Image history: In action for Switzerland

Accra/Canoe Crew with H. Fleischhammer, 1911. Photo from the archive of the Basel Mission. Signature QU-30.003.0035

This picture with the title "Accra/Canoe Crew with H. Fleischhammer" from 1911 has often been used in publications about the Basel Mission. In the center, the employee of the Basel Mission Trading Company Franz Emil Fleischhammer poses in a casual posture, with white shirt, white shoes and a cigarette in his hand. Around him are grouped twelve locals. The object that one of the men is holding in his hand like a trophy is a paddle, like the ones used by the native rowers on the Gold Coast (today's Ghana) when they transported goods between the ocean-going ships and the coast in large canoes. It was extremely strenuous work to bring the heavy loads over the shore in the service of the European trading companies.

Symbolically in action for Switzerland
What is most striking about the picture is the clothing of the local canoeists: Barefoot, with different headgear, long pants and long-sleeved jerseys, a Swiss cross sewn on the chest. As is known, Switzerland did not have its own colonies. Nevertheless, representatives of Swiss organizations behaved according to the (European) zeitgeist of the time and made efforts to impose Western culture on the natives.
It can be assumed that the men from the Gold Coast did not wear the T-shirts with the foreign emblem voluntarily. The canoeists were "only" working for a trading company, but symbolically for Switzerland.
Apparently, the representatives of the trading company made an attempt, analogous to sports, to form a team out of the canoeists. With this, too, they were moving in the spirit of the times. In February 1905, just a few years before this picture was taken, the first appearance of a Swiss national football team took place, with the players wearing the red jersey with the white cross on the chest.

The picture with the canoeists, which can seem amusing at first, has a colonial context. It is not the only one in our photo collection. The scientific reappraisal of mission history and its colonial intertwining is an important concern for Mission 21. We regularly hold webinars on this subject.

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Text: Patrick Moser, Mission 21

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