The history of Swedish-speakers in Finland goes back hundreds of years, well before Finland existed as an independent nation. The land that is now Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden from the Middle Ages until 1809. The union between Finland and Sweden came to an end at this time due to the Napoleonic wars, when Napoleon urged Russia to encourage the Swedes to join them in their fight against Britain. Tsar Alexander I obliged by conquering Finland in that year.
Swedish was therefore the de facto language of civil administration, jurisdiction and education until at least 1892, when the Finnish and Swedish languages both became official. The Finnish language was dominant by the time of Finnish independence in 1917.
“To a great extent, the presence of a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland can be explained by the eastwards expansion of the Swedish realm from the 12th century onwards,” explains Adjunct Professor of European History, Charlotta Wolff, of the University of Helsinki. “The Swedish crown brought with it Swedish-speaking administrators and a language of administration that also had an impact on the Finnish population. During early modern times, Finnish clergymen, for instance, often originated from the Finnish-speaking countryside but learnt Swedish through their studies.”
The geographical proximity to Sweden has always played a role in Finnish society. “As the Swedish language remained the first language of administration until the late 19th century – and a high-status language even longer – the elites, regardless of their origins, tended to present themselves as Swedish-speaking rather than Finnish-speaking,” says Wolff. She also notes that the concept Finland-Swedishness is relatively new. “The very concept of the Finland Swede is only 100 years old. I would prefer to present bilingualism and the western-orientation of modern Finnish culture as a happy consequence of the historical bounds with Sweden and Scandinavia, which, unfortunately, are often forgotten these days.”