Colonial Histories

What objects tell us about German colonialism

Stone Cross of Cape Cross Stone Cross of Cape Cross (before 1486)German Historical Museum

The permanent collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum included the controversial Cape Cross padrão (a stone cross inscribed with the Portuguese coat of Arms). Built in 1486 on the coast of what is now Namibia, the cross marked Portuguese King João II's claim to power over the land. The padrão passed into German ownership in the 19th century when the area became part of the German Southwest Africa colony, and was shipped to the German Empire. In 2017 Namibia stated their claim to the padrão. The object was returned in May 2019.
Objects such as the Cape Cross padrão illustrate the complexity of colonial objects and the issue of colonial justice, which the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) openly discusses.

Stone Cross of Cape Cross (detail)German Historical Museum

Although the German Empire was one of the great European colonial powers for over 30 years—from 1884 to the end of the First World War in 1918—Germany's colonial past is only recently becoming more and more known. Strong ideological aspects of colonialism forming the basis of German rule, including the exercise of day-to-day violence, suppression of uprisings, and even genocide, are now coming to the foreground.

What can objects from the DHM collection tell us about the past and present history of colonialism?

Geographical mosaic game (around 1860) by P. Eitner (engraver), C. Flemming (publisher)German Historical Museum

Colonial World Views

Sugar bowl with the figure of an African woman (around 1740) by Königliche Porzellan Fabrik MeissenGerman Historical Museum

The cultivation of sugarcane plantations in America began with the establishment of the Spanish colonial empire. The local population was employed to work on these by force and the subsequent decline in the population due to disease and overwork led the Spanish colonial power to recruit African slaves. This gave rise to so-called Atlantic triangular trade: European ships exchanged goods such as weapons or textiles in Africa for slaves, who were then transported to the Caribbean and Brazil to work on the plantations.

The ships transported sugar and other raw materials from America back to Europe, where sugar was a luxury until the beginning of the 19th century. This baroque sugar bowl not only illustrates the exclusivity of sugar as a status symbol, it also references sugar's production and origin through the African female figure. The exotic depiction of the woman demonstrates concepts of European dominance.

Geographical mosaic game (around 1860) by P. Eitner (engraver), C. Flemming (publisher)German Historical Museum

You can piece together maps of each of the 5 continents or a map of the world from this game's dice, which have map sections attached on all sides. In the second half of the 19th century all regions of the world grew more dependent on each other, a process we now refer to as globalization.

As well as new means of communication and transportation, this process of making the world smaller caused global knowledge to increase and become popular. European explorers traversed nearly all regions of the world in ever-increasing numbers, spreading views and ideas from other parts of the world through their travel reports.

Geography meanwhile became a professional scientific discipline in major European cities and drove people to acquire new knowledge of the Earth and its cartographic representation. Both as a practical necessity and in terms of increasingly global thinking, this expansion of geographical knowledge which the mosaic playfully helps to spread was an important backdrop to European colonialism.

Box of ‘Samoa-Veilchen’ (Samoan violets) (1900-1930)German Historical Museum

Colonialism had already been established among broader sections of the population through colonial exhibitions, "Völkerschauen," which exhibited people from foreign lands, stores specializing in colonial goods, magazines, and colonial novels, as well as through colonial aspirations and desires, exoticism, and fantasies of conquest.

This packaging with the label "Samoa-Veilchen" (Samoa Violet) most likely stored soaps, which were sold in stores specializing in colonial goods. Colonial goods wrapping glossed over the colonial division of labor with contemplative exoticisms and spread racist stereotypes. The advertising and product design included motifs of colonial conquests, even in private relations.

Canteen for an Askari uniform (1887-1918)German Historical Museum

Domination and Everyday Life

From 1884 German colonial forces recruited African men on the East African coast—in Sudan and Egypt—who initially did not wear the same uniform. With the establishment of the Schutztruppe colonial protection force, standardized uniforms were introduced from 1889 to 1891 based on those of the Anglo-Egyptian Askaris in Sudan.

The Askaris, salaried African colonial soldiers, were considered part of the colonial order through their education and clothing. However, they maintained their Islamic faith and integrated into the local community beyond their service.

Their uniforms were a mark of colonial hierarchy but were also perceived in the community as a sign of social advancement and a symbol of power. Those who wore them were both respected officials and feared instigators of colonial violence.

Tropical helmet for imperial German officials (1888-1914)German Historical Museum

European officials, militaries, and travelers from all colonial powers wore safari helmets made of sholapith from the mid-19th century. These were later made of cork.

The helmets, widespread in all tropical colonies, not only protected against the sun and rain but very quickly became a key part of the colonial dress code and a sign of membership to a racialized group of rulers.

Colonial officer in parade uniform (around 1900)German Historical Museum

So-called colonial figures are a genre of object that reverses the European perspective and opens up room for debate. These represented changing power relations from the end of the 19th century. Colonial rule, with its symbols and characters, was incorporated into the African and Oceanic viewpoint through these masks and figure sculptures. They interpret the characteristics of Europeans such as their posture, poses of dominance, headgear such as the safari helmet, everyday observations, and individual quirks of the people depicted.

African soldiers who served the colonial powers are also included in the repertoire of figures. The German ethnologist Julius Lips published a pioneering summary of colonial figures in 1937 while exiled in the US under the programmatic book title "The Savage Hits Back, or the White Man through Native Eyes" (released in Germany as "Der Weiße im Spiegel der Farbigen" in 1983). For his work, Lips collected extensive image material from over 50 public and private collections. The political situation motivated his reading of the portrayals, to which he attributed an anti-colonial and satirical potential.

The art market discovered colonial figures by the end of the 1970s, and in the 1980s a renewed debate on the genre began. As part of this debate, Lips's work was criticized for its far-reaching interpretations and more strongly seen as a witness of Nazi persecution. At the same time, attention shifted to the multiple roles that portrayals of Europeans in the societies of origin fall into.

Washed-out railway embankment between Keetmanshoop and Lüderitz, German South West Africa (present-day Namibia) (around 1910) by From the photo album of Liddy ForkelGerman Historical Museum

The dam near Feldschuhhorn was built between 1906 and 1907 by the German colonial power. It was constructed along the railway line intended to connect Keetmanshoop in the south of the German Southwest Africa colony to the port in Lüderitz. The railway was particularly important to the infrastructural development of the colonies. As a symbol of progress, railway-line construction was greatly supported by advocates and rejected by critics as a utopia.

This photograph, taken a few years after the construction, shows a Schutztruppe soldier crouching over the eroded tracks devoid of any heroic pose. The history of the railway line's construction remains hidden. This is directly related to the genocide of Herero and Nama.

This line section progressed quickly and was intended for the direct supply of German colonial troops and to secure long-term military control of the south of the colony. Prisoners of war from the concentration camp on Shark Island in Lüderitz were forced to work on its construction. Figures from the German colonial administration show that of the 2,014 inmates deployed between January 1906 and June 1907, 1,359 died during the construction work.

Table clock "German imperial colonial clock" (around 1905) by Badische UhrenfabrikGerman Historical Museum

Between the Colonies and Cities

Colonies and the empire influenced each other equally. Colonial goods, clichéd product advertising, and everyday objects such as this clock made their way into the everyday lives of the population and shaped a colonial consciousness in Germany.

Produced in high numbers, the clock disseminated the empire's claims to power. The animal and plant depictions on the frame exhibit the exotic aspects of the colonial empire. These would be secured by the expansion of the fleet, as illustrated by the quote from the emperor: "Unsere Zukunft liegt auf dem Wasser" (our future lies on the water).

A disc within the clock face shows the local times for the colonies, and is a visual representation of the phrase "The sun never sets on our empire," coined by Charles V back in the 16th century.

Postcard fan-fold booklet "Memory of Tsingtau" (around 1904) by G. Landmann (publisher), C. F. Fay (printer)German Historical Museum

The Imperial Navy pursued its plans to build a base on the Chinese coast. The murder of 2 German missionaries in November 1897 provided the opportunity to occupy Jiaozhou Bay. In 1898 the Chinese and German empires then agreed to a 99-year lease of the Jiaozhou Bay area on the Shandong Peninsula on the east coast of China.

Jiaozhou was to become a "model colony" in Asia, justifying German rule. Imperial Navy officials designed the planned Tsingtau/Qingdao city with a clear division between the Chinese and European quarters. For apparent hygiene reasons, the Chinese were forbidden to live in quarters reserved for Europeans. This segregation was based on racist attributions, which depicted the Chinese people as less clean and less cultured. However, the colonial system failed due to the actions of the Chinese people, who used different methods to circumvent these rules.

This postcard leporello documents the development of the city of Tsingtau as well as life in the leased region. These items were purchased in large numbers by the German navy as souvenirs.

Storage container „German East African CACAO” (1888-1914) by Carl Grunow (Company)German Historical Museum

Continued colonial expansion changed European consumption habits in the 19th century. Shorter transport distances, access to raw materials, and direct imports made former luxury goods such as tea, coffee, and cocoa affordable for the vast majority of the population. Although these imports were sold as mass consumer goods, their packaging still tried to convey exclusivity and exoticism.

Their images told of a tranquil, pristine life on other continents, which contrasted with the hectic daily lives of Europeans during industrialization. Depictions of purely manual and fulfilling work, embodied by supposedly happy workers, were commonplace. This idealized depiction of the production process masked the actual working conditions, which were often marked by violence and coercion. Access to labor was legitimized as an essential element of colonial rule from the "education to work" discourse, which declared physical work to be an essential tool of "civilization."

‘Lost Territories’ card game (after 1935) by presumably Lux-Spiele (Company)German Historical Museum


Germany's defeat in the First World War spelled the end of its colonial empire, but not its colonial ambitions; the German Empire was still characterized by colonialism and European feelings of superiority even after 1918. As a consequence of its defeat, Germany was denied of all colonies by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

From the far right to the Social Democrats, the demand to return former colonies was an integral part of the overall struggle against the peace provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Emphasizing the allegedly excellent agreement between Germans and the local people, a colonial revisionist movement demanded the return of the colonies.

A multitude of books, films, and propaganda items, such as this card game, spread the myth of a "colonial idyll" that influenced public perception of German colonial history throughout the 20th century.

Credits: Story

Deutsches Historisches Museum (Hg.): "Deutscher Kolonialismus - Fragmente seiner Geschichte und Gegenwart", Darmstadt 2016. Katalog zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung.

Symposium "Die Säule von Cape Cross. Koloniale Objekte und historische Gerechtigkeit" am 07. Juni 2018.

Redaktionell bearbeitet von Björn Schmidt.

Credits: All media
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