the humanity of a people exploited as property, as well as a foretelling of abolition in America. We welcome our guests 365 days a year—and especially in February during Black History Month—to experience the diverse stories of our nation’s founding.”

In Denmark in 1792, as the move toward banning slavery was taking hold throughout Europe and two years before Congress prohibited the slave trade between the United States and foreign countries, Crown Prince Frederik VI issued the Edict of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This decree made Denmark the first European nation to outlaw trade in enslaved persons on ships flying its flag, though the measure did not fully take effect until 1802. This medal, made at the beginning of the abolitionist movement on the European continent, marks a dramatic shift in the way Denmark sought to treat the enslaved African population in the nation’s Caribbean colonies, the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands).

The male head depicted in profile on the face of the medal (above) is likely the oldest Danish naturalistic portrait of an African. The Latin phrase “Me Miserum” (“Woe is me” or “Poor me”) is imprinted as a border around the profile.

Colonial Williamsburg

The reverse side of the medal shows the mythological goddess Nemesis. Image courtesy Colonial Williamsburg

The reverse image shows the mythological winged goddess Nemesis, who was thought to be the avenging goddess of divine indignation against and retribution for evil deeds and undeserved good fortune. She is depicted seated and facing forward on a platform decorated with a shield that bears her name while holding an apple branch in one hand and touching her wing with the other. The Latin legends indicate the medal was produced under the Danish King’s law and includes the date of the edict, March 16, 1792.

The medal is scheduled for public display in 2020 following completion of the entirely donor-funded $41.7 million expansion of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. Both institutions, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, remain open throughout construction.