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Colonial past

Jake Davies
September 25, 2017

The two cities of Dusseldorf, Germany, and Dschang, Cameroon, are thousands of kilometers apart, but their shared colonial history connects them to this day. Jake Davies went to explore in Dusseldorf.

Fort Dschang Deutschland Kamerun Kolonialzeit
Image: Imago

The German city of Dusseldorf and Dschang in Cameroon are about 5000 kilometers (3,100 miles) apart, but still closely linked: their shared history dates back to 1895 - 11 years after Cameroon officially became a German colony thanks to an arrangement struck by German imperial commissioner for German West-Africa, Gustav Nachtigal, with King Rudolf Douala Manga Bell of Douala.

They agreed to transfer sovereignty and administration of the region to the growing European power.

Dschang, a city around 160 kilometers (100 miles) inland from the port of Douala and located in today's West Province, was first "discovered" by the Dusseldorf-born Eugen Zintgraff, a colonial explorer whose dealings with the locals in and around Dschang are well documented in the exhibit at Dusseldorf's Stadtmuseum.

Karte Kamerun Dschang ENG

In particular, the exposition focuses on Zintgraff's contact with Galega I, the fon (king) of nearby Bali, who saw in Zintgraff's expedition the opportunity to expand his territorial control over the surrounding region.

Nuanced picture of colonialism?

For Stefanie Michels, the curator of the exhibition in Dusseldorf and leading researcher of the joint enterprise on the German side, this story of European and African cooperation to achieve respective gains at the expense of others reflects the historical reality of German, and indeed, European colonialism.

"There was never a strict dichotomy between colonizers and colonized. The colonial project always depended on intermediaries and networks with people in different positions and with different choices," Michels told DW.

A photo of Eugen Zintgraff at the Stadtmuseum exhibition in Dusseldorf
A photo of Eugen Zintgraff at the Stadtmuseum exhibition in Dusseldorf - the colonial explorer arrived in Dschang in 1895Image: DW/J. Davies

Michels' aim for the research project is to paint a more nuanced picture of colonialism than the popular depiction of evil Europeans conquering poor Africans - she speaks of transcending the language of "perpetrator and victim" - in an attempt to combat harmful stereotypes of helpless Africans needing Europe's support.

She insists that her joint enterprise is far from whitewashing colonial crimes, but instead countering well-intentioned Europeans who wish to make amends for their past but unwittingly perpetuate colonial-era tropes.

"In Cameroon they stress that in the present and in the past they have always had their agency. This [stereotype of helpless Africans] really only applies to Europe" she said, adding that recognizing Africans' agency would help interact with people from the former colonies on a level playing field.

Heated discussion

Michels' call for an assessment of German, and by association European, colonialism without the "moral categories of perpetrator and victim" was just one controversial talking point at the research project's podium discussion on September 19.

Wilfried Neusel, a priest in the Rhineland evangelical church and vocal critic of a colonial memorial in Dusseldorf, hit back against his fellow panelist saying the colonial project was inherently exploitative and damaging for the colonized people, implying that Europeans need to do something more concrete than recognizing Africans' agency to improve future relations.

There was also a clash over whether to change street addresses named after figures involved in colonialism. This debate came after one of the panelists, Philipp Koep, a history teacher at a local comprehensive school, started a campaign with his class to rename Wissmannstrasse in the Unterbilk district of Dusseldorf, a name that honors the colonial administrator of German East Africa, Hermann von Wissmann.

'Colonial exploitation still going on'

The topic of colonialism's ongoing impact on African identity resonated with Albert Gouaffo, a specialist in German literature and cultural studies at the University of Dschang, who is leading the research project on the Cameroonian side.  

Appearing to clash with his research partner Michels, Gouaffo suggested that European colonialism continues to blight the African continent today.

"We know that this colonial exploitation is still going on. The same infrastructure is still there. They have introduced only cosmetic help in the form of development aid," he told DW.

"That means, they don't come directly and take the products like earlier in the colonial era, but instead they say that we are 'cooperating', while their own henchmen are doing the same as before."

Notably, Gouaffo also had much to say about the ongoing migration crisis in Europe, which he believes is being exacerbated by European leaders who, in confusing the consequences and causes of migration, are displaying ignorance of Europe's colonial exploits.

"When someone's life is on the line, and they've got to the point where they have to cross the Mediterranean on a lifeboat, then one has to say that they've lost all hope. And when Europe reacts with barricades, which are increasingly being erected not in Europe itself but Morocco or Libya, then I think that you haven't studied history."

For Gouaffo and others involved in this joint research project on Germany's colonial connections in Cameroon, the hope is that Europe's leaders will start to engage with their continent's colonial past, for the sake of it and Africa.