Divided Loyalties: European Companies in German West Africa before 1914

AHA Session 8
Central European History Society 1
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Chicago Room (Palmer House Hilton, Fifth Floor)
Ralph A. Austen, University of Chicago
Ralph A. Austen, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

What did loyalty mean in colonial enterprises? Using case studies taken from the German colony of Cameroon, the panel seeks to answer this question by focusing on two related themes: how companies perceived their sometimes conflicting obligations to shareholders, governments, employees, and other stakeholders; and how these companies dealt with divided loyalties as they engaged with African and European employees as well as trading partners and diverse peoples living in the territory.

On the one hand, our papers explore European companies who were already present in the region before the colonial annexations of 1884-5, asking how these businesses were able to capitalize on networks of political and corporate connections to further their interests in changing political circumstances. On the other hand, we also explore the idea of loyalty as an important aspect of the relationship between Europeans and their African employees. While colonialism brought about crises, challenges and hardship, individuals and groups also sought to benefit from new opportunities created by colonial businesses. Africans chose to form complex relations of loyalty with some Europeans and some employers, but not with others. Consequently, the session will also explore how and why European and African actors created ties of loyalty, building on ideas about labor, family, gender, and power.

The papers draw on unique business records, including those of the British company John Holt & Co., the German company C. Woermann, and smaller rubber companies in the region, as well as other diverse primary materials from multiple archives. In looking closely at these sources, and exploring companies in German West Africa through the lens of divided loyalties, we interrogate the ambivalent relationships between state, colonial authorities and private economic actors – European and African alike. The case studies presented demonstrate how European-led, capitalist enterprises, with their complex lines of authority and obligation, but also their interaction with African social, economic, and political concepts and structures, shaped not only the economics, but the politics and culture of colonialism in early twentieth century western Africa.

See more of: AHA Sessions