Knowing the ‘Native Mind’: Ethnological and Philological Collections

  • Lara Atkin
  • Sarah Comyn
  • Porscha Fermanis
  • Nathan Garvey
Open Access
Part of the New Directions in Book History book series (NDBH)


This chapter examines the role that the major research libraries of the southern colonies played in the collection, classification, and transmission of ethnological and philological knowledge about Indigenous populations. It argues that the transnational scientific networks, useful knowledge societies, and periodicals cultivated by public libraries enabled colonial cities such as Melbourne, Singapore, and Cape Town to become regional centres of scientific knowledge creation as well as collection, influencing both British governmental policy and broader cultural attitudes amongst Europeans towards the Indigenous peoples of the expanding British Empire.


Ethnology Philology George Grey Wilhelm Bleek James Richardson Logan 

As Richard Macmahon has recently argued, racial classification was central to the ‘political narratives’ that governed international relations, the politics of social class, and modern ideas about social and cultural development between 1840 and the Second World War.1 In this reading, racial classification emerges as a ‘transdisciplinary’ project aimed at associating ‘biological racial types with cultural nations’ through ‘assemblages of physical, psychological and cultural traits’.2 These assemblages provided the empirical ballast to support racialist ideologies that argued for the innate superiority of European peoples and were used to justify the subjugation of Indigenous peoples in the colonies—ideologies that proved remarkably resilient through nearly one hundred years of profound political and social change.

Book holdings were critical to the way in which this knowledge about the peoples of the colonies was ordered, and therefore played an important role in the development of racial thinking. The collections of influential colonial intellectuals and administrators such as George Grey have already been analysed by historians for the symbolic ‘cultural capital’ they endowed upon the public libraries to which they donated. Saul Dubow has argued that Grey’s 1861 gift of philological, ethnological, folklore, and antiquarian works to the SAPL ‘signified that the Cape was not only an outlying outpost of the British Empire but also a European bridgehead into Africa’.3 While the collection of reference works on regional topics was undoubtedly part of an effort to raise the status of these institutions both nationally and across the Anglo-world, as Dubow suggests, the collection of ethnological and philological ‘data’ on Indigenous peoples was also imbricated with the political mission of moral colonisation. As Alan Lester has persuasively argued, Grey’s collections and writings about Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa formed ‘an extraordinarily potent and geographically extensive ethnographic-governmental assemblage’ that served to justify a colonial policy increasingly aimed at enacting cultural genocide against the Indigenous inhabitants of Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand in the name of moral colonisation and ‘enlightened’ social progress.4

Developing Colonial Ethnological and Anthropological Collections c. 1840–1870

The development of scientific reference collections in colonial public libraries was uneven and piecemeal. We argued in Chap.  4 that the financial need to cater to the demands of the general reader meant that even those libraries that aspired to establish themselves as research libraries, such as the SAPL, were constrained by the necessity to tailor their acquisitions towards the preference of subscribers for light and general reading. ‘Science’ made up only between 0% and 14% of the libraries’ holdings between 1829 and 1862. In the 1860s, the SAPL and the MPL held the largest ‘Science’ holdings at 12% and 14%, respectively (see Appendix C, Tables C.3 and C.6). The encounter narratives of scientific and gentleman travellers, and contemporary emigration guides, on the other hand, were particularly well stocked in libraries across the southern colonies throughout the period 1825 to 1869. Looking across the collections of the SAPL, SAI, and SL, we can see that encounter narratives, travelogues, and emigration guides, all of which were habitually categorised under the rubric ‘Geography, Voyages, and Travels’, made up between 11% and 28% of these libraries’ total book holdings during this period (see Appendix C).5

As well as being very popular with general readers, and providing settlers with a means of gathering information about the environment they lived in, the personal observations of travellers and missionaries recorded in encounter narratives are widely acknowledged to have played a central role in the development of the ethnological theories of nineteenth-century practitioners of the ‘sciences of man’.6 The incorporation of historiography, political science, and antiquarian inquiry alongside comparative philology and comparative anatomy as the main fields of scholarly inquiry pursued by ethnologists illustrates the ‘transdisciplinarity’ of what Macmahon has termed the ‘philosophical ethnology’ that dominated British scholarship between 1840 and 1860.7 Yet for all that this ‘philosophical ethnology’ was an incorporative discipline, integrating the scientific, linguistic, historical, and political insights found in ethnographic encounter narratives and government reports, there were some important differences between ethnological writings and the more anecdotal encounter narratives categorised in colonial libraries under ‘voyages and travels’. Most fundamentally, practitioners of ethnology in the nineteenth century produced formal taxonomies of human cultures informed by the Linnean classificatory procedures that had shaped the formation of natural history as a discipline in the eighteenth century.8

While there is considerable variation in the ways in which individual librarians ordered the knowledge accumulated by these institutions, it is evident that ‘voyages and travels’ was always classified as a distinct literary genre that was more frequently aligned with history than with natural history .9 In the 1877 catalogue of the RLM in Singapore, for example, ‘travels, voyages, adventures and explorations, including general descriptions of countries, which embrace a personal narrative’, are one category, stressing the personal, anecdotal, and subjective quality of these ethnographic encounter narratives. This category is distinct from ‘natural history and ethnology’,10 which are amalgamated into one category to reflect the disciplinary history of ethnology as a sub-discipline of natural history—one that formally emerged as a science in its own right in the late 1840s and 1850s.11 The disciplinary interrelationship between natural history and ethnology is also reflected in the subject classes adapted by Fredrick Maskew, the SAPL’s second librarian. The 1862 SAPL catalogue classifies ‘ethnology’ as a sub-discipline within the broader rubric of ‘natural history’, which also includes botany, zoology, mineralogy, and geology, as well as the more practical natural sciences of agriculture and gardening.12

The status of ethnology as a protean discipline yet to emerge fully from its disciplinary entanglement with comparative philology in the 1840s and 1850s is reflected in the absence of ethnology as a distinct category of scientific inquiry in the extant library catalogues prior to 1858. In the catalogues of the SAPL, the first library in the southern colonies to acquire an extensive scientific and reference collection, works of comparative anatomy are classified under ‘Surgery and medicine’,13 while the only work to explicitly engage with the anatomical classification of human beings, Scottish lawyer and phrenologist George Combe’s System of Phrenology (1825), is classified under chemistry.14 The first library in the southern colonies to list ethnological works in its scientific reference collections was the MPL. The 1858 catalogue supplied by the MPL’s London bookseller J. J. Guillaume includes works by leading British ethnologists James Cowles Prichard and Robert Knox.15 Prichard and Robert Gordan Latham, whose work is listed in the MPL catalogue for 1859, are the two figures credited by historians of nineteenth-century science with establishing the disciplinary contours of ethnology.16 Knox meanwhile dismissed Prichard and Latham’s emphasis on the importance of comparative philology to ethnology, instead privileging anatomy as the primary means of comparing and classifying human races.

Sadiah Qureshi has suggested that, although Knox’s polygenetic transcendental materialism has often been identified in histories of the development of ethnology and anthropology as a key turning point in what is seen as a mid-century transition to more biologically deterministic views on racial variety, in reality Knox’s theories, along with those of fellow polygenesist James Hunt,17 were ‘highly controversial and deemed utterly unacceptable by many of their contemporaries’.18 An analysis of the ethnology holdings of the public libraries of the colonial southern hemisphere supports Qureshi’s assertion that it was Latham’s and Prichard’s transdisciplinary approach to the study of human variety that was more influential than the biologically deterministic methodology pursued by Knox and Hunt. By the 1860s, the three public libraries in the colonial southern hemisphere that had substantial scientific reference collections that included ethnological works—the MPL, the SAPL, and the SAI—all stocked the major ethnological works of Latham and Prichard but not of Knox or Hunt.19

That the works of the two most influential British ethnologists should first appear in the southern colonies in a library whose librarian, Augustus Tulk, was extremely active in promoting the MPL in Britain and across Europe (see Chap.  4), argues for the importance of strong metropolitan connections in establishing and maintaining up-to-date scientific reference collections in the colonies. Given the MPL’s significant annual grant from the Victorian parliament,20 it is perhaps unsurprising that the MPL’s extant catalogues suggest that not only did it have the largest scientific reference collection of any library in the southern colonies, including impressive holdings of scientific periodicals, but that it also kept abreast with the latest developments in the evolving disciplines of ethnology, philology, and anthropology throughout the 1860s. As Wallace Kirsop has noted, Redmond Barry was a ‘zealous promoter’ of links between the MPL and European scientific bodies, receiving subscriptions to leading German scientific periodicals through the local bookseller Samuel Mullen.21 Barry was also well-read in comparative philology and attempted in 1866 to undertake research on Aboriginal languages, as well as to develop his so-called Ethnotypical Museum. Although the project did not come to fruition, its aim was to elucidate ‘the general laws of Philology which may govern many, if not all, the languages and dialects spoken in Australia’.22

The 1860s was an important decade in the development of the sciences of man in Britain. It was also the decade of the formal disciplinary rupture between the monogenesist Ethnological Society of London and James Hunt’s more biologically determinist, polygenesist Anthropological Society. The 1861 catalogue for the MPL begins to reflect this disciplinary fragmentation in the sciences of man by maintaining separate subject categories for ethnology, philology, and phrenology.23 The philology category is particularly extensive with over 140 titles and the catalogue contains a further 70 titles of ‘grammars’. The MPL’s philology category features works by James Richardson Logan and George Grey (including the catalogue of his philological library collection compiled by Wilhelm Bleek), whose influence on ethnological and philological knowledge will be discussed in more detail below. The 1865 supplementary catalogue to the MPL further adds ‘anthropology’ as a distinct disciplinary category for the first time, reflecting the disciplinary rupture between ethnologists and anthropologists that had taken place in Britain in 1863 when James Hunt founded the Anthropological Society.24

The rise of anthropology as a discipline in the 1860s—one which privileged the physiological and anatomical markers of racial difference over the cultural, linguistic, and historical factors that had been central to ethnological inquiry throughout the 1840s and 1850s—is also reflected in the subject classifications adopted by the SAI in its 1869 catalogue. Here, ethnology is separated from natural history and amalgamated with the medical and anatomical sciences under the category ‘Anatomy, Medicine, Physiology, Ethnology etc.’.25 That metropolitan disciplinary developments, such as the increasing dominance of comparative anatomy in ethnological and anthropological inquiry post-1863, were reflected in the classificatory procedures of public libraries in Victoria and South Australia by 1865 and 1869, respectively, is evidence of the speed with which colonial libraries could respond to metropolitan scientific advances, and their commitment to maintaining scientific reference collections that reflected the latest disciplinary developments in British science.

Regional ‘Centres of Collection’: Ethnological and Philological Knowledge Collection

While it can be argued that ethnological and philological reference collections in the southern colonies responded to the disciplinary developments in British ethnology, it is equally evident that metropolitan ethnologists and philologists were dependent on data gathered by informants and field collectors in the colonies. The rise of ethnology as a disciplinary field between 1830 and 1860 was facilitated by the expansion of the British Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century, an expansion which ‘produced a global network for gathering and exchanging information’ as British and Irish professionals of all social classes not only travelled but increasingly sojourned or settled for extended periods in Britain’s settler colonies.26 Between 1820 and 1870 ethnological and philological data collected by actors as varied as missionaries, colonial administrators, members of the armed forces, and professional men of science profoundly shaped the theories about human variety that were developed by the most prominent European ethnologists. In order to illustrate this point further, this section of the chapter will look specifically at the networks of knowledge production and dissemination that gathered around Andrew Smith and the SAPL in Cape Town during the 1820s and 1830s, and James Richardson Logan and the SL in Singapore in the 1840s and 1850s.

Dr Andrew Smith was appointed as the first Superintendent of the South African Museum (SAM) in 1825, an appointment that afforded him the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in the collection and classification of natural historical specimens.27 This experience, combined with his professional training as a medical doctor, influenced the observational and classificatory practices that he was to bring to his published studies of southern African ethnology and zoology.28 Shortly after being appointed as Superintendent of the SAM, Smith was appointed to the committee of the SAPL. The SAPL was conceived as an athenaeum, and the acquisition of a serious scientific reference collection for the library coincided with Smith’s appointment to its committee. During Smith’s year on the SAPL committee, 146 new scientific reference works were purchased by the library, 56 of which pertained to the plant or animal sciences.29 These included multi-volume English-language editions of major research works in the plant and animal sciences such as the French zoologist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s Natural History (1749) and the Swedish natural historian Carl Linnaeus’s System of Nature (1735), both foundational texts for the scholarly study of zoology. The ‘medicine’ section contained an octavo edition of the prominent British physician William Lawrence’s Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man (1823), which caused controversy in Britain by using comparative anatomy to promote a materialism that seemed to some contemporary commentators to verge on atheism.30 The presence of such a controversial and innovative new work of comparative physiology in the SAPL is a testament to Smith and the library committee’s commitment to keeping abreast with the latest British developments in the animal and human sciences—a commitment also evidenced by the fact that the library subscribed to the Transactions of the Royal Society at this time.31

Although Smith only served on the library committee for one year, the SAPL continued to expand its scientific reference collection significantly throughout the 1820s. Works for the library’s reference collection were chosen in London by Sir John Barrow, and the public subsidy provided to the library between 1822 and 1829 by a tax on the Cape’s lucrative wine trade made the 1820s a uniquely productive period in the library’s history for the acquisition of scientific works and learned journals. Of the 1584 titles listed in the 1829 catalogue 289 were scientific, accounting for approximately 21% of the library’s book holdings compared to just 6% in 1825 (see Appendix C, Table C.3).32 As well as reference works, the SAPL also greatly expanded its scientific periodical holdings, subscribing to 11 English, Scottish, and North American scientific periodicals by 1829.33 A notable acquisition to the ‘medicine’ section in 1829 was Prichard’s Researches into the Physical History of Mankind (2nd edn, 1826), arguably the earliest British ethnological work that built upon German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s division of mankind into five distinct races, while maintaining the religiously orthodox monogenesist position on the essential unity of mankind.

As well as providing a world-class scientific reference collection, the SAPL’s reading rooms in the Cape Town commercial exchange ‘functioned as a key intellectual and cultural brokerage centre, as well as serving as a clublike meeting place for the exchange of news and views’.34 Dubow has argued that the SAPL played a key role in facilitating the forms of gentlemanly sociability that were central to the development of networks of scientific knowledge production and exchange in the era before the widespread professionalisation of the sciences in the late-nineteenth century. Central to this function was the use of the SAPL’s meeting rooms by the SI (1829–1831), the Cape Colony’s first learned society devoted to the study of science. Modelled on the literary and philosophical societies that were forming in the recently industrialised towns of Britain, the SI shared with these metropolitan societies a focus on the production of local knowledge. Like the Australian philosophical societies formed in a similar period, the SI aimed not simply to debate metropolitan scientific advances and developments, but also to contribute to bodies of knowledge about its immediate locality.35

To achieve this, the SI encouraged British and Dutch settlers based in southern Africa to read papers at its monthly meetings. The majority of the papers read at the monthly meetings were published in the SI’s journal, the South African Quarterly Journal (SAQJ), Africa’s first scientific journal. The purpose of the SAQJ was to disseminate to an international audience local knowledge relating to the economic and natural productions of southern Africa.36 Papers read at the SI between 1829 and 1831 and published in the SAQJ included lectures on the horticulture of the Western Cape; lectures on the history of the Cape of Good Hope; and Andrew Smith’s zoological researches on the wildlife of southern Africa and ethnological papers on the Indigenous southern African San or ‘bushman’ people.37

While Smith’s contribution to South African zoology is widely acknowledged, what is less well recognised is his influence on British ethnology.38 Although he never published his planned monograph on South African ethnology, Smith’s ethnological notes on the San ‘bushmen’ were circulated to a transnational audience of colonial and metropolitan ethnologists through the pages of the SAQJ , enabling ethnological data gathered in the furthest reaches of the colonial periphery to influence the thinking of those at the very heart of British ethnology. In his 1848 address to the Ethnological Society of London, Prichard described the SAQJ as ‘an excellent journal of scientific and historical information’.39 Smith’s ‘Notes and observations on the bushmen’ profoundly influenced Prichard’s own writings on southern African Indigenous peoples in his Natural History of Man (1844), a work that has been identified by historians of ethnology and anthropology as key in the establishment and popularisation of ethnology in Britain.40

The emergence of the SAPL in the 1820s as both a repository for the collection of the latest scientific reference works, and as a venue where useful knowledge societies such as the SI could meet, and scientific knowledge could be debated and disseminated, created the institutional conditions necessary for the flourishing of the ethnological and zoological sciences in the Cape Colony during the 1820s and 1830s. The support of prominent men of science such as Smith and Sir John Herschel for the Cape Colony’s early useful knowledge societies, and their use of the SAQJ as a means of disseminating research done in the Cape to an international audience, enabled local knowledge gathered in the furthest reaches of the southern African interior to reach the heart of the metropolitan scientific establishment.

The SL meanwhile reflected Singapore’s location within the broader network of British East India by stocking a large number of periodicals and newspapers from India, as well as specifically targeting ‘any valuable new publications on India, China, or other Eastern British Settlement’ which were ‘to have the first consideration on all occasions’.41 This move towards collecting more locally focused and specialised ethnographic materials reflected the library’s growing aspiration throughout the period 1840–1870 to establish itself as a serious reference library. As early as the 1840s, there were calls in the Anglophone press for the emergence of a literary and scientific association in Singapore in order to provide a forum for the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge about Singapore and the Straits Settlements.42 These calls were answered by James Richardson Logan, owner of the Pinang Gazette (est. 1838) and founder of the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia (JIA) (est. 1847). Logan was the first colonial intellectual in Singapore to make a conscious effort to try to establish Singapore as a centre for the production of knowledge about East Asia and the Malay Peninsula. This aspiration was enabled through Logan’s connections to both intra-imperial and trans-regional networks of scientific knowledge exchange. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and a corresponding member of the Ethnological Society of London and the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences. As well as contributing to the journals of learned societies based in London, Edinburgh, Calcutta, and Batavia, his JIA was, as C. M. Turnbull notes, ‘the first attempt to promote a scientific periodical in the Straits Settlements’ at a time when the Straits were considered by the British as little more than an obscure outpost of British India.43

Published between 1847 and 1862, the JIA went into 12 volumes and marked the first concerted effort to collect and compile ethnological, ethnographic, and philological information about East Asia and the Malay Peninsula, information that was to form the foundation of the ethnological collections at Singapore’s first public library, the RLM, in 1874. In his ‘prospectus’, Logan conceived of the JIA as a means of connecting the Straits Settlement into a regional network of scientifically-focused useful knowledge societies that already spanned the Indian Ocean, taking in ‘Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Ceylon, and Hongkong’, and regretting that the lack of such a society in the British Straits Settlements induced him to commence the JIA .44 In contrast to the SAQJ , which was conceived as a means of connecting the Cape Colony to European and particularly British scientific networks and institutions, Logan sought to establish a regional network of European scientific researchers on the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific that was genuinely transnational in character. In the ‘prospectus’, Logan is explicit about his debt to W. R. Barron von Hoëvell, President of the Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences and editor of the Tijdschrift vor Neerlands Indie (est. 1838), ‘for his constant and most liberal assistance in making ourselves acquainted with the researches of himself and his countrymen’.45 He states that one of the chief purposes of the JIA is to ‘make English readers acquainted’ with the researches of Dutch ethnologists and philologists in Indonesia.46 However, it was not only the Dutch whose researches appeared in JIA . Contributors were French, German, Dutch, and Swiss, and even, in one instance, Chinese.47 This was the first attempt to establish a trans-regional network of ethnological and philological researchers who would systematically collect, record, and disseminate ethnological, historical, and economic ‘data’ about the region.

The JIA elicited the majority of its contributions from the Straits Settlements’ Anglophone professional and mercantile elites, and aspired to recognition from the global European scientific community.48 Nearly a decade before British ethnologists Prichard and Richard Cull produced the first British ethnological questionnaire, Logan included a detailed ‘Scheme of Desiderata’ in the ‘prospectus’ to the JIA outlining guidance on the collection of ethnological data that was designed explicitly to shape the research agendas of these amateur gentlemen scientists.49 The privileging of ethnological inquiry in Logan’s ‘Desiderata’ is evinced by the fact that of the 22 subject categories suggested, 17 relate to ‘human inhabitants’. Noting the historical underpinning of ethnological inquiry,50 Logan nonetheless combines a qualitative, analytical, and distinctively humanistic mode of intellectual inquiry with a utilitarian concern with quantitative data: ‘the reduction of every species of information that admits it, into an arithmetical or accurate quantitative form … gives it a far greater value, both for practical and scientific purposes, than if it were merely stated in a loose or general manner’.51 That Logan was at pains to ensure his amateur contributors provided information that was gathered using the most up-to-date scientific methodologies suggests that he aspired to a methodological rigour that would allow the JIA to maintain credibility within the broader international scientific community, rather than just being a journal of local interest.

As well as providing an important means of disseminating philological and ethnological researches conducted in Malaysia, Polynesia, and Oceania, and throughout the Anglo-world, to the metropolitan scientific establishment, Logan’s JIA had a more lasting legacy. In 1874, the SL’s assets were transferred to the new government-owned RLM. With a focus on acquiring works on East Asia, Malay manuscripts, and works of art, science, and literature, the RLM provided Singapore with its first publicly funded reference library. In 1878 the RLM purchased Logan’s collection of ethnographic and philological books for £520, a move which, as Porscha Fermanis has argued, ‘forever changed the character of the library’s holdings’.52 As Brendan Lyut points out, over the next 20 years the RLM consolidated its status as a regional ‘centre of calculation … for the South East Asian region’ by purchasing collections of ethnographic material, such as that of Reinhold Rost, the former librarian to the India Office; supporting societies such as the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Hakluyt Society; and increasingly purchasing scientific as well as literary periodicals.53 ‘All of these factors’, as Fermanis notes, ‘combined to create within the library a substantial archive of knowledge on the Malay Peninsula and its surrounding environs, which was only strengthened and supported by the establishment of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1877’.54

Initially housed in the RLM before moving to the adjacent Raffles Museum, the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society aimed ‘to collect and record scientific information about the Malay Peninsula, and to carry out other scholarly activities including the publication of a journal and the formation of a library’.55 Relying on the personal networks of its committee and members, and building its library collections primarily through donations and exchanges, the main focus of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society was to build up regional networks of scientific scholarship and exchange publications with other scientific learned societies across Europe, India, East Asia, and Australia.56 In this way, the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society provided the formal institutional framework to achieve what Logan had achieved informally through the JIA : the focusing of scholarly attention on British East India as a distinct geographical region.

Integral to the project of positioning itself as a centre for the collection and transmission of regional knowledge was the promotion of ethnological and philological scholarly inquiry. In 1878, at the inaugural meeting of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Archdeacon F. R. Hose argued that Logan’s ethnological papers published in the JIA ‘will probably continue to be the most reliable authority upon the subject of those races which are, as usual, fast disappearing as civilization spreads inland’.57 Mobilising an evolutionary rhetoric that mapped the biological determinism of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) onto human societies, Hose argues that the extinction of Indigenous cultures was an inevitable process of the spread of European colonisation. The ethnological and philological insights about the Indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia and the Pacific that were published in the JIA retain value as a form of ‘salvage ethnography’, documenting the physical, linguistic, and cultural lives of Indigenous peoples rapidly vanishing under the dual pressures of colonial violence and acculturation. The society’s interest in collecting and archiving the textual traces of these vanishing Indigenous cultures is evidenced by the fact that in 1879 it indexed Logan’s JIA , and undertook the binding, labelling, and cataloguing of its own book collection in 1882, 1884, and 1890.58

‘Knowing the Native Mind’: Collecting and Classifying Indigenous Knowledge

The imbrication between philological and ethnological knowledge creation, collection, and transmission, and the project of ‘moral colonisation’ across the British Empire, is paradigmatically embodied in the figure of George Grey, whose colonial career took him across the southern colonies from South Australia to New Zealand via South Africa. At each stage of his career, as Donald Kerr has demonstrated, Grey was personally as well as politically invested in collecting, publishing, and, in his final years, archiving the textual traces of the languages and cultures of the Indigenous peoples he was required to govern.59 Taken as a body, the knowledge collected by Grey and dispersed between the SAPL and the Auckland Public Library has been subject to contrasting historiographical interpretations. Kerr and Dubow view the donation of ethnological and philological collections as a manifestation of Grey’s liberal support for public and intellectual institutions, and of his genuine interest in understanding Indigenous cultures, whereas Alan Lester views Grey’s collections as the empirical legitimisation for a colonial policy increasingly aimed at enacting cultural genocide against the Indigenous inhabitants of Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand.60

What both readings of the Grey collections have in common is an acknowledgment that Grey viewed the act of ethnological and philological collecting as a form of ‘rescue’ or ‘salvage’. The interest in collecting and conserving Indigenous languages emerged, as Hedley Twidle has argued, as an ‘adjunct’ to an interest in natural history .61 This interest was cultivated by Grey while on a Royal Geographic Society-sponsored voyage of exploration on the north-west coast of Australia in 1837. During this expedition, Grey established himself as a major collector of natural historical information about north-western and western Australia, and his correspondence network reveals links to many prominent men of science of his day, including Darwin, Richard Owen, and Charles Lyell.62 Grey’s philological collecting began in earnest during 1839–1840, when he was employed as a Resident Magistrate in Albany, Western Australia. Here he collected and recorded language information on Indigenous groups in what was his first systematic attempt to collect and classify Indigenous languages: The Vocabulary of the Dialects Spoken by the Aboriginal Races of S.W. Australia (Albany, 1839), a publication whose trans-imperial reach was ensured by the printing of a London edition by T. and W. Boone in 1840.63

Grey’s efforts to represent the languages of Australian and New Zealand Indigenous peoples in his philological publications are notable for being a rare example of a colonial governor undertaking the sort of in situ philological field work that was, in the earlier nineteenth century, most frequently undertaken by missionaries. Missionary linguistics and ethnography differed from the more scholarly projects of Orientalist comparative philology and philosophical ethnology in that it had a pedagogical function and was aimed primarily at communicative efficacy. As Rachel Leow has argued, missionary linguistics aimed at orthographic conventions that replicated the sound of the Indigenous language as far as possible in order to enable the missionary to ‘communicate, proselytize, and persuade’ Indigenous converts.64 When Governor of New Zealand from 1845 to 1853, Grey had cultivated a transnational network of missionaries stationed throughout the British-controlled world from whom he was able to acquire a remarkable range of ethnological and philological materials that, due to their small print runs and ephemeral nature, would not have been available in conventional book markets.65

This network included George Augustus Selwyn, Bishop of New Zealand and founder of the Church Missionary Press at St. John’s College, Auckland, as well as numerous missionaries of all denominations whose field of work stretched from New Zealand and the South Pacific, to Madagascar and western and southern Africa.66 As Joseph Errington has argued, ‘the intellectual work of writing speech was never entirely distinct from the “ideological” work of devising images of peoples in zones of colonial contact’, and the written representations of Indigenous languages produced by missionaries and disseminated to a wide variety of reading publics across the Anglo-world through mission presses and publishing networks played a central role in the discursive formation of racial taxonomies throughout the nineteenth century.67 As we shall see in the final section of this chapter, the grammars, catechisms, dictionaries, and word-lists amassed in Grey’s philological collection at the SAPL were highly influential in shaping the classificatory schema for African languages devised by comparative philologist, and cataloguer and curator of the Grey collection, Wilhelm Bleek.

When Grey moved to Cape Town in 1854 to take up the governorship of the Cape Colony, his philological and ethnological collecting became both more extensive and more systematised. This began with the publication of Books Wanted in the Library of His Excellence Sir. G. Grey, K.C.B. (1855), a 12-page work that was sent to leading representatives of the six main missions working on the African continent requesting over 80 philological and pedagogical items in Indigenous languages produced by mission presses.68 Between 1854 and 1861, Grey used the transnational networks cultivated during his time in Australia and New Zealand, as well as new links with missionary groups operating across the African continent, to amass an extensive collection of materials from sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. In 1861, Grey donated his substantial philological, ethnological, folklore, and antiquarian book collection to the SAPL.

The Grey collection operated on a number of symbolic levels. On the one hand, the antiquarian collection was ‘intended to be seen as a “mirror of Western Culture”’ to remind future generations of settler scholars of their European inheritance.69 The donation of Grey’s extensive collection of medieval manuscripts and early printed books also substantially raised the ‘cultural capital’ of the SAPL as an institution, boosting its credentials as a leading colonial research library. Yet more than Grey’s antiquarian collection, what really put the SAPL on the map as a major research institution was Grey’s decision to appoint the German comparative philologist Wilhelm Bleek as curator and compiler of the ethnological, philological, and folklore materials amassed by Grey and his networks. It was Bleek’s philological researches and archiving of Indigenous ‘Bushman’ folklore that transformed the SAPL from a remote and relatively insignificant club of gentleman-scholars and recreational readers into a regional ‘centre of calculation’ for the collection, production, and global transmission of philological knowledge about southern Africa’s Indigenous peoples. As Andrew Bank has noted, Bleek was both the first European intellectual to do anthropological field work in South Africa and ‘the first systematic theorist of “race” in colonial South Africa’.70

Trained in classical philology at Bohn and Berlin, Rachael Gilmour has argued that Bleek was also the first to systematically apply the methodologies of classical philology as they had developed in Indo-European language study to the study of African languages, a methodology which ‘conceived of [language] as a universal human phenomenon rooted in a regular and uniform developmental process’.71 Furthermore, Bleek’s philology was a product of the post-Darwinian turn in the natural and human sciences, and his classificatory schema for Indigenous languages differed from those developed by an earlier generation of pre-1860 comparative philologists ‘in its explicitly evolutionary suppositions’.72 The philological catalogues of Grey’s collection that Bleek compiled were a pioneering attempt to apply evolutionary theory directly to the ethnographic study of the languages of the Indigenous peoples of southern Africa.

The Library of His Excellency Sir George Grey K.C.B.—Philology—South Africa was compiled by Bleek and published in 1858. Printed in Cape Town and distributed across Europe by Nicholas Trübner in London and F. A. Brockhaus in Leipzig, the catalogue consisted of 427 printed works and 78 manuscripts. Bleek’s comparative philology of African languages rested on a typological system of classification based on grammatical gender in which he proposed two distinct classes of language: ‘prefix-pronominal’, in which the pronouns are originally borrowed from the derivative prefixes of the nouns, and ‘sex denoting’ or ‘suffix-pronominal’ languages, in which the pronouns are originally borrowed from the derivative suffixes to the nouns. Of particular significance is part one of the catalogue, which pertains to the 16 dialects spoken in southern Africa. In the case of South Africa, ‘prefix-pronominal’ languages included isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati, the Sotho-Tswana languages, and the Otjiherero language of Namibia. These languages were collectively given the ethno-linguistic classification ‘Bantu’ by Bleek. ‘Suffix-pronominal’ languages spoken in South Africa include Khoemana and all Khoisan languages; the Tonga language of Zambia and Zimbabwe; and the Nama language of Namibia. These were given the ethno-linguistic classification of ‘Hottentot’ and ‘Bushman’ languages by Bleek. By arguing that both Xhosa ‘Kaffir’ and San ‘Bushman’ languages were the most ‘primitive forms’ of the ‘prefix-pronominal’ and ‘suffix-pronominal’ language groups, Bleek’s comparative philological project was deeply imbricated with contemporary anthropology and became highly influential in shaping European racial taxonomies.73

That Bleek intended his South Africa catalogue to constitute a major intervention in the field of comparative philology is evident from the extensive philological and ethnographic descriptions that precede the lists of works. These ‘brief and lucid sketches’ were described by an early reviewer in the Cape Monthly Magazine (est. 1851) as ‘full of the most valuable and interesting information’.74 The sources for Bleek’s linguistic researches represented in the South Africa philological catalogue are generically diverse and historically extensive, encompassing voyages and travels dating as far back as the sixteenth century, contemporary ethnological works published in scientific journals, and, above all else, a diverse array of grammars, catechisms, spelling books, and primers published by the various mission presses operating across the southern part of the African continent. As well as developing a classificatory schema for African languages that he was also to apply to his catalogue of Grey’s collection of materials on Africa North of the Tropic of Capricorn (1858), Bleek also documented the various orthographic conventions that had been adopted by European writers for denoting the ‘clicks’ in southern African languages. Throughout the catalogue, extensive bibliographic information on the size, extent, and place of publication as well as more qualitative remarks on the quality of the grammars and dictionaries provide further evidence of Bleek’s extensive scholarly engagement with his materials.

Bleek built his philological career as an ‘Africanist’ working in South Africa as curator of the Grey collection, a position he held until his death in 1875. Yet his success in establishing himself as the foremost European expert in African philology was contingent upon the fact that he was a member of a European intellectual elite with connections to the heart of metropolitan Europe. His correspondence network included the leading ethnological and philological researchers in Britain and Germany, including Darwin, Lyell, Max Müller, Thomas Huxley, and Ernst Haeckel.75 The compilation and distribution of the philological catalogues of the Grey collection undoubtedly did much to boost the prestige of Bleek’s African philology in European intellectual circles. According to Kerr, two thirds of the 300-copy print run produced of the South Africa and Africa philology catalogues were sent to Trübner & Co. in London to be ‘distributed according to Bleek’s directions’. Accordingly, Trübner sent copies for review to notable London periodicals including the Saturday Review, Notes and Queries, the Examiner, and the London Review.76 Copies were also sent to eminent European philologists including Professor Millies at Utrecht, Dr Haug at Bonn, and Dr Schleicher at Prague.77 The distribution of the catalogues aided Grey in his task of acquiring materials, promoting the collection, and ensuring ‘Grey’s name became firmly associated with the collection of African language materials’.78

As well as the South Africa and Africa catalogues, Bleek compiled five philological catalogues documenting Grey’s ethnological and philological collection of Australian, South Pacific, Madagascan, and New Zealand materials. The Australia and New Zealand catalogues are notable for the prestige given to Grey’s own philological and ethnological writings; for example, the New Zealand catalogue includes the four compilations of Māori folklore, poetry, and proverbs that were collected by Grey and published during the 1850s, documents which constitute some of the earliest efforts to systematically record Māori orature.

In his ‘introduction’ to Polynesian Mythology, an English translation of a selection of Māori myths collected from Indigenous informants during his first period in New Zealand (1845–1853), Grey argues that both a mastery of the Māori language and the collection of their folklore were integral to achieving his political objectives as Governor of New Zealand:

Clearly, however, I could not, as Governor of the country, permit so close a veil to remain drawn between myself and the aged and influential chiefs whom it was my duty to attach to British interests and to the British race … Only one thing could under such circumstances be done, and that was to acquaint myself with the ancient language of the country, to collect its traditional poems and legends, to induce their priests to impart to me their mythology, and to study their proverbs.79

Philology and ethnology are explicitly conceived by Grey as tools of colonial governmentality, with mastery of Indigenous languages permitting clear communication with Indigenous leaders, and the collection of ethnological data on Indigenous cultures a means by which British administrators could study the ‘native mind’. The ideological work done by such knowledge in the creation and formulation of categories of racial difference is well understood by critical anthropologists and imperial historians.80 The role of Indigenous teachers such as Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikaheke (known as William Marsh), chief of the Rangiwewehi tribe of Rotorua, in imparting knowledge of Māori to Grey reveals the extent to which Indigenous cooperation and knowledge brokers were necessary to facilitate the sorts of intimate and sustained intercultural encounters that enabled imperial governors such as Grey to acquire this knowledge.81
Of the 87 items listed in the Australia catalogue, 17 grammars and vocabularies were authored by Grey himself.82 One particular manuscript entry in the Australia catalogue gives an insight into Bleek and Grey’s conception of ethnology and philology as a form of cultural salvage that, as Lester has argued, was a direct response to the material decline of Indigenous populations in Australia and across the British Empire that took place during Grey’s tenures as Governor of South Australia and New Zealand.83 Entry number 25, ‘Two Songs of the Aborigines of Moreton Bay’ in their original language and English translation collected by Grey, is glossed by Bleek with the following elegiac note:

This is the only preserved specimen of a large collection of Australian Native Literature, destroyed by fire, when the Government House at Auckland, New Zealand, was burnt down;—an irreparable loss for science, since many of the tribes, represented in this collection, are now extinct.84

Such details when they surface in the Grey philological catalogues hint at another reading of the Grey archive. In spite of the efforts made by Grey and Bleek to classify and reify Indigenous knowledge into a textual archive legible and usable to European scholarship, the Grey philological archives, in Twidle’s reading, ‘point constantly to all that was never recorded, products of a colonial modernity that sought diligently–even lovingly–to record what it was in the process of destroying’.85 In drawing the reader’s attention to the material absences from the archive, such notes hint at the wider social process of ‘genocide, forced acculturation and language death’ that befell many of the Indigenous peoples whose language and orature was first documented by Bleek, Grey, and their trans-imperial network of Indigenous and European collaborators.86

As David Livingstone has argued, historians of science need to attend to the ‘cultural geographies of science’: the regionally specific cultures in which scientific knowledge is produced, discussed, and disseminated.87 Far from just being sites in which ethnological and philological data on Indigenous peoples was gathered to be analysed and collated in metropolitan centres of collection and calculation,88 public libraries, and the trans-imperial and trans-regional scientific networks cultivated therein, enabled colonial cities such as Melbourne, Singapore, and Cape Town to become regional centres of knowledge creation. Colonial scientists made a significant contribution to the formation of the bodies of ethnological and anthropological knowledge about the Indigenous peoples of Britain’s colonies which, as the century progressed, increasingly influenced both British governmental policy and broader cultural attitudes amongst Europeans towards the Indigenous peoples of the expanding British Empire.


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  9. 9.

    Some colonial libraries such as the SL and the SAPL even classified ‘voyages and travels’ as a sub-category of ‘history’. See, for example, SL, 1863:; SAPL, 1862:

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    ‘Polygenesis’ refers to the belief that humanity is descended from more than one original pair of individuals. ‘Monogenesis’, in line with the Biblical interpretation of creation, is the belief that all humanity is descended from a single pair of individuals.

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    See, for example, Johannes Fabian, Language and Colonial Power: The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo, 1880–1938 (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Anne L. Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Invention of Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Errington, Linguistics in a Colonial World.

  81. 81.

    A letter by Te Rangikaheke evidences a close relationship between the two, with Te Rangikeheke living with the Greys. For more see, Jennifer Curnow, ‘Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikahekeke’.

  82. 82.

    The Library of His Excellency Sir George Grey KCB – Philology – Australia (Cape Town: G. J. Pike, 1858).

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    Lester, ‘Settler Colonialism’, 497.

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  85. 85.

    Hedley Twidle, ‘“The Bushmen’s Letters”: |Xam Narratives of the Bleek Lloyd Archive and their Afterlives’, in The Cambridge History of South African Literature, ed. David Attwell and Derek Attridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 19–37 (37).

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    David N. Livingstone, Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 108.

  88. 88.

    Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Cambridge MA: Harvard, 1988), 237.

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Authors and Affiliations

  • Lara Atkin
    • 1
  • Sarah Comyn
    • 1
  • Porscha Fermanis
    • 1
  • Nathan Garvey
    • 1
  1. 1.University College DublinDublinIreland

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