Conversations about Flensburg’s colonial heritage – A report

Conversations about Flensburg’s colonial heritage – A report from December 14th 2022

How does Flensburg live and experience its coloniality? Where do we stand? What has changed? And what could the future look like? With these questions, the Pilkentafel Theatre Workshop invited people to talk about Flensburg’s colonial heritage on December 14th 2022. This blog post will briefly summarise the results of the evening.

What has actually happened in Flensburg to come to terms with the colonial heritage? This question was answered very differently by the various actors who came to the event at the Pilkentafel on that Wednesday evening. For the Maritime Museum, the first contact with the topic began back in 2006 with the special exhibition “The White Luxury of Sugar”. Since 2012, there has been the permanent exhibition “Rum, Sugar, Slavery”, which focuses on Flensburg’s colonial ties to the Caribbean and reaches numerous visitors each year. 2012 also marks the first contact of the Pilkentafel theatre workshop with the topic of coloniality with the exhibition theatre “A gesture to find”. Initiated by the emerging confrontation of Flensburg with its colonial history, the play deals with the question of how Flensburg’s inhabitants should meet today’s inhabitants of the Caribbean when their unequal but common history is recognised and acknowledged. The following years are marked by the preparations for the centennial of the sale of the Caribbean islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John by Denmark to the USA in 2017. The Caribbean islands, including their population, were transferred to the USA after a referendum in Denmark. The population there had no voting rights and still does not have full citizenship rights in the USA. In Flensburg, the special exhibition “Rum, Sweat and Tears”, curated by Imani Tafari-Ama and prepared in exchange with people in Ghana and the US Virgin Islands, took place at the Maritime Museum in the course of the Centennial. Much has happend in the years that followed: A first meeting of students who wanted to engage with Flensburg’s colonial heritage took place in 2018. This group later gave rise to the “Initiative Postkolonialer Stadtrundgang Flensburg” (Initiative Postcolonial City Walk Flensburg), which offered a first postcolonial city walk in autumn 2019. The Pilkentafel installation “Die Leerstelle verankern” (Anchoring the Empty Space) was present at the harbour tip in the summer of 2019 with an empty white platform in the harbour basin, the “Leerstelle” (empty space). This should illustrate that the history of the plantation economies in the Caribbean, of the people who were enslaved there and resisted, is missing from the public space in Flensburg. The installation was accompanied by a petition for a memorial, which was handed over to the city president, but from which no concrete political action followed. As a follow-up to the activities in 2019, the Network Flensburg Postcolonial was founded in autumn with the aim of bringing together people who work on the topic of coloniality in Flensburg and to further discuss the topic among themselves and in public.

As of 2018, academic activities on the topic of coloniality also became more present in Flensburg. With Prof. Sybille Bauriedl, in 2018 a professor came to the European University of Flensburg who focuses on “coloniality in port cities”. Based on this, a first academic conference on postcolonial port cities took place in 2019. Shortly after this conference, in may 2019, the Working Group Educational science with a focus on gender studies organized a symposium on postcolonial education in Europe in cooperation with the ZeBUSS at the university. In 2018, also, the anthology “Sonderylland-Schleswig Kolonial” was published by historian Marco Petersen. On just under 500 pages, the volume brings together various contributions that deal with the colonial references of the border region.

Work on the topic of coloniality in Flensburg continued in 2022. The initiative postcolonial city walk organised a total of 14 postcolonial city walks, reaching with their program a great amount of people. The Pilkentafel theatre workshop hosted the co-production “Zahn der Zeit” (Tooth of Time), which deals with the material and immaterial heritage from colonial times. At the university, the interdisciplinary colloquium “Kolonialität der Gegenwart” took place in the spring semester and in April Felisha Maria Bahadur exhibited her installation “Luisa Ascending” in the Nikolaikirche, which was accompanied by an extensive supporting programme. With the panel discussion “Postcolonial Remembrance Culture in Flensburg” in June 2022, also, an event that explicitly addressed the responsibility of politics to act took place. Here, the question was raised of how Flensburg could come to terms with and remember its double involvement in colonial entanglements as a Danish and Prussian port city within the framework of the resolution passed by the Schleswig-Holstein state parliament for a “concept for coming to terms with the colonial history of the state”.

The exhibitions, events, plays and actions outlined here are by no means everything that has happend in Flensburg so far. As part of the interim review, an extensive timeline was created that provides an overview of the various activities in Flensburg in the period 2006 to 2022. However, the timeline created during the evening only represents a limited (predominantly white and institutionalised) perspective. For example, the evening itself did not address Christopher Nwanaga’s educational work in Flensburg in the late 90s and early 2000s. Christopher Nwanaga from Nigeria, who lived in Flensburg from 1972 to 2006, conceived a travelling exhibition for schools together with other Flensburg residents of African origin in the late 1990s. The exhibition dealt with Schleswig-Holstein’s role in the enslavement trade in connection with current racist structures and was shown at the Weiche primary school in Flensburg in 1998 and at the Heimgartenschule in Ahrensburg in 2001. Christopher Nwanaga also founded an Afrika-AG (Africa workung group) in Flensburg and published an article on “Flensburg in the Transatlantic Triangular Trade” in 1999 in the anthology “Branntwein, Bibeln und Bananen. Der deutsche Kolonialismus in Afrika. Eine Spurensuche” by Heiko Möhle. Christopher Nwanaga’s work shows that it would be wrong to name the year 2006 as the general “beginning” of the discussion about Flensburg’s colonial heritage. Black, African, Afro-German and Afrodiasporic people in particular have been addressing this issue – as they have elsewhere – long before the established institutions and cultural bodies of the city society did so.

Even if Flensburg still does not have a monument to commemorate colonial entanglements and the city is still shaped by the rumnarrative with its one-sided emphasis on successful overseas trade and the industrious Flensburg merchants in many respects, the talks at the event have shown: something is changing! The examination of the topic of coloniality in Flensburg is changing the view of Flensburg’s colonial history. But there is still a lot to do: How can interest in the topic be anchored beyond the already active actors? How can Flensburg’s colonial history be linked to current global injustices and racist structures? How can the unease that is triggered by dealing with the topic be used constructively? These and other questions remain and will be taken up again in further discussions and activities about Flensburg’s colonial heritage. Anyone who wants to participate here is welcome to get in touch via the network’s contact form and come to one of the network meetings.

Timeline with various activities related to (post)colonial issues in Flensburg in the period 2006 to 2022. The timeline was created in the course of the “Zwischenbilanz” event in December 2022.