Robert Albert Mathis on Trial for Speaking to White Women (1893)

In 1893, a former soldier of Germany’s Colonial Defense Forces (Schutztruppe) who was working as a waiter with a troupe of entertainers went on trial for testing the limits of German tolerance for interracial relations. He had the “cheek” to speak to every woman and girl that he passed on the street, and, after promising never to do that again, was let off with the mild punishment of one night in prison. A case like this illustrates the social mores and legal restrictions that Black residents of Germany had to deal with on an everyday basis and reflects the persistent concern with protecting white women from non-white men. Mathis’s case also illustrates one avenue for colonial subjects to make their way to and in Germany.

Jeff Bowersox


On Tuesday a Negro by the name of Robert Albert Mathis, born on the 18th of July 1866 in Angra-Pequeña, came before the 150th District of the First Royal Court of Berlin to answer charges of public mischief. The accused had, according to his papers, formerly served in Wißmann’s colonial troops and is currently employed as a waiter with a traveling troupe of performers. His offense, which brought him before the court today, was that on the 25th of April, around 7:00 in the morning in Oranienstraße, he had the “cheek” to address all of the women and young ladies he encountered. With the court’s position that Europe’s veneer of courtesy did not allow such familiarity, Mathis contritely promised, in very good German, never to do any such thing again. The judgment was  mild, amounting to a day in detention.

Source: “Nachrichten aus dem Kreise un der Provinz,” Teltower Kreisblatt (09 May 1893), trans. by Jeff Bowersox, 5.

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