The prison at Bergenhus Fort and Castle was commonly known as the Slave Prison. The convicts of particularly hard crimes were kept here. The prison opened in 1739, and offered board and lodging to people who had been a bit careless about the laws of society. The last slaves left the prison in 1878.
The Slave Prison originally opened in Bergen when a similar institution in Copenhagen was closed down. The prison in Copenhagen had accepted long term prisoners from both Denmark and Norway at a time when the two countries were a “twin-nation” under the same king. In 1739 it was decided that local forts should keep local prisoners – they were no longer to be sent to Copenhagen.
The prisoners were supposed to make a contribution to society through their work. One task could be to supply the leprosy patients at St Jørgen’s Hospital with combs and spoons made of horn and bone. Other tasks could be spinning hemp, making fishnets, and tailoring for the Slave Prison. The prisoners also made shoes and barrels and buckets for the army. They worked as carpenters and as blacksmiths, producing toys and knives. In the summertime some prisoners were put to harder work at the fort.
Supposedly, the prisoners had a friendly relationship with the town’s people. They could also be let out to locals to work for them. The prisoners were usually rented out in this manner in times when there wasn’t enough work for them inside the fort.
"The left leg and the right side of the shirt were grey, and the opposite side was black."
The prisoners wore black and grey woollen clothes. The left leg and the right side of the shirt were grey, and the opposite side was black. With a foot shackle and the chain rattling behind, this was a noticeable sight around town.
The physician D.J.J. Hjort was on a journey on behalf of the Government in 1832, and on his journey he also examined the Slave Prison. In his report he described the prison as a two storey stone building, consisting of two large and two small rooms. Three of these rooms had high ceilings with much light, whereas the fourth was found below a tall wall, and had very bad air. The prisoners were kept in these rooms at all times, but a new building with a workroom and a small hospital area was about to be completed. There was also a small brick building within the area designed for solitary confinement – two dark cells with a stone floor. These cells were very moist and unhealthy. This isolation prison was located by a walking path, which made it possible for the prisoners to talk to passers-by through a small window.
In 1860, Paul Magnus Norum, Director of the penitentiary in Oslo, estimated that around 100 prisoners could be kept in the Slave Prison. In his opinion the prisoners’ housing was exceptionally bad. He paralleled the prison with a dark and narrow well, with only the roof showing above the ground. The director’s observations probably weren’t far from the truth, but we must bear in mind that his agenda was the modernizing of the Norwegian prison systsem, after the American Philadelphia model.
When prisoners died, they were buried at the cemetery for the poor, Fredens Bolig - the Residence of Peace. The funerals were held in the outskirts of the cemetery.
Today the churchyard has been turned into a park area, where the children from Krohnengen School play during recess.
Til alle som har en fot i fortidens Bergen - hva med Elisabeth Welhavens fornøyelige historier fra Bergen rundt 1800? Boken kan bestilles på Histos forlag!