Bagamoyo Imperial and Actual: Representation of the First Capital of German East Africa in Colonial Postcards and in the Works of Walter Dobbertin


Anastasia Banshchikova


In recent decades, items of colonial photography, including those dedicated to German East Africa, have become the subject of research by historians and anthropologists. Many of the photographs eventually became postcards issued to introduce newly conquered territories to the citizens of the empire, to a lesser extent their population, culture and way of life, and to a greater extent those achievements (both real and imaginary) that the metropolis had brought. This included military stations, churches, missions, infrastructure (railways, train stations, lighthouses), askari troops recruited from local population, etc. On these postcards we can see various species of acacias and palm trees, numerous Araberstrasse and Kaiserstrasse streets, monuments to the emperor and chancellor, ships in the Dar es Salaam bay, “native beauty” and “native quarters”. On the one hand, postcards reflect what colonizers wanted to display before their homeland, on the other they reflect what this homeland itself wanted to see, e.g. images of exotic hot tropics, successes of German administrators and troops. Postcards, being selected in their very plots and created for the propaganda purposes, depict German East Africa strictly deliberately and strictly as a colony.

Bagamoyo served as this colony’s capital for about two years. On postcards depicting the town we see the quintessence of the German military and administrative presence: this is tangible both in the choice of depicted objects (fort, boma, Wissmann’s monument in memory of soldiers who died during the suppression of the coastal uprising, meeting place of the colonial administration, etc.) and the frequency of these choices. Images of local residents on postcards are marginal, the “black quarter” is opposed to new European buildings, and the elements of the Arab-Swahili cultural component of Bagamoyo are not represented at all.

On the contrary, photography of Walter Dobbertin allows to have a look at Bagamoyo in the end of the 19th – the beginning of the 20th centuries in a much more complete and complicated way. He took photos of inhabitants of Bagamoyo with clear accent and opened vision – women, children, Arabs, Muslims in kanzu and kofias, without censoring either the phenotype or the cultural components of Islamic religion (mosque, Muslim cemetery, tea houses). It’s fascinating, because negative attitude toward Arabs and Islam is stressed throughout many German colonial narratives written by military and civil officers. The Arabs as “the first colonizers of the region”, i.e. predecessors of Germans themselves, almost never appear on the postcards, as well as Islam-associated objects like mosques or Muslim cemeteries. The article is concerned with this difference between postcards and photographs of Bagamoyo as the latter reveal what had been blind spots of official representation of colony’s first capital and give very personal and much more sincere vision offered by talented photographer Walter Dobbertin.


German East Africa, colonial photography, representation of colony, postcards, Bagamoyo, Walter Dobbertin




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