An abstract of a paper, “Darwin and the imperial archive” by Paul White, author of Thomas Huxley: Making the “Man of Science”, to be presented at the conference “Nature behind glass: historical and theoretical perspectives on natural science collections” in September:
‘The imperial archive’ is an expression used predominantly by literary scholars to describe a vision that emerged in the Victorian period of an empire ruled by knowledge rather than brute force. This view of knowledge as a form of governing power gained a new impetus from emerging disciplines of geography, biology, and anthropology. Networks of collectors and surveyors issuing from institutions like the British Museum, the Royal Geographical Society, and the India Office supplied civil bureaucracies with facts gathered at a distance, facts that were both discrete and comprehensive, cumulative and unifiable. Such an archive has been seen not as a facet of imperial control, however, but rather as a substitute for fragile territorial dominion: a “fantasy of knowledge collected and united in the service of state and empire” (Richards). Darwin’s evolutionary theory is regarded as crucial to this programme, providing a unifying framework in which information about peoples of the world could be placed, and a legitimation of European conquest. Historians of anthropology and post-colonial scholars have tended to agree about the complicity of Darwinian theory in the proliferation of racialist discourses that seem, in turn, to underpin imperial practices of collecting, ordering and display in the period, such as the census of British populations in the colonies launched in 1869 by the
Ethnological Society, that involved the mapping and measurement of native peoples for the purposes of racial taxonomy. In addressing this question of Darwin’s relation to imperial culture, I want to take a different approach. Rather than look primarily at Darwinian theory, or as Darwin scholars have often done, to look at his biography or publications, I want to examine instead his own imperial archive, to look at the practice of building such an archive, as it were, from the ground up, and in its migration from private collection to public display. Darwin’s
zoological and botanical collecting, pursued through a world-wide network of correspondents, is now well known. Still relatively unexplored however is his large and varied collection of materials on human evolution, in particular, on emotional expression, gathered through scientific questionnaires and photography. I will argue that there was a distinctive difference in the ways in which Darwin pursued knowledge of non-Europeans, as compared with the techniques by which other naturalists sought to generate a science of colonized peoples. This comparison of how the imperial archive was actually assembled will serve to highlight and critique some of the assumptions behind scholarship on imperial history and anthropology. If the ‘imperial archive’ appears detached from the application of force, it is because the colonial ‘context’ has been erased from the original material in its collation and transfer to print. In many cases, the emotions Darwin gathered from non-European peoples could only be generated in circumstances of imperial dominion, and in settings where British control was absolute. On the other hand, the movement of such materials from private to public knowledge was in itself highly fragile and contingent. Darwin’s collecting was informed by new technologies of
observation, measurement and display, whose implementation was far from straightforward or authoritative, and in the case of ethnographic photography, ultimately uncontrollable.