A lavishly ornamented longboat from the South Sea island of Luf has become a symbol of the dark legacy of German colonialism. Built in the late 1890s by the island’s indigenous people from the wood of the breadfruit tree, the Luf-Boot came into the possession of the German commercial agent Max Thiel in 1903, although there are serious doubts about his claim that he legally acquired the boat. In 1907 Thiel then sold the boat to the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin, and it has been on display in the Humboldt Forum since autumn 2021.
Last year, Götz Aly’s study “Das Prachtboot” further fueled the public debate about the prominent exhibit in the Humboldt Forum and about the undisguised greed of the colonialist actors.
Volker Braun also presents a clairvoyant poetic commentary on the logic of colonial cruelty with his dramatic poem on the history of the airboat. Braun’s cycle of poems was published in the magazine “Sinn und Form” at the beginning of 2022 and is now available as a bilingual book edition from Verlag Faber
The material is perfect for an author who thinks in terms of history and philosophy like Volker Braun, who, since his literary beginnings, has repeatedly recorded the conquests and devastation of the planet forced by turbo-capitalism with strong poetic images.
This time, too, Braun impressively succeeds in confronting the historical actors as poetic voices in his 18-part role-playing poem and using a furious montage technique to combine them into a great song about the horror story of colonialism.
The way in which Volker Braun weaves a poetic text from original letters from the German Empire and poems by prominent colleagues such as Johannes Bobrowski, which, like in his earlier works, plays with the dramatic blank verse and charges the historical texts with rhythmic energy, is a testament to great artistry.
Right at the start, the beginning of the biblical story of creation is synchronized with the primeval scenes of colonial megalomania. Thus the “Passion” begins almost liturgically with lines from Genesis, followed by verses depicting the great departure of the colonial powers to Oceania.
At the end of the 19th century, the German entrepreneur Eduard Hernsheim, who traded in coconuts and trepang, had also conducted his business around the island of Luf, which was only seven square kilometers in size and was then part of the Bismarck Archipelago, a so-called “protected area” of the German Empire .
Brutal punitive actions were taken against insubordinate islanders who resisted colonialist encroachments, resulting in the wiping out of most of the island’s population in the case of Luf Island. Here Braun changes perspective and speaks in the “Oceania” section from the perspective of the islanders, who witness how the colonialists’ raids dishonor their sacred trees and rob them of their souls: “We walked along the beach, where are / Our souls , which are sacred to us / namely the shadow / on the sand is sacred. All that man / touches is his mirror.”
There were also critical spirits among the European traders who disapproved of the bloody persecution of the islanders and their deportation to forced labour. Ultimately, however, the cold rationality of exploitation triumphed and what Braun calls a “global debt/stipulation of injustice that unites peoples”.
His poem culminates in “The Journey of the Dead Chief”, the hallucinatory vision of a last exit of the air-boat “on the tropical line”. Here the text draws a line to the middle of the 20th century, to the fate of Patrice Lumumba, the first freely elected prime minister in post-colonial Africa, who was assassinated in 1961 by conspirators in the Congo.
This murder has become a key scene for the ongoing claim to power of colonialist thinking and fits well into the documentary-inspired but ultimately poetic-imaginatively constructed “Luf-Passion”.
Ann Cotten’s translation follows the style and the pictorial program of Braun’s “Passion” very meticulously, without taking any greater liberties. Of course, she translates the “dead chief” more contemporary with “dead elder”, i.e. the “dead elder”. In the end, Braun’s poem converges on the theses of his translator, which Cotten formulated in a lecture in June 2021 – in an urgent appeal to save the world from expansive usurpation: “We / must stop / kneeling on the necks of others / they don’t can breathe”.