- German Science in the Age of Empire: Enterprise, Opportunity and the Schlagintweit Brothers by Moritz Von Brescius
There is something romantic about the distinctly nineteenth-century phrase "itinerant naturalist." That romanticisation, however, [End Page 173] also comes at a certain cost. In the nineteenth century, European scientists were often agents of empire, their theories and methods tied to the expansionist imperial aspirations of the European powers. Crucially, however, that agency was surprisingly transnational, and the scientists who furthered the imperialist frontiers often did so not for their own native countries but for others. Henry Morton Stanley may today be best remembered for finding his fellow Briton David Livingstone, but Stanley had already served in the American Civil War (on both sides), and then entered the service of the Belgian crown, paving the way for the brutal Belgian colonisation of the Congo. Moritz von Brescius, in his new work, examines the lives of Livingstone and Stanley's contemporaries—Adolph, Hermann, and Robert Schlagintweit—whose careers offer similar, sometimes surprising insights not only into the development of science in the nineteenth century, but how this pursuit of knowledge dovetailed with larger, geopolitical objectives.
This work is "the first monograph on the contested careers of German scientific travellers in a foreign empire in the nineteenth century" (p. 4). It is difficult to understand how the Schlagintweits have escaped greater attention. While Brescius focuses on the three aforementioned brothers, there were six Schlagintweit siblings, each making an impact on ethnography, geography, and colonial studies, ranging between British India, Tibet, Morocco, and Asia Minor, and in the services of the British, the Spanish, and the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Adolph, Hermann, and Robert were hardly obscure figures in their own times, garnering the explicit support and advocacy of Alexander von Humboldt and the Prussian crown (in spite of being Bavarian; their father, a prominent Munich-based eye surgeon, operated on Maximilian II's mistress, the actress Lola Montez). Part of the answer comes from the low regard in which the Schlagintweits were held by the same scientific community that they so tirelessly served. Humboldt's intervention, for example, was accompanied by a corresponding British scepticism; far from being pioneers, the Schlagintweits were, to the British, little more than "contributors." Time and again, their skills and expertise were called into question. In 1854, at the start of their careers, Nathaniel Wallich dismissed them as "arch-puffers." When Adolph was captured by Wali Khan during the Kashgar uprising in 1857, and subsequently beheaded, his death was greeted by the British whom he was serving at the time with noted apathy, leading his guide to write a series of increasingly exasperated letters to the authorities. Scientific authorities were similarly scathing, with the leading journal Athenaeum ridiculing them for their "absolute [End Page 174] worthlessness" (p. 316). (The author, with some understatement, refers to the "mixed legacy" of the brothers in Britain; he should be commended for his restraint.)
With all this in mind, then, it is already clear that a reappraisal such as that presented by Brescius here is long overdue. Were this simply a collective biography, this would already be the case. But the work does much more than this, using the example of the Schlagintweits as a stand-in for itinerant scientists in general in the service of empire. Along the way, the author encourages the reader to reflect on what the role science plays in imperial expansion, although some questions remain tantalisingly unaddressed. In his aforementioned letters after Adolph's execution, for instance, the companion and guide Mohammad Amin castigated the British for forgetting Adolph, as "that man was killed and was a patriot who wholeheartedly sacrificed his life for the good of his government and compatriots" (p. 195). This statement, on the face of it, is an extraordinary outburst, addressed to the British about a Bavarian with Prussian patronage who was killed while travelling through India. Such notions, especially given the typically "nationalist" reading of empire...