Painting by George Catlin

Minor Field: Anthropology and History

The painting of “The Light” by George Catlin provides me with a wonderful visual link between all three of my fields. Catlin was one of the earliest painters of the American frontier. His early career saw him trying to create images of a world that European and American intellectuals believed was going to vanish before the onslaught of civilization. Catlin and other frontier painters, such as the German Karl Bodmer and the Canadian Paul Kane, were as concerned as with ethnography as much as they were with art. They are important, if understudied figures in the early history anthropology. Catlin, who began his career as a lawyer on the Eastern seaboard, ended it as minor celebrity in Britain, and a business man engaged in that most Atlantic of ventures – transporting bodies to the New World. His name crops up in the nineteenth century newspapers as an expert on the aboriginal tribes of North America, and during the 1840s he toured Europe with a party of Iowa, “the finest specimens of the Indian tribes that have ever visited Europe.” [1] He returned to the United Kingdom ten years later as an agent of the Universal Emigration and Colonisation Company. [2] On this occasion his lectures were not so much a celebration of the Indian as a marvel of nature as they were an account of their “rapidly approaching extinction,” and advertisements for the rich, fertile and now empty land which they had once populated. [3] It is precisely such intersections of ethnology, imperialism, and commerce that I hope to explore in future research.

Most of my work on this subject has, up until now, simply been an attempt to come to terms with the history and theory of modern anthropology, particularly as an artifact of European imperialism. But the research paper on the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute represents a first step towards making an original contribution to the field, and the field reading list was put together with that goal in mind. It will likely be put aside until after the completion of my thesis, but it already illuminates a promising intersection between the history of anthropology and the New Imperial History. The syllabus to, is an attempt to explore ways in which to think about the relation between the history of empire and ethnologies of the colonized.

The paper on the Comaroffs is a continuation of the work I did on missions and empire in my major field but is, I think, more sophisticated. The courses I have taken in the anthropology department have helped me come to grips with the theoretical trends that have produced influential interdisciplinary work such as that of the Comaroffs. Some sense of those theoretical developments, and their relation to the practice of history, can be found in the three response papers I posted. The first is from the same historiography course as the paper on transnationalism in my major field, the other two were written for Prof. Piot’s course on anthropological theory.

The final element of this field is a lengthy review of Matory’s Black Atlantic Religions. It was written for a seminar I took with Prof. John French on Race in Brazil and so may seem a little out of place. Matory’s work on transnationalism however, provides useful bridges not only between history and anthropology, but between them and business history as well.


[1] Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Monday, July 29, 1844

[2] Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Thursday, June 20, 1850

[3] ibid