The “Exploration” of Central Africa in the Late 19th Century as a Transimperial Project – The Example of Paul Pogge

Category: Essay 0

“I raise my glass to the civilization of Africa by simultaneous efforts of all nations under all flags”,[1] declared Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza on 19 October 1882 at the Paris Hotel Continental. Brazza, the French navy officer who had just come back from an expedition to central Africa weeks before, had come to the hotel uninvited. Here he joined a banquet given in the honour of another prominent traveller, the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley. Both men had briefly met two years earlier on the lower Congo and publicly attacked each other ever since their return to Europe. While the press fashioned them as polar opposites – the slow-moving, diplomatic, non-violent Brazza against the hot-tempered Stanley, fighting his way through Africa at great speed – the two men had quite a lot in common. Both had combined the “discovery” of the Congo basin formerly unknown to Europeans, but certainly not to Africans, with a politics of compelling local chiefs to sign so-called protection treaties forming the base for future colonial rule. Both became celebrities, even “heroes of empire” as Edward Berenson has argued. And both were not working in the service of their native countries. The Roman nobleman Brazza had only become a naturalized French citizen in 1874. Stanley had been born in Wales, moved to the United States in 1856 and was now employed by the Belgium king Leopold II, who would succeed in turning large parts of the Congo basin into his private colony at the Berlin Congo Conference of 1884/85. In a sense, the two rivals embodied the transnationality of the “exploration” of Africa – an “effort of all nations under all flags” as Brazza had put it.

In this essay, however, I turn my attention to another, less-prominent European travelling to central Africa in the late 19th century: the German Paul Pogge. Though his case is less clear cut than Brazza’s or Stanley’s, I argue that he can also be understood as a forerunner to colonial rule. His example clearly demonstrates the transimperial quality of the African “exploration” project.

(Dr. Paul Pogge. Ident.Nr. VIII A 10073. © Foto: Ethnologisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz).

Born on 27 December 1838 on his father’s estate in Ziersdorf, Mecklenburg, Pogge first trained in agriculture after completing school. He soon moved to Heidelberg to study law and in 1862 he completed his doctorate and returned to Mecklenburg. Within a few years, however, he was drawn away again. Pogge set off on a nine-month hunting trip to the South African Cape and Natal. This first African experience proved important a few years later when Pogge tried to join an expedition to the Lunda Kingdom in the southern Congo region planned by the so-called Afrika-Gesellschaft (Africa Society). The Berlin based society finally accepted Pogge as a “volunteer” (Volontär) for the trip led by the ornithologist Alexander von Homeyer, not only because he had already been to Africa, but more importantly because Pogge was prepared to bear his own travel costs to Loanda in Angola – 4,000 thalers in all.

Soon after the expedition set off for the interior of the country in February 1875, Pogge took on a far more prominent role than originally planned. Within a short time, Homeyer and the other two European travellers who had joined the endeavour had to return home for health reasons. Homeyer decided to appoint “volunteer” Pogge as the new expedition leader. In this capacity he arrived with the caravan, now shrunk to 54 porters, in December 1875 at the residence of Muata Jamwo, the ruler of the Lunda. Pogge had successfully reached the destination of the journey and thus proven that the Congo basin could also be reached from the west. Although Portuguese traders had already travelled the route in earlier centuries, the feasibility of the western route had previously been denied by knowledgeable contemporaries, such as the president of the British Royal Geographical Society. In April 1876, Pogge set off on his return journey to the coast, finally reaching the port of Hamburg in January 1877.

This successful voyage on behalf of the Africa Society was followed by a second one in 1880. This time, Pogge was the expedition leader from the start, while Hermann von Wissmann, a German army officer, accompanied him. Once again, the caravan was to set off from the Angolan coast, with a first stop near the residence of the Muata Jamwo. From there, the expedition intended to journey on to Nyangwe on the upper reaches of the Congo. On the spot, however, the travellers adjusted their plans, bypassed the Lunda kingdom and arrived in Nyangwe on a more northerly route in April 1882. From there, Wissmann travelled on to Zanzibar, making him the first European to cross the continent from west to east near the equator – a success that cast him into the public limelight. Pogge, on the other hand, started the return journey with the majority of the African expedition members. As planned, he was to set up a permanent station in Mukenge which he then operated for 18 months. Waiting in vain for the hoped-for relief from Europe or further allocations of funds from the Afrika-Gesellschaft, he finally left for the coast to return to Germany. On arrival in Loanda, on 17 March 1884, he died unexpectedly of pneumonia.

(Übersichtskarte der Neuesten Forschungsreisen im Aequatorialen West-Afrika. Map provided courtesy of the Map Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

In contrast to Stanley and Brazza, but also to other German travellers like Carl Peters, Pogge did not conclude any “protection treaties” with African chiefs that might have led directly to the establishment of colonial rule. And, due to his early death, just weeks before Imperial Germany acquired its first colony, he did not become a colonial official either. It is thus less obvious that he was a forerunner of colonialism. For three reasons, however, I argue that he was.

First, Pogge helped to create “the political and moral framework within which conquest would take place”, as historian Richard Reid calls it.[2] Like many other contemporary “explorers” and missionaries in Africa Pogge painted a picture of ignorant, inferior, and immoral Africans. In the first pages of the travelogue of his first Congo voyage published in 1880 he noted: “The Negro is cowardly, lazy, unreliable, false, slovenly, careless, cunning, and superstitious; he lies, steals, and cheats wherever he can.”[3] Some historians have argued that these “stereotypes rather give the impression of a compulsory exercise, which was expected of him and from which he distanced himself again at other points.” Later, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann argues, Pogge “put his prejudices into perspective and also reported on positive characteristics of Africans.”[4] And indeed, one possible explanation for Pogge’s relatively successful journeys through Central Africa seems to be that he avoided major conflicts with his African expedition members and behaved comparatively skilfully towards other African potentates. However, “skilful” behaviour towards one’s own porters and isolated praising statements about Africans by no means preclude racist convictions. This can be further illustrated by certain remarks in a report Pogge wrote on his second trip to the Congo. There he notes that chief Kalamba Mukenge, who accompanied him with his people to Nyangwe and was of fundamental importance for the success of this expedition, was “indeed a good man; I at least know no better Negro chief. But the travellers who should visit Mukenge may not believe that they will find an angel of a chief here. He is not. He is also a true negro, but if it were possible, in characterising one of them, to speak of those mental qualities which we call virtues, I might say Kalamba possesses one or the other.”[5] Although it becomes clear that Pogge certainly appreciated Kalamba Mukenge as an individual, at the same time the remark that “Negroes” cannot actually be virtuous reveals a profoundly racist world view. From these kinds of assertions, it was only a small step to conclude that the “dark continent” was in urgent need of Europe’s civilization.

Second, Pogge himself at times situated his efforts in a colonial context. Describing the territory he had crossed during his first Congo journey, he noted for instance that “this country would be suitable for colonization.”[6] And after returning to Germany he wrote an article for the Mittheilungen der Afrikanischen Gesellschaft describing the possibilities of founding a permanent German station in Mussamba in Central Africa. Concluding his text, he stated: “[…] if in time independent colonists and white traders, following the pioneers, settled in Mussamba, the nation that took the initiative in opening up this beautiful and blessed land would undoubtedly also reap the main benefit from the exploitation of its treasures.”[7]

Third, Pogge – like the other “explorers” – produced knowledge that could be used establishing colonial rule in Africa. Obviously, this included geographic and ethnographic information on the landscapes and peoples of the Congo basin, which he disseminated through his travelogue, talks and articles. But it also entailed know how on travelling techniques. In great detail, Pogge discussed where to obtain supplies for a caravan, whom to hire as porters and how to treat them. Somewhat surprisingly, given the abolitionist consensus in late 19th century Europe, he recommended buying slaves to use them as carriers as they would be more loyal to the European traveller.[8] This knowledge on caravan travelling was crucial for the colonial project, because, as Michael Pesek has shown for East Africa, the early colonial state was heavily reliant on the experience and infrastructure of expeditions and the inter-regional caravan trade.[9]

Having argued that Pogge, indeed, was a forerunner to colonial rule, I now show that this was not only important for German attempts at empire building. Again, the case seems less clear cut than for the Welsh-American Stanley who served the Belgian king in the late 1870s and was a key actor in creating the latter’s Congo Free State. Unlike earlier German “explorers” like Heinrich Barth or Adolf Overweg, Pogge did not travel on behalf of a foreign, in their case the British, government. Both of his Congo expeditions were undertaken in the name of the German Afrika-Gesellschaft. But still, his travels should not be understood as an exclusively German project, but rather as one with a pronounced transnational or transimperial character.

Pogge did not travel in such African regions that would become part of the German colonial empire in the 1880s. He started in Sao Paolo de Loanda, todays Luanda, the administrative centre of Portuguese West Africa and headed for the Congo basin. Whereas his above cited article on the possibilities of a permanent German station in Mussamba indicates a certain hope that parts of Central Africa might become a German colony in future, the region was finally incorporated into King Leopold’s Free State. What is more, Pogge explicitly described the project of a permanent station as part of the efforts of Leopold’s “International African Association in Brussels”[10] framing his expeditions as part of an international project. As a matter of fact, his sponsor, the Afrika-Gesellschaft, incorporated the German National Committee of the International African Association and thus had its own ties to the Belgian capital.

Additionally, Pogge’s success as an explorer hinged on the contributions of several groups of non-German actors. The most obvious were those African porters, guides and interpreters without whom no European could “explore” the African hinterlands. But other Europeans also played a crucial role. Of special importance was a local Portuguese trader, Saturnino de Sousa Machado, whom Pogge met in 1875 in Malange, about 380 km east of Loanda. From there they combined their caravans until they reached Kimbundo some 10 weeks later. It was from Saturnino that the inexperienced German could learn the essentials of travelling in the Angolan hinterland. In Kimbundo both Pogge and the only other European left in the expedition, the Austrian officer Anton Erwin Lux, were too ill to organize their further journey. In that situation Saturnino hired a small caravan that brought Lux, who was seriously sick, back to the coast and enough porters to accompany Pogge to his destination Mussamba. He also helped Pogge find a suitable African guide and an interpreter for his onwards journey. The latter, Germano José Maria from Mozambique, proved so valuable to Pogge that he employed him again when he returned for his second Congo expedition in 1880. It seems unlikely that Pogge would have become a successful African traveller without these forms of inter-European cooperation.

Finally, Pogge’s expeditions were not only observed in Imperial Germany, but also abroad. Given king Leopold’s interest in the Congo basin, Brussels closely followed Pogge’s activities. And the Royal Geographical Society in London praised his achievements after the return from his first expedition in the highest tones: “He had made a most remarkable journey, and one which will put him high in the list of African travellers.”[11] When it came to international attention, however, Stanley again played in a different league. His book on the Emin Pasha Rescue Expedition was simultaneously published in twelve languages on 28 June 1890 and he received telegrams of congratulations from Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II, US president Benjamin Harrison, and the Khedive of Egypt.

The case of Paul Pogge illustrates that late 19th century travellers in Central Africa often were both forerunners to colonialism and transnationally-minded actors. The latter is true despite a heightened sense of rivalry between Europe’s imperialists during the “Scramble for Africa”. Explorers (as missionaries who shared these traits to a great extent) should thus remind us that colonialism was far more transimperially connected than historians have long accounted for. However, this is not to say that cooperation was always the dominant mode. Cooperation and conflict often overlapped in complex ways.

Five years after Pogge’s death “Unter deutscher Flagge quer durch Afrika”, the travelogue on his second Congo journey, was finally published. The author, Pogge’s travel companion Hermann von Wissmann, had been too busy to finish the book earlier. Immediately after his return to Germany in 1883, he had entered the service of king Leopold II to further explore the Congo basin. Then in 1888, he was appointed Reichskommissar for German East Africa, and later briefly to rise to the rank of the colony’s governor. Even more than Pogge, his former travel mate became a truly transimperial actor.

Further Reading:

Berenson, Edward: Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa, Berkeley 2011.

Essner, Cornelia: Deutsche Afrikareisende im neunzehnten Jahrhundert: Zur Sozialgeschichte des Reisens, Stuttgart 1985.

Fabian, Johannes: Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa, Berkeley 2000.

Kennedy, Dane: The Last Blank Spaces: Exploring Africa and Australia, Cambridge 2013.

Strandmann, Hartmut Pogge von (ed.): Ins tiefste Afrika: Paul Pogge und seine präkolonialen Reisen ins südliche Kongobecken, Berlin 2004.

Wissmann, Hermann: Unter deutscher Flagge quer durch Afrika von West nach Ost: Von 1880 bis 1883 ausgeführt von Paul Pogge und Hermann Wissmann, Berlin 1889.


[1] Cited from Edward Berenson: Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa, Berkeley 2011, p. 69.

[2] Richard J. Reid: A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present, 2nd edition, Malden 2012, p. 115.

[3] Paul Pogge: Im Reich des Muata Jamwo, in: Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann (ed.): Ins tiefste Afrika: Paul Pogge und seine präkolonialen Reisen ins südliche Kongobecken, Berlin 2001, pp. 63–334, here p. 74.

[4] Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann: Einleitung: Entdeckungsdrang, nationales Ansehen und geographische Forschung in Zentralafrika, in: Strandmann (ed.) Ins tiefste Afrika, pp. 13-61, here p. 35.

[5] Paul Pogge: Bericht über die Reise von Mukenge nach Nyange und zurück; und über die Begründung der Station in Mukenge, in: Strandmann (ed.): Ins tiefste Afrika, pp. 375–394, here p. 391.

[6] Pogge: Im Reich des Muata Jamwo, p. 154.

[7] Paul Pogge: Über die in Mussumba zu begründende deutsche Station, in: Strandmann (ed.): Ins tiefste Afrika, pp. 344–351, here p. 351.

[8] Pogge: Im Reich des Muata Jamwo, pp. 92–93.

[9] Michael Pesek: Koloniale Herrschaft in Deutsch-Ostafrika: Expeditionen, Militär und Verwaltung seit 1880, Frankfurt 2005.

[10] Pogge: Deutsche Station, p. 344.

[11] Cited from Strandmann: Einleitung, p. 30.

Author profile

PD Dr. Jonas Kreienbaum is principal investigator of the DFG-funded project "Neoliberal Globalization or 'global disconnect'?" at Free University of Berlin. He studied modern history, philosophy and political science in Berlin and Nottingham and holds a PhD in history from Humboldt University Berlin. In addition to the history of mass violence, and economic decolonization, his research focusses on colonial and imperial history with an emphasis on trans-imperial connections. This is especially true for his comparative work on British and German colonial concentration camps in Southern Africa and on trans-imperial reservoirs of knowledge (the “imperial cloud”).

Selected publication:
“Ein trauriges Fiasko”: Koloniale Konzentrationslager im südlichen Afrika, 1900-1908, Hamburg 2015.
An Imperial Cloud? Conceptualising Interimperial Connections and Transimperial Knowledge, in: Journal of Modern European History 14/2 (2016), pp. 164–182. (with Christoph Kamissek)
A Shared Malady: Concentration Camps in the British, Spanish, American and German Empires, in: Journal of Modern European History 14/2 (2016), pp. 245–267. (with Aidan Forth)
Deadly Learning? Concentration Camps and Zones in Colonial Wars around 1900, in: Volker Barth, Roland Cvetkovski (eds.): Imperial Co-Operation and Transfer, 1870-1930: Empires and Encounters, London/New York 2015, pp. 219–235.

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