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Beyond Exceptionalism: The Forgotten History of Slavery in Early Modern Germany


The book, entitled Beyond Exceptionalism – Traces of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Early Modern Germany, 1650–1850 (degruyter.com), explores two crucial aspects. First, it addresses the often overlooked engagement and contribution of German territories to processes related to slavery, both in terms of production and consumption. Second, it offers methodological insights into the challenge of researching this German involvement in the absence of centralized archives. This challenge is exacerbated by the diversity of German territories and their tumultuous evolution during the 17th to 19th centuries, which was marked by the gradual decentralization of the Holy Roman Empire and its fragmentation into individual states. During this period, Prussia and Austria experienced significant growth and slavery was banned in the German territories in 1811.

Across 11 comprehensive chapters, the book explores the various facets of the German presence in the Atlantic trade as well as the experiences of enslaved people in German-speaking territories. Germans played a multifaceted role as entrepreneurs, seamen, and even slave traders and plantation owners. Many of them emigrated to the Americas, while others resided in the major European ports where they were directly or indirectly involved in the slave trade. When not acting as individuals, they often served as members of Jesuit missions in South and East Asia or worked alongside missionaries of the Moravian Church who ran profitable plantations in the West Indies. These plantations were notorious for conscripting large numbers of enslaved people into forced labor. Remarkably, German involvement in this trade was not limited to transatlantic voyages; the local aristocracy and bourgeoisie exhibited considerable demand for black servants in German lands.

Researching the individual experiences of enslaved people is an even more difficult task in the context of the German territories and the wider regions of Central and Eastern Europe. These people often formed demographic minorities in various German cities, and unless their voices were documented in legal proceedings, such as trials that involved acts of violence or lawsuits against their masters, their narratives risked disappearing into obscurity. The enslaved also included Native Americans who spent several years in less conspicuous places, such as royal court in Warsaw in the 1720s.

A major challenge is to understand how their legal status developed in regions where slavery was not the cornerstone of early modern society. Were they still in bondage or had they achieved their freedom? To what extent did they differ in terms of their origins, skin color, and cultural traditions in the context of German societies? And how did their experiences intersect with the system of serfdom? The authors examine not only how these enslaved people challenged the prevailing legal norms, but also how they coped with the constraints of Central European society. Often these people were classified as "Moors" (Mohres), with a specific subgroup known as "Court Moors" (Hofmohren)." Some of them probably came from the Atlantic slave trade or were Ottoman prisoners of war. Their recruitment was done in different ways – sometimes they were bought, other times they were offered as a "gift" or received as "souvenirs" from expeditions. In some cases, they sought employment opportunities themselves and advertised their skills in local newspapers. Regardless of the circumstances, these people were always labeled "other," "different," or "exotic" They were forced to profoundly change their identities in order to integrate into societies where their origins, skin color, and appearance were constantly questioned.

The study of German involvement in slavery and the slave trade offers a particular perspective when contrasted with the study of Iberian involvement. One notable difference is the lack of a central colonial archive in the German context, comparable to the Overseas Archives in Lisbon or the Archivo General de Indias de Sevilla. As a result, historians are faced with the challenge of finding their way through a complex network of different German and non-German archives. This often leads to unexpected connections and previously unused sources being uncovered.

Another notable aspect that should be emphasized is the remarkable adaptability of German entrepreneurs during this period. Many Germans alternated between different affiliations and often interwove their identity with Spanish and Portuguese contexts. As a result, it can be difficult to find their presence in historical records. Therefore, as the book emphasizes, it is crucial to identify not only the ships responsible for transporting enslaved people to the Americas, but also the key figures who orchestrated these ventures. The German factory owners become central figures in this story.

Equally important is the exploration of the development of the black diaspora in the German territories, where they were often portrayed as "Moors". This requires thorough research and a deeper understanding of the exact terminology used to characterize the German African diaspora, which may differ from Iberian concepts. Finally, one must consider the diverse motivations of Germans in the early modern period, which could go beyond mere financial gain and "plantation orientation". The book looks at the phenomenon of "exoticization'," where the foreign diaspora not only served as a means of accumulating wealth, but also developed into a status symbol and an additional facet within courts and households.



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