“An Ethnographical Museum of Living Specimens”: Retelling the Social and Scientific Life of the Schlagintweit Expeditions in Asia in the Mid-1850s

This abstract has open access
Abstract Summary
The recurrent denial of indigenous agency and ambition in schemes of European explorations strongly suggests the need to overcome the myth of western solitary travellers by taking a new and multi-perspective look at the inner life of expeditions. This paper analyses significant facets of the programme launched by the three Schlagintweit brothers in and beyond the East India Company (EIC) realm in South Asia. Their enterprise is significant not least for the vast quantity of materials and documents it accumulated and the ambiguous relationship it maintained throughout with its main sponsor, the EIC, and other agents and patrons of imperial and European sciences. The mission offers rich opportunities for the historical examination of major themes in the study of imperial knowledge, changing scientific practices and of transnational and cross-cultural engagement. Against the existing literature, I squarely place the Schlagintweit expeditions into their colonial context by exploring how their ambitious survey programme of physical geography, climatology, soil science and ethnography depended heavily on the mobilisation of the colonial infrastructure of British India, including its technical services, prisons, hospitals and imperial knowledge networks. The paper closes by analysing how the German travellers sought to both acknowledge the vital role of indigenous participation and instruction in their enterprise in published accounts, and the brothers’ simultaneous attempt to maintain their own authority as supposed ‘leaders’ in front of European audiences by portraying their South Asian companions as reliable and calibrated but ultimately inferior ‘instruments’ in the execution of their large-scale mission.
Abstract ID :
Submission Type
Organized Session
Abstract Topic
Aspects of Scientific Practice/Organization
Chronological Classification :
19th century
Self-Designated Keywords :
British India, Indigenous knowledges, field sciences, European colonialism, social structure of expeditions

Associated Sessions