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Africa exploiter Adolph Woermann: Steinreich through schnapps and forced labor


With all his might and without scruples, a Hamburg merchant campaigned for Germany to become a colonial power 140 years ago. The predatory economy in Africa made Adolph Woermann a fortune.

The race was won.

“The German flag flies in Cameroons.

Everything is in order «, reported Adolph Woermann to Chancellor Otto von Bismarck on August 17, 1884.

After months of frenetic activity on two continents, only a few days had finally decided whether the German or British flag would be hoisted over the area.

When the English consul Edward Hyde Hewett landed, the German imperial eagle was already blowing in the wind - Hewett went down in the history books as the "too late consul".

Enlarge image

Adolph Woermann: merchant, colonialist, war profiteer


Artokoloro / imago images

Woermann, however, was there.

For years, the Hamburg merchant with branches on the West African coast had campaigned for a colonial commitment by the German Empire.

His business went brilliantly: Thanks to industrialization, palm oil, which was used as a lubricant, among other things, became an import hit.

When Adolph Woermann took over the company from his father in 1880, he relied fully on steam shipping and was soon as successful as a shipowner as in trade.

But in Africa, he is convinced, things could go a lot better.

At the mouth of the Cameroon River, agents from Hamburg companies resided on "Hulks", discarded cargo ships that served them as apartments and warehouses at the same time.

The business in the hinterland, for example with palm oil and ivory suppliers, was done by their African trading partners themselves - which is difficult to bear for the successful Hanseatic people.

Woermann lobbied tirelessly

At the beginning of the 1880s, Woermann's commercial interests came under great pressure.

Belgium, Great Britain, France, Portugal and even Spain secured new territories for themselves in the "scramble for Africa".

Only Bismarck initially did not want colonies: Too expensive for the Reich, and in the end only a few would reap the profits (which he was to prove to be right).

Ultimately, Bismarck agreed to place areas in which some Germans were pursuing private interests under the "protection" of the Reich.

This was not least due to the tireless efforts of Adolph Woermann.

He sent urgent appeals to Berlin, wrote memoranda, spoke to the Foreign Office and met with government representatives.

At the end of 1883, Bismarck gave in.

The negotiations on the assignment of sovereign rights on site were carried out by agents of the Hamburg trading houses.

Woermann instructed his representative to make the advantages of the German "protection" palatable to the local "chiefs", if necessary with generous gifts.

In the end, the empire stayed ahead.

more on the subject

German Colonialists in Cameroon: The Tragedy of Rudolf Manga BellBy Hans Hielscher

When Consul Hewett reached Cameroon, the treaties with the Douala people had already been signed.

What the Hanseatic agents had prepared was completed by the German delegation headed by Reich Commissioner Gustav Nachtigal: the complete surrender of sovereign rights by the chiefs, including King Bell.

Later his grandson Rudolf Manga Bell was executed on the gallows by the Germans for peacefully protesting against the oppression of his people in 1914.

From 1884 the African rulers had to quickly realize that the promises made by the Germans were not worth the paper on which they had put their signature.

Their power would be preserved if they had been promised, as would their property and the right to trade with other nations.

They had also hoped to build schools.

Instead, the German merchants tried quickly to penetrate into the hinterland.

As in retail, they used a door opener that had proven to be extremely successful: alcohol.

Brandy and weapons have long been coveted goods among African traders.

The Hanseatic League delivered both abundantly.

A whopping three fifths of their Africa exports consisted of spirits.

Missionaries pointed out the disastrous consequences.

"The whole of life here is in a sense saturated with brandy," complained one.

Another was stunned by the excesses at a funeral service: "In my life I had never seen an entire city of about 4,000 souls intoxicated."

At the beginning of 1885, Woermann, the new member of the National Liberals, had to justify his business practices in the Reichstag for the first time.

His argument for exporting alcohol: securing jobs.

"Out of philanthropy for the negroes, who have not been our German brothers for so long

(the protocol records cheerfulness in the plenary)

, should we completely suppress a large

branch of

business?" And so workers continued to be recruited with booze, the packaging of which was considerably more expensive than the content.

German merchants benefited from brutal expansion

You needed a lot of workers.

As early as 1879 Woermann had presented his vision of the colonial economy to the Hamburg Geographical Society: only through plantations could products from Africa be made available in the long term.

This also opens up the opportunity to fulfill a great "civilizing and philanthropic task": "Bringing the negro of West Africa the blessing of work, that should be the core of all efforts!"

He had founded a plantation company with the Hamburg company Jantzen & Thormälen.

From 1886 she grew cocoa, coffee and tobacco.

Eliminating the hated African middleman turned out to be more difficult.

It was not until the mid-1890s that a much more brutal expansion policy began with the help of Governor Jesko von Puttkamer and the new "Schutztruppe".

The German merchants benefited most from it.

In 1905 they already operated 200 trading branches, 30 of them Woermann alone.

The regime took on a whole new dimension with the rubber boom of the 1890s.

In 1896 the imperial government declared all undeveloped land in Cameroon to be crown land and transferred most of it to private companies.

Two-fifths of the companies in which Woermann was involved fell to two-fifths from Cameroon.

While they brought in millions in profits, 20,000 to 30,000 Cameroonians alone had to transport the "black gold" to the coasts.

Forced labor depopulated entire areas.

But the more Cameroon was "opened up", the more manpower was needed.

The exploitation of the country was not without echo.

The German press reported that a Conservative MP attacked the "Puttkamer System" in the Reichstag.

But reservations about the regime also came from unexpected sources: from Woermann himself. Because of the massive exploitation of the population and the associated destruction of the domestic industry, his interests in rubber mining collided with those as a trader.

Millions in profits through genocide

Woermann found himself in a double role: He needed the porters and “African subcontractors in the rubber trade caravans” - but also the African producers and traders in the palm kernel trade, as the Hamburg historian Kim-Sebastian Todzi explains, whose study “The Woermann Group and der deutsche Kolonialismus (1837-1916) «will appear in a few months.

more on the subject

Early color photos from German colonies: Deserted dream destinations by Solveig Grothe

In 1903 Woermann withdrew from the rubber company and concentrated again on trading.

His company was in full bloom around the turn of the century and in 1899 commissioned star architect Martin Haller for a new office building: with a statue of an African warrior, two almost life-size elephant sculptures and a facade in the colors of Woermann's shipping line.

A sign of success that is still visible today - the import and export company still resides there.

Woermann was used to criticism.

Soon it was not his business in Cameroon that brought him into distress, but the Herero war in South West Africa.

After years of conquest, humiliation and acts of violence, the Herero rose there against the German colonial rulers in January 1904.

From the beginning, Commander-in-Chief Lothar von Trotha left no doubt as to how he intended to deal with the rebels: "I am destroying the rebel tribes with rivers of blood and rivers of money."

“Colonizing, as the history of all colonies shows, does not mean civilizing the natives, but pushing them back and ultimately destroying them.

The savage cannot stand culture. "

Julius Scharlach, Hamburg lawyer and colonial entrepreneur in South West Africa, 1903

The campaign culminated in genocide: the Herero were driven into a desert area, and German troops systematically occupied the water points.

Thousands died of thirst, countless were shot.

15,000 soldiers were hastily brought in to suppress the uprising.

The transport fell to the Woermann line, which held a transport monopoly for the colony.

This was by no means, as is sometimes claimed, a patriotically motivated loss-making business: »With great financial, organizational and personal efforts, the Woermann Line organized almost all of the troops, equipment and horses of the German 'Schutztruppe'.

The company's commitment paid off, ”explains researcher Kim-Sebastian Todzi.

"The Woermann Line was able to record additional income and profits in the millions due to the war."

The work in what is now Namibia also paid off in another way: concentration camps, in which the exhausted survivors of the genocide were crammed together, served German farmers and companies as a reservoir of labor.

"The use of the Hereros to work during captivity is very beneficial for them," said a German official.

One of the biggest buyers: Adolph Woermann.

His company used the slave laborers on a massive scale for port work and even had its own camps.

But the economic success soon turned sour.

In 1906 MP Matthias Erzberger accused him of having unlawfully enriched himself by charging the Reich excessive freight rates for troop transports.

Thereupon Woermann's transport monopoly was lifted.

The war profiteer never recovered from this insult and retired to his country estate near Hamburg in 1910, but remained highly regarded in politics and business.

When Adolph Woermann died in 1911, there was an emperor's wreath on his coffin.

And shipowner Albert Ballin demanded in his funeral speech: "Bring the flag on half-stick, you Hanseatic people, the greatest Hanseatic people are dead."

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2021-03-23

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