Kanuri Folktales and the German Search for the Self

On S. W. Koelle‘s Connexion with German Philological Networks

by Carolin Rippstain

Being a project on African history the main focus of my research on the couple Koelle-Eisami naturally lies on the entanglements and implications in Africa. But as the encounter had impacts in Europe as well, in this article I will take a look at the repercussions which the outcome of this ‘afropean’ cooperation had in German affairs and discourses, and how it interacted with them.

Sara Pugach has argued, that “Protestant missionaries also represent a category of colonial agents and knowledge producers” but have been understudied in the context of German colonialism.[1] German archives present a rich fond for filling this gap, containing amongst others extensive correspondence between different scholars as well as numerous scientific and political publications. Consulting personal estates can however be trying at times, as many are scattered over different archives, with parts of collections lost due to damages in war, while complete catalogues giving a nationwide overview are wanting. Pugach’s general statement about the relations between colonialism, knowledge production and mission is certainly true, nevertheless it seems a bit to global when attributed to ‘protestant missionaries’ in general. Putting the focus of her study ‚Africa in Translation. A History of colonial linguistics in Germany and Beyond, 1814-1945‘, particularly on those aspects which, according to her, prepared German colonialism, while other currents and especially the much more ambivalent early period stay underexposed. – Which seems inevitable given that the years 1814-1887 are dealt with on only twenty-seven pages. Yet it is undoubted that „missionary linguists became enmeshed in global networks of exchange and communication”[2], and this holds true für Koelle as well. Thus, based on my research in German archives concerning his correspondence as well as personal meetings with German protagonists of language studies, I would like to give a more detailed insight in this early period stressing the ambivalence of ideas and discourse tied to missionary linguistics.

The famous brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1847

Koelle was a knowledge producer, yet clearly too early to be associated with German colonialism. Moreover, Protestant missionaries in the first half of the 19th century identified themselves with an ecumenical church transcending national boundaries, as Pugach herself notes.[3] It is, nevertheless, true that science in general at that time was much more immediately political, especially in the German speaking areas. Until 1871 there was nothing more than a loose confederation of German states. In this “absence of a political nation, some sought a linguistic or cultural alternative,” as Pugach puts it, and thus tried to define a cohesive group of Germans.[4] An endeavour that inevitably connected the scientific with the political. A prominent example for this are the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who, as well as the famous theologist and orientalist Heinrich Ewald, were spearheads of the German liberal current and had been involved in political protests and even the short-lived Revolution of 1848.[5] The Grimms had in the early half of the 19th century initiated a widespread search for and recording of German oral traditions and in this way effected the establishment of the formal study of fairy- and folktales. They held the opinion, shared by other influential personalities, that language was a mirror of the soul of a people.[6] Language studies, or philology during this period relied primarily on its linguistic components, but projects such as the Grimms‘ increasingly brough the literary element into focus. While in the nascent field of comparative philology linguistic comparisons of languages were deployed to draw conclusions about historical and ethnological relations between people, the Grimms and like-minded scholars went ahead looking at how language offered insights into the thinking and feeling of its speakers through literary analyses.

Missionary linguistic itself was, according to Pugach, anyway „tied to academic philology through a similar pietist heritage”, the important common ground being that God’s word should be brought to the people in their own native tongue.[7] As such, Koelle’s missionary training at the Basle seminary, which had been founded in pietist tradition, comprised a profound linguistic education. His intellectual stance on the other hand was further influenced by two men. One was Heinrich Ewald who had been his Arabic teacher at the University of Tübingen in preparation for his service in Sierra Leone. Correspondence between the two shows, that Ewald left a lasting impression on the young missionary.[8] A more immediate influence in the same direction however is to be attributed to August Friedrich Pott, professor for linguistics in Halle, and among those leading in the field of comparative philology, whom Koelle met in person. Consulted by Koelle on his extensive Kanuri collection Pott strongly encouraged the same to ensure that a part of the stories and tales he had recorded would be printed. Only due to this and in the light of the general German discourse on folktales Koelle himself seemed to attribute a self-worth to what he had originally set up as a mere source for his grammatical endeavour. The British CMS, neither familiar with nor especially interested in German folktale-discourses, would have preferred to leave their print to some interested philological society, as Koelle reported to Pott.[9]

Many philologists liked to focus exclusively on certain grammatical phenomena in order to declare them the decisive feature of the degree of civilization and thus the general status of its speakers. In contrast to this Pott as well as Ewald were delighted by Koelle’s African Native Literature (ANL) offering a basis for demonstrating Africans’ intellectual capability and equality as human beings by dealing with the content of their literary creations, as they expressed in articles on the matter.[10] Eventually some parts of the published Kanuri collection even came to be discussed in the Grimm’s ‚Haus- und Kindermärchen‘ – where Jacob Grimm admitted to be intrigued by the seemingly unexpected similarities between German and Kanuri oral. [11]

Language studies thus were not merely a practical science but contained ideological claims that pointed beyond themselves and were used in political discourses, to which Koelle with his publications at once also contributed. Hence, one can indeed agree with Pugach that early missionaries „laid the foundation for the discipline of Afrikanistik[12], yet, owing to the short treatment of the early period of missionary linguistics, her study might create the impression of a coherent evolution from German national self-ascertainment to German colonialism. This interpretation however would be too definite as the present article tried to demonstrate. With his Kanuri Grammar as a specimen and the Polyglotta as his own attempt in language classification and ascertaining affinity, Koelle did contribute to comparative philology that shortly after gave rise to ideologized ‘ethnolinguistics’[13] – this did, however, not necessarily imply imperial complicity. More notable, on the contrary, his literary Kanuri collection attracted attention beyond the disciplinary boundaries and offered a rare and fruitful basis for those who argued in favour of similarities and thus equality between European and African people(s). Due to the function ascribed to language in the discourse on German identity, Kanuri oral traditions also appeared in a different light and could hardly be denied the meaning and significance attributed to the collected German oral traditions.


[1] Pugach, Sara. 2015. Africa in translation: A History of colonial linguistics in Germany and Beyond, 1814-1945. Michigan: University of Michigan Press: 13.

[2] Ibid.: 10.

[3] Ibid.: 22.

[4] Ibid.: 8.

[5] Ibid.: 30.

[6] Ibid.: 32.

[7] Ibid.: 22.

[8] SUB Göttingen, COD. MS. EWALD 41: 2, BL.732-745.

[9] ULB Halle, Nachlass Pott, Yi 5 I K 817-819, May 1854.

[10] Pott, Prof. A. F., Sprachen aus Afrika’s Innerem und Westen, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 8, No. 3 (1854), pp. 413-441. ; Ewald, Heinrich, Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen, unter der Aufsicht der Königl. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, 1855, Bd. 1, 25. Stück, 12 . Februar, p. 241.

[11] Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen 3, 3. Auflage, 1856, 362-380 + 411/12: „mit Erstaunen erblickt man in den Märchen, die von den Negern in Bornu […] bekannt geworden sind, einen nicht wegzuleugnenden Zusammenhang mit deutschen“.

[12] Pugach, Sara. 2015. Africa in translation: A History of colonial linguistics in Germany and Beyond, 1814-1945. Michigan: University of Michigan Press: 22.

[13] See: Floris Solleveld (2020): Lepsius as a linguist: fieldwork, philology, phonetics, and ‘the Hamitic hypothesis’, Language & History.


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