The progress of civilization in the Congo (1884)

The Berlin Congo Conference (1884-1885) and the rhetoric of the “civilising mission” that representatives used to legitimate their African claims inspired a range of media responses. In this cartoon, the satirical journal Kladderadatsch mocks the justification by suggesting that colonial subjects were not capable of being civilised. To do so it draws on the trope of the Hosenneger (the “pants-wearing Negro”). This figure is a colonial subject who aspires to be civilised but, because of fundamental inferiority, can only fall short, as best illustrated in inability to understand European fashions.

In the cartoon we see a representative survey of everyday German habits transplanted into the Congo, and hilarity ensues as the locals try to imitate the Europeans. A gentleman, wearing top hat and ridiculous striped trousers, presents a cactus to the object of his affection, who wears women’s undergarments and walks her crocodile. Rather than playing European orchestral pieces or singing in harmony, three half-naked men clash cymbals and bang on drums in what appears to be a riotous performance.

There is a hint of colonial critique in the cigars and alcohol being exported to the Africans in the top-left, as well as a hint of colonial anxiety in the advertising column on the bottom right. As well as announcing an election (“don’t vote for carnivores”) it presents the possibility of overturned hierarchies: a “people show” brings twenty-five Berlin workers (Rixdorfers) for locals to ogle, and a local salon advertises that it employs white waiters.

The figures are caricatured in ways that emphasise racially specific features associated with presumptions of inferiority, in a sense using race to highlight incongruity and reinforce developing notions of absolute difference between colonizer and colonized. This is perhaps best illustrated in the group reading Kladderadatsch, where the grotesque features and lack of clothing comically highlight how far removed they are from Germans reading the same publication.

Jeff Bowersox


Source: “Culturfortschritte am Congo,” Kladderadatsch 37:52 (16 November 1884): erstes Beiblatt.

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