Rainer Buschmann

The Sea in German Colonial and Post-Colonial Views on Oceania 

In a, by now, mostly forgotten essay in a Festschrift dedicated to Friedrich Ratzel (1904), Karl Weule elaborated on the relationship between peoples of nature (Naturvölker) and the sea. While acknowledging the maritime expansion of the Malay peoples across the Indian and the Pacific oceans, he proceeded to cast doubt on the linguistic evidence suggesting that these expansions indeed occurred thousands of years in the past. By further contextualizing the Austronesian expansion against the massive, global expansion of the “white race,” Weule sought to minimize its scope. Weule was not alone in the dilemma of both acknowledging yet also actively dismissing the chronology, as well as the accomplishment of the Austronesian expansion. This predicament became more acute following the German Empire formal incorporation of parts of the Pacific starting in 1884. The epistemic clash between Indigenous oceanic expansion and German paternalistic colonialism threatened to undermine the latter’s raison d’être and posed difficult negotiations over ontological representations.

I will employ Weule’s dilemma as a point of entrance to explore the epistemic contradictions governing both oceanic expansions (Austronesian vs. European) and their German colonial and contemporary post-colonial rendering. The saltwater separating the far-flung German possessions in the Pacific revealed both isolation and separation from the colonial metropoles, a vision that clashed with the oceangoing societies residing within it. German colonial and post-colonial renditions of the Pacific employ the saltwater barrier to evoke a romantic notion of colonial administration that sought to work with rather than against the Indigenous peoples. The colonial and post-colonial employment of stereotypical and oppressive tropes—most prominently, cannibalism—tied to the notions of saltwater separation, actively worked and works against the romantic notions surrounding the German colonial administration.