African Studies Quarterly
Volume 8, Issue 1
Fall 2004

Rote Adler an Afrikas Küste: Die brandenburgisch-preußische Kolonie Großfriedrichsburg in Westafrika. Ulrich Van der Heyden. Berlin: Selignow, 2001 [1993]. 105 pp.


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Van der Heyden outlines the history of the duchy of Brandenburg on the West African coast, her role in the transatlantic slave trade and the beginning of the African diaspora in Germany.

Friedrich Wilhelm I, elector of Brandenburg, aimed at participating in the flourishing overseas trade in order to cover the expenditures of his government. With the help of the Dutch ship owner Raule, he built a fleet -- ridiculously small compared to those of the competitors -- and in 1682 the Brandenburgisch-Africanische Compagnie (BAC) was instituted. There followed before long the foundation of the fortification of Großfriedrichsburg, headquarters of the company in Africa, as well as three smaller redoubts, Accada, Taccrama and Taccorary (on the coast of present Ghana), a point of call on the island of Arguin (presently Mauritania), and a trading post on St. Thomas in the Caribbean.

From the beginning, the elector of Brandenburg's colonial adventure, as the author terms it, suffered from lack of financial resources, military support, and administrative capacities. Besides, the BAC had to compete with stronger seafaring nations (Netherlands, England, Spain, France) who were already settled wherever the Brandenburgers arrived and who did not want to share their oversea resources.

The engagement in slave trade was the most effective means to overcome the perpetual financial problems of the government while other items, such as gold and ivory, rather involved losses. On St. Thomas, the BAC had its trading post as a prerequisite to succeed in slave trade. But they only acted under the authority of the Danes to whom they had to pay duties and who determined the prices for slaves. On the West African coast, they suffered from repeated aggressions by the Dutch. The losses of ships through the elements, pirates, and acts of war by European competitors enhanced the financial problems and the reluctance of investors to engage in the company.

When Friedrich Wilhelm I died, his son Friedrich III showed little interest to continue the overseas trade. However, he did not put a total end to it, but rather let it diminish. His grandson, Friedrich Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, considering the trade relations with Africa a phantasm, finally sold the property on the West African coast to the Dutch in 1717. Part of the contract was that the king, in whose army were already some twenty African musicians, should be sent "12 young negro-boys, 6 of which should be decorated with golden chains." They constituted the first African immigrants to Prussia coming in a group.

When the Dutch wanted to take over Grossfriedrichsburg, Jan Cuny, a local chief and former agent for the Brandenburgers had seized the fortification. Even when presented with a bill of sale he refused to hand it over to anyone but the former proprietors. Because of this faithfulness to the former proprietors, Cuny was nicknamed "the black Prussian." While idealized by Westermann as a model of an unselfish and trustworthy collaborator of the Brandenburgers, van der Heyden regards him with more critical eyes as someone who also pursued his own interests. [1]

Highlighting the moral failures of those involved in the slave trade and the military history of Prussia makes the book particularly interesting within the present discourse of coming to terms with the past of the German-African relationship. The first edition caused an impact on readers which is quite unusual for history books and it provoked a concern for the people living around the fortification of Großfriedrichsburg. School-partnerships were established and the number of German tourists to Princesstown in the neighbourhood of the fortification, where there the memory of the "Brandenburg family" (104) is still alive, also increased considerably.

However, the scholarly reader might have enjoyed a less moralizing attitude of the author, and at times a more careful use of terminology in order to avoid misunderstandings. Given the general agreement that German colonialism in Africa began only after 1890, the reader questions how easily Van der Heyden expands German colonial history 200 years backwards. It would also be helpful to make clear whether Großfriedrichsburg was a trade-colony (Handelskolonie) or simply a trading post. The idea of a 'settlers colony' (Siedlungskolonie) never came up in the Brandenburg era.

With regard to the Fanti population in the area, van der Heyden says that in colonial literature they were called "true negroes" ("echte Neger" - p.18), a term formerly used for the classification of African races and languages. Without providing further explanation and in the given context, this statement does not give any relevant information to the reader and it even contradicts the author's moral attitude exhibited elsewhere in the book.

Despite these truly minor weaknesses the book is a most welcome contribution to the history of Brandenburg-Prussia and of early contacts between Europe and Africa. Divided into eighteen short chapters and accompanied by many meaningful quotations and pictures, the book reads easily. The entire layout makes it attractive for the reader. It constitutes a wonderful example of a thorough historical study made accessible for a general readership.

Helma Pasch
University of Cologne


[1] Westermann, Diedrich. "Jan Cuny," Afrika: Studien zur Auslandskunde 2:1-3 (1943).