'It is not so!' Otto Finsch, Expectations and Encounters in the Pacific, 1865–85
Hilary S. Howes
Historical Records of Australian Science
22(1) 32 - 52
Published: 04 May 2011
This article focuses on the Pacific experiences of the German ornithologist and ethnologist Otto Finsch (1839–1917). Between 1879 and 1882, Finsch voyaged extensively in the Pacific, visiting Hawai‘i, parts of Micronesia and island Melanesia, New Zealand, New Guinea and the Torres Strait Islands. In 1884, he returned to New Guinea and was instrumental in the acquisition of Kaiser-Wilhelmsland and the Bismarck Archipelago as German protectorates.While his numerous publications on the indigenous inhabitants of these areas naturally reflect the prevailing scientific and colonial discourses of the late nineteenth century, I argue that they were also significantly shaped by his personal encounters with Pacific peoples. Through close comparisons of texts produced before, during and after his Pacific voyages, I discuss the ways in which these encounters challenged Finsch's pre-voyage assumptions about ‘race' and human difference: the breadth of individual variation within supposedly homogeneous races, the extent of overlap between such races, and the reliability of particular cultural practices as diagnostics of savagery or civilization. I also emphasize links between Finsch's story and broader issues in the history of science, including the influence of observers' trajectories of travel on the constitution of regional topographies of difference, the standardization and mobilization of travellers' observations for metropolitan audiences, the human interface between discovery and communication, and the policing of scientific knowledge and interpretation of field observations by metropolitan authorities.
Full text doi:10.1071/HR11002
© Australian Academy of Science 2011