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 his pipes, the Moor encounters 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.
One evening, in the days when the Elector traveled the countryside with his Moor, the latter went strolling around a village to entertain himself. In his mouth was a tobacco pipe, something that was still unknown among the peasants. A farmer leaning in his doorway looked on the black man with wide eyes, even wider still when he saw him sucking fire. When the Moor noticed this, he puffed harder and began to blow two streams of blue smoke right out of his nose. After doing so, to pass it on, he quite politely offered the peasant his pipe. Horrified the farmer called out, “Mr. Devil, no, I don’t eat fire!” and closed the door on him.
Source: Friedrich Gruppe, “Der Bauer und der Mohr,” in Unsere Mark Brandenburg: Sagen, ed. by Walther Nohl (Berlin: L. Oehmigke, 1912), 48, Georg Eckert Institute for Textbook Research. Trans. by Jeff Bowersox.
The tale of the friendly Moor and the suspicious peasant (1912) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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