Transatlantic Slavery and the European Hinterland
The cover of this book displays a sketch of the Wupper Valley in Germany around 1800. Only at second glance, however, does the viewer notice people at work in this idyllic landscape, absorbed in the task of bleaching linen. Although a modern viewer is unlikely to be aware of its significance, to contemporaries their work might have hinted at the Wupper Valley’s transregional economic entanglements – for linen was a global commodity of its time, with a strong share in Atlantic trade and not least in the slave trade.
In recent historiography it has become clear that in maritime countries such as Britain and France wide sections of the population were either making profits from the slave business and the plantation economy that it fed, or became engaged in its abolition, or both. Following these lines of research, Slavery Hinterland looks beyond the familiar Atlantic axis. It collects essays that seek out the traces of slavery and the impacts of the slave business in territories that were not directly involved (or were relatively minor participants) in the trafficking of Africans over the Atlantic – in the German-speaking countries, Scandinavia, Italy and Central Europe. And they are finding that the slave trade, the questions of moral and political principle that it threw up, and the consequences of its abolition were very much part of the texture of society right across Europe.
The manufacture of commodities that were principal trade goods in Africa – goods with which Europeans paid African traders for the enslaved men, women and children – was an important element of many regional economies well away from the principal port cities, and some branches specialised in the African markets. Iron bars and ironware travelled from the Baltic to Western Europe’s ports engaged in the African trade. Glass beads were exported from Bohemia (the Czech lands), and the higher quality Venetian products attracted Liverpool merchants to set up branch offices in Italy to secure their supply. The Swiss family firm Burckhardt/Bourcard began by supplying cotton cloth for the slave trade and importing slave-produced luxury goods, but later moved into equipping its own slave ships. Textile plants in the Wupper Valley in western Germany and the handlooms of Eastern Prussia provided linens of varying quality for use on the slave plantations, though because they were shipped through English and Dutch ports their German origins have often been obscured. And the trading networks established in the context of the slave economy supported German export projects even after the trade was abolished, as German firms continued to trade into territories – Brazil and the Caribbean – where slavery persisted until the late 19th century.
Germans in particular were keen observers of the Atlantic slave economy, and they had their own perspective on international debates about the trade and its abolition. At the beginnings of the trade, the rulers of Brandenburg Prussia had some hopes of buying into it, establishing a slave fort on the Gold Coast between 1682 and 1720. One of the key documents of this episode is the diary of a ship’s barber, Johann Peter Oettinger, who sailed on slaving expeditions. He chose to make no comment about the brutalities that he witnessed and recorded. Characteristically, though, when the diaries were published for German readers 200 years later, they were given a moralising spin; by the 1880s, Germany was at the forefront of the Scramble for Africa, justifying colonisation in the name of suppressing the internal slave trade. Before that, and once the German states were no longer involved in the slave trade, German-speaking scientists and administrators placed themselves in the service of those states that were. Ernst Schimmelmann, for example, whose family had one foot in Hamburg and one in Copenhagen, was a plantation owner and manager of the Swedish state-owned slaving company, but also responsible for the abolition of the Danish slave trade in 1792. And initiatives for the post-abolition exploitation of tropical territories relied on the work of German scientists in service to the Danish state like the botanist Julius von Rohr.
Scholarly attention to the German case is also bringing the Atlantic plantation economies into dialogue with the practices of unfree labour that existed in German Central Europe at the same time. Analysis of the conditions of linen production on Eastern Prussia’s aristocratic estates indicates that their low production costs helped to keep down the costs of production on slave plantations. And when Germans confronted the moral and legal challenges to slavery that were crystallising into a political movement in Britain and France by the 1790s, they could not escape the implications of abolitionist arguments for the future of their own ‘peculiar institutions’ of serfdom and personal service. This was true of Therese Huber, the author and journalist who stands for two generations of Germans who engaged in transnational abolitionist networks, and who was equally sharp in her critique of serfdom. And it was true of Prussian administrators who, when challenged by enslaved Africans on German soil to enforce the notion that ‘there are no slaves in Prussia’, could not help asking themselves what that might mean for the process towards reform of feudal institutions.
A similar version of this blog post is published on The Long Run (https://ehsthelongrun.net/), the weblog of the Economic History Society.
Felix Brahm is a Research Fellow in Colonial and Global History at the German Historical Institute in London. His research and teaching interests lie in the field of modern African and European history, with a focus on trade relations, knowledge, and the history of slavery and abolition. His current book project studies the East African arms trade from the middle of the nineteenth century to the First World War. Recent publications include: ‘Konflikte um ein globalisiertes Handelsobjekt: Feuerwaffen in Ostafrika, 1850-1890’, in: WerkstattGeschichte 77 (2018), 29-45, and ‘East Africa and the Post-War Question of Global Arms Control’, in: K. Bromber, K. Lange, H. Liebau, A. Wetzel (eds.), The Long End of the First World War: Ruptures, Continuities, Memories, Frankfurt a.M./Chicago 2018 (forthcoming).
Eve Rosenhaft is Professor of German Historical Studies at the University of Liverpool. She has published on aspects of labour, gender and ethnicity in German history of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, including Holocaust studies. In addition to Slavery Hinterland, her most recent publications include Black Germany: The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community 1884-1960 (Cambridge, 2013 – with Robbie Aitken). During 2018-19 she will be Visiting Research Professor at the Critical Global Studies Institute, Sogang University, Seoul, as part of an international project on ‘Mnemonic Solidarity in the Global Memory Space’.
Citation: Felix Brahm and Eve Rosenhaft, Transatlantic Slavery and the European Hinterland, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.06.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10363.