2018 Book Prize Finalist - Moritz von Brescius

Moritz von Brescius. German Science in the Age of Empire: Enterprise, Opportunity and the Schlagintweit Brothers. (Cambridge University Press)German Science Cover

This seminal study explores the national, imperial and indigenous interests at stake in a major survey expedition undertaken by the German Schlagintweit brothers, while in the employ of the East India Company, through South and Central Asia in the 1850s. It argues that German scientists, lacking in this period a formal empire of their own, seized the opportunity presented by other imperial systems to observe, record, collect and loot manuscripts, maps, and museological artefacts that shaped European understandings of the East. Drawing on archival research in three continents, von Brescius vividly explores the dynamics and conflicts of transcultural exploration beyond colonial frontiers in Asia.


What's the one key idea or message you want readers to take from your book?

I wanted to show that new political, social, and cultural dynamics were produced through the controversial transnational recruitment of German scientific practitioners across national and imperial boundaries in the long nineteenth century. The book argues that while the pursuit of transnational science always created friction on individual, scientific, institutional and even political levels, these frictions were not necessarily detrimental to the careers of scientific outsiders such as the Schlagintweit brothers. Rather, certain frictions could also open up hitherto closed opportunities for ingenious scientific recruits to capitalise on. 

What got you interested in the topic of your book?

During my Master Studies at the University of Oxford, I worked on Alexander von Humboldt’s famous travels in South America, and for the first time reflected critically on the peculiar position of German naturalists working under the protective umbrella of foreign empires. I quickly realised that Humboldt, as a gentleman scholar with great financial independence and moral opposition to the system of slavery and colonialism, was in many ways not representative of a huge wave of nineteenth-century German-born and trained scientific practitioners who found paid employment in the structures of other overseas powers. Exploring the tensions characteristic of the transnational nature of European imperialism intrigued me; they can offer a revisionist account of a globalising world in which transversal expert mobility and social aversion to this same state of entanglement were two sides of the same coin.

Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?

To take one concrete example that concerns the current debate on the provenance of colonial collections in Europe: in Asia the Schlagintweit brothers accumulated an exceptionally rich collection of around 40,000 artefacts in the realms of natural history and ethnography which they temporarily displayed in their own India Museum in Berlin between 1857 and 1860. It was a kind of precursor to today’s Humboldt Forum – which will in fact soon display some of the same object and images again. My book raises significant questions that can inform today’s debates about the at times problematic origins of naturalia and ethnographica in German collections: How did such scientific careers in foreign service, as the Schlagintweit brothers pursued in India in the 1850s, help to bring back the material worlds of European imperialism into the non-colonial German lands? How useful or misleading is the distinction that is often made between “colonial collections” acquired in Germany’s formal colonial empire in Africa and the Pacific and earlier expeditionary and collecting enterprises realised by German naturalists under foreign command in various corners of the extra-European world?

What are you currently reading, in your field or just generally, and what do you like about it?

WCGS Book Prize I am currently reading and learning a lot from the masterful work by Corey Ross, Ecology and Power in the Age of Empire: Europe and the Transformation of the Tropical World (Oxford University Press, 2017). It opens up several new important lines of enquiry that will occupy me for my next project on the history of science and tropical resources in the ‘synthetic age’ – in particular the emergence of two parallel and competing resource cycles for the key modern material of rubber. The book is ambitious in scope, and also exceptionally well-written.

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