Frederick Engels: Reports from Bremen

An Outing to Bremerhaven [89]

Written: in July 1840
First published: in Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser Nos. 196-200, August 17-21, 1841

Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser No. 196, August 17, 1841

Bremen, July

The Roland was due to leave at six o'clock in the morning. I stood leaning against the wheel-house and looked for familiar faces in the throng of people pushing to get on board the steamer. For today a Sunday outing to Bremerhaven had been arranged, and at reduced prices, so everybody took the opportunity to get a little nearer to the sea and to look at some big ships. I thought it strange that the craze for profit, which otherwise continually serves the monied aristocracy, should here for once make some concessions to democracy. The price reduction made it possible for the more impecunious to join in, and in addition the distinction between first and second class had been eliminated, which means a great deal in Bremen where the “upper crust” shy at nothing so much as mixed company. So the steamer became very full. True Bremen burghers, who had never once left the territory of the free Hanseatic town [90] and now wanted to show their families the port, formed the core of the party; coopers, emigrants and journeymen were also there in large numbers; here and there a man from the stock exchange was standing apart from the crowd since he belonged to high society, and everywhere one saw the pawns who are always pushed forward on the chessboard of a trading city, the office clerks, who are again divided into agents, senior apprentices and juniors. The agent already regards himself as an important person; he is only one step from independence; he is the factotum of his firm, he knows the situation of his house inside out, he is familiar with the state of the market and the brokers crowd around him at the stock exchange. Nor does the senior apprentice think much less of himself; although he is not on the same footing with his master as the agent, he already knows very well how to deal with a broker and especially a cooper or boatman and in the absence of the master and the agent he displays the consciousness that he now represents the firm and that the credit of an entire house depends on his conduct. The junior, however, is an unfortunate creature; at most, he represents the merchant house to the worker who packs the goods, or the postman in whose area the office is situated. As well as having to copy out all the business letters and bills of exchange, deliver invoices and pay them, he must also be the universal messenger boy, take letters to the post, tie up parcels, mark crates, and fetch letters from the post. Every day at noon you can see the post-office crowded with these “juniors”, waiting for the mail from Hamburg. And worst of all, the junior must take the blame for whatever goes wrong in the office, for it is part of his calling to be the scapegoat for the entire office. These three classes also keep strictly separate in society: the juniors, who for the most part have not yet worn out their school boots, like to laugh loudly and make much ado about nothing; the senior apprentices zealously debate the latest big purchase made by a sugar merchant, and each one has his own conjectures about it; the agents smile at jokes which are not for publication and could tell you a thing or two about the ladies present.

Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser No. 197, August 18, 1841

Bremen, July

The steamer set off. Although the people of Bremen can see such a spectacle every day, Bremish curiosity had to make itself felt nevertheless in the enormous mass of people who watched our departure from every vantage point on the shore. — The weather was not too promising; for it was the same old metallic sky of which Homer tells, though the side turned towards us, which the eternal gods do not have polished every day, had a considerable coating of rust. More than once a drop of rain extinguished my cigar with a hiss. The dandies who had up to now carried their mackintoshes over the arm found they had to put them on, and the ladies opened their umbrellas. — Seen from the Weser, the view of Bremen as you leave it is very pretty; on the left the new town with its long “dyke” planted with trees, on the right the gardens on the earthwork which stretch down to the Weser here and are crowned with a colossal windmill. But then comes the Bremen desert, willow bushes right and left, marshy fields, potato patches and a mass of broccoli fields. Broccoli is the favourite dish of the people of Bremen.

A lanky assistant insurance broker stood on the wheel-house, in spite of the pouring rain and sharp wind, and conversed in Low German with the captain who was quietly drinking his coffee. Then he hurried below again to a company of second-class merchants to report to them on the important pronouncements of the captain. The agents and the senior apprentices almost fought to get near this respected personality, but he took no notice of them, for today he was only speaking to established houses. Now he hurried down from the wheel-house with the news: “In a quarter of an hour we'll be in Vegesack.” “Vegesack!” repeated all the hearers delightedly, for Vegesack is the oasis of the Bremen desert, in Vegesack there are mountains sixty foot high, and the people of Bremen even speak of the “Vegesack Switzerland”. Vegesack is indeed situated quite prettily, or, as one saw here, “nicely” or “sweetly”, which makes one think of the latest consignment of brown sugar from Havana sold so advantageously. The view of the place from the Weser is charming; before you reach it you see many ships’ hulls on the Weser, some worn out, others newly built here. The Lesum flows into the Weser here and its hills also form quite “nice” banks which are even considered to be romantic, or so the schoolmaster from Grohn, a village near Vegesack, assured me on his honour. Soon after Vegesack the sea of sand really tries to send up some decent waves and descends fairly steeply into the Weser. Here are the villas of the Bremen aristocracy whose gardens add greatly to the beauty of the Weser’s banks for a short distance. Then it becomes dull and boring again. — I went below and in a little side room of the saloon found a crowd of “senior apprentices”, who had hoisted all their sails to entertain three pretty tailor’s daughters fittingly; a crowd of “juniors” jostled each other at the door, listening eagerly to the talk of the senior apprentices; behind them stood the ladies’ garde d'honneur, an old friend of the family, growling in annoyance at their behaviour. The conversation bored me, so I went back on deck and stood on the wheel-house. Nothing is more enjoyable than to stand like this above a crowd of people, to watch the thronging and to hear the babel of words rising from below. The fresh breeze has greater freshness up here, and if the rain is also felt more freshly, it is at least better than the drops which a philistine shakes down your neck from his umbrella.

Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser No. 198, August 19, 1841

Bremen, July

At last, after various uninteresting Hanover and Oldenburg villages, came a pleasant change, the free port of Bracke, its houses and trees forming an effective background to the ships on the Weser. Quite large sea-going vessels come as far as this, and the Weser is impressively wide from here on downstream except where it is broken up by islands. — The steamer went on after a brief stop and an hour and a half later we had reached our goal, in about six hours’ sailing altogether. As the fort of Bremerhaven came into view a book-dealer of my acquaintance quoted Schiller, the insurance broker quoted the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, and a merchant quoted the latest issue of the import list. With a splendid curve the steamer entered the Geest’ a little river which flows into the Weser near Bremerhaven. But in spite of the captain’s warnings, the passengers crowded too near the bow of the ship, and the water being at its lowest ebb, the Roland, the representative of Bremen’s independence, ran aground on the sand with a jolt. The passengers dispersed, the engines reversed, and the Roland managed to get off the sandbank.

Bremerhaven is a young town. In 1827 Bremen bought a narrow strip of land from Hanover and had the port built there at enormous cost. Gradually an entire Bremen colony moved into it, and the population is still growing. Hence, everything here is Bremish, from the style of the buildings to the Low German language of the inhabitants, and the Bremen people of the old sort, who were perhaps irritated by the extraordinary tax levied to buy the strip of land, can now hardly conceal their pleasure when they see how beautiful, how practical, how Bremish everything is. — You get the best view of the whole straight from the steamer jet y. A beautiful, broad quay with the colossal port building in the middle standing out in unsuccessful antique style; the whole length of the port, with all its ships; on the left and beyond it the little fort which is occupied by Hanoverian soldiers, while its brick walls show only too clearly that it is there only pro forma. It is thus quite consistent that no one is allowed inside, although such permission is easily obtained for any Prussian fortress. — We walked along the quay in the rain. Now and then a side street offered a view into the centre of the town; everything is rectangular, the streets straight as a ruler, and the houses often still in the process of building. Only this modern layout of the place forms a contrast to Bremen. With the bad weather and church services not yet over, the streets were as quiet as in Bremen.

Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser No. 199, August 20, 1841

Bremen, July

I went on board a big frigate the deck of which was full of emigrants who stood watching the “yawl” being hauled up. A yawl here is any boat which has a keel and is therefore suitable for service at sea. The people were still cheerful; they had not yet trodden the last clod of their native soil. But I have seen how deeply it affects them when they really leave German soil forever, when the ship, with all its passengers on board, slowly moves from the quay into the roadstead and thence sails into the open sea. They are almost all true German faces, without falseness, with strong arms, and you need only be among them for a moment and see the cordiality with which they greet each other to realise that it is certainly not the worst elements who leave their Fatherland to settle in the land of dollars and virgin forests. The saying: stay at home and feed yourself honestly [Cf. Psalms 37:3] seems to be made for the Germans, but this is not so; people who want to feed themselves honestly go, very often at least, to America. And it is by no means always lack of food, much less greed, which drives these people into distant lands; it is the German peasant’s uncertain position between serfdom and independence, it is the inherited bondage and the rules and regulations of the patrimonial courts [91] which make his food taste sour and disturb his sleep until he decides to leave his Fatherland.

The people going over on this ship were Saxons. We went below to take a look at the inside of the ship. The saloon was most elegantly and comfortably appointed; a little square room, everything elegant, mahogany inlaid with gold, as in an aristocratic drawing-room. In front of the saloon were the berths for the passengers in small, nice little cabins; from an open door by the side we got a whiff of ham from the larder. We had to go on deck again to reach the steerage by another companion-way: “But it’s terrible down there”, [Schiller, Der Taucher] all my companions quoted when we got back. Down there lay the dregs who had not enough money to spend ninety talers on the cabin class fare, the people to whom nobody raises a hat, whose manners some here call common, others uneducated, a plebs which owns nothing, but which is the best any king can have in his realm and which alone upholds the German principle, particularly in America. It is the Germans in the cities who have taught the Americans their deplorable contempt for our nation. The German merchant makes it a point o honour to discard his Germanness and become a complete Yankee ape. This hybrid creature is happy if the German in him is no longer noticed, he speaks English even to his compatriots, and when he returns to Germany he acts the Yankee more than ever. English is often heard in the streets of Bremen, but it would be a great mistake to take every English speaker for a Britisher or a Yankee. The latter always speak German when they come to Germany in order to learn our difficult language; but these English speakers are invariably Germans who have been to America. It is the German peasant alone, perhaps also the craftsman in the coastal towns, who adheres with iron firmness to his national customs and language, who, separated from the Yankees by the virgin forests. the Allegheny mountains and the great rivers, is building a new, free Germany in the middle of the United States; in Kentucky, Ohio and in Western Pennsylvania only the towns are English, while everybody in the countryside speaks German. And in his new Fatherland the German has learnt new virtues without losing the old ones. The German corporative spirit has developed into one of political, free association; it presses the government daily to introduce German as the language of the courts in the German counties,’ it creates German newspapers one after another, which are all devoted to the calm, level-headed endeavour to develop existing elements of freedom, and, as the best proof of its strength, it has caused the “Native Americans"’ party to be founded which has spread through all the states and aims to hinder immigration and to make it difficult for the immigrant to acquire citizenship. [92]

“But it’s terrible down there.” All round the steerage runs a row of berths, several close together and even one above the other. An oppressive air reigns here, where men, women and children are packed next to one another like paving stones in the street, the sick next to the healthy, all together. Every moment one stumbles over a heap of clothes, household goods, etc; here little children are crying, there a head is raised from a berth. It is a sad sight; and what must it be like when a prolonged storm throws everything into confusion and drives the waves across the deck, so that the hatch, which alone admits fresh air, cannot be opened! And yet, the arrangements on the Bremen ships are the most humane. Everybody knows what it is like for the majority who travel via Le Havre. Afterwards we visited another, an American, ship; they were cooking, and when a German woman standing nearby saw the bad food and even worse preparation she said weeping bitterly that if she had known this before she would rather have stayed at home.

Morgenblatt für gebildete Leser No. 200, August 21, 1841]

Bremen, July

We went back to the inn. The prima donna of our theatre sat there in a corner with her husband, its ultimo uomo, and with several other actors; the rest of the company was very dull, and so I reached for some printed matter that lay on the table, of which an annual report on Bremen trade was the most interesting. I took it and read the following passages:

“Coffee in demand in summer and autumn, until slacker conditions set in towards winter. Sugar enjoyed a steady sale, but the actual idea for this only came with rising supplies.”

What is a poor man of letters to say when he sees how the manner of expression not only of modern belies-lettres but of philosophy is infecting the style of the broker! Conditions and ideas in a trade report — who would have expected that! I turned the page and found the description:

“Superfine medium good ordinary real Domingo coffee.”

I asked the agent of one of the leading Bremen merchant shippers who happened to be present what this superfine designation might mean. He replied: “Look at this sample I have just taken from a consignment delivered to us; that description will fit it roughly.” Thus I learned that superfine medium good ordinary real Domingo coffee is a pale grey-green coffee from the island of Haiti, each pound of which has fifteen half-ounces of good beans, ten half-ounces of black beans and seven half-ounces of dust, small stones and other rubbish. I then let myself be initiated into several other mysteries of Hermes and in this way passed the time until midday, when we partook of a very indifferent meal and were called back to the steamer by the bell. The rain abated at last, and no sooner had the steamer “laid” the Geest than the clouds broke and the rays of the sun fell bright and warming on our still wet clothes. To everybody’s astonishment, however, the steamer did not go upstream, but down the roadstead where a proud three-master had just anchored. We had barely reached the middle of the current when the waves grew bigger and the steamer began to pitch noticeably. Who, if he has ever been to sea, does not feel his pulse quicken when he senses this sign of the proximity of the seal For a moment he believes he is again going out into the free, roaring sea, into the deep, clear green of the waves, right into the middle of that marvellous light which is created by the sun, azure and sea together; he involuntarily begins to find his sea-legs again. The ladies, however, were of a different opinion, looked at each other in fright and grew pale, while the steamer, “in a gallant style” a as the English say, described a semicircle around the newly arrived ship and picked up its captain. The assistant insurance broker was just explaining to some gentlemen, who had vainly endeavoured to find the ship’s name on the bow, that according to the number on its flag it was the Maria, Captain Ruyter, and that according to Lloyd’s list it had sailed from Trinidad de Cuba between such-and-such a date, when the captain came up the steamer’s companion-way. Our assistant insurance broker met him, shook his hand with the expression of a protector, asked how the voyage had been, what cargo he was carrying, and in general conducted a long discourse with him in Low German, while I listened to the flatteries which the book-dealer was lavishing on the half-naive, half-flirtatious tailor’s daughters.

The sun went down in full glory. A glowing ball, it hung in a net of clouds, the strands of which seemed already to have caught fire, so that one expected it to burn through the net at any moment and drop hissing into the river! But it sank calmly behind a group of trees which looked like Moses’ burning bush., Truly, both here and there God speaks with a loud voice! But the hoarse croaking of a member of the Bremen opposition tried to shout Him down; this clever man was straining hard to prove to his neighbour that it would have been much wiser to deepen the fairway of the Weser for larger ships instead of building Bremerhaven. Unfortunately, the opposition here is too often motivated by envy of the power of the patricians than by the consciousness that the aristocracy resists the rational state, and in this matter its representatives are so narrow-minded that talking to them about the affairs of Bremen is as difficult as to firm supporters of the Senate. [93] — Both parties convince one more and more that such small states as Bremen have outlived themselves and even in a mighty union of states would lead a life under pressure from without and phlegmatically senile within. — Now we were close to Bremen. The high spire of the Church of Ansgarius, with which our “church troubles” were connected, rose from moor and heath, and soon we reached the tall warehouses framing the right bank of the Weser.