Cameroon in Berlin and German letters from Cameroon (1897)

Bernhard Epassi was a friendly and outgoing fifteen-year-old when he arrived in Germany in 1896. He came from Kribi on the coast of Cameroon, a territory that had been a German colony for just over a decade. He was one of over 100 performers, mostly from the German colonies, who were recruited for a “people show” (Völkerschau) included in the “First German Colonial Exhibition” in Treptow Park. After the exhibition ended, Epassi was one of a small number of men who decided to stay behind to take part in an apprenticeship program. Organizers hoped to train apprentices in skills they could take back with them to their homelands, but many of the students were just as interested in learning more about Germany. A few of them even decided to settle in Germany permanently, and Epassi might have done so as well were it not for his conflict with an authoritarian and dismissive mentor, Bruno Antelmann. Epassi’s distaste for Antelmann’s strict tutelage and the degrading work he was required to do ultimately led him to run away and try to support himself. His relationships with workers and, especially with white German girls, raised fears among sponsors and colonial authorities that he might challenge racial and class hierarchies in Germany and in Cameroon, so they deported him in 1901. His uncertain legal status as a colonial subject in the metropole made him vulnerable and meant that he could not challenge the decision.

In contrast to the critical picture we get from these authorities, the interview excerpted below gives a sense of Epassi’s personality, his hopes, and some of the challenges of being a black colonial subject in Germany. It is a rare source that gives us something close to direct insight into the experiences of colonial migrants in this era, not the least of which was their continuing links to relatives and friends in the land of their origin. It also shows us how a supporter like the author could portray Epassi’s individuality in a sympathetic way even while reinforcing the public’s fascination with his racial otherness.

Jeff Bowersox


At the Berlin Trade Exhibition of 1896 in particular the German Colonial Exhibition caught the attention of visitors. As well as ethnographic objects, natives from our protectorates, from New Guinea, German East and West Africa, were present.

After the exhibition was over, 20 participants of this black group expressed the wish to stay in Berlin and learn some sort of trade or job, which they could then practice in their Fatherland once their apprenticeship was up.

At the time the Berliner Lokalanzeiger, a widely read newspaper, printed the comical-sounding letters written in German by the black youths who were eager to learn. In this way they sought and also found mentors. About 15 of them learned a craft according to their taste and choice: cobbler, tailor, metalworker, mason; one became a photographer. Five who wanted to dedicate themselves to the business man’s life were employed in Mr. Bruno Antelmann’s business; in the Colonial Exhibition he ran the  highly interesting Colonial House that is still around in Berlin. A goldsmith then trained to teach and returned home to show what he could do with his double education.

I know one of the apprentice tailors personally, Josef Garber (he gained his English name upon being baptized); he is a Cameroonian, a friendly, modest lively, and, as it appears to me, gifted young man. He can already make a waistcoat, as he proudly told me. He speaks German really well and can speak even better English.

My Cameroonian student Epassi is 16 years old. He is of medium height and of strong and athletic build, at the same time he is light on his feet. The short, tight curly hair, chimney black in color, covers his head like a felt cap. The big brown eyes are beautifully formed and they have extraordinary friendly and kind-hearted expression, which has won him the affection of all the tenants that regularly see him, especially, because he is well brought up, with a disarming politeness and friendliness. The childlike–that is the best word for it–in his nature makes him appear younger than he actually is. He has splendid teeth, regular and shiny, a beautiful subdued white color, and of course they are not very small because they have such a large mouth to fit into. Yes, I was initially appalled by Epassi’s mouth and nose; they take up so much space on his face, with the only difference being that the mouth because of the thick lips stands out, while the nose, as though it has been bludgeoned by a club, appears to be too flat. You soon forget to take notice of either because their owner [Epassi] is always well-behaved, modest and grateful for even the smallest sign of friendliness. He politely asks without being subservient and he expresses his gratitude in the same manner. I find it very appealing to observe him and I cannot help the thought that many of our young people nowadays in the civilized world, whatever their social background, could learn much from him. His hands are small and on the surface colored less black, up to the nails are the fingers almost entirely white. The fingernails are low, noticeably wide and very flat, very unattractive.

Epassi is possessed with a great thirst for knowledge and ambition and he is always concerned and sad when I tell him that the lesson is over. To begin with I only let him read and write. He has an attractive and clear handwriting style. He is also progressing well with reading; it is only with the pronunciation of the ‘sch’ sound that I fear will remain an insurmountable difficulty for him. It not for lack of trying, to try and get it right – I believe I could let him say the same thing a hundred times and he would not get tired. Nor is it down to a lack of patience to continually repeat after me – but his mouth! His mouth! It’s too big to purse.

Now I have also begun with math. Epassi can count forwards to ten. With some effort under the right circumstances he can also add by 1: So for example: 1 +1 = 2; 2 + 1 = 3, etc. Now he should be learning to count backwards from 10 – something that he seems to find very amusing, because he breaks into laughter every time.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that he has a very, very weak memory for everything that he knew in his homeland, and that despite having been here scarcely more than a year. Then he goes and makes constant comparisons between Africa and Germany, and then I think that he might be able to tell more about his earlier life if he had better command of the German language. I have to say here that I have only been teaching him for a short time and that I hope to bring him much further along.

On a very hot day with a constant stream of sweat on his face, he said, “Today very hot; in Africa also very hot. In Germany and Africa the same very hot; but in Germany wind, in Africa no wind. The wind is good in Germany.” Normally he speaks and explains very slowly, but if he wants to make something really clear, like, for example, “no wind,” then he makes a corresponding hand or arm movement.

On the street he is very quiet, and it is clearly embarrassing to him to stand out on account of his appearance. Sometimes I take him to the horse tramway station or I show him the street he has to take, if he is not going immediately home. He knows the way home very well. Once the cab-drivers and workers called after him: “Oh, he’s forgotten to wash! – He’s not got enough money to buy soap!” He became angry and turned around. In order to stop any animosity, I said, “Come, Epassi, when you are out on the street, you don’t have to listen to what the people say, they don’t mean anything by it.”

“Yes”, he said hotly, “they’ve had so much much to drink and now they’re drunk.”

“No, no! They’re just having a laugh. Let them be. Berliners always joke around!”

“Ah, in Africa, you don’t do that. The police come right away!” At the same time he made a threatening gesture with his finger.

I wanted to explain the word “story” to him, but I was unsuccessful. So I told him some little made-up tales, as they popped into my head; I must have really captured his interest, because his eyes lit up and he seemed eager to hear the words before they even came out of my mouth. At the end I said: “That was story; do you now understand story?”

“Yes, yes, story! Is a German story?”

“Yes, I have told you a German story; now tell me stories from Africa.”

With a thoughtful expression he said: “I know no Africa stories.”

“Think now, Epassi; when boys are together in Africa, what do they say? They say something to each other?”

“Yes, I know! Africa boys talk. I want to tell you Africa story.

“I have a friend. Is in Berlin. Is my countryman, because also from Kribi Banga, Cameroon. Is Cameroon, Cameroon, Cameroon! “(and with that a big smile spread over his face). “Lives in Markgrafenstrasse Number 584 .” (the number is very important for him). “Said to my friend: ‘Am now always at school’ – my friend said: ‘You are always at school and do you learn much?’ – I said: ‘I’m always with the lady, and the lady says I need to be very diligent, learn everything like a German, and the lady —“, here he wanted to say something more but suddenly made a face like he would rather keep the rest to himself. He must have found it very funny because his entire face lit up with pleasure. Then he collapsed into a laughing fit that he could hardly recover from.

I remained quite still until he started again:

“I have told friend everything” — then came a second laughing fit before he finished:

“Friend said: ‘I like the lady teacher, you must greet her warmly for me.”

“Your friend is good. He is very kind to send his greetings.”

“Yes, yes! Friend said to warmly greet, warmly greet. I know story. Africa boy talk.”

Then he pulled out several letters from brothers and friends. (He has 10 siblings.) “Please, will you read my letters? And keep it all to yourself.”

I was astonished not only by how the letters were so well-written in German script–all names with Latin letters–but also by how beautiful the content was. The orthography makes clear that they had written them on their own, although some of them were quite good. Because I think that such letters are a marker of intellectual development, I have included some below. Epassi told me that they learn to read and write when they went through confirmation, but he had simply forgotten a lot of it. He and all his relatives and friends belonged to a Catholic mission station, and with great pride he said: “I am Bernhard Epassi, because I am Catholic. Our missionary is Father Vieler, is good to us; we like him; Germans are also good. I also have a countryman in Danzig, wrote me postcard; will you also write a card for him with me please, yeah?”

“Kribi, 30 March 1897. Dear brother! I have just received your letter and was very pleased that the 2 packages that you write that you will send I received in March. The things pleased us and we divided them between us Father Ukeba, Friedrich jini and I. Also Anna Makale received something. It is pretty bad here since the Father is very sick. Also Friedrich jini has been sick a long time. Dear brother please pray for us that the Father above will make right and sir will be healthy again if that is God’s will. One of our relatives Ejele died in december. I am doing quite well and am presently healthy. Also healthy is Your mother. Njangnadivine is health he had a boy in January. I lived with my brother Friedrich jini, was worth a small palaver. Friedrich ghini said I have to not stay in his house any longer. I live now Alone in Your house where you lived.”

“Did you have your own house then, Epassi?” I interjected in the reading, “You were quite young when you were in Africa.”

“Oh yeah,” he answered, “I my own house, each brother also his own house.”

“Each of you lives in his own house.”

“Then his eyes lit up and he spread his arms as wide as he could and said: “My father is a great, great man, has so much and each has a house, each brother.”

So I read on:

“I want to build my own house on the side where the King Lives. I will make 2 rooms so that when you kome again to Africa you can also live in one. Also I want to build a veranda. I now have a wife Theresia Bakila and will on 5 April be married. Peter Ukuta is in Africa since October. He will also be betrothed on 5 April and marries Elisabeth gigin. He is currently a teacher in Waterfall. the girl that you bought has run away she will not stay in Kribi. But we have gotten the money back and will hold if for you until you return.”

“Did you buy a girl, Epassi?” I asked at this point.

He laughed a little out of embarrassment, and this topic seemed very painful to him. I continued:

“Governor von Oertzen had a bridge built over the river by the Catholic Mission. Also the Kribi people build a small bridge over the Krick Ehongu. Mr. Daniel’s house will be ready at the end of April. He is now a rich businessman in Kribi, Karl Maass had a big house built for the King. He had to pay for it though. In Kribi all is as it was. Study hard tailoring and German so that you can write a letter yourself soon. Study real hard for three years so that you can do lots when you can come back to Africa. Also Peter Seele was pleased that you sent him the belt. He is now a cook at the plantation. Your friends Karl Ugande, Epambe Bohole are very good. your father wants you to study hard as long as you are in Germany, then in Africa you cannot learn anything more and when you cannot do anything when you come back then everyone will laugh. Your siblings are are. Many greets from everyone, Also the relatives and acquaintances pass on many greetings. I close my writing and remain Your Devoted Loving Brother Andreas Ikweli.”

Source: Paula Karsten, “Kamerun in Berlin und deutsche Briefe von Kamerun,” Globus (7 August 1897), pp. 97-99, trans, by Robbie Aitken and Jeff Bowersox.

Cameroon in Berlin and German letters from Cameroon (1897) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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