Book Project: De-Colonize 1896 “Silenced Stories” in German Colonial History

Racism – German East Africa: Indigenous people reading the “Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung” (BIZ)
German East Africa: Indigenous people reading the “Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung” (BIZ) - undated photograph, probably taken in 1914 | © picture alliance / ullstein bild | Haeckel Archiv

As a combination of novel and reference work, the book project “De‑colonize 1896” is generating new momentum in the exploration of German colonial history. It tells of encounters, resistance and female perspectives. Publication is planned for Autumn 2021.
 

By Ruth Härlin and AnneMaria Fröhlich Zapata

Two sisters from the coastal town of Aneho (Togo) are under scrutiny from May to October 1896 in Berlin. Every day. They live in small houses in Treptow Park. They cook, dance, sew and eat whilst being watched by the white visitors. An ethnologist turns up on a regular basis, wanting to measure their bodies and record every detail of their appearance, no matter how tiny. The sisters refuse to be submitted to these racist examinations by happening to be very busy, unwell or tired whenever the ethnologist is there.
 
The sisters are called Dassi and Ohui Creppy. They are in Berlin along with their husband, Nayo Bruce – a businessman from Togo – together with 103 other people from German colonies. Nayo has organised the whole thing. His family travels to Germany and is recruited for the German Colonial Exhibition – a paid role. They perform their work here as living exhibits – and they resist it.
  • Decolonisation – The family from Aneho reached Berlin in 1896 via the port of Hamburg on a steamer belonging to the Woermann Line © Photographer unknown, Public Domain
    The family from Aneho reached Berlin in 1896 via the port of Hamburg on a steamer belonging to the Woermann Line, one of the companies that profited from the colonial system. During the Herero-Nama War of 1904-1908, this same ship transported German soldiers to what is now Namibia. There they perpetrated genocide.
  • Racism – Town map of Aneho around 1900 © Sebald-Trotha estate, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin
    Town map of Aneho around 1900, indicating the homes of local families.
  • Racism – Cover of the German Colonial Report of 1896 © Rudolph Hellgrewe – public domain image
    Cover of the German Colonial Report of 1896, describing the exhibition in detail from a white perspective and promoting German colonial policy.
  • Racism – “Human zoo” /Ethnological exposition: Hamburg Stellingen, Carl Hagenbeck Tierpark © picture alliance / arkivi
    “Human zoo” /Ethnological exposition: Hamburg Stellingen, Carl Hagenbeck Tierpark, photo probably taken in 1934
  • Dekolonisierung – Felix von Luschan © Photographer unknown, magazine “Berliner Leben” Heft 02 (1907), Public Domain
  • Racism – Archival work with microfilms in the Bremen State Archives © RHAZ
    Archival work with microfilms in the Bremen State Archives
After the exhibition, Dassi and Nayo spend around 20 years touring Europe and Asia. They make themselves into exhibits, with shows such as “Africa in Nuremberg”, “the Togo troupe” and “the Togo-Mandingo caravan”. They make a living for themselves and their employees in this way. The other sister, Ohui, returns to Aneho after the colonial exhibition.
 
Colonial exhibitions are one aspect of German colonial history that is rarely discussed in the mainstream. A racist structure determines which histories are worthy of relating, and which perspectives are valid within this context.

“If there is any mention at all of non-white people, then it is for the most part as objects and victims of colonial domination. What they don’t tell you is the stories of acting subjects like Dassi, Ohui and Nayo, who found ways of making their decisions as autonomously as possible within the oppressive colonial circumstances. No one talks about the complexity of this era.”

This silence is an expression of colonial power relations that are still being written into history today: there are gaps and distortions in the archives. Or there are stories that don’t even make it out of the archive to be written down as historical accounts – never mind becoming part of our collective historical consciousness. History as an academic discipline has developed certain standards. For example written history is preferable to oral. As a consequence, it is primarily Western, white perspectives that are visible and comprehensible. In particular the voices of female BIPoC remain unheard. Their stories, like that of the Creppy sisters, are silenced. To break that silence, we tell the silenced stories in the book project, using fiction for this purpose. In this way, subjects are brought to life – people with a heart and fallibilities, inconsistencies and desires, and a consciousness with which readers can identify.

Linking archive material with fiction

The book project consists of a novel about the Creppy sisters. Appended to this is a manual. Inside can be found the facts about Germany’s colonial history, which are interwoven with the plot throughout the novel. It comes across clearly to readers which parts are fiction and which are historical context.
 
The novel section describes the personal experience of the two sisters in the years between 1880 and 1917: starting with the two of them growing up in the family home in Aneho, it describes the first time they met Nayo and their relationship with him, and goes on to relate their experiences during the colonial exhibition in racist Berlin. Readers are shown Dassi’s travels and day-to-day life in Europe. She’s a businesswoman. She and her daughter are at Hamburg Docks, freezing cold, putting up with lecherous advances and feeling homesick. She embraces the sunshine in Turin, finds friendships, and makes peace both with her sister and her own divided past.
 
Meanwhile her sister in Togo observes the extent to which colonial power is intensifying: people are obliged to carry out forced labour – and if they refuse they are beaten, thrown in jail or killed. The young woman decides to act, and in doing so she risks losing everything she holds precious. She joins the active resistance against the Germans.

Who is barbaric and who is civilised?

The historically documented forms of resistance were diverse: as well as the hidden transcripts, alteration and concealment of relevant information, failure to take part in the examinations in Berlin or (forced) labour in Togo, there was also active resistance in the form of open refusal to work and written complaints to the government. Some of the activists founded newspapers and used these to appeal to an international audience. The following was published under the pseudonym “Native of Aneho” (gender unknown):

„The German Government has the poor idea that 25 brutal lashes will make the black man industrious, serviceable and a good citizen. […] Chief Mensa breathed his last 3 days after receiving this savage treatment from enlightened and progressive Germany.“

In this newspaper article dated 1913, the author redefines the internal and external labels attributed by the colonial power. Who is barbaric and who is civilised: this is thrown into question with the ironic critique of the colonial practice of violence.
 
The book project is inspired by these very same forms of resistance. It searches through the archived material for a past with many voices and explores the de-colonial potential of fantasy. Historically authentic figures, like the Bruce family or the Native of Aneho, and colonial contexts are the backdrop for the plot. The novel tells a story of family and solidarity between women, of belonging and exclusion, of fear and hopes.

How do we look back on this time from the present? What responsibility do we bear for ensuring that these stories are told, taking into account the plurality of voices and complexity? Can fiction fill in the colonial gaps – and should it? What does telling stories of the past have to do with racism today?

Literature

  • Native of Aneho (1913): “The Germans in Togoland”. In: Gold Coast Leader. From: Sebald-Trotha-Nachlass, newspaper article collection, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin.
  • Kokou Azamede (2010): Transkulturationen? Ewe-Christen zwischen Deutschland und Westafrika, 1884–1939, Missionsgeschichtliches Archiv (14). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Rea Brändle (2007): Nayo Bruce. Geschichte einer afrikanischen Familie in Europa. Zürich: Chronos.
  • Sandra E. Greene (2002): Sacred sites and the colonial encounter: A history of meaning and memory in Ghana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Rebekka Habermas (2016): Skandal in Togo. Ein Kapitel deutscher Kolonialherrschaft. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer.
  • Constant Kpao Sarè (2015): “Das postkoloniale Potential der Literarisierung von Völkerschauen in der deutschsprachigen Literatur”. In: Recherches germaniques (45), p. 143-154.
  • James C. Scott (2009): Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2015): Silencing the past: Power and the production of history (2nd edition). Boston: Beacon Press.