Posted on Tuesday, 15th, January, 2008
Prussian Blind Love
Axel Sabac el Cher lives today in the city of Stuttgart, the capital of the southwest German state of Baden-Wurttenberg neighbouring Bavaria. From his name and from the skin colour of his father who died in 1962, Axel knew that his ancestors had lived in Germany for generations. One day in 1999, a scientist from the Historical Military Museum in Dresden appeared at his door with an oil painting from 1890. The painting depicted an obviously loving couple happily and peacefully in each other’s arms. She had pale pink skin and reddish blonde hair. He was as dark as the Nubian he was, leaving no doubt that he was an African - but in the uniform of a Prussian Guard.
Gustav Sabac el Cher in a Prussian Military uniform ca. 1900
(German Historical Museum)
The German Historical Museum in Berlin had bought the painting from an arts dealer in Munich. The dealer’s father had supposedly acquired it during the war in his hometown of Königsberg. The father had no idea who was depicted in the painting but he knew that the famous 19th century painter Emil Doerstling had signed it and wrote down the time he finished painting it: 1890. That was the year when Emperor Wilhelm II drove Chancellor Bismarck out of office, the year when Germany’s pearl in East Africa, Zanzibar, was given over to the British in exchange for Helgoland, since then a German island in the Baltic Sea; the time Vincent van Gogh was painting a lot of self-portraits.
But how did it come about that an African was, in the 1800s, wearing the uniform of the imperial army? The Museum turned to the historian Gorch Pieken for expert advice, and the scientist took a dive into Prussian military history and the world of royal and imperial military music. And he came out with a find that has been filmed for the TV channel Arte in a documentary form as well as a book taking its title from the painting – Preussisches Liebesglück (Prussian Happy Love) - The story of an African in a Prussian uniform. The research began about this African in the imperial jacket, red collar, golden buttons and the white belt. The research took the historian to Königsberg, to be exact to the music corps of the 1st Prussian Grenadiers Regiment. Pieken found the lists of orchestras of the time and soon came upon the name Gustav Sabac el Cher. But who was he really? He started checking out lists of military music corps, christening certificates, private diaries of sojourners to Africa in the 19th century and many other documents. When he finally sorted out all the information, he had come up with the story about the painting and Gustav Sabac el Cher and the puzzle was solved.
In the beginning there was murder - In the 1840s in Prince Albrecht’s palace in Berlin. The marriage of the Prussian Prince Albrecht was on the rocks. He wanted to push his wife into a chamber. A sentry soldier screamed out of fear to be involved in an embarrassing situation. Albrecht, furious, stabbed the soldier. But a Prussian prince could not be sent to prison, in those days. Under such circumstances he would be sent out of the country for a while. Albrecht was sent to Egypt, a country very much in vogue in Europe at the time. At the same time, tons of antique treasures were being excavated and shipped off to Europe, Europeans had rediscovered a longing for the Orient, Cairo and the Nile, and the children of Africa as companions for good or evil, or merely as mementos. Mehmed Ali, the Viceroy of Egypt, gave Albrecht a little boy as a gift.
The “little Nubian boy” was first of all called by Prince Albrecht “Sabac el Cher” which translates to “Good morning”. It became the boy’s surname. He lived in the attic with other European servants and was taught the language and religion of his new land by Prussian teachers. At the age of sixteen, the memento was renamed August Albrecht Sabac el Cher in a christening ceremony where he became a Protestant. All this happened without anybody worrying about how the boy himself felt. In his birth certificate he is supposed to have been born in Cordovan, a Sudanese province.
August remained with the prince even when the prince married his second wife Rosalie, living primarily in Albrechtsberg Castle near Dresden and accompanying the prince on military expeditions to North Caucasus and Moscow where they visited Prince Albrecht’s nephew, the Tsar Alexander II. The Tsarina even gave Gustav a golden watch as a present. This watch is still the property of the family. Even in the Battle of Königgraz against Austria in 1866 young Sabac el Cher fought side by side with the Prussian prince.
Cher married quite young. In1867. The bride was a twenty-four-year-old Berlin young woman called Anna Maria Jung, whom he married in the Trinity Church, the church that today finds itself in the street called Mohrenstrasse (Moor Street), supposed to remind everybody of the first African in Berlin, these Africans who came in the 1600s from West Africa – the scene of slave trade “adventurers” from Brandenburg (read article: Pink Declines Whiteness). The records of the church notifications testify that the marriage had to be hurried, but mentions nothing about racism or prejudice. Three months later, Gustav was born, the musician in the painting and grandfather of Axel in Stuttgart…A year after that the daughter Elise was born. Love is forever fruitful where it can be.
There is now, next to Axel, Angela Sabac el Cher. She speaks freely of what difficulties she had as a child with such a surname. “It was very foreign and I didn’t know exactly where it came from. I came to terms with it at the age of fourteen or fifteen – that this name was mine. Then I swore to myself never to reject it.” This dark-haired woman, I remind myself, is Gustav’s great-great-granddaughter. The dark skin tone that the painter exaggerated in Gustav is long since gone. Apart from the colour of her hair, Angela is as pink as they come. She is forty-two, studied economy and is the managing director of a company producing recycled cooling equipments. She had never known about her family history and now takes it with surprise and estrangement. Up to now she only knew from her father a goodnight story about the “little Nubian boy” that was so enriched and told of a stolen son of a desert sheikh who had a huge army. “He’s supposed to have come from somewhere near Aswan,” Angela recalls the story. The story has also taken different angles and tinges owing to the division of Germany into East and West, historically. In Senzig in Brandenburg, south of Berlin, there are memories and relics of the family. Gustav is buried there on the side of his wife Gertrude. On the gravestone: “Former bandmaster/conductor, Grenadier in the Regiment of Crown Prince No. 1”
As a musician and conductor, Gustav was a star even after retiring from the military.
Formerly, Axel was a textile salesman but is now on pension, but from time to time he teaches diving in the Indian Ocean. Ever since the historian knocked on his door with the painting of his grandparents, Axel has joined the team of researchers digging for more details about his ancestors. He now knows that his grandfather Gustav was born in Prince Albrecht’s palace. Gustav was a musician only up to the First World War, and after that he was a highly successful bandmaster and conductor in the first radio orchestra at the beginning of the 1920s. Later he and his wife Gertrud Perlig run a garden café in König Wusterhausen. The unbelievable bits are for example that this man, photographed in a newspaper (where he of course does not look as “black” as in the painting – as usual!) is quoted during Hitler’s coming into power, that he thought the political change to Hitler was a good thing. But soon he and his wife had to close their “Negerlokal” – nigger café in König Wusterhausen. They went right ahead and opened a new one in Berlin but it didn’t help much. Gustav died in 1934.
The research has also uncovered a condolence written from the Netherlands to the widow Gertrud on the death of her husband by no less a person than Emperor Wilhelm, who himself died shortly afterwards. According to Pieke, both sons of the couple, Horst and Herbert were even darker-skinned than their father but served in Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Horst fell but Herbert, Axel’s father, became a violinist after the First World War at the Mannheim National Theatre.
The story of Africans towed over to Germany is long and goes back to the greatest of princes. The rulers in Germany and Europe as a whole saw possession of an African as a status symbol that put them above mere mortal citizens and brought great respect among fellow aristocrats. But Gustav Sabac el Cher is the only Afroancestral celebrated conductor in the Prussian army.