Colonial Dimensions of the Global Wildlife Trade

Colonial Dimensions of the Global Wildlife Trade

Charlotte Marlene Hoes, Modern History Department, Georg-August-University Göttingen; Network for Provenance Research in Lower-Saxony, Hannover
German Lost Art Foundation
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
28.11.2022 - 28.11.2022
Sophia Annweiler, Seminar für Neuere und Neueste Geschichte, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Humans have traded and transported live animals for centuries. However, the second half of the 19th century saw an upswing in this mobility, and trade increased considerably. More and more live animals were transported around the globe, often at the behest of humans, and sometimes unintentionally. This included both domesticated and wild animals. The trade was spurred by a surge of new customers such as newly emerging zoological gardens and natural history museums that aimed to display taxidermied animals. Of particular interest to them were those animals that were considered “exotic” in European or U.S. societies. The trade ran via the expanding networks and routes of the global colonial trade. At the same time, new routes emerged on which both people as well as objects moved together with animals. These developments affected the spaces and networks involved and were closely linked to notions of exoticism and imperialist practices.

The conference investigated these discursive as well as practical effects in focusing on the first half of the 20th century. Starting from the understanding that the trade in animals was deeply embedded in colonial contexts, the conference asked what structures and narratives the trade used, altered, and (re)produced, and what consequences it had on the regions of origin as well as on the regions to which the animals were brought. The conference examined key actors and institutions as well as practices of hunting, transporting, and collecting. A focal point was the possible connection of the wildlife trade to other forms of trade, such as the export of ethnographic objects. With this broad approach, the conference also contributed to provenance research on natural history collections and enriched the ongoing debates surrounding them.

Highlighting the motivation behind the conference, CHARLOTTE MARLENE HOES (Göttingen) introduced the related research project “The global trading networks of the animal trading companies Reiche and Ruhe – provenance research on the circulation of animals, humans and objects in the 19th and 20th century”. By giving a brief overview of two leading global animal trading companies (C. Reiche and L. Ruhe KG / Louis Ruhe Inc.), Hoes outlined the central questions at stake: How did the trade operate both on a local and global scale? Who were the historical actors in the trade and what room for maneuver did they have – and how can all the groups involved be considered, including those who are often not mentioned in historical sources, e.g., hunters and caretakers who were employed on-site? According to Hoes, animals, too, must be taken into account, including the ways in which they resisted or contributed (be it voluntarily or not) to the trade through the exploitation of their bodies and labor. As an imperial practice that combined many of these aspects, she named the display of live animals, which was often linked to “ethnographic exhibitions” of humans, as well as the presentation of animal specimens in newly emerging natural history collections.

The first panel focused on hunting and trading practices, with the speakers underlining the importance of colonial networks and intermediaries. PRIMA NURAHMI MULYASARI (Jakarta) kicked off by presenting her research on wildlife dealers in colonial Indonesia in the first half of the 20th century, an area that has been surprisingly little studied so far. She argued that the dealers conducted their business in the “name of science and pleasure”, a goal specifically and exclusively conceived according to European ideas. Thus, zoological gardens established in Indonesia at the time reflected colonial logic: they were built according to the socio-cultural interests of Dutch communities. Mulyasari also showed how European animal dealers relied on colonial infrastructures and white privilege in the Dutch colony itself as well as across colonial borders. Yet, they were heavily dependent on local knowledge and assistance to succeed in their business.

ANNIKA DÖRNER (Erfurt) also looked at the importance of colonial networks. She traced the journey of 2,000 camels brought from the Horn of Africa to German South West Africa in 1905, in order to be used by German troops in the war against the Herero and Nama. To carry out this commission for the German Kaiser, German animal traders Carl Hagenbeck (1844–1913) and Josef Menges (1850–1910) had to go to great logistical length and tap into all their networks. They made use of colonial structures, their contacts in German trade and politics, and their family support. Dörner convincingly demonstrated their “fantasies of full control” that aimed to control animal bodies and spaces of conflict, too – even when this was never achieved. Dörner went on to show that the colonial government had also requested riding instructors and caravan headmen. Consequently, people on work contracts moved along with the animals. By coordinating what was for them a lucrative and coveted deal, Hagenbeck and Menges were useful helpers in colonial military endeavours.

VIOLETTE POUILLARD (Ghent) outlined the connection between wildlife conservation and collecting practices between 1928 and 1960, using the example of Victor van Straelen (1889–1964), director of the Royal Museum of Natural History of Belgium and president of the Institute of the National Parks of Belgian-Congo and Rwanda-Urundi. By looking at van Straelen, Pouillard showed how the concepts of collecting and protecting intertwined and contributed to the stabilization of colonial hierarchies and the exclusion of marginalized people from nature reserves. Meanwhile, European research institutions were able to amass their zoological collections. In a similar vein to Mulyasari and Dörner, Pouillard also pointed out the role of intermediaries, as van Straelen’s expeditions relied heavily on their contributions. Pouillard concluded by stressing that in Belgium the coloniality of natural history museums is still not sufficiently recognized.

Moving on from the examination of acquisition practices, the second panel focused on the collecting and selling strategies of the receiving institutions. RAF DE BONT (Maastricht) approached the topic using the example of the well-known animal catcher Charles Cordier (1897–1994) and the subject of cryptozoology, a now-discredited science that adherents believed could help them find mythical creatures. De Bont drew on Cordier’s interest in cryptozoology to outline the boundaries of “accepted” science and knowledge and to illuminate the trapping practices that were adopted in the animal trade. Both undertakings – cryptozoology and the animal trade – had shared intersections, e.g., relying on non-Western knowledge, on (post)colonial power structures, and on the exploitation of these spaces. Moreover, the “economy of rarity and wonder” was essential in both cryptozoology as well as zoos, as both strove to show animals that had been largely unknown in Europe and North America.

BARRIE BLATCHFORD (New York) shifted the focus from public animal display to private ownerships of “exotic” animals as pets, which became a mass phenomenon in the United States in the years after World War II. It was also heavily promoted in the U.S. media. Blatchford showed the downside of private pet ownership, i.e., the suffering and death of captive animals, especially during transport, by looking at the thriving monkey business of Henry Trefflich (1908–1978). In his own words, Trefflich wanted to provide “a monkey to every home”, an ambition that, as Blatchford noted, points to the global consequences of hegemonic U.S. consumer consumption.

Looking at a less influential business, MARIANNA SZCZYGIELSKA (Prague) shed light on the acquisition strategies of a small Polish zoological garden in Poznan. With no or limited access to animal trading networks, the zoo had to find other ways to stock its enclosures. As Szczygielska outlined, the zoo had three options: donations, bartering animals, or breeding in captivity. Breeding was not a common measure at the time, as animals were mainly acquired through capture. By tracing the successful breeding of lions in the interwar period, Szczygielska was able to show how the three options were intertwined, and how breeding ultimately proved to be the swiftest solution for a small zoo with limited connections and resources.

The last panel dealt with the building of museum collections, asking whether and how these processes differed between natural history and ethnographical collections. KERSTIN PANNHORST (Berlin) illuminated the colonial dimensions of insect collecting using the example of two institutions, the Japanese Nawa Entomological Museum in Gifu and the German Entomological Museum in Berlin-Dahlem. Both institutions used the insect bodies to gain prestige and recognition. Around the turn of the century, large numbers of insects were sent all over the world. Many were used in collections, while others served economic purposes by being turned into fashion or decorative objects. As Pannhorst pointed out, the Nawa Entomological Museum sold the insects to obtain funds for its scientific work, while the museum in Dahlem used the insects to expand its collections, and thereby its reputation. The example of both institutions uncovers the tight links among animal bodies, global trade and science, and how these are further interwoven in colonial contexts.

CALLUM FISHER (Berlin) also examined the entanglements between economic and collecting endeavors by looking at the collection of the Hamburg merchant company Godeffroy. The collection was established by the Godeffroy company, which owned and operated plantations in Oceania. Godeffroy used the business empire to collect both animal specimens and ethnographic objects. Simultaneously, Fisher argued, their collection contributed to the expansion of their plantations by promoting Godeffroy’s activities in Oceania and legitimizing them with hegemonic narratives. The plantation exploited people, animals, and nature. Fisher used the “plantationocene” as a concept to deepen the understanding of this specific case of acquisition practices.

The closing keynote by JONATHAN SAHA (Durham) addressed overarching theoretical questions. Saha asked how Global History and Human-Animal Studies can truly decolonize their own studies and fields. He suggested that examining the role of animals, and whether they themselves have been decolonized, might be useful first steps. Analyzing the fate of elephants in captivity during the decolonization of Myanmar, Saha showed that their living conditions did not alter significantly. Only the humans who controlled them changed. Through this case study, Saha argued that Human-Animal Studies and Historiography in general should examine more closely explicit decolonization processes and their impact on animals. This will allow scholars to include both postcolonial as well as animal perspectives in research.

Through a comprehensive look at various aspects of the global wildlife trade and its colonial entanglements, the conference illuminated how this trade functioned along imperial networks and was thus involved in the exploitation of (post)colonial spaces. It highlighted the inverted hierarchy of knowledge in and about these spaces and animals, which led to a dependence on Indigenous knowledge and contributions. Consequently, the crucial role of non-European actors was repeatedly emphasized. Speakers also illustrated the conditions into which animals were forced, and the role they played in human endeavors. It became clear that the collections of zoological gardens and natural history museums were built on these frameworks. How these issues can be further integrated into science, museum work, and provenance research, needs to be discussed in more detail. Another question that arose during the conference and that should be explored further was how ethnographic collections, and the history of the forcible seizure of human remains as well as their restitution, could be included in a more productive way in this animal-focused approach to the history of colonial appropriation.

The stimulating conference proved that an interdisciplinary approach, including Human-Animal Studies, can open up new perspectives on imperialism and the colonial acquisition of goods and wealth. Accordingly, the multifaceted presentations underscored that a more animal-focused approach proves fruitful for Global History research as well as for discussions on provenance and restitutions.

Conference overview:

Charlotte Marlene Hoes (Göttingen): Introduction

Panel I – Global Networks and Local Repercussions: Trading Animals within Colonial Contexts

Chair: Eva Bischoff (Trier)

Prima Nurahmi Mulyasari (Jakarta): Global Animal Dealers in Colonial Indonesia in the early 20th century

Annika Dörner (Erfurt): Camels for Kaiser. Mobilizing Hagenbeck’s Trading Network to sell 2,000 Dromedaries to the German Colonial Army

Violette Pouillard (Ghent): Van Straelen’s networks. Collecting and exhibiting protected animals, Congo-Belgium, ca. 1925–1960

Panel II – Strategies and Make Do: Acquisitions, Trading, and Zoological Gardens

Chair: Mieke Roscher (Kassel)

Raf de Bont (Maastricht): The Economy of Rarity. Charles Cordier, Cryptozoology and the Zoo Trade

Barrie Blatchford (New York): “A Monkey in Every Home”. Henry Trefflich and the Twentieth-Century Exotic Animal Trade in America

Marianna Szczygielska (Prague): Lion Capital. Zoo acquisition strategies in interwar Poland

Panel III – Collecting Animals, Collecting Objects? Entanglements of Colonialism, Ethnology, and Natural Sciences

Chair: Holger Stöcker (Göttingen)

Kerstin Pannhorst (Berlin): “Hecatombs of insects“. Colonial Dimensions of Specimen Collecting

Callum Fisher (Berlin): Empire, Ethnology and the Natural Sciences in Hamburg’s Museum Godeffroy

Catarina Madruga (Berlin): Evaluating Value. Practices of Acquisition of Colonial Fauna in the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, 1900–1928 [cancelled]


Jonathan Saha (Durham): Decolonizing Elephants. The Imperial Accumulation of Animal Capital and the End of Empire in Myanmar