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The Devil’s Handwriting

Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa

Germany’s overseas colonial empire was relatively short lived, lasting from 1884 to 1918. During this period, dramatically different policies were enacted in the colonies: in Southwest Africa, German troops carried out a brutal slaughter of the Herero people; in Samoa, authorities pursued a paternalistic defense of native culture; in Qingdao, China, policy veered between harsh racism and cultural exchange.
Why did the same colonizing power act in such differing ways? In The Devil’s Handwriting, George Steinmetz tackles this question through a brilliant cross-cultural analysis of German colonialism, leading to a new conceptualization of the colonial state and postcolonial theory. Steinmetz uncovers the roots of colonial behavior in precolonial European ethnographies, where the Hereros were portrayed as cruel and inhuman, the Samoans were idealized as “noble savages,” and depictions of Chinese culture were mixed. The effects of status competition among colonial officials, colonizers’ identification with their subjects, and the different strategies of cooperation and resistance offered by the colonized are also scrutinized in this deeply nuanced and ambitious comparative history.

608 pages | 12 color plates, 78 halftones, 6 maps, 3 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning

African Studies

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: African History, Asian History, European History

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


The Devil’s Handwriting is a masterly study of the capacious nature of the colonial form. Comparing three twentieth- century German colonies, Steinmetz demonstrates with great acuity the multiple ways that German administrators and ethnographers deployed the rule of difference in the management of colonial populations. I know of no other study of the colonial state that combines such a breathtaking depth and breadth of archival analysis with such an acute sensibility of the play of difference within the rule of difference. The writing is open, engaging, personable, even as the material is, at times, devastating.”

Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Columbia University

“A book of extraordinary erudition and theoretical acuity, The Devil’s Handwriting opens up an entirely new angle of vision on the colonial state, on its regimes of knowledge, its techniques of governance, its diverse historical determinations. Steinmetz’s comparative grasp of the colonial archive is astounding; with this volume he reframes the field of colonial studies tout court. A truly impressive achievement.”

John L. Comaroff, Harold W. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago

“In this careful study of three very different cases within a short-lived and spatially limited overseas empire, George Steinmetz sheds brilliant new light on both the general nature of the colonial state and the outward projection of Germany’s exceptional path to modernity.”

Ralph A. Austen, University of Chicago

"The lengthy theoretical introduction offers a critical base for future scholarly debate on colonialism. . . . An essential addition to library collections on European colonialism."


"The wealth of detail and information synthesized here is remarkable, and the book as a whole goes a long way towards filling an inexplicable gap in the historical literature."

Gurminder K. Bhambra | Canadian Journal of Sociology

"The book is thought-provoking, as it offers substantial evidence of the fact that colonial regimes were not uniform, but highly complex and heterogeneous. The study warrants much attention from scholars, especially as it is one of the few works on German colonial history that applies a comparative approach."

Birthe Kundrus | International History Review

"Steinmetz’s study is pathbreaking. He demonstrates convincingly that a comparative approach to Germany’s overseas possessions is possible and, more inmportantly, necessary, especially if one wants to understand more completely German colonialism with all its nuances, its continuities and discontinuities, its similarities and its differences."

Daniel Walther | Journal of World History

"Steinmetz’s vast and detailed examination of ’native policy’ in three very different German colonies provides a welcome intervention into long-standing and sometimes stale debates. He makes a convincing case that managing and stabilizing local populations . . . were the chief concern of the modern colonial state, and he proposes a flexible framework to help explain vast divergences in the treatment of colonial subjects."

Jeff Bowersox | German History

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations




 Introduction: Ethnography and the Colonial State
  Three Colonies
  Making Sense of Colonial Variations
  The Specificity of the Colonial State
  Precolonial Mimicry and the Central Role of Native Policy
  Toward an Explanation: The Colonial State as Social field
  Symbolic and Imaginary Identifications
  Resistance, Collaboration, and Infections of Native Policy by Its Addressees
  Imperial Germany and the German Empire


  "A World Composed Almost Entirely of Contradictions": Southwest Africans in German Eyes, before Colonialism
  Precolonial and Protocolonial Imagery of Southwest Africans
  The Khoikhoi: The Path to Precolonial Mimicry
  The Rehoboth Basters: Pure Intermediacy
  The Ovaherero: A Radically Simplified Ethnographic Discourse
  Toward Colonialism

  From Native Policy to Genocide to Eugenics: German Southwest Africa
  Accessing the Inaccessible
  The Germans and the Witbooi People
  "Rivers of Blood and Rivers of Money": Germans and Ovaherero
  Collaboration and the Rule of Difference: The Reheboth Basters under German Rule


  "A Foreign Race That All Travelers Have Agreed to be the Most Engaging": The Creation of the Samoan Noble savage, by way of Tahiti
  The Idea of Polynesian Noble Savagery
  Europeans on Polynesia in the Wake of Wallis and Bougainville: The Tahitian Metonym
  Polynesia and Tahiti in German Eyes, 1770s-1850
  Nineteenth-Century Social Change in Polynesia and the Increasing Attractiveness of Samoa
  Nineteenth-Century Samoa: From Lapérouse to the Germans
  The Evolution of European and German Representations of Samoa
  Precolonial Guidelines for a Future Native Policy
  "The Spirit of the German Nation at Work in the Antipodes": German Colonialism in Samoa, 1900-1914
  Salvage Colonialism
  The Sources of Native Policy in Samoa
  Class distinction and Class Exaltation
  Conclusion: Resistance and the Limits on Colonial Native Policy


  The Foreign Devil’s Handwriting: German Views of China before "Kiautschou"
  Europe’s Cathay
  German Views of China in the Era of Sinomania
  The Rise of Sinophobia
  German Sinophobia
  En Route to Quingdao: Speaking of the Devil
  Multivocality in German Representations of China at the End of the Nineteenth Century
  Toward "German-China"

  A Pact with the (Foreign) Devil: Qingdao as a Colony
  Bumrush the Show: Germans in Colonial Kiaochow, 1897-1905
  Shaken, Not Stirred: Segregated Colonial Space and Radical Alterity During the First Phase of German Colonialism in Kiaochow, 1897-1904
  German Native Policy in Kiaochow, Compared
  Early Native Policy and the Haunting of Sinophobia by Sinophilia
  The Seminar for Oriental Languages and German Sinology as a Conduit for Sinophilia
  Rapproachment: The Second Phase of German Colonialism in Kiaochow, 1905-14
  Explaining the Shift in Native Policy

  Conclusion: Colonial Afterlives

Appendix 1: A Note on Sources and Procedures
Appendix 2: Head Administrators of German Southwest Africa, Samoa, and Kiaochow


Social Science History Association: Allan Sharlin Memorial Award in Social Science History

Comparative and Historical Sociology section, American Sociological Association: Barrington Moore Book Award

ASA Culture Section: Mary Douglas Prize

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