In 1814, Denmark lost the war, lost Norway and was reduced to fraction of the country it once was. However, this also marked the beginning of a cultural renaissance known as the Danish Golden Age.
The Danish absolute monarchy still had a firm grip on power. In 1826, Dr Dampe was given a life sentence and sent to Christiansø. He was sentenced for attempting a violent overthrow of the Danish absolute monarchy, which dealt severely with the revolutionary dreamer. For 15 long years, he sat in solitary confinement on Christiansø. This long period of captivity gave him a kind of martyr status. If Dampe had been given a milder sentence, he would in all likelihood not be nearly as well-known today. In Dampe’s 15 years on Christiansø, he made several failed escape attempts. However, he did develop good relations with a number of the fortress residents.
In 1831, Frederiksø was converted into a quarantine station as Asiatic cholera spread through Russia. The cholera graveyard from that time still exists today as an untouched field along the fortress trail 50 metres north of the prison.
The bridge between the two islands was torn down, and Frederiksø was shut off to all but the ships requiring disinfecting before continuing their journey through Danish waters.
Construction on the fortress continued throughout this period, but it was never completed. Technological advances overtook the fortress, and the massive stone walls, built without mortar, could not withstand the powerful new artillery of the steam-powered ships used during the three-year war in 1848-50.
At the same time, the Danish absolute monarchy fell. The new popularly elected government determined that it would be too costly to rebuild the fortress compared to the limited naval benefit provided by the islands’ small harbour. In 1855, the fortress on Christiansø was decommissioned. However, the soldiers were permitted to settle on the islands as fishermen.
Dr Dampe: dreamer or champion of liberty?
Of the many prisoners and exiles that had been sent to Christiansø, Dr Jacob Jacobsen Dampe was the most famous. In 1820, Dr Dampe attempted to form an association for the purpose of violently overthrowing the Danish absolute monarchy. At the inaugural meeting of the association, Dampe and his sole follower – a master smith named Jørgensen – were arrested by police spies.
The Danish absolute monarchy was highly authoritarian and dealt severely with even the most minor of threats. Dampe and Jørgensen were accused of high treason and lèse-majesté and sentenced to beheading. However, shortly afterwards, the draconian judge commuted the sentence to life in prison. A new ‘super prison’ was established on Christiansø for the two prisoners. Dampe was imprisoned on Christiansø for a total of 15 years, while Jørgensen was imprisoned for 11 years before the Crown showed mercy and released the poor souls.
Several writers have since sought to make Dr Dampe out to be a champion of liberty and a martyr to the parliamentary constitution. However, historians took a different view: Dampe was, above all, a somewhat confused man who, despite his high intelligence, did not understand the workings of the political environment in which he lived. What is certain is that the crown overreacted by locking up the relatively harmless Dampe for so long on Christiansø. This made Dr Dampe a ‘Martyr to the Crown’s fear of Ghosts’, as he was called in one obituary from 1867. If Dampe had received a milder sentence for his attempted rebellion, he would not be as well-known as he is today, but his long imprisonment on Christiansø gave fodder to the myth of Dr Dampe.
Johan Curdts’ Christiansø
In 1822, the fortress doctor, Johan Curdts, wrote descriptive notes about the 356 people living on the islands at the time. And if we are to believe the doctor, there were many sad creatures and suffering souls living at the fortress in the early 1800s, including a large number of disabled and cripples. Here are a few of his notes from that time:
- ‘Margrethe Valentin aged 23: Speaks and hears, but has since birth been utterly insane’
- ‘Morten Nilsen Holms son, Morten, aged 16: Is sound of mind, but his body is deformed. He is 41½ inches (1.08 m) tall and has a large head with wide-set and slanted eyes, his voice is hoarse, and he is in many ways far lower than animals.’
- ‘Peder Nielsen aged 19: Has been insane since his earliest youth, seems able to hear, but unable to speak. He is shy and prefers to spend time with the farm animals, whose company he seems to enjoy. The mother seems unable to house-train him. Urine and excrement seem to flow out of him involuntarily, and for that reason he is dressed as a girl. The mother insists on maintaining her superstitious belief that her baby was taken 19 years ago by goblins, and that they have given her Peter Nielsen instead.’
- ‘Nils Mogensen aged 14: Is completely sound of mind, but born with 2 displaced hips, which cause his upper body to be bent forward and give him an unsteady gait. His growth suffers, he has no strength and the colour of his face is poor.’
Margrethe Valentin, Morten Holm, Peder Nielsen and Niels Morgensen lived in all likelihood on the street on Frederiksø, where the poorest islanders lived.