1801-1814: The English Wars

Christiansø regained its military importance during the Napoleonic Wars when Denmark went to war against England. This became the most dramatic period in the history of the fortress, with privateers, bombardments and mutiny.

In the 172 years that Christiansø was an active fortress, the population and its composition (professional, social and demographic) presumably changed dramatically. In 1807, 446 people lived at the fortress: soldiers, gunners and petty officers, seamen, women, children, pensioners and a sizeable number of alms persons. Alms persons and pensioners were often former employees or widows of soldiers who were allowed to continue living there.

The Bombardment of Christiansø of 6 October 1808.

The pinnacle of society was made up of the fortress commanders and the so-called civilian officers: a steward, an auditor, a doctor, a minister and a schoolteacher. And just like today, there was also a group of tradesmen, including a smithy, a carpenter, a mason and a miller. There was also a groundskeeper, a disciplinary warrant officer, an innkeeper and others.

Christiansø was situated on the main shipping route for all maritime trade going in and out of the Baltic Sea, and the fortress harbour was frequently used by the many ships sailing to and from ports along the Baltic coast. The flax, canvas, timbre, iron and tar that the regional powers needed to build ships all passed through here. Thanks to these maritime resources, the Baltic region was extremely important in the age of sailing vessels, almost comparable to the significance of oil from the Middle East to us today. For this reason, Christiansø gave shelter each year to around 300 ships from North America and the European nations. To illuminate the sea route for the merchant fleets, a lighthouse was built inside Store Tårn in 1805.

Due to the importance of the Baltic Sea and Denmark’s position at its entrance, Denmark found itself at war again in the early 1800s, with England as the primary adversary.

During the seven-year war, the population of Christiansø more than doubled when many soldiers were sent to the islands as reinforcements. Christiansø ultimately played an important role as a base for the Danish state-sponsored pirates, the privateers, with the fortress becoming one of Denmark’s most important privateer bases. From Christiansø, the privateers attacked English and Swedish merchant ships in the Baltic Sea, and the fortress caused headaches high up in the English government. Christiansø quickly became a topic of discussion in the British government because the location of the fortress and harbour was ideally suited to England’s own activities in the Baltic Sea.

Painting of the bombardment of 1808 by Arne Skotteborg-Frederiksen (1979).
The painting hangs in the Administrator’s residence in Hvide Hus.

In 1808, Christiansø was therefore subjected to the worst attack of the war by the English (after the bombardment of Copenhagen the previous year), aimed at specific Danish-Norwegian possessions. The attack failed, however, and the English sailed home empty-handed. Throughout the rest of the war, plans to conquer a fortress were considered by the English admiralty on multiple occasions.

In 1809, Christiansø saw a major mutiny by 200 enlisted soldiers from the Marine Regiment. The mutineers stabbed the Commander with a bayonet, arrested the officers and took over control of Christiansø. After several days of chaos, drunkenness, violence and killing, the mutiny ended with the rebels fleeing to Sweden on a couple of ships.

After the attack by the English in 1808, Christiansø’s fortress was expanded significantly. The giant ramparts, bastions and powder magazines that give Christiansø much of its distinctive appearance today were all built during this time. Thousands of tonnes of rocks were needed to expand the fortress, and Ertholmene was blasted to bits in the effort. The many rocky plateaus that make up the almost terrace-like landscape around the island bear witness to this (they are easy to spot at Bjelkes Vig and Pikkervig).

Johan von Kohl: war hero of Christiansø

When the fortress was active, Christiansø’s commander-in-chief was called the Commander. The Commander was typically a naval officer sent over from Copenhagen. But twice in history, a native resident of Christiansø achieved the rank of Commander of the fortress.

Johan Henrik August von Kohl

The most famous of the native commanders was Johan Henrik August von Kohl. He was born on Christiansø in 1763, the son of Andreas August von Kohl, an officer at the fortress. After his confirmation, the young Johan von Kohl set sail with a ship to the Danish West Indies to train as a coxswain. After several years at sea, he returned home to Christiansø at the age of 20 to visit his parents. During his visit, a ship sank off Tat, an islet north of Græsholm. Kohl rowed out in the storm and rescued the ship’s crew. The old Commander was so impressed by the young sailor that he offered him a position as officer at the fortress. Both Johan von Kohl and his father must have done well as officers, because in 1793, Andreas August von Kohl was made Commander of Christiansø. He died, however, a couple months later. And so Johan von Kohl took over the position of Commander after his late father. He held the position until 1811.

Johan von Kohl was Commander of the fortress during the English attack in 1808 and the bloody mutiny in 1809 – and was injured on both occasions. Johan von Kohl is probably the closest Christiansø has to a genuine hero. Not just for his courage, but also because he was a pleasant and considerate commander who often helped the poor with money from his own pockets.

The Gunboat Battle at Christiansø of 1813

The gunboat sheds – today known as Salterierne.

In 1810, Christiansø was home to four gunboats called Svaneke, Allinge, Rønne and Gudhjem. They were giant rowing boats mounted with a single cannon, and their job was to keep enemies away from the islands. In 1813, war was building against Sweden, and a Swedish warship arrived off the coast of Christiansø and started chasing and boarding Bornholm boats sailing to and from the fortress. The Commander rowed out to ask the Swedish captain, Count Cronstedt, what he was up to. War had not yet been officially declared. The captain replied that he had been given orders from home to blockade Christiansø. But the soldiers at the fortress were not having that, and the Commander gave his next in command, Hans Emmanuel Wulff, orders to take the gunboats out and chase the Swedes away. The cannons began booming at noon. The warship’s stern boat was shot down and riddled with holes. The Swedes then positioned the warship within shooting range and gave the gunboats a couple of broadsides. Most of the shots whizzed over the heads of the gunboat crews. However, one cannon ball crushed a pair of oars on Allinge, and Svaneke took a hit in the hull. At quarter to one, the Swedish captain sent a boat over to the Danish gunboats to inquire as to whether war had been declared between Denmark and Sweden. Hans Emmanuel Wulf responded that Cronstedt’s mere presence was considered an act of war, so he had given orders to chase him off. The battered Swedish warship then fled the scene.

The hero of the day, Hans Emmanuel Wulff, later became Commander of Christiansø, and many years later Dr Dampe wrote a poem paying tribute to Wulff and the heroic battle against the Swedish warship. Wulff’s wife and young daughter are buried in Christiansø Cemetery. Wulff abandoned them when he later resigned his post as Commander.