Conference Report: Traces of the Slave Trade in the Holy Roman Empire and its Successor States. Discourses, Practices, and Objects, 1500–1850

H-Slavery thanks Annika Bärwald of the Department of History at the University of Bremen (  for the following report on the conference, “Traces of the Slave Trade in the Holy Roman Empire and its Successor States. Discourses, Practices, and Objects, 1500–1850.”


Conference Report: Traces of the Slave Trade in the Holy Roman Empire and its Successor States. Discourses, Practices, and Objects, 1500–1850 
November 29, 2018 to December 1, 2018


What does it mean to speak of traces of the slave trade for territories that – up until the nineteenth century – featured very little state-sponsored colonialism to speak of? Despite the short-lived nature of early German colonies and slave trading companies, historians have long emphasized the deep involvement of German regions in early modern colonialism. As individuals, ship owners, companies, merchants, and consumers, Germans were significantly linked to colonial endeavors. Only recently, however, has research begun turning its attention to the phenomenon of early modern German slavery. Approximating the extent to which people in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation were involved in slavery either directly or through discursive and practical engagements with the phenomenon, was the central aim of the Bremen conference held from November 30 to December 2, 2018. It was organized by Rebekka v. Mallinckrodt, Josef Köstlbauer, and Sarah Lentz as part of the ERC project “German Slavery.”[1] In line with more recent conceptualizations of the Holy Roman Empire, the evoked concepts of a “slavery hinterland” and Atlantic periphery underscored a shift away from national perspectives.[2] As works non-white people who lived and worked in courtly contexts and studies on early developments of racist thought have shown, both humans and ideas regularly transcended borders. One of the claims of the conference, then, was to show that the hypothesis of a German Sonderweg, that is, a special or exceptional path, cannot be maintained in a diachronic nor a synchronic European comparative perspective. Consequently, participants approached the phenomenon of the slave trade both by pointing to “German” particularities and by drawing international comparisons. With contributions from economic, cultural, legal, and art history as well as biographical studies, the conference set-up was conducive to cross-sub-disciplinary discussions.


In his keynote speech, KLAUS WEBER (Frankfurt/Oder) highlighted the economic interdependencies of Central Europe with slave economies of the New World. Merchants imported sugar from plantations and exported linen for exchange and trade; in the Atlantic realm the flax product was a favored fabric for clothing the enslaved. Capital from German enterprises also regularly flowed into Dutch, English, and other European colonial projects. These forms of German participation, Weber argued, had long been obscured by a positivist historiographic tradition formed in the post war years. Language barriers and a problematic equating of flags with actors compounded this problem and contributed to a myth of German exceptionalism. More recent economic studies have overturned this minimal-involvement consensus and have, on the contrary, proved extensive linkages.


With that information in mind, the first section focused on the emergence and spread of discourses around slavery and otherness.


Based on Frantz Fanon's concept of epidermalization, CRAIG KOSLOFSKY (Urbana) argued that the European perception of skin color as a meaningful category was a reversal of positively connotated African and American skin practices. He illustrated the ambiguity of dermal practices in seventeenth-century Europe with three examples. First, when the corpse of an African woman was dismembered in Kiel in 1675, the examiners mistook her decorative scarring and branding as punitive marks. Second, contrarily, one European traveler’s experience with pilgrim tattoos from Jerusalem enabled him to recognize and discuss African skin practices as aesthetically pleasing. Finally, the case of two native Americans who were exhibited for their tattoos and repeatedly sold as slaves raised the question of whether dermally othered persons’ enslavement was widely accepted.


MARK HÄBERLEIN (Bamberg) further dwelled on the question of the (non)acceptance of slavery in his interpretation of an 1804 encyclopedic text by the Augsburg Enlightenment philosopher Gottlieb Tobias Wilhelm. As Häberlein explained, a discourse on the “nature” of Africans and the illegitimacy of slavery was assembled here from snippets of other works. Hence, recurrent “decontextualization and subsequent recontextualization” resulted in an extremely incongruent publication. In its highly emotionalized passages, however, the text is also a testament to how the slave trade was employed first and foremost as a test case of both human suffering and human cruelty, an important component of the author’s attempt to understand human nature in its entirety.

     The following discussion focused on the longevity of both racist and abolitionist thought and their interdependencies. Contradictions and inconsistencies, it was argued, are central elements of the Enlightenment tradition as a whole and must be taken into account as such.[3]


The second section was concerned with a broad spectrum of historical practices of enslavement and protest. Its speakers focused on the discursive embedding of such practices.


ARNE SPOHR (Bowling Green) presented a detailed case study of the African trumpeter Christian Real who was victim of a violent attack in Württemberg in the seventeenth century. Following the motives of the crime, Spohr addressed the color symbolism used in Real's baptismal sermon. Trial statements retrieved from the archives suggested intentional disfigurement, dishonor, and dehumanization. Spohr, however, also made clear that his interpretation encountered some points of uncertainty. The paper raised questions about the singularity or exemplariness of individual cases and about possible characteristics of hate crimes in history.


WALTER SAUER (Vienna) continued this discussion by addressing continuities and disjunctions in the recruitment of Black personnel in Austria from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.[4] Although there was a shift in the origin regions of trafficked non-white people, the demand for apparently prestigious Black servants did not discernibly decrease during the period under study. It was a peculiarity of the nineteenth century, then, for travelers to argue predominantly within a narrative of slave redemption. Far removed from Austrian borders, the commercial transaction of purchasing human beings was thus obfuscated but not abated.


SARAH LENTZ (Bremen) focused on the potency of national narratives in regards to how German participation in the slave trade was perceived. In her contribution, she analyzed the public reaction to the slaving charges against three ships from Bremen and Hamburg in the 1840s. According to Lentz, the exceptionalist myth of the German people’s seemingly natural antislavery attitude and the nonparticipation of German Hanseatic cities in the slave trade originated partly in the journalistic reaction to these incidents. Contemporaries argued that economic interests of the British may have played a decisive role in the capture of the ships. Rather than a as philanthropic undertaking, the cases therefore came to be perceived as a strategic economic disadvantaging of Germans.


The third section dealt with the Moravian missions’ discursive and practical handling of enslavement and their treatment of enslaved persons. Presenters emphasized the discrepancy between the missions’ exemplary reputation and the long unquestioned enslavement practice on Moravian properties.


JOSEF KÖSTLBAUER (Bremen) spoke of the gaps left by the “dense rhetoric” of the Moravian mission on closer examination. In the eighteenth century, missionaries frequently bought very young people of non-European origin into European Moravian communities. The young persons’ self-perception and social status often remain unclear to the researcher. At the same time, in their function as “representation workers,” they were highly visible and contributed to the mission’s extensive successful media network. Köstlbauer drew on a dispute over ownership claims to a run-away Indian-born servant to show that the category ‘slave’ was actively being used during the eighteenth century. Slavery, he showed, by no means an uncontroversial concept, could even be a decisive status in German-speaking countries at that time.


JESSICA CRONSHAGEN (Oldenburg) shed light on the image of slavery as expressed in letters sent by European mission school children to enslaved children in Suriname at the beginning of the nineteenth century. While the writings dealt with faith and community, they also discussed slavery and hierarchy. The former, however, was primarily understood in terms of poverty and restrictions on movement; it was thought of as regrettable but irreversible. Enslaved children were imagined, on the one hand, as particularly pious, and, on the other hand, as “heathens” in need of conversion. In the ensuing discussion, it was noted that the letters established a colonial gaze somewhat reminiscent of the rhetoric of modern development aid.


In the following presentation, JAN HÜSGEN (Dresden) explored the extent to which German abolitionists influenced Moravian discourses on ending slavery. According to Hüsgen, an internal critical examination of the Moravians’ own practice of slavery only began in the 1820s. It was significantly influenced not so much by Germans but by the activities of the British Anti-Slavery Society. The Moravians were also willing to cooperate with the Basel Mission in the 1840s in a project aimed at resettling formerly enslaved Caribbean-born people as missionaries in West Africa. Internal controversies around the subject of slavery, though, were rarely communicated to the outside world and the idea of Moravians as a benevolent influence on slave societies persists to this day.


The final section of the conference dealt with goods, objects, and representation and also asked about mechanisms of historic tradition and patterns of interpretation.


JUTTA WIMMLER (Frankfurt/Oder) highlighted the discrepancy between the historiographical presence of a few products produced through slavery—sugar, coffee, cotton, cocoa, and tobacco—and the economic importance of other products—dyes, wood, and medicinal plants. There are, she argued, three reasons for this: First, products receive less consideration if they were subject to a processing process that made them unrecognizable; second, products that fit into the narrative of modernity have dominated historical scholarship; and third, a selective German discourse of knowledge about plantation products established in the eighteenth century still shapes historical scholarship.[5]


Complementing this approach to slavery’s (in)visibility, CAROLIN ALFF (Hamburg) focused on a tradition of depicting slaves in printed works and figurative art in Germany since the sixteenth century. The works in question reflected on epoch-specific phenomena such as Mediterranean and transatlantic slavery. Alff emphasized recurring motifs that aestheticized slavery. These included shackles and metal collars, extensive nudity, kneeling and load-bearing postures, as well as associations with colonial goods in the context of Atlantic slavery.


REBEKKA VON MALLINCKRODT’S (Bremen) contribution focused specifically on insights historians can draw from collars in representations of Black servants. Such collars, although often found in paintings, were rarely preserved as artefacts and are ambiguous in their function as fictitious or real markers of bondage. Much less opaque, Mallinckrodt stressed, was a jurisprudential tradition discussing slavery as a valid legal category that was explicitly applied to cases in the Holy Roman Empire. Knowledge of this legal construct in turn casts the depiction of slave collars in a different light.

     Staging and allegory, it was noted, are complicating factors in the depiction of Black people. In early modern literary works and objects, Africans featured both as rulers and enslaved people, and attention should therefore be paid to trends within this spectrum over time. Likewise, a distinction must be drawn between the legal concept of slavery and its rhetorical use.


Overall, the conference made clear that pictorial as well as discursive engagements with slavery in German territories must be understood in the context of Germans’ active participation in slavery and slavery-based economies. Contributors were able to showcase productive ways of engaging with often fragmentary and incomplete source material. Research on traces of the slave trade is, it became evident, more than a mere search for historical truths. It fundamentally questions and complicates German and Austrian self-understanding and collective memory.

     New demands for future research in the field were formulated, too. A first such demand was a more thorough engagement with actor networks, both Black communities and networks of traffickers and smugglers that can shine a light on the constituent part of processes such as trafficking, enslavement, and integration. Secondly, it was argued, focusing more on the development of colonial taste and consumer behavior in Europe can provide valuable clues as to the position of historic actors in a given society.[6] Lastly, studying the interrelatedness of gender, slavery, and skin color can complicate our understanding of pro- and anti-slavery imagery. By contrast, no consensus could be reached on whether and how categories of ‘race’ can and should be used analytically in writing early modern history. That the task of responding to intersectional demands while historicizing naturalized categories is an ongoing challenge to historians, debate and contributions made clear.

     Perhaps the conference’s most important contribution was bringing together several subfields and enabling a dialogue among them. It was a much-needed occasion to take stock of the current research that, in turn, generated new impulses in a number of areas of inquiry. These insights will no doubt reverberate in studies of European forms of enslavement, works on transcontinental connections of German-speaking territories, and research on non-white presence and representation. A publication is currently being prepared.


Program: Traces of the Slave Trade in the Holy Roman Empire and its Successor States. Discourses, Practices, and Objects, 1500–1850


Josef Köstlbauer, Sarah Lentz, Rebekka von Mallinckrodt (Bremen University): Greeting


Klaus Weber (Europe University Viadrina Frankfurt/oder), Keynote Lecture: It Depends on the Questions You Ask: The transatlantic Plantation Economy and the Holy Roman Empire


I: The Speakable and the Unspeakable  – Discourses, Chair & Comment: Heike Raphael-Hernandez (Würzburg University)


Craig Koslofsky (University of Illinois): Scholars, Slaves, and Epidermalization in the Holy Roman Empire, 1600-1750


Mark Häberlein (Otto-Friedrich-University Bamberg): Africans, Slave Trade, and Slavery in Gottlieb Tobias Wilhelm’s “Unterhaltungen über den Menschen“ (1804)


II: Enslaving Practices & Protest Practices, Chair & Comment: Eve Rosenhaft (University of Liverpool)


Arne Spohr (Bowling Green State University): Violence against Black Bodies in Early Modern Germany: The Case of Black Trumpeter Christian Real (ca. 1643-after 1674)


Walter Sauer (Vienna University): From Slave Purchase to Child Redemption: Aristocratic and Bourgeois Recruiting Practices of Exotic Personnel in Habsburg Austria in Comparison


Sarah Lentz (Bremen University) “No Hamburg, no German ship conducts slave trade.“ The Public Controversy surrounding the Capture of German Ships for Alleged Slave Trading in the 1840s. .


III: Writing as Practice – the Moravians, Chair & Comment: Gisela Mettele (Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena)


Josef Köstlbauer (Bremen University): Siblings, Slaves, Representation Workers: Said and Unsaid in Moravian Sources of the Eighteenth Century


Jessica Cronshagen (Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg) „We don’t need slaves here, instead we have oxen and horses …“ – Letters from schools of the Moravian Mission to Children of the Slave Mission in Paramaribo (1829)


Jan Hüsgen (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden): The Moravian Mission and Continental Anti-Slavery Sentiments



IV: The Visible and the Invisible – Goods, Objects, Representations, Chair & Comment: Robert Zaugg (Bern University)


Jutta Wimmler (Europe University Viadrina Frankfurt/Oder): American Drugs and Dyestuffs in Central Europe – “Invisible“ Products of Slavery?


Carolin Alff (Hamburg University) Kings as “Slaves“ or Warriors as “Slaves“? Emergence and Reception of Images depicting “Slaves” in Early Modern Germany


Rebekka von Mallinckrodt (Bremen University): Slave Collars in the Holy Roman Empire – Iconography and Law




[1] This conference was funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program of the European Union (Grant No 641110 "The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and its Slaves"). However, this text only reflects the opinions of the organizers, participants, and the author. The ERC is neither responsible for the content nor for its use.

[2] See Felix Brahm / Eve Rosenhaft, Slavery Hinterland. Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680–1850, Woodbridge 2016, as well as the project “The Globalized Periphery: Atlantic Commerce, Socioeconomic and Cultural Change in Central Europe (1680-1850)” of the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder.

[3] See also Andreas Pečar/Damien Tricoire, Falsche Freunde. War die Aufklärung wirklich die Geburtsstunde der Moderne? Frankfurt am Main 2015.

[4] When using the term Black, I follow demands to mark the term as a political self-description and not as a biologistic attribution by capitalizing it. Similarly, the italicization of white serves to signal distance from essentialist race classifications. See, e.g., Noah Sow, Deutschland Schwarz Weiß. Der alltägliche Rassismus, München 2008.

[5] See Achim Landwehr, Die anwesende Abwesenheit der Vergangenheit. Essay zur Geschichtstheorie, Frankfurt am Main 2016.

[6] See Madeleine Dobie, Trading Places. Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century French Culture, Ithaca 2010.