The Plantation and the City: Rubber, Labour, Cologne (1)

Late summer, a nicely curated gift shop. Between children’s books a few gimmicks, among them a small rubbery hand you might put on top of a pencil. The proportions seem a bit off and I find the grey-brownish colour disconcerting. After I realize that there are yellowish and pinkish hands as well, intended as representations of different skin colours, I go back to buy a right hand in each colour. I still don’t see a human limb, but something monstrous, perhaps because of the elongated fingers and the way the wrist is cut off. I begin to examine my inherent bias and racist presumptions, and how I would like to ask school children what they associate with these hands.

The Dutch language history books have been lying around for quite a while before I take them to a library where they might be a good fit. On the way back I realize: books about the Congo, chapters on colonial violence, accounts of black workers’ hands cut off. I would like to revisit the shop with other historians and ask them if the gimmick can be just that.  

Early autumn, preparing my space in Gebäude 8 for the open studios weekend. Gebäude 8 is a 20th century industrial building in red brick, part of the former Kölnische Gummifäden-Fabrik (literal translation: Cologne rubber-threads factory) that is being developed by an investor. I arrange Lefebvre quotes with my fotos of the site’s transformation and leaf through the factory’s festschrift from 1957.* The book is bound in cloth, printed in gravure, with many black-and-white illustrations. There is one of black workers harvesting rubber and delivering the commodity, a foto of black children playing outside with balloons – which very much look like a later retouching – and one of a woman moulding bathing caps on the factory floor.

Festschrift illustration of workers on a rubber plantation, 1957
Festschrift illustration of workers on a rubber plantation, 1957

I remember my visit in the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Wirtschaftsarchiv (archive focused on records from businesses in the Rhineland and Westphalia) the year before. I had looked into the files that a former manager of the Gummifäden-Fabrik had transferred to the archive after the factory’s demise in the 1970s. Apparently, asbestos was used as a filler medium to process rubber for certain products. One file included an English language report about an asbestos mining in Transvaal, South Africa with a “Table of monthly Native labour distribution for 1957“, of which „a) 54% of the total labour complement is used for the mine, which should be about 30% and shows, that underground distances make it imperative to use so many boys for transport. The overall figure of 0.271 ton of ore per boy shift, is a sign of gross inefficiency and the figure should become at least 1 ton per boy shift.“** Apartheid, and its racist language, and exploitation are a given in this text, to be analysed in economic terms only. I wonder how many of these black miners, constantly exposed to the fibres, must have died from pulmonary fibrosis and cancer, and if they or their families ever received compensation.

Festschrift fotos of woman worker moulding bath caps and children with balloons, 1957
Festschrift fotos of woman worker moulding bath caps and children with balloons, 1957

Asbestos was also used for insulation around the chimney in front of Gebäude 8, a landmark dismantled early on in the re-development by East European construction workers who were more or less following the strict German rules regarding asbestos clean up and the handling of waste. I wonder if the industrial and colonial history of the site will vanish completely once the workers and artists have been replaced, as intended, by the creative industries.

* Rompf, Reinhold. 1857 / 1957 Kölnische Gummifädenfabrik. Festschrift zur 100. Wiederkehr des 1. Juni 1857. Köln: M. DuMont Schauberg.
** RWWA, Bestand Kölnische Gummifädenfabrik vorm. Ferd. Kohlstadt & Co., Köln, Abt. 56, Laufzeit: 1948–1978.