Vestiges of Colonialism Honouring a Slave Trader

A relief consisting of five people standing close together
The Askari relief in Tanzania Park in Hamburg is controversial and is criticized by opponents of the memorial as racist towards the victims of the colonial era in German East Africa. | Photo (detail): Ulrich Perrey © picture-alliance / dpa/ dpaweb

Hamburg is a city with a long tradition of sea fare. No other German city has as many squares and streets named after colonial actors, such as the shipowner Heinrich Carl von Schimmelmann: a slave trader. And nothing about this has changed to this day.

By Oliver Schulz

When a bust of Heinrich Carl von Schimmelmann was erected in the Hamburg district of Wandsbek in 2006, paint bombs flew. He was to be honoured for the services he rendered to the district. The plaque attached to the statue read: “In 1762 he acquired the Wandsbek estate. Schimmelmann is not only the builder of Wandsbek Castle, but is also considered the founder of Wandsbek’s economic might. Under his manor rule, the town flourished.”

But Schimmelmann was a slave trader; an early example of how Hamburg profited from colonialism even before Germany officially became a colonial power. Merchants and shipowners shaped the port city. Their business not only went hand in hand with the economic exploitation of subjugated territories, but also by brutal violence and human rights violations, human trafficking and genocide.

The bust for the slave trader was taken down again after two years. But to this day, there are streets called Schimmelmannstraße, a Schimmelmannstieg and a Schimmelmannallee in Wandsbek – not to mention Schatzmeisterstraße, which commemorates his activities as the Danish king’s “finance minister.”

A Transcontinental Triangle

Schimmelmann had come into money during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). He bought the sumptuous Gottorper Palais in Hamburg and set up his trading office there. By 1759, he owned numerous castles, palaces and estates with hundreds of serf farmers in Germany and Denmark. He operated the largest sugar refinery in northern Europe in Copenhagen, several cotton weaving mills, a brewery and a distillery in Wandsbek, as well as Denmark’s only arms production site. He also maintained four extensive sugar plantations in the Danish West Indies in the Caribbean.

“The products from the plantations were brought to his manufactories in Germany and Denmark for further processing – thus closing the circle of the Schimmelmann trading system.”

Schimmelmann networked his international holdings, landed estates and production facilities into a tight economic circuit between Western Europe, West Africa and the Caribbean. Fourteen ships soon sailed this transcontinental triangle for the early shipowner – a huge fleet at the time. Many were specially converted for human trafficking, for this was a central element of the “Schimmelmann system”.

On the banks of the Wandse River, which gave its name to the Hamburg district of Wandsbek, children from welfare institutions toiled long working days weaving cotton for him. Schimmelmann sold the printed cotton fabric, but also cheap liquor, weapons and gunpowder, in West Africa and used it to purchase disenfranchised people – women, men and children. The prisoners on his ships were shackled hand and foot with iron locks and chains, crammed into 1.50-metre-high holds. Many died on the months-long crossing. Those who survived had the insignia BvS (Baron von Schimmelmann) branded on their foreheads and were forced to work under the harshest conditions on his sugar cane and cotton plantations on the Antilles islands of St Croix and St John. The products from the plantations were brought to his manufactories in Germany and Denmark for further processing – thus closing the circle of the Schimmelmann trading system.

Many of the abducted tried to escape, many already mutinied on the crossing to the Caribbean. Some managed to escape from the plantations to the mountains or neighbouring islands. Resisters held the island of St John under their control for months in 1733 before European troops crushed the uprising.

Remembering the Criminals

Yet neither the insurgents nor the abducted were remembered in the public space of the Hanseatic city, but the criminals. “Walking through Hamburg’s streets, I feel despondent,” writes Black activist Ginnie Bekoe in Stadtbild (post?-)colonial. “I walk past Vespucci House and Columbus House to Kaiserkai, Vasco da Gama Square, the Magellan Terraces, Marco Polo Terraces. (...) Go past the Bismarck Monument, walk through Reventlowstrasse and Walderseestrasse, through the streets honouring Schimmelmann, Wißmann, Hagenbeck. (...) I think of the ‘suppressed uprisings’ that were genocides, of fighters who defended their homes and lives and ‘protection troops’ who defended profits. I think of the millions of people murdered, lynched, enslaved, exploited, raped, abducted, and I see magnificent façades, newly built residences, new titles.”

And yet, the city of Hamburg committed itself in 2014 to coming to terms with its colonial past in the public sphere. A Colonial Heritage Round Table was founded, as was an advisory board on the decolonisation of Hamburg. A research unit on “Hamburg’s (post-)colonial heritage – Hamburg and early globalisation” was set up at the university.

A drawn-out process

Hamburg’s Senator for Culture, Dr Carsten Brosda, responds to questioning by saying that naming traffic areas after colonial actors is no longer in keeping with the times. But he qualifies his statement, saying, “Decolonisation cannot be a sovereign act, but requires a social process. In Hamburg, we are therefore currently working on a city-wide strategy for dealing with colonial street names. Street renaming and critical commentary on colonial street names will certainly follow.”

“The street names should at least be integrated into a comprehensive remembrance and education concept,” says Professor Jürgen Zimmerer, head of the research centre. “Because they refer to the contributions made by the city of Hamburg and the surrounding region to transatlantic slavery.”

But this process is taking too long, says Hannimari Jokinen from the Hamburg Postcolonial Working Group. So far, no action has been taken in Hamburg. She notes, “Unlike in Berlin and other cities, not a single street has been renamed so far”. Resolutions by the district assemblies to rename streets in Wandsbek in 2010 and in Hamburg-Nord in 2019 have simply not been implemented. In 2017, the district of Altona condemned the massacres of Prussian Field Marshal Alfred von Waldersee in colonial China as “deeply despicable,” yet the street names honouring the war criminal remain untouched and the promised informative plaques have not been installed. Hannimari Jokinen says this is mere “lip service”. Activist Ginnie Bekoe writes that for her, “every step through these streets is a kick in cultural memory, a renewal of collective trauma”. And we can expect that nothing will change any time soon.