Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities (USA)

Johann Peter Oettinger:
Slave Trade and Autobiographical Writing

The Project  >>
The English Edition >>
Mapping Oettinger's journey >>
The Oettinger Family Papers  >>
Talks & Lectures  >>
Visiting Scholarships  >>
Publications  >>
Media coverage  >>

The Project

During fifteen years, Johann Peter Oettinger (1666-1746) - a young barber-surgeon from a small town in the German region of Franconia - kept a journal, recording his voyages on land and on sea. From 1682 to 1696 he documented his journeyman migration through the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic, as well as the years he worked on slave ships of the Dutch West India Company and the Brandenburg African Company. His travels took him as far as the Emirate of Trarza (Mauritania), the Gold Coast (Ghana), the Guianas in South America and the Danish Caribbean island of Saint Thomas. In nowadays Bénin he even spent a few weeks in the royal palace of King Agbangla of Hueda, of which he left a detailed description. Oettinger's journal represents the only German-language source providing a comprehensive account  of a slaving voyage in the seventeenth century and an important source on the history of the German involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.

The manuscript of Johann Peter Oettinger's "Reisebeschreibung und Lebenslauf" ("Travel account and Biography") - which has been recently re-discovered in the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Berlin) -  was copied and augmented several times, both by the author himself and by his descendants. Over time, it became a central piece of the family’s written memory, stretching from the seventeenth century to the early years of the Nazi period. The journal has thus a complex and stratified textual history: a history which culminated in 1885, when the German Empire had just started acquiring his first colonial territories in Africa and Berlin hosted the notorious Congo Conference. In this new context, a descendant of the barber-surgeon - the Prussian officer Paul Oettinger - re-wrote the story of his ancestor and published a highly manipulated colonial novel, celebrating the deeds of the Brandenburg African Company as the first colonial enterprise of the German nation.   

Focusing on the biography of a craftsman, my project examines those late seventeenth-century migratory, commercial and cultural ties which were woven by chartered trading companies and which connected German-speaking hinterlands to the coasts of West Africa and the Caribbean. At the same time it examines discursive continuities and transformations between the barber- surgeon’s journal, early modern travelogues and late nineteenth- century colonial culture. Hence, on a methodological level it combines a micro-historical approach to Atlantic entanglements with a diachronical analysis of interconnections between autobiographical writing and European travel literature about non-European societies.

The English Edition

Together with my colleague Craig Koslofsky (University of Illinois) I am preparing an English edition of the Oettinger manuscript, which will make this source accessible for teaching and further research. This project has been awarded a Grant for Scholarly Editions and Translations by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The English edition will be published in 2019 by the University of Virginia Press (series: Studies in Early Modern German History).

Mapping Oettinger's journey

Familienarchiv Oettinger - the Family Papers (17th-20th Centuries)

The manuscript of the “Reisebeschreibung und Lebenslauf” was handed down within the Oettinger family for many generations. In 1982 it was donated, with other old papers, to the Prussian archives in Berlin (Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz). The Oettinger Family Papers contain a heterogeneous array of documents: letters, genealogical notes, photographs, vaccination cards, telegraphs, school reports, and many others. They also include four autobiographical writing, which up to very recently have been completely ignored by scholars.Johann Peter Oettinger (1666-1746)

These materials allow for partial and selective insights into the history of a family of German craftsmen and militaries, from the 17th century to the early years of the Nazi regime. At the same time, this extraordinary multigenerational series of autobiographical texts attests narrative strategies and material efforts deployed in order to construct and conserve individual accounts and a constantly evolving masculine family memory.

Apart from the travel journal by barber-surgeon Johann Peter Oettinger, the family papers include…

• the personal chronicle (1806-1831) – written down on the blank pages of a printed almanac (Schreibkalender) – by the old Leipzig pastry baker Georg Anton Oettinger (1745-1831): a text offering a rich account of the Napoleonic occupation of Saxony, the Battle of Leipzig (Völkerschlacht, 1813) and the tensions between German patriots and conservative forces during the Restauration;

• the romantic travel diary by the young Prussian Lieutenant Friedrich Wilhelm Oettinger (1796-1861) about a leisure journey from Berlin to the Rhine River (1824), in which the author engages in intense reflections about the history and the cultural “essence” of the German nation;

• and the autobiography by infantry officer Paul Oettinger (1848-1934), recalling his youth in the military academies of Berlin and Potsdam, his participation in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870/1871) as well as his decades-long employment as editor-in-chief of the “Deutsche Militärzeitung”: a source which offers many insights into conservative military milieus of the German Empire.

Talks & Lectures

"Eighteenth-century ego documents. The Individual in Society", international conference, Universität Zürich, 9-10 March 2017.

"Der Rhein als politische Landschaft, 1815-heute", international conference, Universität Düsseldorf, 29 September - 1 October 2016.

Université de Lausanne, 7 March 2016, research seminar in early modern history.

University of Illinois/Center for African Studies, Urbana-Champaign, 5 February 2016, brown bag lecture.

Northwestern University/Program of African Studies, Evanston/Chicago, 3 February 2016, brown bag lecture, (with Craig Koslofsky).

University of Illinois/Department of History, Urbana-Champaign, 26 January 2016, research seminar.

Universität Bern, 26-28 November 2015, research seminar in early modern history.

European Conference on African Studies, Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, 8-10 July 2015.

Sciences Po, Paris, 6 March 2015, research seminar “Le local et le global”.

International workshop “The changing margins of Europe. Frontiers and demarcations of a continent from the 18th to the 20th century”, Sciences Po, Paris, 5-6 December 2014.

Sciences Po, Paris, 22 September 2014, research seminar “L’Europe dans le monde”.

“From Switzerland to India, to Africa and the Way Back. Missions and Other Kinds of Encounters”, international conference, Université de Lausanne, 16-17 May 2014.

Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, 4 January 2014, research seminar in early modern history.

“Egodocuments et pratiques socioculturelles (XVIe - XIXe siècles)”, international conference, Université de Lausanne, 14-16 November 2013.

Schweizerische Geschichtstage, Université de Fribourg, 7-9 February 2013.

Swiss Researching Africa Days, Universität Bern, 19-20 October 2012.

“The Shadows of Empire. A Study of European Colonial Forts and Castles”, international conference, University of Ghana, Accra, 1-2 August 2012.

“The Slave Business and Its Material and Moral Hinterlands in Continental Europe”, international conference, University of Liverpool / International Slavery Museum, 20-22 April 2012, (with Craig Koslofsky).

Visiting Scholarships

Jan.-Feb. 2016: Visiting scholar at the the Department of History of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Invited by Prof. Craig Koslofsky. Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

July-Aug. 2014: Gabriel Monod fellowship of the Institut français d’histoire en Allemagne. Research at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin.

Jan.-Feb. 2012: Visiting scholar at the Department of History of the University of Ghana, Accra. Invited by Prof. Kofi Baku. Study trip to Benin. Funded by the Freie Akademische Gesellschaft, Basel.


«Grossfriedrichsburg, the first German colony in Africa? Brandenburg-Prussia, Atlantic entanglements and national memory», in Shadows of Empire in West Africa. New Perspectives on European Fortifications, edited by John Kwadwo Osei-Tutu and Victoria Ellen Smith, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2018, pp. 33-73.   >>>

«Ship’s Surgeon Johann Peter Oettinger. A Hinterlander in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1682-1696», in Slavery Hinterland. Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680-1850, edited by Felix Brahm and Eve Rosenhaft, Boydell & Brewer, Suffolk 2016, pp. 27-44, (with Craig Koslofsky).  >>>

«Les siècles des Oettinger. Écrits et mémoires d'une famille allemande au fil des générations (1682-1936)», Études de lettres 300 (2016),  special issue Appel à témoins. Écrits personnels et pratiques socioculturelles (XVIe-XXe siècles), edited by Danièle Tosato-Rigo, pp. 183-216. >>>

«Johann Peter Oettinger entre histoire atlantique, mémoire familiale et littérature coloniale (XVIIe-XXe siècle). Un projet de recherche», Revue de l'Institut français d'histoire en Allemagne 6 (2014),

Media coverage

«A young man’s eyewitness account of the slave trade», Discover Unil, April 2017, web article.

«Editing and Translating a Seventeenth-Century Travel Journal, between Lausanne and Urbana-Champaign», History@Illinois, Spring 2017, p. 5.   >>>

«C'est l'histoire d'un mec» by David Trotta, l'uniscope, 618 (November 2016), pp. 4-5.   >>>

«Restoring a rare firsthand account to history» by Aaliyah Gibson, College of Liberal Arts & Science, University of Illinois, 7 October 2016, web article.