After the Great Northern War, Denmark entered the longest period of peace in the history of the country at the time. There was basically peace for the rest of the century. During what is known as the ‘long period of peace’, there was not much need for a military fortress. Christiansø was left pretty much on its own for extended periods, and during that century the fortress became something of a wilderness. The harbour on Christiansø was good, but it was not big enough to accommodate ships of the line (the warships of the day), which were the backbone of the Danish navy. Moreover, Christiansø had been built to curb Sweden’s power in the Baltic Sea, but in the 1700s, relations between the two rivals evolved from conflict to a mutual desire for peaceful coexistence. This diminished Christiansø’s military role even further.
However, this also paved the way for the development of an actual island community. Early in this period, soldiers from all over the kingdom were sent to Christiansø to serve for a few years before being replaced by new soldiers. But by the mid-1700s, the soldiers on Christiansø began to stay for good, settling down and starting families. The sons grew up to become soldiers like their fathers, and the influx of new soldiers dwindled. The soldiers’ low wages and the limited rations could not feed the many families, so the soldiers spent the greater part of their spare time fishing. Over time, soldiering was replaced by fishing as the principal occupation. In reality, the soldiers were more fishermen than military men: The sons would go out to sea to fish with their fathers from around the age of ten. The women and daughters made nets and cleaned and salted the fish. Until just a few decades ago, most of Christiansø’s residents worked in fishery.
During this period, the fortress also became a place to send difficult prisoners. Convicts, criminals, lunatics, psychopaths and political dissidents were sent to this prison in windswept, jagged surroundings – either as jernfanger (literally iron prisoners) to perform hard labour in the local granite quarry or simply to keep them out of sight. Christiansø continued in this function until it was decommissioned.
When the fortress was active, Christiansø’s soldiers received rations from the storehouse up near Store Tårn. However, the size of the rations was determined by an outdated rationing system calculated for a single man on board a naval vessel. The system did not take into account the soldiers having wives and many children to feed, so the rations did not go far. And so the soldiers turned to fishing in their spare time. The many stone huts on the islands were built by soldiers for storing and cleaning fish. They are located away from the island’s barracks because of the stench from the offal. Fishing was a family activity. The soldiers’ wives and daughters made herring nets and salted the fish while the sons went out to sea and fished with their fathers from around the age of ten.
The soldiers in the 1700s
The soldiers and gunners lived on the main street on Christiansø with their families. The officers and petty officers lived at each end in the top-floor flats.
There was one kitchen per house, shared by four families. And they were issued a quantity of firewood once a year for cooking. Christiansø’s soldiers were very poor, earning only about a third of what a soldier in Copenhagen earned. On the other hand, the work was not as hard as elsewhere. Just as at sea, the soldiers had two four-hour shifts a day. They also had the privilege of being able to go fishing in their spare time. With the poor soldiers’ wages, fishing became a vital part of the families’ economy, and presumably occupied more of their time than their garrison duties did. Life as a Christiansø soldier was poor, but relatively free.
The residents on Christiansø still live in the old barracks. However, the flats are larger now, and the pay is much better. Some still fish in their spare time – but mostly for fun these days.