In the second of our series of Black Heritage blog posts, Dr Robbie Aitken, Senior Lecturer in History at Sheffield Hallam University, discusses his book written with Eve Rosenhaft: Black Germany: The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, 1884-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
These images show a rather unusual gravestone found in the Holthausen cemetery in Mülheim on the Ruhr in northern Westphalia, Germany. It commemorates the short life of the Cameroonian Prince Equalla Deido who died in Mülheim in 1891 aged 16. The restored grave is one of the few visible reminders of Germany’s colonial past and it provides evidence of an increasing presence of Black men, women and children in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. In particular, like Equalla (known as Songue Epee Ekwalla Eyoum Ebelle in his home town of Douala), the vast majority of these visitors were young men, often from elite families, who came from the German colonies of Cameroon and Togo and to a lesser extent from German East Africa and Namibia. Dozens, like Equalla, entered Germany at the request of their parents that they be educated at German schools. Others arrived as seamen or stowaways at German ports, personal servants accompanied colonial officials, missionaries, or businessmen on home leave, while others were participants in Human zoos. Some undertook sponsored military or missionary training for future service in Africa, while a handful of Africans taught as language instructors at the Hamburg Colonial Institute or the Berlin Seminar for Oriental Languages.
For most the experience of Germany was fleeting and the vast majority eventually returned to their countries of origin, but by 1914 an increasing number remained on a longer term basis either out of choice or necessity. The First World War brought an end to the German Empire and ended migration from the now former German colonies which in the peace settlement were placed primarily under French and British protection. Those Africans still living in Germany were now effectively stranded there. Black Germany looks at the lives of these visitors and later residents and the impediments they had to be overcome in order for them to be able to establish roots in Germany over the period 1884 to 1945. It details the development of a small, but visible diaspora community based largely in Berlin and Hamburg and focuses on the conditions under which German-based Africans lived (housing, family, employment) as well as the social and political networks they established both within and beyond Germany to others of African heritage. With the onset of National Socialist rule in 1933 this fledgling community was increasingly vulnerable to the racial vision of the new regime. Collectively and individually Black residents were subjected to policies and practices of exclusion and their German-born children were often targeted for sterilisation. The Black population which survived the ‘Third Reich’ was markedly smaller and the community that had been developing since the late nineteenth century was scattered and in rupture.