Sankt Thomas

[This page by Dagmar Paulus]

Sankt Thomas; Saint Thomas (1866)

So mochte denn vielleicht seinerzeit, wenn die Umstände günstig waren, ein dumpfes Gerücht davon gen Madrid oder zum Eskorial gelangen und dem Herrn Don Philipp dem Dritten das Achselzucken der Könige entlocken.

If circumstances are fortunate, a distant rumour of these events will perhaps one day reach Madrid or the Escorial and make Mr Don Philipp the Third give the shrug of kings.

The short and – undeservedly – not very well-known novella Sankt Thomas (published in 1866) is set on a tiny island in the Gulf of Guinea, nowadays called São Tomé. The historical background of the plot is the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish occupation at the end of the sixteenth century. The key events of this conflict took place on the European continent when the Dutch successfully rebelled against the repressive Spanish rule. Raabe’s novella, however, tells the story of the siege and eventual destruction of a Spanish fortress on the island Sankt Thomas at the hands of the Dutch fleet. For the course of the war this event was altogether irrelevant, just an unremarkable episode on the historical periphery. For the people involved, however, it was a violent experience of bloodshed and devastation, completely devoid of meaning – and this discrepancy is just what Raabe is interested in:

Wie blaß, wie gleichgültig, wie nichtssagend das Alles im Laufe der Jahrhunderte geworden ist! Zwei oder drei Zeilen in einer spanischen oder holländischen Chronik, eine Seite oder eine halbe in einer deutschen Geschichte der Vereinigten Niederlande!

How pale, how indifferent, how empty all this has become over the course of the centuries! Two or three lines in a Spanish or Dutch chronicle, half a page or a page in a German history of the United Netherlands!

With its pessimistic view of historical processes and the futility of human endeavours to change the course of things, Sankt Thomas differs remarkably from Die Schwarze Galeere although both novellas have the same historical situation as background.

At the centre of the plot is the young Camilla Drago, niece of the Spanish governor of the island. Before she arrived on the island Sankt Thomas, she had been held hostage in the Netherlands for some years in the house of a Dutch couple where she had also met their son Georg. A mutual romantic interest between the two is vaguely intimated but never fully spelt out.

Later on, Georg takes part in the Dutch attack on the Spanish fortress on Sankt Thomas. When he learns that Camilla is among those besieged in the fortress and in fact spearheading its defence after her uncle’s death, he attempts in vain to rescue her. Both perish during the Dutch onslaught without having met again. With the aid of a local native tribe, the Dutch are victorious but the sudden outbreak of a lethal tropical disease decimates the survivors of the battle, forcing them to leave abruptly. In the end, a native princess sings a song of triumph over the destroyed fortress, celebrating her people’s victory over colonial rule. At the same time, a Dutch priest, one of the few survivors of the battle, restlessly paces the bleak seaside in the Netherlands, haunted by the horrors of war he witnessed on the island.

English Translation

‘St. Thomas’, trans. by John E. Woods, in German Novellas of Realism II, ed. by Jeffrey L. Sammons, The German Library 38 (New York: Continuum, 1989), pp. 29-73

Further Reading in German

Florian Krobb, 'Geschichtsskepsis und Schillerrevision in Wilhelm Raabes Erzählung "Sankt Thomas" (1866)', Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft 47 (2003), 266-79