Brandenburg’s Colonial Past

When thought together, the terms colonialism and Prussia do not immediatly evoke the year 1681 and the coast of what is today Ghana. Instead the yearning for an Empire with overseas colonies by the newly founded and Prussian-dominated German Reich might come to mind. It is therefore not surprising that questions and treatments by activists, historians, artists and others circulate around the colonial history between 1884/1885 („Africa Conference Berlin“) and 1919 (Treaty of Versailles – ‚loss‘ of German Colonies).

The discussion surrounding the group of sculptures of Black figures in Park Sanssouci show that it is worthwhile and certainly elementary to deal with the hidden traces and histories of Brandenburgs colonial past. The ignorance and lack of sensitivity concerning questions of the colonial past, usage of appropriate language and the relevance of questioning what is considered truth by the local media and government is astonishing. It is at the same time, unfortunately, a regular occurance in debates on colonialism and racism in Germany, in which denial and ignorance seem to reign. We feel that excavating and remembering (hi)stories, episodes and incidents of (Brandenburg’s) past, especially from a cultural studies perspective, seems to be an important step in fuelling debates and in strengthening the discourse on post-colonialism in Brandenburg.

„The lively participation that the nation has recently shown in the future-oriented enterprises, that have been set in motion by a powerful and goal-oriented state set on overseas territories, has often steered the view towards those times when the Brandenburg-Prussian flag was flying from the massive walls of forts on the west coast of Africa.
The historical sense, that, in a pious fashion, connects the traces and threads that bind past and present together, finds a reminder in the endeavours of the Great Elector. He, with statemanlike vision and determined perseverance, brought to life 200 years ago what we now need to start anew. A work, that then failed due to political misgivings and the partition of the states of Germany.“ from Brandenburg-Preußen auf der Westküste von Afrika 1681 bis 1721, verfaßt von Großen Generalstabe Abteilung für Kriegsgeschichte (issued by the General Staff, Department of War History), 1885.

These are the opening words of a source book, issued by the General Staff in 1885, the year of the so-called Kongo Conference that defined the fate of the African continent by the hands of the European powers. The colonial desires of the late 19th century and their relevance for the status of the nation are here built on the foundation of the Brandenburg-Prussian endeavours on the west coast of Africa 200 years earlier.

This foundation was begun to be laid with the establishment of the Brandenburg-African Compagnie (BAC) 1680 and the Kurbrandenburg Navy from 1676 onwards. Even before, but especially during the Swedish-Brandenburg War (1674-1679), did the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm see the necessity of establishing a deep sea war fleet. He entrusted the Dutch entrepreneur Benjamin Raule (1634-1707) with the task. Until 1680, Raule managed to accumulate 28 war ships for the Brandenburg Navy, which engaged the Spanish fleet in a few battles and sometimes successfully captured their ships. Benjamin Raule, who later fell out of favour, is insofar still present in Berlin’s contemporary landscape as he was responsible for builing Friedrichsfelde Castle, which still stands on the grounds of today’s Tierpark (Zoo Friedrichsfelde).

Kurbrandenburg Fleat (Bildarchiv Frankfurt)

Kurbrandenburg Fleat (Bildarchiv Frankfurt)

Raule financed a first expedition to Africa in 1680 and convinced the Great Elector to send commercial vessels to the coast and establish forts and colonies there. The frigate „Morian“ reached the Guinea coast in January 1681 and a treaty was signed between the mariners from Brandenburg and three local Ahanta. The contract established that the Brandenburgers were allowed to build a commercial post and a fort on the land of the Ahanta, on the coast of today’s Ghana. Trading at the coast did mostly involve gold, pepper, ivory and people – at this point then, and with renting the Carribean island of St. Thomas from the Danish who had taken possession of the Antilles, did the Brandenburgers enter the Transatlantic Slave Trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Estimates concerning the number of traded people in the years between 1680-1717 range between 15,000 (Gründer) and 24,000 (Stamm) on 124 trade journeys, approximately 10-15% of the human ‚cargo‘ did not survive the forced removal and transport. For the first journey, the Great Elector ordered exotic animals like parrots and monkeys and a number of Black slaves, who were intended as servants for the princely court.

The first journey and especially the treaty were celebrated as successes and consequently, to further the enterprise, the Brandenburg-African Compagnie was established in 1682. The BAC is, interestingly, considered to be Germany’s first joint-stock company. The fleet sailed in 1682 under the command of Otto Friedrich von der Groeben, whose name was still present in the Berlin cityscape until 2009, because the „Gröbenufer“ in Berlin-Kreuzberg bore his name (and now carries that of the Black German activist and writer May Ayim), and established Groß-Friedrichsburg on January 1st, 1683 by raising the Brandenburg flag. There was apparently lively trade with the locals and the following years until 1685 saw the further establishment of settlements on the 30km long coastal strip. Regular fights, attacks and ship captures by other European colonisers and traders, by pirates and local groups wore hard on the colony. Successful and lucrative trading was hindered by the loss of cargo and ships and health issues of the posted soldiers.

Elector Friedrich III. (who became the King of Prussia, Friedrich I. in 1701) continued the colonial endeavour after the death (1688) of his father the Great Elector, who had held a particular interest in all things maritime. The son did not share the interest though, he preferred to concentrate on inland colonisation in the newly established kingdom, and the colony on the Gold Coast lost what little importance it had held. 1717 and 1720 saw the sale of Prussia’s colonies to the Dutch West India Company and Prussia’s gaze towards Africa was averted for the time being.

The colony has never played a role in the memory culture of Germany, due to the small scale of its trading operations, especially compared to Portugal, Spain, England and the Netherlands, its size and its short existence. From a historian’s perspective, the colony does not count much, all sources have long been sifted and catalogued. The „Gröbenufer“ and discussions surrounding its renaming, the sheer existence of the group of sculptures at Sanssouci Park, and the reconsideration of the importance of the colony in the booklet from 1885 show that the conditions for the establishment of the colony and especially the repercussions of what is now often called a colonial experiment have not been adequately discussed and been considered in its tangled web of relations.

Credits// Author: Elisabeth Nechutnys.
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