Visualizing Labour in German East Africa: Photographic Images and their Circulation

Thirty years ago, in 1993, Cambridge University Library acquired a substantial quantity of materials from the Commonwealth and Britain’s former colonial territories. This repository originally came from the Colonial Society, which over the decades became the Royal Colonial Institute, then the Royal Empire Society, and finally the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS).1 This institution had begun collecting and archiving these documents around 1868, when it received funding to rent a suite in the Westminster Palace Hotel, and did so more intensively after 1900, as the collection grew and moved to larger premises. By the time the RCS library was integrated into the special collections of Cambridge University Library, it housed extensive and invaluable archives, including ancient texts in cuneiform script dating back to around 2200 BCE, as well as documents from the twentieth century.2 Among the latter were ten boxes of postcards from different regions of the former British Empire, printed between 1890 and 1969.3

With the support of a GHIL scholarship, I had the opportunity to visit Cambridge University Library in February of 2023 and explore its special collections. As a historian who analyses photographs from the former German colonies in Africa, I was intrigued by one particular box—number 4—labelled ‘German East Africa’ (modern-day Tanzania) with the date range 1910–39. Inside the box, among some delicate old monochrome photogravures protected by plastic sleeves, I found a booklet in German with the title ‘German Work in German East Africa’.4 These sixteen postcards were printed in Harburg, Germany, in 1920. Despite being produced after the formal end of the German colonial period in 1918, this small collection offers valuable insights into the photographic market in Tanzania at the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as the role of photographs in shaping the understanding of labour in the context of colonialism.

The sixteen postcards portray agricultural and industrial scenes in German East Africa. While some of these images feature African workers on sisal, coffee, and rubber plantations, none of the titles acknowledge their presence in the frames. On the reverse, each card bears the following exhortation in German: ‘Our own colonies, our own overseas provinces are essential to Germany. Germans, remember your colonies!’ Walther Dobbertin, the photographer and owner of the printing house, understood the audience he was addressing: Germans who shared a sense of colonial nostalgia. However, this was not the only product he made to connect with his clientele, as a focus on one particular postcard will show.

Figure 1:  African labourers on a sisal plantation in German East Africa. Image provided by Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA0958 / Walther Dobbertin / CC-BY-SA 3.0.  

The third image in the sequence portrays a work scene where at least twenty labourers are cutting, collecting, and organizing sisal leaves.5 The photographer went largely unnoticed by most of them, as their attention was focused on their tasks. Perhaps they were also instructed to ignore the photographer; the same may also have gone for the man supervising the labourers, who is dressed in a hat and a coat. The next stage of the plantation cycle is depicted on the right of the picture, where the crop is being readied for transport.

Dobbertin printed this postcard in 1920, having captured the image years earlier during his work as a professional photographer in German East Africa. He arrived in Dar es Salaam in 1903, at the age of 21, and promptly began working in the city’s photography business. He  was initially employed by Carl Vicenti, another German professional photographer based in the city. After a disagreement, he chose to establish his own studio in 1906. His first customers were individuals from coastal towns and the region around Mount Kilimanjaro, where he began offering his services. In addition to his studio in Dar es Salaam, Dobbertin set up an art bookshop in Tanga, a book and photographic supplies shop in Usambara (where he also provided professional photography services), and a studio with a photographic supplies shop in Moshi.6 Despite the absence of details about Dobbertin’s staff in the address books of the colony, it is highly improbable that he could have managed all these establishments by himself. Furthermore, photography is a process that goes beyond the simple pressing of a button, as the renowned camera company Kodak advertised at that time.7 Studio management involves various tasks, such as operating the studio, printing, cleaning and organizing materials, cameras, and supplies, as well as reaching out to both old and new clients. Since many photographs taken by Dobbertin feature the Usambara landscape, it is likely he required assistance with travelling through the area, transporting his materials, and also with the framing process.8

Dobbertin’s professional activities in German East Africa came to an end in 1914 with the onset of the First World War. At the end of the war, he lost all his property, and in 1920 he made the decision to return to Germany. In Buchholz, in northern Germany, Dobbertin opened a small bookshop and later established a printing house in Harburg. There, he continued to market images from his earlier activities in German East Africa. The postcard depicting workers on a sisal plantation was taken in the period 1906 to 1914, while Dobbertin was professionally active in the colony. He used it for many decades after.

Before becoming a postcard in 1920, the picture above was used to illustrate a book on sisal in German East Africa published in 1913 by Werner Friedrich Bruck. 1914 saw its republication in Die deutschen Kolonien by Paul Rohrbach, an illustrated book covering all the former German colonies in the world. Almost twenty years later, in 1933, another version of the picture appeared in Alfred Funke’s book Schwarz-weiß-rot über Ostafrika. The image also found its way into other institutional archives; the German Federal Archive (Bundesarchiv) houses a version, and the Images Collection of the German Colonial Society has it in both black and white and colour.9 Although these versions are similar, a closer examination reveals differences between them, which I explore in my dissertation. All in all, I have located the image of the sisal plantation workers in seven different places: as a postcard, three times as an illustration in published books about the region, and in various versions preserved within institutional collections. It is worth noting that this image was used in publications from 1914 to 1933.The numerous reproductions of the photograph demonstrate the multifaceted roles of photography. It was not only used to promote companies and perpetuate symbolic violence, but also survived in the form of colonial nostalgia.

Dobbertin owned a considerable number of images, so it is curious that he used this one so extensively. It is not a surprise, however, that he would propose photographs of sisal production to illustrate publications related to German East Africa. Initial harvests in 1900 were very small, but a few years later, sisal was classified as one of the crops that had been proven profitable by successful experiments on a large scale in German East Africa.10 Its production rose exponentially in the following years. In 1912, only twelve years after cultivation began in Tanzania, yields reached 29,834 tonnes, worth 10,711,000 German marks.11 With these figures on the rise, sisal played a huge role in export and became emblematic of German colonialism. In 1914, a German colonial newspaper article described sisal as the most successful crop in all the protected territories.12

The composition of the image influenced Dobbertin’s decision to use it multiple times. While African workers appear in the foreground of the scene, their numbers are significantly fewer than what would typically be expected for a plantation. In contrast to what the photograph depicts, plantations demanded a large workforce. However, the photograph presents a significant deviation: a lone African man stands atop the gathered crop, seemingly assuming a leadership position. Likely, he is only at the top to perform a task; however, he is the element of the image that stands out the most. The other men, some African workers and others possibly overseers, are surrounded by the sisal plantation. The solitary worker at the top occupies an intriguing position in the image, one that has been consistently overlooked in all the captions or titles given to it over the decades. This position contrasts with the expected portrayal of White authority figures, which has been consistent in similar colonial imagery. This composition also demonstrates how photographs from the colonial time can be highly ambivalent, carrying elements that contrast with colonial ideas.

Feature image:  Sisal plantation in German East Africa. Image provided by Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA0793 / Walther Dobbertin / CC-BY-SA 3.0.  


Cite this blog post
Ana Carolina Schveitzer (2024, May 15). Visualizing Labour in German East Africa: Photographic Images and their Circulation. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from

  1. See the history of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) collection, (accessed 5 Jan. 2024). []
  2. See the RCS Library, (accessed 5 Jan. 2024). []
  3. Cambridge University Library, GBR/0115/RCS/PC, Postcard Collection. []
  4. Cambridge University Library, GBR/0115/RCS/PC GEA/1-16, Von Deutscher Arbeit in Deutsch-Ostafrika (1920). []
  5. The original postcard reproduction of this image is available in Cambridge University Library GBR/0115/RCS/PC GEA/3, ‘Sisalernte in Deutsch-Ostafrika’ [Sisal Harvest in German East Africa] (1920). []
  6. Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg, Adressbuch für Deutsch-Ostafrika: Dreizehnte Ausgabe (Frankfurt, 1913), 71. []
  7. Kodak used the pages of the German colonial-themed magazine Kolonie und Heimat in Wort und Bild [Colony and Homeland in Word and Image] to promote its products. In these advertisements, the company highlighted the fact that Kodak cameras were accessible to young and old people, as well as women. For some examples see: Kolonie und Heimat in Wort und Bild, 4/40 (1911), 13, and 4/38 (1911), 17. []
  8. C. Conte, ‘Power, Production, and Land Use in German East Africa through the Photographs of Walther Dobbertin, c.1910’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 12/4 (2018), 632–54. []
  9. Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA6112. The picture collection of the Bundesarchiv has an inventory of the Walther Dobbertin Collection, containing almost 3,000 images. See BArch, Bild 105, Nachlass Walther Dobbertin (Bestand), (accessed 5 Jan. 2024). []
  10. August Seidel, Die Aussichten des Plantagenbaus in den deutschen Schutzgebieten (Wismar, 1905), 61. []
  11. ‘Sisalkultur in Deutsch-Ostafrika’, Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, 31 (1914), 531 []
  12. Ibid. []

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Ana Carolina Schveitzer

Ana Carolina Schveitzer is a doctoral candidate in African History at the Department of African Studies at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her research focuses on the connections between photography, labour, and German colonialism in Africa. She examines images depicting a range of work environments, including plantations, infrastructure, urban settings, and domestic spaces, in order to explore the framing, visualization, and archival photographs of work situations under colonialism.

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