This article is part of the feature „… a world in which coloniality no longer has a place.

Brandenburg’s Colonialism in West Africa

4 min read

Groß-Friedrichsburg was founded in 1683 on the coast of what is now Ghana. It remained under the control of Brandenburg-Prussia until 1718. The Brandenburg Elector Friedrich Wilhelm wanted to take part in the lucrative transatlantic trade in enslaved people and goods such as gold and ivory. Therefore a base on the west coast of Africa was needed. The Elector sent the nobleman Otto Friedrich von der Gröben on a diplomatic mission to West Africa to realise his plan. A year earlier, Friedrich Wilhelm had already initiated the founding of the Brandenburgisch-Africanische Compagnie, which was to organise Brandenburg’s participation in the trilateral trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.

After his return, Gröben published the ‘Guineische Reise-Beschreibung’ (‘Guinean travelogue’) (1694), in which he reported on his journey and the founding of the fortress Großfriedrichsburg. He dedicated the work to his patron.

The literary scholar Gabriele Leschke has intensively analysed Otto Friedrich von der Gröben and his texts, which provide a direct insight into the early days of German colonialism. In his texts we actually learn less about the historical events or the specific conditions on the West African coast in Gröben’s time than about his perspective as a white aristocratic agent. As is so often the case in European sources of the time, the perspectives of the people involved in West Africa are missing.

In her research, Gabriele Leschke shows how Gröben’s portrayals of the country and the people of West Africa were primarily aimed at the cultivation of his image as an aristocrat and successful diplomat. To do so he used a language that gave rise to racist ideas and served to justify colonialism and the enslavement trade.

Gröben’s descriptions were taken up again and again in the following centuries and were extremely powerful. They served to legitimise racism and colonialist endeavours in the German imperial era.

If you want to find out more, you can find Gabriele Leschke’s dissertation Otto Friedrich von der Gröben und der koloniale Diskurs’ (‘Otto Friedrich von der Gröben and colonial discourse’) from 2021 online here.

The handwritten copy of Gröben’s ‘Guineische Reise-Beschreibung’ (‘Guinean travelogue’) dedicated by Gröben to Elector Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg, can be viewed here as a digital copy at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Katja Gimpel

Katja Gimpel is a cultural scientist and Germanist specialising in cultural history. She has been working in the Department History of the Site at the Stiftung Humboldt Forum since 2017.