Among the legendary accomplishments of the “Great Elector” of Brandenburg, Frederick William (r. 1640-1688) was that he had successfully introduced important new world staples like the potato and luxuries like tobacco over the objections of his peasant population and the church. While the history is not nearly so straightforward, by the nineteenth century the story nevertheless had become an article of faith in Prussia because it fit a story of progress and modernization under the Hohenzollern dynasty. Strikingly, the legend features not only Frederick William and a skeptical farmer but also the Elector’s black servant.
As recounted in this poem by Friedrich Gruppe (1804-1876), the Elector and an unnamed Moor travel the countryside and decide to visit a local town. Smoking their pipes, they encounter a peasant who is shocked to see a black man, but more shocked still to see him apparently breathing fire. When the black man politely offers his pipe to the farmer, he only provokes a furious rejection: “Mr. Devil, no, I don’t eat fire!”
The legend thus pits the worldliness of the Great Elector, embodied in his friendly courtly Moor, against the provincialism of the peasant, who can only see his medieval superstitions confirmed. The story and its use in schools is a striking example of the intersection of different, longstanding associations of blackness that lived on even as the age of empire saw the spread of different and especially demeaning prejudices. It is noteworthy in this regard that one elementary school history lesson from the period not only asked students “what is a Moor?” but also invited them to reflect on the story from the Moor’s perspective.
Als einst der Kurf