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Historisches Seminar

Johann Peter Oettinger: Slave Trade and Autobiographical Writing

An early modern craftsman, his journey and his manuscript

During fifteen years, Johann Peter Oettinger (1666-1746) - a young barber-surgeon from a small town in the German region of Franconia - kept a journal, recording his voyages on land and on sea. From 1682 to 1696 he documented his journeyman migration through the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic, as well as the years he worked on slave ships of the Dutch West India Company and the Brandenburg African Company. His travels took him as far as the Emirate of Trarza (Mauritania), the Gold Coast (Ghana), the Guianas in South America and the Danish Caribbean island of Saint Thomas. In nowadays Bénin he even spent a few weeks in the royal palace of King Agbangla of Hueda, of which he left a detailed description. Oettinger's journal represents the only German-language source providing a comprehensive account  of a slaving voyage and an important source on the history of the German involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.

The manuscript of Johann Peter Oettinger's "Reisebeschreibung und Lebenslauf" ("Travel account and Biography") - which has been recently re-discovered in the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Berlin) -  was copied and augmented several times, both by the author himself and by his descendants. Over time, it became a central piece of the family’s written memory, stretching from the seventeenth century to the early years of the Nazi period. The journal has thus a complex and stratified textual history: a history which culminated in 1885, when the German Empire had just started acquiring his first colonial territories in Africa and Berlin hosted the notorious Congo Conference. In this new context, a descendant of the barber-surgeon - the Prussian officer Paul Oettinger - re-wrote the story of his ancestor and published a highly manipulated colonial novel, celebrating the deeds of the Brandenburg African Company as the first colonial enterprise of the German nation.   

Focusing on the biography of a craftsman, this project examines those late seventeenth-century migratory, commercial and cultural ties which were woven by chartered trading companies and which connected German-speaking hinterlands to the coasts of West Africa and the Caribbean. At the same time it examines discursive continuities and transformations between the barber- surgeon’s journal, early modern travelogues and late nineteenth- century colonial culture. Hence, on a methodological level it combines a micro-historical approach to Atlantic entanglements with a diachronical analysis of interconnections between autobiographical writing and European travel literature about non-European societies.

English edition / Deutsche Edition

The English edition of Johann Peter Oettinger's travelogue has been published:

A German Barber-Surgeon in the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Seventeenth-Century Journal of Johann Peter Oettinger, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press 2020.

Together, Craig Koslofsky and Roberto Zaugg, are currently preparing a German edition of the Oettinger manuscript.

The research on the Oettinger manuscript has been funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the National Endowement for the Humanities (USA) and the Freie Akademische Gesellschaft Basel.

Mapping Oettinger's Journey (1682-1696)

  • Oettinger 1
  • Oettinger 2
  • Oettinger 3
  • Oettinger 4
  • Oettinger 5
  • Oettinger 6
  • Oettinger 7
  • Oettinger 8
  • Oettinger 9

Familienarchiv Oettinger / The Family Papers (17th-20th Centuries)

The manuscript of Johann Peter Oettinger's “Reisebeschreibung und Lebenslauf” (1682-1696) was handed down within the Oettinger family for many generations. In 1982 it was donated, with other old papers, to the Prussian archives in Berlin (Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz). The Oettinger Family Papers contain a heterogeneous array of documents: letters, genealogical notes, photographs, vaccination cards, telegraphs, school reports, and many others. They also include four autobiographical writing, which up to very recently have been completely ignored by scholars.

These materials allow for partial and selective insights into the history of a family of German craftsmen and militaries, from the 17th century to the early years of the Nazi regime. At the same time, this extraordinary multigenerational series of autobiographical texts attests narrative strategies and material efforts deployed in order to construct and conserve individual accounts and a constantly evolving masculine family memory.

Apart from the travel journal by barber-surgeon Johann Peter Oettinger, the family papers include…


  • the personal chronicle (1806-1831) – written down on the blank pages of a printed almanac (Schreibkalender) – by the old Leipzig pastry baker Georg Anton Oettinger (1745-1831): a text offering a rich account of the Napoleonic occupation of Saxony, the Battle of Leipzig (Völkerschlacht, 1813) and the tensions between German patriots and conservative forces during the Restauration;


  • the romantic travel diary by the young Prussian Lieutenant Friedrich Wilhelm Oettinger (1796-1861) about a leisure journey from Berlin to the Rhine River (1824), in which the author engages in intense reflections about the history and the cultural “essence” of the German nation; (Özhan Ezer is currently working on an edition of this travel journal)


  • the autobiography by infantry officer Paul Oettinger (1848-1934), recalling his youth in the military academies of Berlin and Potsdam, his participation in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870/1871) as well as his decades-long employment as editor-in-chief of the “Deutsche Militärzeitung”: a source which offers many insights into conservative military milieus of the German Empire.

Reviews & media coverage

  • UZH Magazin, 2021, n. 1, p. 69. 
  • Conversations at the Washington Library (podcast 196 and 197, 2021)
  • Illinois News Bureau (24/02/2021)
  • «A young man’s eyewitness account of the slave trade», Discover Unil, April 2017, web article.
  • «Editing and Translating a Seventeenth-Century Travel Journal, between Lausanne and Urbana-Champaign», History@Illinois, Spring 2017, p. 5. 
  • «C'est l'histoire d'un mec» by David Trotta, l'uniscope, 618 (November 2016), pp. 4-5. 
  • «Restoring a rare firsthand account to history» by Aaliyah Gibson, College of Liberal Arts & Science, University of Illinois, 7 October 2016, web article.