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The man who revealed the flaws of German colonial ambitions

Cai Nebe
February 22, 2024

Quane Martin Dibobe was brought to Germany to increase enthusiasm for colonialism. But he would become a pioneering human rights activist who challenged Germany's exploitative relationship with its colonies.

Berlin train driver Martin Dibobe stands by his train in Berlin
Quane Martin Dibobe broke ground by becoming a train driver on Berlin's early metro, but he was also an important human rights activistImage: BVG-Archiv

Who was Quane Martin Dibobe?

Dibobe was born near Douala, Cameroon, in 1876, where his father held local political office. He was educated at a mission in Cameroon where he learned to read and write in German. He arrived in Germany in the mid-1890s to participate in the Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin. 

What was the first German colonial exhibition of 1896?

This fair aimed to show that Germany was a "land of boundless opportunity." A concerted propaganda effort was underway to convince Germans that it was right for Germany to have colonies. It included ethnological expositions of "everyday life in the colonies." Today, we would call this a human zoo. 

Dibobe was just one of over 100 Africans who arrived in Berlin — some taken by force, others lured by promises of pay. They came from German territories in Namibia, Togo, Tanzania, Cameroon — Ovaherero, Nama and Masai among others. Quane Dibobe was only known as "No. 76." In reality, he and others were nothing like the "primitive natives" presented in artificial villages. 

Masai people warm themselves by a fire in a Berlin exhibition
Ethnological exhibitions were surprisingly common in Europe in the early 1900s, with people from the colonies displayed in fake villages. This photo of Masai people stems from the Berlin Zoological Gardens in 1920, but similar displays continued until the 1950sImage: picture alliance/akg-images

Around 7 million Germans flocked to the exhibit over six months to see Dibobe and others like him as they were forced to act out an imagined life — cooking, dancing, hunting — in a fake African village.

Dibobe and many others were forced to undergo humiliating physical examinations carried out by students of Germany's fledgling race science — to prove the since-discredited pseudo-science of eugenics.

What did Dibobe do after the exhibition?

Dibobe stayed in Berlin, which was not unusual. The few Africans were often accepted in cosmopolitan spaces and could find jobs or apprenticeships. Dibobe first became a craftsman before joining the Berlin railway company. He married his landlord's daughter after the missionary who had baptized Dibobe in Cameroon confirmed his identity. 

By 1902, Dibobe became a train driver for Berlin's fledgling metro — a prestigious job then — and became a celebrity. 

He later wrote: "Through diligence and impeccable conduct, I gained a position of trust." 

Did Dibobe ever return to Cameroon?

Colonial authorities sent Dibobe back to Cameroon in 1907 to consult on the construction of a railway line. German infrastructure in Cameroon still stands to this day, and some historians talk of nostalgia for the German era, especially when compared to the exploitative practices of France and Britain, which took over German colonies after 1919. 

Yet, Dibobe was shocked at the beatings, expropriation, racism and mistreatment Cameroonians endured at the hands of German companies.

A group of train drivers pose for a photo in front of a train.
Martin Dibobe became famous as Germany's first black train driverImage: BVG Archiv

What was the status of German colonial subjects?

Back in Germany, Dibobe participated in workers' strikes, supported the Social Democrats, and was active in the League for Human Rights organization, which was formed in 1914. And as more Black people arrived in cities like Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen, Dibobe and many others who remained in Germany found themselves in a no-man's-land citizenship.

Authorities, however, had no intention of giving German colonial subjects the same rights as German citizens, as that would mean the law would have to be applied equally in the colonies. 

So, in mid-1919, on behalf of Africans living in German colonies, Dibobe and 17 other Afro-Germans petitioned the government for representation, equal rights and an end to forced labor, among 32 points, while pledging allegiance to the German Weimar Republic. 

Onlookers attend the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Quane Martin Dibobe
In 2016, almost 100 years after Dibobe's petition, a plaque was unveiled in Berlin commemorating Dibobe's legacy at his last known addressImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Rückeis

What became of the Dibobe Petition? 

Because Germany had ceded its colonies to other European nations in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, the petition's demands were never acknowledged. 

Dibobe lost his railway job. He attempted to return to Cameroon in 1922. However, the new French colonial rulers refused him entry because they believed he would cause unrest. Instead, the 45-year-old Dibobe headed for Liberia and left no trace. It's assumed he died there. 

As a result, Dibobe is not well-known in Cameroon, as most of his legacy is recognized in Germany.

Quane Martin Dibobe: From exhibit to anti-colonial activist

But over a century later, his petition is regarded as one of the most important political documents of African migrants of the early 21st century. 

Shadows of German Colonialism is produced by DW, Germany's international broadcaster, with funding from the German Federal Foreign Office (AA). Consulting was provided by Lily Mafela, Kwame Osei Kwarteng and Reginald Kirey.

Edited by: Keith Walker