Dismantling European City Walls and the Abolition of Slavery in the Colonies

I believe there are correlations, chronologically as well as socio-historically, between the abolition of slavery in the Americas (as decided by individual European countries) and the dismantling of city walls/city fortifications in European capital cities during the 1830’s-1860’s. While these two very different processes have not been correlated before, I believe this time period and these historical manifestations are an example of the transformation of morality and ethics domestically and internationally (abroad in the colonies) during the 19th century. Rather than upholding infrastructures for violence: in the forms of city fortifications that acted as military defenses and slave labour in the colonies, this project of nationalism created ways of being global cities based on hidden colonial legacies, shared values, and patterns of urban development with other European countries.

Although a whole research project could be conducted on the 18th-19th century: the historical circumstances that led to the dismantling of city fortifications in European cities and the abolition of slavery in the Americas (and colonies more generally), I am not a historian. I merely intend to scratch the surface from a postcolonial urbanist perspective of a correlation I see between these two processes. It’s also important to note that the abolition of slavery in the colonies was not one single event. It involved a series of legislations, had more than one stage, and multiple geographies (in Europe and the Americas) which took place over long periods of time. Additionally, like the dismantling of European city walls, the project of the abolition of slavery in the colonies was a result of social, cultural, and historic circumstances of the 18th century, and was not without dissent, conflict, and fear of what’s to come.


In my opinion the 19th Century, especially the second half, is the century of morality. In addition to the Congress of Vienna that took place in 1814, in this century some European countries become unified nations (Germany) while others had successful independence revolutions (Belgium) after the violence of the Napoleonic Wars. In many of the colonies in the Americas, the 19th century marked the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and other laws associated with the slave trade by European colonial powers, mostly in the early 1800’s, between 1800-1815. In addition, the second half of the 19th century saw the abolition, in one way or another, of slavery in many of the colonies in the Americas.

There were many process (legislation, policies, laws, actions, etc.) having to do with abolition of slavery and the slave trade. However, the dismantling of city walls, bastions, ramparts, or fortifications could sometimes be decreed in one action by a monarch; such as with Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and the dismantling of Vienna’s city walls. Irregardless, dismantling city fortifications was also a multilayered historical process coming after years of wars in Europe. Still, the 19th century was one in which European modernity was becoming more salient. The 19th century in a sense solidified modern nationalism. It also perpetuated the idea of morality–being above certain forms of aggression and power (such as city walls and slavery). Peace treaties and official borders were decided in Europe in the 19th century. I would mark this time as a transition to forms of soft power rather than hard power (Joseph Nye), which included decentralizing, spatially, military capabilities in European cities and invalidating the duress inherent in slavery in the colonies.  

Rather than seeing citizens or other countries as enemies they incorporated them into the new narrative of nation-state: European cities as places of heterogeneity and progress. Instead of seeing enslaved Africans in the Americas as property and free labor, they were transformed into subordinated colonial subjects. The way I see it, the morality did not necessarily get rid of the fears and violence–they were transformed into ways that more accurately portrayed ideas of modernity and progress, which Europe is quite known for. These processes, however, still operated based on systems of power even though they had affects that led to certain equalities in the long run. The capital city as the centralized administrative, political, and social hub was still an expression of a nation’s power and the colony was still an inferior (and somewhat hidden) extension of the same thing, essentially: nationalism. Dismantling city fortifications and the abolition of slavery does not necessarily dismantle the power structures of which they were manifestations. 

Additionally, we cannot forget that many of these capital cities had an economic basis in the profit and resources from the colonies. European urban history is not divorced or in isolation from the history of its colonies. The dates of dismantling of European city walls do not need to directly coincide with legislations that abolished slavery in the colonies to understand the deep relational realities between city culture in Europe and colonization in the Americas. Even small actions, like the Queen of England sipping her sweetened tea, or tea time in general in Great Britain, was only made possible by the sugarcane extracted from Jamaica and other West Indian colonies. As such, in many ways the colonies in the Americas shaped some of what was possible in European urban culture. In Madrid there is an estate called Torre Arias which is now a garden and park featuring trees and plants that come from the Americas. During a visit there we were told having more plants from the Americas on a royal estate was seen as a greater expression of power. Much of the beauty of this estate, which is now a piece of nature in the city, is because of colonialism.


Of course the abolition of slavery and the demolishing of cities walls or defenses are not one time instances and happened over time. However, it was during this century of morality when the ways in which cities and nation-states presented themselves began to shift.

Slavery was abolished in the Danish West Indies, now the U.S. Virgin Islands (as of 1917), in 1848even though Denmark abolished the transatlantic slave trade several years before: some accounts say in 1792 (even though they continued participating in the slave trade) and other accounts say in 1835/6 (in a treaty with Great Britain).  In 1852 Copenhagen’s city fortifications were partially demolished, but it was not until 1868 that a law officially allowed for the dismantling of (almost) all of the city fortifications properly. This was apart of a more comprehensive city plan that would allow for the creation of a ring road, something many European cities have. A ring road is also a type of barrier, but less of a defense and more of a demarcation which has other social/cultural implications in cities today.

While Copenhagen was redefining the barriers and boundaries around their capital city, within their colonies in the West Indies there was redefining of power structures and categories. Neither the dismantling of most of Copenhagen’s fortifications nor the abolition of slavery in the colonies completely changed the immediate priorities on the part of Denmark for safety, defense, and control. However, it is these processes that overtime become apart of a national psyche and narrative perpetuating an idea of modernity, morality, and ethics.

It was not a coincidence that in the 19th century the beginning of dismantling formal defensive fortifications and formal manifestations of racialized colonial slavery came to pass. It was a century when nation-states began to define their nationalist narrative and step boldly into modernity, on the heels of the industrial revolution. It was a century where new forms of consolidating and expressing power were taking shape. Thus, while capital cities of colonial powers in Europe were changing their physical and therefore social status, colonies followed suit by changing their social-historical status. We cannot separate what happens in Europe on European soil from what happened in the colonies. We must not forget: the decision to dismantle the fortifications surrounding Copenhagen came from the same place that the decision to outlaw slavery in the colonies was made. Both of these decisions came from governing institutions in Denmark, and both decisions had transnational/international implications.

Whether in London, Porto, Madrid or wherever we cannot abstract domestic development decisions from colonial ones. Both types of decisions have direct effect on the nation-state even though decisions about the colonies are often ignored or made invisible until it comes to independence and “official” decolonization. No matter how insular European city urbanization may seem, many processes were made possible because of the exploitation and control over resources (people labour, natural resources, land, etc.) in the colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia and South Pacific.