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Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870

Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870

by Susanne Zantop

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Since Germany became a colonial power relatively late, postcolonial theorists and histories of colonialism have thus far paid little attention to it. Uncovering Germany’s colonial legacy and imagination, Susanne Zantop reveals the significance of colonial fantasies—a kind of colonialism without colonies—in the formation of German national identity.


Since Germany became a colonial power relatively late, postcolonial theorists and histories of colonialism have thus far paid little attention to it. Uncovering Germany’s colonial legacy and imagination, Susanne Zantop reveals the significance of colonial fantasies—a kind of colonialism without colonies—in the formation of German national identity. Through readings of historical, anthropological, literary, and popular texts, Zantop explores imaginary colonial encounters of "Germans" with "natives" in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century literature, and shows how these colonial fantasies acted as a rehearsal for actual colonial ventures in Africa, South America, and the Pacific.
From as early as the sixteenth century, Germans preoccupied themselves with an imaginary drive for colonial conquest and possession that eventually grew into a collective obsession. Zantop illustrates the gendered character of Germany’s colonial imagination through critical readings of popular novels, plays, and travel literature that imagine sexual conquest and surrender in colonial territory—or love and blissful domestic relations between colonizer and colonized. She looks at scientific articles, philosophical essays, and political pamphlets that helped create a racist colonial discourse and demonstrates that from its earliest manifestations, the German colonial imagination contained ideas about a specifically German national identity, different from, if not superior to, most others.

Editorial Reviews

[R]eaders interested in feminist theory, colonialism, and ethic issues will find [Colonial Fantasies] useful....[Zantop's] insights regarding the gendered undertones of the dreams, i.e., colonizer (male) and colonized (female), the difference between Germans and others, and the German colonizers in fictional familial settings are very helpful.
German Quarterly
A brilliant book well produced by Duke and a major German addition to Stanley Fish and Fredric Jameson's series on 'Post-contemporary Interventions.' There is a real reason to study things German!
International History Review
This is an important book which, developed in an interdisciplinary plane, argues persuasively for a widening of the field of colonial and post-colonial studies by exploring a historical period hitherto neglected by this critical approach. A readable book, based on meticulously researched material and sound scholarly foundations, it will introduce original and fascinating perspectives into a variety of scholarly disciplines.
Central European History
Taking a scholarly approach typical of the 'new historicism,' one of the schools of postmodernist literary criticism, the author uses written material from a wide variety of genres, discussing equally high and low culture, literature for children and for adults, and works of fiction and nonfiction....[Zantop] has read an impressive number of texts, ranging from the fairly well known, such as Kleist's Die Verlobung in St. Domingo, to the extremely obscure. There are a number of interesting chapters on the contents of these works.
From the Publisher
Colonial Fantasies is an excellent contribution to the understanding of German colonialism and its representational regimes.”—John K. Noyes, University of Cape Town

“Susanne Zantop has already established herself as one of the leading scholars in eighteenth and nineteenth-century German literature and culture, and it is no surprise that her long-awaited book is so compelling. Her historically informed study of German fantasies. . . breaks new ground at the intersections of literature, philosophy, and the ‘political unconscious’.”—W. Daniel Wilson, University of California

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Duke University Press
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Post-Contemporary Interventions
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Colonial Fantasies

Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770â"1870

By Susanne Zantop

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8211-9


Tiranos animales o alemanes: Germans and the "Conquest"

y con qué se recompensarán tan innumerables ánimas como están ardiendo en los infiernos por 1a cudicia e inhumanidad de aquestos tiranos animales o alemanes. — Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación, 1542

Ambrosius battled there with truly Swabian strength,
Albeit himself unconscious of the goal,
For Germany's cause —a hero lost to fame.
But where he planted deep the blunt end of his spear,
And where his valorous breast did bleed its last,
To the New World we reaped a rightful claim.
— Adolph Seubert, "Ambrosius Alfinger," 1887

Almost from its inception, individual Germans took part in the conquest of the new territories — as adventurers or mercenaries in Spanish or Portuguese expeditions (e.g., Ulrich Schmidl, Hans Staden); as merchants outfitting and equipping ships or trading in slaves (e.g., the Welsers); as scientists, explorers, or interpreters in the service of German, Dutch, or other officials or companies. According to Viktor Hantzsch, thousands of German men went to the Americas, irresistibly drawn by stories of unheard-of adventures and riches — or pushed out by dire economic conditions at home.

With few exceptions there existed no state-sponsored colonial enterprises. Most of the three hundred some states that comprised the Holy Roman Empire ("of German Nation") were far too small or far too poor to engage in such activities. And even the few colonial endeavors that were undertaken were short-lived and produced little revenue. The "German" colony Tobago, which Duke Jakob I of Courland had supposedly purchased from England in the mid-1600s (1634 or 1654), lasted until 1659, when it was returned to British possession; its settlers never managed to produce profitable crops for export. The trading post on St. Thomas, which the Great Elector of Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm, established through negotiations with the island's Danish Germans and the "Conquest" 19 "owners" in 1685, had to be closed in 1731 after repeated conflicts with the Danes. Friedrich Wilhelm's and his successors' further attempts to negotiate purchases or occupy islands by force as bases for their slave trade — Tobago, St. Croix, St. Eustache — were unsuccessful. Likewise, Bavarian-Dutch and French-Bavarian colonization projects in Guyana (1664–1665), and a colonial treaty between the Duke of Hanau and the Dutch West India Company for a colony between the Orinoco and the Amazon ("Hanauisch-Indien," 1669) never materialized. There were various reasons why these ventures failed, among them the reduced financial means of the German principalities after the Thirty Years War and fierce competition from other colonial pretenders. Throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the German states were first and foremost struggling to establish control over their own territories, if they were not engaged in more localized "colonizing" eastward. While the wealthy merchant houses of the Fuggers and Welsers lacked the political authority of a state (or the will) to claim so-called unclaimed territories, and resorted instead to indirect colonizing through financing the ventures of others, the small principalities lacked the organization, the ports, and the means to outfit fleets or send troops to conquer territories abroad. Throughout the centuries, however, while material realities precluded colonial ventures for German states, and despite considerable opposition to colonialism among some rulers, the wish to conquer, own, and exploit a tropical island grew into what Volberg termed an "obsession."

The ill-fated, albeit profitable, colonial episode of the Welsers in Venezuela (1528–1555) is perhaps most indicative of the nature of German colonialism in South America during the early phases of European expansion.

In 1528, the wealthy southern German merchant and banking company Bartolomä Welser, which had lent Charles V vast sums to finance his election as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, negotiated a treaty for colonial possessions with the Spanish government. Although the South American territories remained in principle closed to foreign colonizers, the Welsers were given exceptional status: they would be allowed to conquer, settle, rule, and exploit a hitherto unknown region located between the province of Santa Marta and Cabo de 1a Vela in the west and the Cabo Maracapaná in the east, and from the Atlantic Ocean in the north to the "South Sea" in the south — roughly the territory of today's Venezuela and part of Colombia. The wealthy financiers would thus help the Spaniards expand and secure their colonial holdings, while doing some colonizing and profiteering on the side. In a series of (unconnected) subcontracts, the two agents of the Welsers, Heinrich Ehinger and Hieronymus Sailer, focused on three areas: mining, slave trade, and settlement. The company agreed to hire fifty German miners as instructors and administrators to improve mining in the Caribbean region; they received license to import and sell four thousand black slaves to increase the labor force in the area; and they agreed to bring over a determined number of colonists to work the newly "acquired" South American territories. In order to carry out this task, Charles V granted the Welsers the privilege, under Spanish sovereignty, to choose governors and military (capitán general) and administrative heads (alguacil, adelantado mayor, teniente) for the new acquisitions, to appropriate twenty-five Spanish square miles of land for their own use, and to collect, in addition to the salaries for the administrators, 4 percent of the profit that was to be transferred to the Crown. In order to establish the colony economically, they were freed from taxation for eight years and from paying the "fifth" for precious metals for three years. In exchange for these privileges, the new rulers agreed to settle the colony within two years, found two settlements with three hundred inhabitants each, erect three forts, and establish a functioning colonial administration.

All contemporary historians agree that a host of factors ensured the failure of this colonial venture from its inception. Competition between the Welsers and the Spanish colonial administration — the Real Audiencia in Santo Domingo, the Consejo de Indias in Spain, and the Spanish Crown — between Spanish and German administrators and governors in the colony, and between the interests of the German merchants and those of the predominantly Spanish settlers led to physical and legal power struggles. Keen on making quick profits and fully aware that their presence in Venezuela might be short-lived since it depended on the goodwill of the Spanish authorities, the Augsburg merchants did not so much support a peaceful, long-term settlement policy as a series of destructive and disruptive sallies into the interior in search of "El Dorado." When the explorers, notably the governors Ambrosius Alfinger, Nikolaus Federmann, and Jörg Hohermuth von Speier (Jorge de Espira), failed to discover and loot wealthy "Indian kingdoms," secure a flow of precious metals, and appease the settlers with quick profits, they turned increasingly to capturing and selling Indians as slaves to make up for the loss in anticipated colonial revenue. As a consequence, remnants of the oppressed Indian tribes, ever more suspicious of any foreign settlement, withdrew from the coast into the less accessible interiors. Without gold, without tradable goods, and without slave labor, the German colony of Venezuela eventually collapsed, and, although a series of law suits did not confirm allegations of financial or legal wrongdoings, had to be returned into Spanish possession in I555.

In the imagination of subsequent generations of Germans, this ill-fated, poorly executed colonial enterprise with its many near-discoveries of fabulous peoples (dwarves, Amazons) and rich "kingdoms" gained special status as a kind of colonial "urnarrative." Particularly for nineteenth-century colonialists, the Welser episode became the story of the origin of the German colonial movement, a "German" first. It marked the moment when a German conquistador — the elusive Ambrosius Alfinger from Ulm — "planted deep the blunt end of his spear" into the virgin soil of South America, as Seubert's poem of 1887 puts it, and in which a German martyr, by fertilizing the foreign soil with his blood, established German paternity/property rights over the new territories. As a story of copulation between German conqueror and native soil this urnarrative became the urfantasy underlying all future German colonial fantasies directed at South America. Significantly, in the imagination of its nineteenth-century narrator, "Germany's" first encounter with the New World was not so much a romance with a female other, as the story of lone heroism and sacrifice, a Blut und Boden soldier's tale of male (re)generation through contact with foreign soil. As a story of failure ("a forgotten hero"), failed paternity so to speak, the story of the Welser's conquest raised a series of questions that were implicitly alluded to in future colonial fantasies.

The failure of the German colony in Venezuela produced in subsequent generations of German colonialists a nagging frustration for having arrived "too late" on the colonial scene. Federmann reached the land of the Muiscas in the Andes shortly after Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada had invaded and laid his hands on that advanced, wealthy civilization. Likewise, the German princes never found a territory or an island that did not yet "belong" to Spain, Portugal, England, France, Denmark, or the Netherlands. And in the nineteenth century, when massive state-sponsored colonial expansion finally seemed possible, it was feared that the world had already been subdivided and "given away," as a line in Schiller's famous poem "The Partition of the World" suggested, leaving no more space for the establishment of a "New Germany" abroad.

The shock of having come too late was reinforced by doubts as to Germans' ability to colonize. The loss of colonies Germans had actually possessed would lead to a continued preoccupation with the causes of that loss in the nineteenth century: Had the Welsers lost the colonies because of the "envy" of other colonial powers and because of lack of strength to defend their own entitlements? Or had they lost them because of concentrating too much on looting and trading and too little on establishing viable long-term agricultural settlements? The answers to these questions depended on the political agenda of those who asked. Advocates of economic imperialism tended toward the foreign competition argument (e.g., Hübbe-Schleiden, Hassert, Hantzsch); advocates of settlement or emigrationist colonialism toward a critique of military expansionism at the expense of peaceful colonization (Simonsfeld). However, both positions were often alluded to simultaneously (Fabri, Peters) to garner widespread support for a repeat of the colonial performance.

The third cluster of concerns that appears as a leitmotiv throughout the centuries has to do with the question of Germany's share in "colonial guilt," that is, German participation in the enslavement, mistreatment, and annihilation of the indigenous populations. The issue was first raised by Bartolomé de las Casas in his Brevísima relación sobre 1a destruición de las Indias, written in 1542 and published in 1545, during the last stages of the Welsers' colonial experiment in Venezuela. The discussion of the role some Germans had played in the conquest — or the careful sidestepping of that discussion — is indicative of how the Welser narrative served not just as colonial urnarrative, but as linchpin in the formulation of German national character. The telling and retelling of the story, and the subtle and not so subtle maneuvers to exonerate "Germans" produced, in fact, a discourse of Germanness.

Las Casas, the Spanish Dominican friar and later bishop of Chiapas, provided the first impetus for a nationalization of the question of colonial guilt. In his Brevísima relación he had denounced not only the cruelty of the Spanish conquistadors, but that of the "animales alemanes," the German animals or bestial Germans. The German merchants were, he affirmed, even more cruel, more ferocious, more greedy than their Spanish counterparts:

Those merchants, upon entering the land with three hundred or more men, encountered people as tame as sheep, as were all the native peoples in the Indies everywhere, until they suffered injury at the hands of the Spaniards. And here [in Venezuela] were committed, I believe, incomparably more cruelties than those we have described, acts more irrational and ferocious than any inflicted by the most ferocious lions and tigers and rabid wolves. Because the actions were carried out with more avidity and blind greed, with more subtle determination to rob the Indians of their gold and silver than all the tyrants who had gone before.

While the friar's apparent hostility against the "Lutheran heretics" served to explain the vehemence of his denunciation, the facts he reported — the burning and beheading of resisting natives, the chaining, branding, and selling of Indian slaves — were powerful spiritual weapons to contend with. His verdict forms the backdrop of subsequent attempts to assess German colonizers in relation to others: were they worse, were they better, or were they like everyone else? Whoever retold the story of the Welser colony felt called upon to respond — overtly or covertly — to what Juan Friede termed the "Black Legend" against all German conquistadors: the fear of a specific German proneness for cruelty.

The general political context and the interest of the writers determined the strategies of denial, repression, or denunciation they employed. In the years of the Dutch uprising, the German participation in colonial violence was played down till it almost got lost in the larger Spanish-Dutch, or Catholic-Protestant conflict. During the Enlightenment and late-eighteenth-century revolutions, Las Casas's denunciation fused with the universal moral verdict against tyrants and barbarians of all nations. In the years of rising German nationalism and growing colonial interest, it was "contextualized" or simply brushed aside, to be replaced by a counterstory: the story of Germany's specific propensity for colonizing based on superior qualifications — and on a history of colonial innocence.

The first German translation of the Brevísima relación, which appeared in 1597 and was reprinted in 1599, with slight changes in 1613 and 1665, already displaces the German share in colonial guilt by focusing almost exclusively on Spanish atrocities. Its anti-Spanish thrust — the address to the reader rallies support for a Dutch rebellion against Spain — manifests itself, for example, in the summaries of the arguments in the margins of the text. Whereas the text clearly refers to the German merchants as "demonios encarnados" [devils incarnate], the marginal notes, more often than not, attribute the atrocities to the Spanish settlers alone: "Spaniards catch the ruler in Venezuela and kill the Indians mercilessly"; "Spaniards gobble up what the Indians had stored"; or "Spanish ungratefulness toward the Indians." Even in the last paragraph, which addresses the Welsers' slave trade, the commentary integrates, once more, the German actions into the larger Spanish picture, thereby diluting the attack: "Unheard-of tyranny of Spaniards and Germans" (79). The translator employs the passive voice frequently to obfuscate agency. Unlike the Spanish original, he often leaves open who did what by cutting connections between nouns and pronouns or by generalizing. He also omits Las Casas's aside against the German Lutheran heretics, which might have placed Las Casas in the Catholic camp, undermining his credibility for Protestant readers and hence the translator's "protestant" project. The illustrations to the text which, like broadsides with captions, are appended to the text separately, depict only Spanish atrocities. Subsequently integrated into the text itself (but not in the chapter on Venezuela), they do not underscore Las Casas's contention that the Germans were incomparably more cruel than all the other conquistadors, but reinforce the Black Legend vis-à-vis Spain: the Spaniards are the true devils incarnate.


Excerpted from Colonial Fantasies by Susanne Zantop. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

At the time of her death, Susanne Zantop was Professor of German and Comparative Literature and Chair of the Department of German Studies at Dartmouth College.

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