Slavery’s Past and Present: Challenges to Academic Research and Museum Work in Germany and Britain

By Dana Hollmann

The association of Great Britain with the transatlantic slave trade and the enslavement of people of African descent is a common one. However, this is very different in the case of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Despite existing research in this field, there are still voices from within the discipline who deny the presence of African or Caribbean slaves in Germany’s predecessor state. At the same time, the need for more communication and dialogue also applies to British institutions dealing with the legacies of early modern slave trade. This seminar, Slavery’s Past and Present: Challenges to Academic Research and Museum Work in Germany and Britain’ was the first in a series on ‘Contested Histories’, organised by the German Historical Institute London (GHI London). The first speaker, Professor Rebekka von Mallinckrodt (University of Bremen), shed light on a still marginal topic in historical research in Germany, focussing on trafficked people and legal concepts in the eighteenth century that could be applied to unfree people. Her presentation was followed by a speech by Dr Richard Benjamin (Head of the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool). Dr Benjamin emphasized the importance of museums as platforms of dialogue on the one hand but noted on the other that they must find new ways of power-sharing with publics and communities. The talks were followed by a commentary by Professor Catherine Hall (University College London) and chaired by Dr Felix Brahm (GHI London), and were followed by a vivid discussion between the speakers and the audience.

Portrait of Johanna Charlotte of Anhalt-Dessau (1682-1750) with a “court Moor”.

Rebekka von Mallinckrodt’s presentation was divided into four sections. First, she presented the case of the ‘Moor’ August Wilhelm Peter, who initialised a petition in Brunswick in 1764. This document has not gone unnoticed by previous research. However, no one seems to have paid attention to the fact that obviously it implies the presence of slaves of African descent in the HRE. Secondly, she spoke about what were known as ‘Hofmohren’ (‘court Moors’), Black people who were slaves at aristocratic courts, focussing on the example of Dresden. This was a group of people whose presence hints at the vast extent of the intra-European slave trade, using the same trade relations as countries that are commonly associated with slave trade. The third section considered an eighteenth century court case in which a slave called Yonga sued for his liberation at the court of Lippe. While he lost and was declared ‘property’ of his owner, cases like this show how complicated the legal status of slaves in the HRE was as both Roman and ‘Natural’ law could be applied equally. Contemporary legal literature thus formed the subject of the fourth part of the talk, mainly referring to Ludwig Höpfner, a famous lawyer at the time who also referred to the state of enslavement, highlighting the importance of letters of emancipation. Höpfner also made clear that a slave on German soil was not automatically free. While the research on a Black presence in the HRE is still in its infancy, it is indeed a different situation than that found in British organisations and institutions.

While in Germany the public voices on transatlantic slave trade and its own involvement are still subdued, Richard Benjamin referred to the popular metaphor of ‘breaking the silence’ regarding this topic in the UK. He claimed that while one can no longer speak of ‘silence’ in relation to this topic, there are still issues when it comes to reaching a wider public. He illustrated the 250 year long history of his institution, the International Slavery Museum that – through its location at the docks – has always had a deep connection to this very history. Until today, Liverpool remains the only British city that has officially apologised for the slave trade. Because the city has experience in dealing with this past, other cities struggling with how to deal with their heritage connected to the slave trade often look to Liverpool for help and advice. Benjamin talked about Hamburg and The Hague as examples of this. To him, working together with local Black communities is an indispensable task that museums must undertake. He also emphasised the priorities for his museum: firstly, to research the subject of transatlantic slavery and its legacy, focussing on the Black experience. Secondly, to draw attention to modern forms of slavery, in order to show that slavery is not only a historical topic but also a current one. Thirdly, to work together with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, to research opportunities and link the museum with universities studying slavery.

Catherine Hall then followed with a commentary highlighting the importance of academic work and public engagement in this field. She drew attention to the present, postcolonial world all of us currently live in, clarifying the impact of transatlantic slavery until today. Furthermore, the slave trade must not be considered a solely Atlantic phenomenon but a global system, whose hinterland also stretched across the whole of Europe and whose entire network of connections still remains to be researched. According to Hall, the history of slave trade is not one of big empires but of connections that can be found everywhere, for example if we consider Swiss banks. These reveal the very important system of debt that was crucial for slave owners building up and maintaining plantations. Finally, she stressed that the question of the presence of people of African descent is only one side of the story. It is also important to research on the impact this had on the majority of the population and to connect it to the complex of race and racism.

During the discussion, members of the audience returned to the question of whether or not white people should be the ones doing research on transatlantic slave trade. The speakers agreed that it is true that inclusiveness is a problem in this field and many people are tired of the lack of consequences all the research done has had in the public sphere. Nevertheless, it was also stressed that the history of slavery is not only part of the history of people of African descent but equally a history of white Americans and Europeans.


About the Author

Dana Hollmann is a history M.A. student at the university of Bremen, focussing on the Early Modern period. She is currently doing an internship at the GHI London.


Citation: Dana Hollmann, Contested Histories – Slavery’s Past and Present: Challenges to Academic Research and Museum Work in Germany and Britain, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.05.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org /18625.


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