P128 – Naturalistic Collections as Historical Sources in Africa: Knowledge’s, Environment and Identities
8 July, 16:00 – 17:30

Juhé-Beaulaton Dominique / UMR 7206 CNRS-MNHN
Leblan Vincent / UMR 208 PALOC IRD-MNHN


This panel will consider naturalistic collections in Europe and associated writings as sources for the history of scientific knowledge production about Africa. Participants will explore the roles of a diversity of players in the creation of animal, plant and mineral collections such as scholars, amateurs and middlemen, each characterized by specific life histories and motivations. The development of multi-scale trade networks connecting a range of scientists, more or less recognized connoisseurs and museums has greatly contributed to the growth of collections and of various kinds of knowledge attached to them. We invite participants to examine how they were produced between the 17th and early 20th century, in a conjunction of scientific explorations with the slave trade and later on with colonial conquest operations. The subject is thus opened to science and environmental history as well as to the history of North-South relationships and the making of identities and ideologies as reflected in the production of naturalistic knowledge. We especially welcome interdisciplinary social and natural science approaches to shedding light on the act of collecting and exhibiting scientific data and their social, political and economic implications. Overall, this panel will display how Museum collections can be drawn into Africanist historical research.

Les collections naturalistes en tant que sources historiques en Afrique : connaissances, environnement et identités

Ce panel envisagera les collections naturalistes et les écrits associés en tant que sources pour l’histoire de la production des savoirs scientifiques sur l’Afrique. Les participants vont explorer le rôle d’une diversité d’acteurs dans la création de collections biologiques et minérales : savants, amateurs plus ou moins reconnus, intermédiaires locaux, dont les parcours biographiques et les motivations varient. Le développement de réseaux d’échanges à différentes échelles entre scientifiques et institutions muséales a contribué à l’enrichissement des collections et au développement d’une diversité de types de savoirs. Nous souhaitons examiner comment ils furent produits depuis le XVIIe siècle jusqu’au début du XXe siècle, dans des situations de conjonction d’explorations scientifiques avec la traite des esclaves puis avec les opérations de conquête coloniale. Le thème porte donc sur l’histoire des sciences et de l’environnement mais aussi celle des relations Nord-Sud et la construction d’identités et d’idéologies liées à la production de savoirs naturalistes. Les approches interdisciplinaires à la croisée des sciences sociales et naturelles sont particulièrement bienvenues afin d’éclairer les contextes de mise en collection et en exposition des données scientifiques, de s’interroger sur les conditions sociales, politiques et économiques des collectes et de montrer comment ces collections peuvent être mobilisées dans une recherche historique sur l’Afrique.

Paper 1

Alfagali Crislayne / Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp-Brazil)

Knowledge Transfer and African Labor: the Village of Nova Oeiras and its Iron Factory (Angola)

The main goal of this paper is to analyze life and work conditions of the people who lived in the village of Nova Oeiras, especially those who worked with the iron transformation in the Royal Iron Factory of Nova Oeiras. On one hand, the factory installation was part of the Portuguese colonization project in Africa, and it was related to mineralogical and scientific studies that were growing in the second half of the eighteenth century, in the context of Pombal’s policies to develop the manufactories. On the other hand, it involved workers from a diverse cultural, social and legal matrix: Europeans, Africans, deportees, prisoners. This research aims to discuss how this mosaic of individuals, which was united by the knowledge about the iron smelting and forging, was related to the most important interests of the colonial and metropolitan authorities. The study of African techniques that were employed in the iron smelting and forging will be used as thread of analysis, since it allows to understand the disputes, conflicts, customs and traditions involving both the Portuguese colonization strategies of domination, and also the forms of resistance articulated by Africans. In order to do this, we will analyze the José Alvares Maciel writings, an important naturalistic that visited the Iron Factory in 1800.

Paper 2

Leblan Vincent / UMR 208 PALOC IRD-MNHN

A Human/Animal Colonial Frontier : Naturalistic Chimpanzee Captures or the Making of Racial Identities in French Guinea, 1920-1930

In the context of the first simian models for research on infectious diseases in the French colonial empire, the administration organized chimpanzee captures to supply the Pasteur Institute with experimental subjects. This presentation sheds light on the moral economy of capture and care of primates by analysing the role of these living specimens in defining the relationship of colonial science stakeholders to the Other. To this end, I have used a collection of press articles, correspondence between the colonial administration and professional hunters, a touristic hunting narrative, as well as iconographic data. Attempts to catch, tame and/or domesticate the chimpanzee reveal the species’ liminal status, allowing Europeans (e.g. doctors, veterinarians, journalists and trophy hunters) to gauge the distance they introduced between themselves and the “indigenous”.

Paper 3

Lainé Agnès / Institut des mondes africains (CNRS-Univ Paris 1 – EPHE – EHESS – IRD – AMU)

De la collecte scientifique à la concession coloniale : l’itinéraire d’un naturaliste parisien au XIXe siècle.

Nous présentons l’itinéraire d’Aimé Bouvier, un naturaliste peu connu, voyageur, collectionneur et taxidermiste, membre de plusieurs sociétés savantes et promoteur de voyages d’exploration et de collectes en Afrique, qui fut parmi les premiers actionnaires de compagnies concessionnaires au Congo et à Madagascar à la fin du XIXe siècle. S’appuyant sur des sources d’état civil, annuaires du commerce, récits de voyage, bulletins de sociétés savantes et archives des compagnies concessionnaires, la recherche emprunte à la microstoria sa démarche biographique pour identifier les articulations socio-historiques entre les divers aspects – marchands et savants – du naturalisme avec l’entreprise de colonisation.

From Scientific collection to colonial concession: the route of a Parisian naturalist in the Nineteenth Century.

We present the route of Aimé Bouvier, a little-known naturalist, traveler, collector and taxidermist, member of several learned societies and promoter of explorations and collections in Africa, who was among the first shareholders of concessionary companies in Congo and Madagascar at the end of the nineteenth century.
Based on sources of civil status, trade directories, travel accounts, journals of learned societies, and archives of concessionary companies, research borrows from the microstoria biographical approach to identify the socio-historical links between the various aspects – merchants and scholars – of naturalism with the colonial enterprise.

Paper 4

Carré Benoît / Unité de gestion Botanique, UMR 7205 CNRS-MNHN

Production of Naturalistic Knowledge in Madagascar: the Example of Raymond Decary’s Wood Collections

Raymond Decary (1891-1973) was a colonial administrator in Madagascar from 1916 to 1944. He possessed an uncommon ability to work and was also ethnologist, naturalist, geologist and historian. Throughout his career, this man for whom “the collection should be a means, not a goal, a way to advance science and knowledge” explored all fields of research.
Its collections are now deposited in the National Museum of Natural History of Paris, and include many fields of studies: minerals, animals, plants, ethnographic objects, mission maps, 200 books and 400 articles, as well as 13 volumes of his field diary, recently published by his daughter recently.
With more than 40 000 samples of plants, Decary’s collections are a precious source of information on the flora of Madagascar. At these Herbarium collections are related a collection of samples of wood and richly knowledgeable anatomical slides, including several type specimens. It is through this particular collection and Raymond Decary personality, that we will discover a real ethnography of Madagascar, rooted in a time of great historical and colonial upheavals.

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