The Plantation and the City: Rubber, Labour, Cologne (2)

After dipping into research on the Kölnische Gummifäden-Fabrik, its colonial connections, and the lack of collective memory on the site, I wanted to explore different ways of writing with the historical material. After the workshop “Speculative Actions” at the Akademie der Künste der Welt in September, I took part in the subsequent sci-fi-a-thon and played with a few ideas. Here’s the text I wrote and read.

School Is Over. They Said

Ok I can take you, I had said in an unguarded moment, and there you are, standing at the former entrance to the yard, looking uncomfortable in your civilian clothes in this area of the space movers, who emerged from the „the 1 percent“, not knowing what to expect, and of course you wonder if the agreement was a mistake on both our sides. When you had to decide, when school was over, you chose earth and science and the field, and how could you have done otherwise, all those Fridays formed your mind and body, with both feet on the ground, the air had become an no go-zone for all of you, and sometimes I had wondered when you would ditch your footwear for good as well and grow those ugly roots. With the decision we had parted ways, and it was the accident on the bridge, where neither of us needed camouflage, because water, where we met and reconnected.

So, now, I hand you over the suit and watch you struggle with the unfamiliar gear, especially the hand part. How to fit something in where there is only place for no-thing, I can see how that would take time and some sweat and expletives. The winds are favourable, you the lucky child, always, I remember that, and I can steer the bubble easily for you to enter. Yes, you would ask about numbers and technology, not understanding how we were powered by stories, and I can sense already how this visit will end unpleasantly. I can only hope that you will not report on it because the information would neither bring more resources to your lab nor enhance your product. The irony, the total disregard for us flyers, and the lack of imagination, in not seeing how we would melt into the artists and, finally, how the rubber trees would choose to join us, and how our energy was not to be harvested for others, much less by others.

Even you, the gifted earther, had not been able to anticipate the biggest mistake of the space movers here, calculating that by destroying the old brick and iron and concrete structure, minus the decades of pigeon shit, and by employing asbestos protection infrastructure in the process, and all those security guards, the energy would again manifest as concrete gold along the street, earth bound, gravity in place. But no, quietly, subversively, thankfully no. Powerfully no. The rubber trees had remembered, and the plantation workers, and the women on the factory floors, and the apprentices at the machines, and the trainees painting the walls. They all had remembered: how leaf became hand, how hand became rubber, how rubber became woman, how woman became boy, how boy became machine, how machine became place, how place became school. On earth, school is over. Where the bubble takes you now, school is everything. You still don’t understand.

You speak of that, as we ascend, as the rubber of the bubble stretches in the trajectory of the old chimney, as you can see how the imprint of the former forest realizes itself further west, you speak of the shock when so many of the trees chose to leave, of the un-growth, of the dis-solidarity. How you had expected a dangerous cloud now and then, like the earlier mushroom kin in the air, how you and everybody else had kept their masks ready, and how long it had taken to re-adjust to the emptied fields and parks. You are not able to use our language, you are not giving in, you are not able to speak of it, of migration and loss and nightmares and grief. Your children came programmed, a protective measure you say, and anyway, why should they waste capacity in learning of the trees if they will never meet them, it would not be productive. As the city becomes smaller, you also remind me how the veins of the forest-botanical garden in the south have been erased completely, before you recall that our trees do not remember this site. But we both notice it, how you do not mind to talk of my pain, and you pause.

You try to play it cool when we arrive, to focus on the faces, to not look at limbs at all. You know about the outcome of my decision and therefore feel comfortable around me, but it takes you courage and discipline to step over into the busy welcome cell, I can tell by the flicker in your eyes. You want to speak to our elders, even though the visit would take a form of patience which you normally don’t display, I could tell back on the bridge by the urgency in your voice. You really do not need to inform me that earth spins faster since the trees left, I understood long ago, where would you learn of slow-time after the layers below your feet kept their vows of silence, even those shifted and exposed and accessible. You are asked to absorb the rules for your schooling today, I had explained early on, we do not hand over, we use breath to communicate. The time has come to meet the elders.

While you stand still, the first elder has moved his cell right next to us, so you can easily step over, and it is daytime still, so you need to pull up the face cover only, out of consideration for their health. You exchange your first pulses, and the cell switches to transparent mode, and it dawns on me: we are above water, and here, and now, is where the potential opens, and the schooling might lead to reproduction, and reproduction might lead to our destimation or to yours or to the multitude that has not been dreamed of since the migration. 

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.

Going Dutch: On Research, History, and Memory in Translation

For my current research on a Dutch text from the late 17th century Moluccas, I identify as a historian in an interdisciplinary project at the Institute of Dutch Language and Literature at the University of Cologne. Yesterday I was working in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Den Haag, with two volumes of Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal lying at my desk, when a middle-aged Dutch man approached me about my work. About Rumphius?! In Leiden, surely? The misunderstanding might have originated in me whispering in my mongrel Dutch. On the other hand, with a few conferences in the Netherlands behind my back, it seems to me that research at the interface of art history, colonialism, and early modern history of knowledge is transnationalised, while projects on the “hardware” of the Dutch Golden Age and one of its canonised figures are imagined only within the confines of patriotism. Leiden, in shorthand, used to be the training ground for colonial officials. So I find myself switching languages and codes, and more often than not missing the default position for academic exchange at a given place and time.

Two weeks ago, the Cologne working group on global history discussed Sebastian Conrads’s take on “Global history for whom? The politics of global history” (chapter 10 of his 2016 book “What Is Global History?” – also a shoutout to PhD-candidates Alexander van Wickeren and Melina Teubner for concept and organisation!). Within this field, according to Conrad, English has become the “hegemonic language”, and Asia a “privileged subject of global history writing”. And the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), the Dutch East Indies (Nederlands-Indië), and today’s Indonesia are placed at the fringe, if not even overlooked. The translation of documents from paper to digital records, as for example on the website TANAP (Towards a New Age of Partnership in Dutch East India Company Archives and Reasearch,, accessed 22 February 2017), does not equal resources for translation into English. Sources from the 17th and 18th century were written in Dutch, or Malay using Arabic script, while current research is still published in Dutch and Bahasa Indonesia. In my case, the original Dutch-Latin print version of the Amboinsche Kruid-boek from the 1740s has been digitised (, accessed 22 February 2017), but not the English translation.

Webseite Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, 22 February 2017 (Screenshot eha)

A few hours later, most of us met again for a lecture in the framework of the Global South Studies Centre (GSSC). Marcel van der Linden from the Internationaal instituut voor sociale geschiedenis (iisg) in Amsterdam spoke about “Precarianization, household labour and slavery: a global-history perspective”. As I am looking into the representation of slavery in the texts of the Ambonese Herbal at the moment, his arguments on slavery and capitalism resonated, especially his short case study of Barbados. For van der Linden, the so-called sugar revolution on the Caribbean island made it the first fully commodified society around 1650, regarding both consumption and production, with labour discipline and time management under unfree conditions in the cane fields as precursors to factory norms and scientific management. I was wondering how Barbados compared to Banda Neira at the same time, especially in regard to the tight management of the spice trees themselves – a commodification of live plants perhaps? To pose the question proved rather difficult: How to be concise and understandable at the same time? How to explain the emptying of the land with the genocidal politics of governor-general Jan Pieterszoon Coen in 1621, the establishment of perken (plantations) with Dutch or European perkeniers and Asian slaves, and the ecopolitics of the yearly hongi-tochten (military campaigns drawing local ships and VOC troops) for the extirpatie (controlling by cutting) of nutmeg and clove trees without giving a small lecture myself?

Barbados, it seems, is a stand-in for the British empire, and basic knowledge about its regime in the Caribbean can be assumed. Banda Neira, on the other hand, is a speck on the world map few historians would find immediately. If research in global history is focused on today’s geopolitical powers, and conceptionalised in terms of landmass ruled, whole regions might become marginalised if not invisible. But if development turns out to be a less important analytical category than sustainability in times of climate change, the comparison of island worlds and the discussion of their interconnectedness might be crucial (as Amitav Gosh has sketched in his piece on “What Nutmeg Can Tell Us About Nafta”, New York Times, 30 December 2016,, accessed 22 February 2017).

After my question, Marcel van der Linden retold the history of Banda for the audience in Cologne. He began with describing the monument of Coen in his neighbourhood in Amsterdam and ended with a statement along the lines of “this was not a good part of our history”, thus introducing questions of commemorative culture and morality to the discussion. Ideally, we would have time and space to reflect on our respective academic and cultural settings at such a point.