The black-and-white photograph “Mitwero: Baumwolle” (“Mitwero: cotton”) from the archives of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin is part of the Robert Lohmeyer collection. It is dated 1908, the year of the first of Lohmeyer’s two trips to the African continent, where he took mainly color photographs for a book about Germany’s colonies in Africa titled Die Deutschen Kolonien. Though Lohmeyer depicted several plants and landscapes, cotton features predominantly in his work. In fact, cotton largely determined colonial and import policy in the Kaiserreich.
What can an image of a cotton plantation in Mitwero, a site in today’s Tanzania, tell us? Photography, whose popularization paralleled colonial history, served to map and document the Empire’s violently expanding territory. But by shifting the focus away from the photographic technology to the cotton itself and to the image’s date, we can tell a dual story: in 1907, German textile magnates founded cotton plantations in German East Africa with the support of the Kolonialwirtschaftliches Komittee (Colonial Economic Committee). Relying on notions of scientific forestry, colonial botany, racial theory, and forced labor, they hoped to overcome their dependence on foreign (mainly British and American) exports.
Yet, this is only one side of the coin. This image was taken a year after the Maji Maji Rebellion (1902-1907), when the inhabitants of what is today Tanzania burned the cotton fields where they were forced to work. Their instigation of an armed conflict that the German forces needed years to subdue bespeaks a narrative of resistance to the harvesting of cotton.
Hence, cotton and its history open up a reading of the photograph against the grain, which is essential for understanding and at the same time complicates the violence it transmits: both the translation of other people’s spaces into one’s own resources (equating Mitwero to cotton in the title), along with the locals’ assertion of their agency and their interruption of this translation by rebelling against the plantation system.