Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Historiography

On Biography

doing research

Every year, history conferences feature panels about biography. These are not talks which offer a biography in the manner of A & E’s Biography Channel  (which profiles Kirstie Alley tonight) but ones that consider biography as a genre. They come with titles like “Making a Case for Biography: New Methods in the History of X.”

Why do professional historians feel the need to defend biographies? They have never stopped writing them.  Academic presses remain eager to publish them. Yet biography still carries a reputation of being popular at the expense of being deep, of being an intellectual lightweight in a world of hipper, higher-powered genres: micro-histories, cultural histories, comparative histories, and transnational histories. In the high-cultural universe of academic writing, biography is Gilligan’s Island.

There are many reasons for this, but one key reason is structure. Biography focuses on the role of individuals in shaping events. As such, it sails against the wind of modern scholarship which, for forty years or so, has located historical change in institutions, corporations, governments, and national cultures. And individuals? Go to Barnes and Nobles.

Moreover, biography is tricky as a genre because it sometimes lures historians into thinking that they are really psychoanalysts, that they can interpret the thoughts and feelings of their subjects. If Freud couldn’t ferret out the real causes of his patients’ behavior, why do we think biographers will prove any better at it with people who are dead?

Sigmund Freud's Couch

Sigmund Freud's Couch

That said, I like biographies. If the genre has limitations, it also has spirit. Whether or not people offer a useful way to look at historical change, they are interesting to read about. And the way biographers choose to tell the stories of individuals is interesting too.

john ledyard

For example, Ed Gray’s biography of John Ledyard (which I reviewed here) gives a rich account of Ledyard’s travels. Yet Gray avoids the temptation to put him on the couch and Ledyard remains a mysterious figure, a shadow in the foreground of a brightly painted world.

By contrast, Tim Jeal is far freer with his psychological analysis of Henry Morton Stanley. This should probably make me uneasy. But Jeal builds his psychological hypothesizing on a solid foundation of evidence. He has done his homework on Stanley, a man who left an Africa-sized archive of primary source material.

Better yet, Jeal uses his analysis of Stanley to say interesting things. For example, he observes that Stanley inflated the number of Africans that he killed from the island of Bumbireh in Lake Victoria, a strange boast given that it contributed to Stanley’s reputation as a cold-hearted killer.

henry morton stanley

Yet Jeal argues that Stanley’s actions make sense only if one understands his shame at being humiliated by the leader of Bumbireh weeks earlier, something that Stanley — abandoned by his parents and raised in a workhouse — was keenly sensitive to. Moreover, Jeal argues that Stanley misjudged his audience’s reaction to the Bumbireh story, thinking that Europeans and Americans would like stories of warfare in Africa, much as they liked “big kill” stories about the Indian wars of the American West.

Despite their very different styles, I recommend both books.

News of the Expedition: Absolutely Free

Terra Nova, British Antarctic Expedition, 1910. Courtesy of Freeze Frame.

Terra Nova, British Antarctic Expedition, 1910. Courtesy of Freeze Frame.

Sitting at the long desk of an archive, wearing cotton gloves, reading old letters on the verge of turning to powder; this is about as good as it gets for a historian. Yet more and more of my research takes place elsewhere, now on my laptop mostly, looking at materials that have been scanned and displayed online.

Frank Luther Mott, 1951

Frank Luther Mott, 1951

Things have changed. When Frank Luther Mott began researching his comprehensive History of American Magazines in the 1920s, he had to track down a paper copy of each periodical in libraries scattered across the country. Many of these publications, printed on acidic paper, were already falling apart.

By 1941, University Microfilms (now ProQuest) began photographing American periodicals, making them available as reels of microfilm. By the time the project was complete, UM had a collection of 1100 American periodicals spanning the years from 1741-1900.

This was the state of things when I began my dissertation research in the late 1990s. When I wanted to find out what was being written about Arctic exploration in the press, I consulted a set of books, the 19th century Poole’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which gave titles and citations of popular literature by subject. Then I would drive to Chicago (from Madison WI) with my list of citations to track down the articles on the spools of microfilm housed at University of Chicago and Loyola University.

Now Poole’s has been turned into a digital database that can be searched online. The American Periodical Series has also been scanned, and, because of character recognition software, can be searched down to the level of single words. Where I spent hours tracking down a handful of articles indexed by Pooles by title and subject, a “full text” search of the American Periodical Series online yields thousands of results, all of which are instantly readable, printable, and download-able from the comfort of my front porch.

Less romantic than heading to the archive, I understand, but infinitely more powerful and convenient.

Still, the conversion to digital has its downside. Poole’s and the American Periodical Series have been digitized by private companies which sell subscriptions to their databases at a hefty price. The result is that that  Research I universities like Yale have extraordinary access, whereas smaller universities like the University of Hartford make due with less.  Many of my European friends — working at institutions with little money for databases — go without.

The good news is that freely available digital resources are growing in breadth and depth. While the American Periodical Series remains a subscription-service, students of American history can access the 3.8 million pages of 19th century books and periodicals in the Making of America database developed by the University of Michigan. You can also find close to a million pages of material at the Making of America sister site at the Cornell University. Serious free research also extends to the Library of Congress’s 1 million pages of newspaper text at Chronicling America.

These are general databases for American history. Students of more specialized topics, such as the history of exploration, can also find free riches online. In addition to the links at the right, you might also want to check out:

Harvard University Library’s Expedition and Discoveries

A site of highlights and citations from dozens of 19th century expeditions fielded by Harvard and other organizations.

Freeze Frame

The Scott Polar Research Institute’s collection of polar images from 1845-1982, searchable by date, expedition, photographer, or subject matter.

Mountaineering and Polar Collection

The National Library of Scotland’s site for important historical expeditions, from the ascent of Mt. Blanc to investigations of Antarctica.

Book Review: Science and Empire in the Atlantic World

science and empire in the atlantic world

JAMES DELBOURGO and NICHOLAS DEW (eds.), Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. xiv + 365. ISBN 978-0-415-96127-1. £18.99 (paperback).

Maybe I shouldn’t read too much into titles, but Science and Empire in the Atlantic World caught my attention. At first glance, it seemed a strange choice of words since “science and empire” has become a common, almost clichéd, phrase in the history of science and science technology studies (STS). The phrase took hold in the 1970s when Marxist scholarship revealed the exploitative functions of imperial science and gained inspiration from other critiques such as Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978.

By the 1980s, books and articles containing “science” and “empire” blossomed in the scholarly press. Yet the phrase has since witnessed a slow decline, as scholars have grown uneasy with portrayals of colonial science as a hegemonic expression of European power. Replacement terms tend to emphasize the reciprocal relationships in the production of science. Most notable among these is “Atlantic World,” a term that now races like a forest fire through history of science titles, probably due to Bernard Bailyn’s influential Seminar in the History of the Atlantic World which he instituted at Harvard in 1995. Why, then, marry “Science and Empire” with “Atlantic World” together in one title?

Bernard Bailyn

Bernard Bailyn

The answer comes from the function of “empire” within this edited collection. All twelve essays here challenge empire, or more precisely, an imperial top-down model of science in describing the Atlantic World. The “Empire” of the title, in other words, does not represent a historic process to be revealed, but a historiographic concept to be critiqued, a goal that Dew and Delbourgo accomplish with devastating efficiency. By focusing on famous “heroic narratives of discovery” (5) Delbourgo and Dew argue, studies of imperial science have missed the day-to-day activities which shaped the study of nature in the Atlantic World. In other words, historians of science (including me) have grown too comfortable thinking of Atlantic science through the image of a sextant-wielding Baron von Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

As Science and Empire demonstrates, knowledge of the Atlantic World depended upon the labors of far lesser-known figures: sailors, surgeon-barbers, Creole collectors, and diasporic Africans among others. Most essays go beyond describing the actions of these invisible networks, connecting them with better known ones.

Alison Sandman, for example, explains how pilots competed with learned cosmographers to control cartographic knowledge in early modern Spain. Júnia Ferreira Furtado’s essay, focused on Brazil, shows how Dutch surgeon-barbers “broke the monopoly of erudite knowledge enjoyed by doctors,” (Furtado, 132) giving tropical medicine a pronounced, empirical tilt. Even well known figures are not what they appear. Joyce Chaplin revisits Benjamin Franklin, poster-child of elite science, to show how he relied upon the reports of sailors and sea captains in describing the Atlantic “Gulph Stream.”

Franklin Map of Gulf Stream, 1769

Franklin Map of Gulf Stream, 1769

Taken together, the essays portray Atlantic science differently than the influential center-periphery model of science described by Bruno Latour in Science in Action (1987). Within Latour’s model, knowledge of the world starts and ends in the metropole where men of science provide the questions and instruments needed to understand nature at the edges of empire. While Latour’s system works well in describing many aspects of state-sponsored expeditions, it fails to explain other types of knowledge networks.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour

For one thing, Atlantic networks were unstable. As Neil Safier explains in tracing the work of French naturalist Joseph de Jussieu, acquiring and transmitting information was a precarious business. “The successful circulation of information from one point in the Atlantic to another was often dependent on circumstances that could just as easily go wrong as right” (Safier, 219). The networks developed by Spanish botanical expeditions, as described by Daniela Bleichmar, were of sturdier stuff. Yet Bleichmar points out other weaknesses in the Latourian model, specifically how “periphery” is a term ill-suited to describe botanical science in the Americas: “Circulation [of information] did not resemble the flight of a boomerang, always returning to the center, but rather a more reciprocal paddle game. Every letter or shipment from one side provoked a reply from the other.” (Bleichmar, 239). While European “centers” were important – no one disputes the asymmetries in power between mother country and colonies – they were dependent upon colonial peoples’ cooperation. This was not merely a question of finding Indians and Africans to collect things. As Susan Scott Parrish and Ralph Bauer point out in essays on diasporic Africans and Native American magic, respectively, Europeans adapted indigenous knowledge systems to make sense of an occult, magical nature. If London, Paris, and Madrid operated as hubs of scientific calculation, they were centers shaped by the world wheeling around them.

With such a strong theme linking all the essays, Science and Empire does not really need section headings. I found the four offered — “Networks of Circulation,” “Writing an American Book of Nature,” “Itineraries of Collection,” and “Contested Powers” – too vague to be useful. There are fruitful subordinate themes that track across essays, such as the tension between theory and empiricism (Sandman, Bauer, Furtado, Barrera-Osorio) and environmental history and technology (Golinski, Dew, Delbourgo, and Regourd). Still this is a minor quip. Dew and Delbourgo have managed to square the circle of edited collections: bringing together a diverse set of essays to target an important historiographical issue.

This review will be published in the upcoming issue of the British Journal for the History of Science. My thanks to BJHS for permission to reprint it here.

The Forging of Races

forging-of-races

I’m not in favor of ducking debates, but in matters of science and religion, it’s best to keep one’s head down. Not that I mind giving and taking a few hits, but the slings and arrows hurled by various bloggers are not easily deflected by reason. Much of the time, arguments on both sides seem to proceed without any sense of historical nuance.

For example, creationists often speak about science as if they were playing billiards: science is a game of facts, observable, measurable, linked together by visible and predictable causes. Any forces that take place off the felt table (such as phenomena of the far away or the deep past) fall into the zone of “theory,” a pejorative term that comes to mean speculation or opinion. This works well with pool, but hardly science, where strict empiricism or “Baconian science” has been out of vogue since the 18th century.

On the other side, the polemical evolutionists tend to lump anti-evolutionary arguments together under the category of “anti-science.” This would have been news to nineteenth-century scientists such as Richard Owen and Georges Cuvier, both of whom advanced serious objections to evolution on scientific, not religious, grounds.

Richard Owen

Richard Owen

I bring these issues up not because I have picked up my sword and plan to fight the good fight, but because I’m reading an excellent book on science and religion by Colin Kidd called The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000.

Kidd argues that scriptures are largely color-blind, agnostic on the question of racial hierarchies. Yet he also argues that the Bible became the guide for western scholars trying to understand the origins of human races.

It is one of the central arguments of this book that, although many social and cultural factors have contributed significantly to western constructions of race, scripture has been for much of the early modern and modern eras the primary cultural influence on the forging of races. [Kidd, 19]

Even more interesting, Kidd argues that scriptures held racism or “racial essentialism” in check for much of modern history. As much as one can see rampent racism in the development of the Atlantic slave trade (pioneered by Christians and other followers of the Book), Europeans and Euro-Americans usually reaffirmed the common humanity of the races as “Children of Adam.” To do otherwise was to exclude some races from the original sin (and the promise of salvation) which emerges out of Genesis.

adam_et_eve

By the nineteenth century, certain scholars advanced the theory that non-white races were “Pre-Adamites,” humans who were formed by God in a separate act of creation. As religious theories of racial origin gave way to increasingly secular explanations, racial thinking became even more extreme, leading to policies of racial social control, eugenics, and genocide.

In short, the Bible was — unintentionally perhaps — a bulwark against the most extreme ideas of racial theory. If it promoted ideas of racial origin which now seem naive and far-fetched, it also protected the Atlantic World from some of the full blown horrors of racism realized during the more “scientific” age of the twentieth century.

Asia on Top

Zheng He's Fleet sailing the Western (Indian) Ocean, 1405-1433. 20th century, artist unknown

Zheng He's fleet sailing the Western (Indian) Ocean, 1405-1433. 20th century painting, artist unknown.

Exploration seems an inclusive concept, a big-tent activity that admits anyone with a geographical goal and a good pair of shoes. But like most terms, exploration has hidden meanings and rules, ones that restrict certain places, people, and activities.

For example, Americans have made a national mythology out of exploration, creating a genealogy of pioneers and explorers that extends from Lewis and Clark in 1804 to Neil Armstrong in 1969. Were extraterrestrials listening in to the speeches of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, they would be forgiven for thinking that Americans single-handedly discovered the world. (For more on exploration talk at the DNC, read this)

Yet even the most blinkered American manifest-destinorians would have to extend the “spirit of exploration” to Europeans. Otherwise they would have to exclude the Renaissance all-stars of exploration, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan, from their ranks.

Protestant Americans wrestled with exactly this issue in the 19th century, ultimately deciding to embrace southern European explorers as a part of their own cultural heritage. In their favor, Columbus and his successors were white Christians, even if they suffered from being papists, speaking Spanish and Italian, and drinking wine on Sundays.

Columbian Exposition Commemorative Half Dollar, 1892

Columbian Exposition Commemorative Half Dollar, 1892

But this is about as inclusive as Americans have been willing to get.  Expeditionary activities of African and Asian nations are duly reported of course. Western press agencies keep us apprised of the South African National Antartic Programme (SANAP) and the Chinese Shenzhou Space Program. But one detects in western press coverage a view that these accomplishments are adaptations to a Western philosophy of discovery, a mimetic activity rather than something which expresses core features of Asian or African culture.

Put differently, exploration has become the symbolic equivalent of baseball, an activity played all over the world, but still seen in the U.S.  — now and forever more — as an archetypally American game (debts to cricket aside).

Were we to sit down with early European navigators in the 15th century, I think they would be astonished by all of this Euro-American strutting and preening. After all, exploration took off in Europe because Europeans felt they were being pushed off the stage of world events.

Despite the pageantry of statues and paintings, the European Age of Discovery was less about curiosity than fear and admiration, an appreciation for non-European powers, particularly in Asia, that held the keys to European collapse or prosperity.

For medieval Europeans, the Orient was the center of the world.  It was the font of Judeo-Christian religious history, the site of the Holy Land. It was the center of global commerce and trade, particularly luxury items. While Frankish farmers ate mutton and plowed their fields in scratchy woolens, Marco Polo enchanted readers with stories of  silks, teas, and concubines  from Cathay.

Travels of Marco Polo, manuscript page, 1298

Travels of Marco Polo, manuscript page, 1298

Meanwhile Crusaders brought back cinnamon and clove from the Spice Islands and cottons from India. As for geopolitical power, any Pole, Serb, or Castilian from the late Medieval period would have stories to tell about the powerful pagans of the East. One forgets that before the centuries of European hegemony, European border kingdoms were continually reacting to events from empires East:  Mongols, Persians, and Ottomans.

Evidence for this comes from many sources. The importance of the East is pounded into the English language of geography. For example, the word for Eastern lands “Orient” (Chaucer, 1375 CE) soon begot words of directionality such as “orientality” (Browne, 1647 CE) and “to orient” (Chambers, 1728 CE).

Moreover, European cartography expressed a Eastern-centric vision of the world. European T-O maps produced in late medieval Europe usually faced East and centered on Jerusalem. It was common for such maps to also overlay important religious symbols such as the body of Christ or the sons of Noah on the world’s continents.

T-O map from the Etymologiae of Isidorus, 1472

T-O map from the Etymologiae of Isidorus, 1472. Asia is on top, Europe is bottom left, Africa is bottom right. The names of Noah's sons are placed under each continent.

Mappa Mundi showing Noah's ark and three sons on three continents in La Fleur des Histoires, Valenciennes, 1459-63

Mappa Mundi showing Noah's ark and three sons on three continents in La Fleur des Histoires, Valenciennes, 1459-63

European conquests in Asia and America in the early 16th century did much to boost European self confidence.  (See for example, Abraham Ortelius’s frontispiece for his 1580 Atlas in my post on cannibalism)

There is much more to be said about Asia in the history of exploration, particularly 19th century conceptions of the East and Edward Said’s influential work Orientalism. All of that will have to wait for another post though. For now, here are a few links on history, travel, and exploration in Asia:

The Silkroad Foundation “The Bridge Between Eastern and Western Cultures”

The Athena Review Journal of Archeology, History, and Exploration

Astene Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,645 other followers