A conversation with J. C. Bruce (1896)

Nayo Bruce, also known as John Calvert Bruce, was a Togolese traditional leader and trader from Aného who participated in the 1896 First German Colonial Exhibition in Berlin. Born around 1859, he was educated in German and English missionary schools before eventually entering into the service of Ernst Henrici, an anti-Semitic agitator turned colonial adventurer. Together with three further Togolese men he first came to Germany in 1888, accompanying Henrici as part of the latter’s attempts to secure investment for a planned plantation project in Togo. Back in Togo in 1889 Bruce began working for the German colonial administration. When news of plans for a colonial exhibition to be staged in Germany, celebrating the German colonial project, reached Togo Bruce seized the opportunity to play a key role in organising Togolese involvement. This eventually resulted in a group of 26 Togolese men, women and a child, led by Bruce, travelling to Germany in 1896 to participate in the first German Colonial Exhibition, staged in Treptow Park, Berlin. Amongst the participants were also two of Bruce’s wives, Ohui Creppy and Dassi, as well as his 3-year old son Kwassi and two of his nephews, the brothers Samuel and Joseph Garber. Over a period of around 6 months the Togolese participants, like men and women from other parts of the overseas German Empire, were put on display to huge crowds and expected to demonstrate their craftsmanship as well as to perform ‘traditional’ customs, such as dances, songs, and canoe racing.

The newspaper article below provides a unique insight into the experiences of a performer in a human zoo, albeit one mediated through the voice of a white reporter. As well as restoring a degree of agency to Bruce, it speaks to his motivations for participating in the colonial exhibition, demonstrates his diplomatic skills and it challenges both contemporary and historical notions about some of the men and women who were put on display. An astute businessman, Bruce was quick to recognise the financial opportunities such shows potentially offered. He returned to Germany in 1898 with over thirty followers including members of his family and established his own human zoo. Over a period of almost twenty years Bruce toured large parts of Europe with various incarnations of his troupe before his death in March 1919.

Robbie Aitken


A Conversation with a Togo-Chief

The first time that I visited the Berlin Colonial Exhibition, it was shortly before the actual opening, amongst the many new, enticing and exotic figures one in particular caught my eye. It was the chief of the Togo-Negroes and I could not shake impression the man had made on me. Everything about this singular character fitted together so well. How the tall, herculean-built man in the bright skirt, the red and gold striped cloak thrown over the shoulder like a Toga, the pitch-black woolly head adorned with a blue hat and held high with a sharp, much more Arabian than African profile that looked at or more often looked over many strange people; how he answered the questions of those men known to him with the dignity of a king, but also with the friendliness and good manners of a gentlemen, while the seriousness of his facial features was often tempered by a curious, pleasant smile: all of this formed a strangely harmonious picture. And each of my subsequent visits to the Colonial Exhibition renewed this first impression. Whether ‘Pruß’ – that is what I understood his name to be – spoke with his compatriots with the demeanour of a ruler, whether he played with a child or greeted white friends, always the same image of the man came to me: good, clever, forceful, cool-headed. In this manner his outward, not entirely unappealing, appearance was also well suited: certainly there is something like a lion about him, some primordial strength, and, what a model for Othello he would make! Finally, I reached the decision to get to know ‘Pruß’ better through conversing with him. I was curious to know how the world appeared through his eyes, eyes whose owner, to my mind, appeared to be a cut above his compatriots on every level. Before I carried out my plan I conducted a number of inquiries. The chief’s compatriots told me he is very rich, a very good man who has done much for his country and who is popular with the whites. From other sources I heard that he had recently been baptised, is a practicing Christian, but on account of the sad fact that he has two wives has been embroiled in a very painful conflict of duties.’Pruß’ readily agreed to my request to be granted a short conversation. To begin with I cleared up a few personal questions. He is a Togo-Negro, lives in Klein Popo and is the ‘Chief’ of the Togo people. Because, as he explained, he speaks better English than German the whole conversation was carried out in English, a language that he is almost completely fluent in. In the following report I have made it my job to present the Chief’s responses as they were given, and I have refrained from any stylistic embellishments.

Of course I began with the usual: “How are you finding things here?”

“Oh, very good. I am very content here, my people as well.”

“What motivated you to come here?”

“I was intending to travel to Europe anyway. Then a white friend who works for the administration told me that soon a whole group of us would be coming to the exhibition in Berlin. They offered me the chance to join, and so I come here.”

“You were going to come to Europe anyway – why?”

“My daughter has already been in a school here for the past seven years, and I wanted to visit her. She should learn everything that white girls learn and become just as civilised as they are.”

“How was the journey by sea? Were your people not frightened?”

“Oh, we live by the sea. Many boats come to us and my people are themselves very good sailors, so no one was scared of the water.”

“Are the Togo people not really homesick?”

“Oh no, almost no one. Many would like to stay here and to improve on the handicraft skills that they practice at home. There are blacksmiths, goldsmiths, tailors and carpenters among them.”

“Are you being treated well?”

“Very well. In every respect we are being looked after.”

“What impression do you have of the country, the government, etc.?”

“A very good impression. In particular what I like is the sense of justice, the laws, which make no distinction. But we already knew that in Africa: the laws of the Germans are fair, just as much as those of the English. It is different with the French. There if two people become involved in a dispute, normally it is the one who is first to come to the judge who receives justice. This is because the French judge seldom goes to the trouble of looking carefully at a case. And if the one who arrives later is black and seeking justice against a white person, he has already lost from the start. But the Germans look into things thoroughly, and once they determine what is right, then black and white are treated equally. This is the reason why we are happy to be German subjects. We do not want to have anything to do with the French – they are generally unjust towards us, and it makes no difference to them to shoot down a black person for a minor offence.”

“How far is Dahomey from your homeland?”

“Roughly two days’ journey. The Germans could also have got Dahomey, because the King likes the Germans as much as he hates the French, but they saw no value in the place.”

“How is it with the Togo people who became soldiers? Are they not unhappy?”

“Absolutely not. Many do not want to leave. We now have 200 black soldiers and the musicians are also black.”

“So you have absolutely no complaints about the uprisings in Togo?”

“Oh, of course, I do have one complaint. You see, our young people would really like to learn, but the Germans do not want that. They think that reading and writing is enough for the Negro, but it is not enough. The English let their black subjects learn and become what they want, but we are not supported in this. Sure, it is enough for the young people who I brought here to learn a trade, but not for many others. Many want to really study: law or medicine. We want to have black lawyers and doctors.”

“Those are very difficult and long courses.”

“That’s not important. My nephew studied in England. He has a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) and will return to Togo as a lawyer.”

“I would like to ask a few questions, the answers to which would really interest me. You must have made journeys into the interior in Africa and got to know other black tribes.”

“Oh, yes”.

“Is it really necessary to hit Negroes, to abuse them, as is so often done by whites?”

(After a long pause, appearing to struggle as to how to respond to the question).

“No. I don’t want to speak about Africa. You see (very serious), I am baptised – since then, I have left behind everything that happened in the past. I want to forget the injustice that also happened to me. But there is one thing that I will say: There are terrible things that were perpetrated on the Negroes by white hunters and travellers who wandered into the Bush. Things that I cannot say more about here. We cannot punish them for this, but God will judge them!”

“How is the atmosphere in Togo? Is everything peaceful and happy there?”

“Hmm… if the administration wants to see Togo completely peaceful and happy, then it should send us … as Governor. He knows how to treat Africans and is a just and good man.”

“Now tell me some things about yourself: who are you and what is your status in Africa?”

“Me? I own much land. My father was a trader and Chief, or as the whites say, King of Togoland. And, as he died I succeeded him on the throne. I have around 2000 people under my rule and I want to civilise these people, as far as my powers allow me to do so. That is why I sent my daughter to school here. I want to request here that she is allowed to become a school teacher so that she can educate the children in Togoland and can spread civilisation. My other children should also receive a completely European education so as not to remain as half-civilised as I am.”

“Do you see civilisation as something important?”

(with much enthusiasm) “Yes, I do. Civilisation is something very important and whoever looks to bring it to us, like for example the Christian missions do, we owe them a great deal of thanks.”

“I think the Negro is also happy without civilisation.”

“Not all. Believe me. Not all. We want to become more intelligent and better and I will do everything to help my compatriots’ progress. But please, before you go give me your address – here is my card.”

“J.C. Bruce – how did you come by this name?”

“That is a Scottish name. One of my ancestors was a Scot, a descendant of the Scottish King Robert Bruce. He travelled to Africa and I am descended from him; but because he and his descendants always took black wives, I am also black.”

“One last question. Do you not find it terrible to often hear such simple-minded comments from the people that crowd around us? Many believe that a black person is not really human. Does that not annoy you?”

“Oh no, I let them speak. Was not Jesus Christ mocked by ignorant people, and he was our saviour. Why should I, a sinner, get angry about such small things? Till we meet again!”

I shook this remarkable man’s hand; this hour was in no way a disappointment.

Source: “Eine Unterhaltung mit einem Togo-Häuptling,” Kölnische Zeitung, 11 October 1896, trans. by Robbie Aitken and Jeff Bowersox. ©Robbie Aitken and Jeff Bowersox.

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A conversation with J. C. Bruce (1896) by Robbie Aitken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.