Academic journal article German Quarterly

Reise um die Welt: The complexities and complicities of Adelbert von Chamisso's anti-conquest narratives

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Reise um die Welt: The complexities and complicities of Adelbert von Chamisso's anti-conquest narratives

Article excerpt

As the field of postcolonial German studies grows, questions emerge about how to approach texts that are precolonial in relationship to Germany's brief moment as a colonial power, yet simultaneous with the colonization of the globe by other European powers: What kind of terms and methods can we use to describe both the uniqueness of German "precolonial" texts and their contributions to greater European discourses and projects? What questions and contexts should we emphasize? How do we envision the intersection of German Studies and Postcolonial Studies? The following analysis seeks to contribute to the ongoing discussion of "precolonial" German texts and the methodological issues surrounding them, via a close reading of Adelbert von Chamisso's two accounts of his early nineteenth-century Pacific voyage. My argument attempts to balance the specificity of German "precolonial" discourse with an emphasis on the international context of Chamisso's texts. This perspective reveals that Chamisso's narratives, their emancipatory rhetoric, and their international entanglements require methodologies that allow for contradiction and complexity, for they exceed the boundaries of any simple binary framework. A viewing of Chamisso's texts within an international context also implies that German texts, even those that explicitly criticize conquest and exploitation, may have supported the European colonization of non-European places and peoples, despite the virtual absence of manifest German colonialism before 1871.1

Between 1815 and 1818 Adelbert von Chamisso traveled as the naturalist on a Russian-sponsored "voyage of discovery" in the Pacific. Chamisso, a French noble who emigrated as a child to Prussia from revolutionary France,2 was a German Romantic poet already well known for his 1814 novella Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte.3 He published two narratives of his Pacific voyage: in 1821, the "Bemerliungen and Ansichten des Naturforschers," in the third volume of Entdeckungs-Reise in die Slid-See and each der Berings-StraBe zur Erforschung einer nordostlichen Durchfahrt by Captain Otto von Kotzebue (son of German dramatist August von Kotzebue); and in 1835, Reise um die Welt mit der Romanzoff schen Entdeckungsexpedition in den Jahren 1815 bis 1818 auf der Brigg Rurik, Kapitan Otto von Kotzebue, comprised of two parts, the "Tagebuch" and the "Bemerkungen and Ansichten." Critics agree that the "Tagebuch" is not technically a Tagebuch but a narrative written some fifteen to twenty years later, based on notes and the information in the 1821 Kotzebue publication. Where the "Tagebuch" is a new account of the earlier events, the "Bemerkungen and Ansichten" in the 1835 Reise um die Welt is a mildly edited reprint of the "Bemerkungen and Ansichten" from the earlier volume, "virtually unchanged except for spelling and the deletion of a few short articles on South America" (Kratz xiv) 4

Chamisso's "Tagebuch" differs from the earlier "Bemerkungen and Ansichten" in both content and narrative style. The "Bemerkungen and Ansichten," written in a distanced, scientific tone that downplays Chamisso's subjectivity, tends to focus on the geographical and botanical. It also represents the native peoples encountered on the voyage as an object of study. In the "Tagebuch," on the other hand, Chamisso uses a more personal, anecdotal style, describing a series of encounters with natives that portrays these natives as individuals located in a particular cultural context: Chamisso interacts with them, exchanges information with them, and shares affective and social experiences with them. The "Tagebuch" also differs from the "Bemerkungen and Ansichten" in that the "Tagebuch" more openly (and problematically) reflects an understanding of natives as "childlike," "pure," and "noble," which Niklaus Schweizer, Susan Kahakalau, and Gernot Weiss connect to the writings of Rousseau and Herder. The "Tagebuch" construes the native peoples encountered along the journey as subjects taking part in cultural, informational, and economic exchange. …

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