Compared to other European metropolises, especially in the United Kingdom or France, the African diaspora in Berlin is relatively small. In 2013, Joachim Zeller and Oumar Diallo estimated in their book Black Berlin: the German Metropolis and its African Diaspora in History and the Present (only available in German) that the total number of people of African origins living in Germany is around 400,000 to 800,000 – the equivalent to the inhabitants of a single large German city. Although Black German history goes back several hundred years, it is often difficult to reconstruct, and the life stories of individuals – such as that of August Sabac el Cher, the administrator of silver in the Prinz-Albrecht-Palais – remain incomplete.
It was only by chance that I learned about the life story of August Sabac el Cher. Years ago, I noticed the book Preußisches Liebesglück: Eine deutsche Familie aus Afrika (“A Prussian Love Story: A German Family from Africa”) by Gorch Pieken and Cornelia Kruse in the museum shop of the German Historical Museum in Berlin. The cover of the book shows the faces of a Black man and a white woman. The short text on the spine explained to me that it was the story of an African servant at the Prussian court and his descendants. I bought the book without further ado, and with its help and further research I gained insights into a part of German history about which I had never learned much without making an active effort.
When I began to read, I found out that the book cover shows Gustav Sabac el Cher and his wife. But the following is supposed to be about his father, August Sabac el Cher, who came to Berlin from Egypt in 1843 and with whom the story of this so-called German family from Africa began. You can see the only photo that exists of him on the left-hand side, in Pieken’s and Kruse’s book labelled “August Albrecht Sabac el Cher in exotic costume” and on Wikipedia, where he is described as a “valet in oriental costume”.
Pieken and Kruse describe how August Sabac el Cher came to Prussia in 1843 together with Prince Albrecht, the youngest brother of the Prussian king at the time. His migration was by no means voluntary, since Sabac el Cher was a boy of about seven, and was given to Prince Albrecht in bondage. Prince Albrecht was on a trip to Egypt and it appears that the Egyptian ruler, Mehmed Ali, made a “gift” of a Black boy from southern Egypt (today’s Sudan) to Prince Albrecht. At the time, Egypt was still engaged in the slave trade and in Europe it was not uncommon to have African servants at court. Therefore it was not entirely unusual to receive a human “gift” and accept it without giving much consideration to the humanity and desires of the new servant. The powerful often gave their new servants or serfs new names, and Sabac el Cher, for one, received his name from Prince Albrecht. His original name remains unknown.
In Berlin, Sabac el Cher took up residence in the attic room in the Albrecht Palace, along with other domestic servants. He received German and Christian religious instruction. Over the years, he took on various jobs in the princely household. At the age of 15, Sabac el Cher became a footman and as such had to clean and set tables. As an adult man, Sabac el Cher married Anna Maria Jung, a white woman, and they had two children. They appear to have lived relatively comfortably: Sabac el Cher became the administrator of silver of the Albrecht Palace in 1873. This gave him an annual income of 600 Marks, which was a considerable amount for the time.
The details of Sabac el Cher’s life at court are unclear. Legally he was not considered a slave – slavery was already illegal in Germany in his time – but he wasn’t really free either. During his years as a valet, for example, Sabac el Cher had to wear oriental fantasy costumes – as in the only photo of him. The noble lords usually had the say-so over how the Black valets lived: their accommodations, their clothing, their education and their profession. These valets were not permitted to resign or decide for themselves where and how they wanted to live.
For Sabac el Cher, this situation changed only toward the end of his life. In 1873, he finally moved into his own apartment in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Shortly before his death, after years of illness – probably bowel cancer -, Sabac el Cher received a naturalization certificate from the Berlin police president in 1882. This meant that he and his children were legally considered Prussian citizens and were, at least on paper, the same as all other Prussians. In 1885, Sabac el Cher succumbed to his illness.
The documentation of August Sabac el Cher’s life is limited to the book by Pieken and Kruse, and a Wikipedia entry. His son Gustav is on the book cover and he can also be seen on a painting in the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Apart from August and Gustav, many other Black people have lived in Germany. Some can be seen in the background of paintings in Prussian castles, but many of them remain nameless and un-remembered.
That the Black German community is rather small may be due in part to the relatively short-lived and less expansive colonial efforts of the Germans compared to their English and French counterparts. But the comparatively small number doesn’t say anything about the length of this community’s history, nor does it mean that it is less worth remembering. In fact, Black German history begins long before Sabac el Cher’s lifetime with the first contact between Germans and Africans, that is, with the earliest years of colonialism. In 1683, the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm established a trading post on the coast of what is now Ghana. But by 1717, his descendant Friedrich Wilhelm I had sold this post, Großfriedrichsburg, to the Netherlands. After this brief venture, Prussia turned its gaze from Africa for more than a century. Germany’s better known colonial efforts began with the so-called European Scramble for Africa under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Germany held several African colonies from the year of the Africa Conference in Berlin, 1884, until 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles required Germany to relinquish sovereignty over its former colonies.
From the start, colonialism entailed white German leaders and explorers dehumanizing Africans; they sold African people to the Americas, for example, or forcibly brought them back to Germany with them, as if they were commodities like ivory, gold, and pepper. Prussian nobles took Africans into service at their courts and even explicitly ordered their naval officers to bring Africans back to Europe. But far fewer Africans came to Europe than went to the Americas. The presence of the few, mostly male Africans at the European courts was intended to show how well-travelled and worldly the aristocracy was. The perspectives, interests and wishes of the displaced Africans were simply ignored.
A look at Black German history reveals how difficult it is to write histories of Black lived experiences: the stories of these individuals are almost always incomplete – when they are possible to reconstruct at all. In addition, in researching these lives, it rapidly becomes clear that the few existing sources usually offer only the white perspective, and thus one can only speculate about the perspective of the historical Black personalities. A good example of this is August Sabac el Cher. This makes literary interventions, like the one by SchwarzRund in the novel Biskaya, all the more important. A man named Achmed appears in the book. His character is based on the story of a Black valet who was employed by Prince Carl of Prussia. The protagonist of Biskaya is a descendant of Achmed and writes a song about him in which Achmed is free to decide where and how he wants to live. Fiction now helps to remember Achmed with dignity. Art can fill gaps or at least make them visible in an effective way.