The politics and production of history on the birth of archaeology at the Cape (1827–2015)

This chapter analyses the contributions of Thomas Holden Bowker and James Henry Bowker to the early settler endeavours to create archaeological collections and knowledge. It discusses the social history of archaeology, to an entangled history of the micro-politics of knowledge as well as the emerging field of South African Empire Studies, all part of a wider endeavour to rethink South Africa’s past. Since 1835 Thomas Holden Bowker had been concerned with 1820 settlers’ compensation claims for Frontier War losses and had been known in Albany under the cognomen of “Compensation Bowker”. Screen memories are inaccurate reconstructions that obscure what really happened or depict compromises between ‘an unconscious recognition of the importance of an experience and an equally unconscious desire not to recognize the experience at all’. One who sent stone implements from Cape Colony to metropolis was James Henry Bowker. He was mainly interested in Lepidoptera and over the years became probably the leading collector of butterflies in South Africa.

Cover of the collected volume

Thinking with Birds

My first journal article has just been published and allows interested readers to learn more about Mary Elizabeth Barber, the first woman ornithologist in South Africa and her contributions to ornithology. At the same time, I argue, she supported sexual selection as she saw it as a liberating theory for her sex. At the same time, she developed a feminist ornithology and through descriptions and depictions of birds advocated for gender equality.

Thinking with Birds: Mary Elizabeth Barber’s Advocacy for Gender Equality in Ornithology, Kronos: Southern African Histories 41:1 (2015), 85-111.

One of Mary Barber’s watercolours was used on the cover of this Kronos issue

The Politics of Nature and Science in Southern Africa

I have co-organised an international workshop on ‘The Politics of Nature and Science in African History’ in 2014 (see conference report). My colleague and two senior experts have been editing a forthcoming collected volume that shall most likely be published in June.

Book summary: This book brings together recent and ongoing empirical studies to examine two relational kinds of politics, namely, the politics of nature, i.e. how nature conservation projects are sites on which power relations play out, and the politics of the scientific study of nature. These are discussed in their historical and present contexts, and at specific sites on which particular human-environment relations are forged or contested. This spatio-temporal juxtaposition is lacking in current research on political ecology while the politics of science appears marginal to critical scholarship on social nature. Specifically, the book examines power relations in nature-related activities, demonstrates conditions under which nature and science are politicised, and also accounts for political interests and struggles over nature in its various forms.

The ecological, socio-political and economic dimensions of nature cannot be ignored when dealing with present-day environmental issues. Nature conservation regulations are concerned with the management of flora and fauna as much as with humans. Various chapters in the book pay attention to the ways in which nature, science and politics are interrelated and also co-constitutive of each other. They highlight that power relations are naturalised through science and science-related institutions and projects such as museums, botanical gardens, wetlands, parks and nature reserves.

Editors: Maano Ramutsindela, Professor of Environmental & Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Giorgio Miescher, Carl Schlettwein Research Chair of Namibian and Southern African Studies at the Centre for African Studies, University of Basel, Switzerland.

Melanie Boehi, history PhD student at the Basel Graduate School of History and Centre for African Studies Basel, University of Basel, Switzerland.

My chapter is entitled: “Racial Difference in Mary Elizabeth Barber’s Knowledge on Insects”. 



Mary Elizabeth Barber has been mentioned in articles and books. Here is a list of references (1904-2015) that is constantly updated. Please share references, if you can:

Encyclopaedia entries

Gutsche. Dr T. 1971. “Mary Elizabeth Barber” in Dictionary of South African Biography Vol II, 26-7.

‘Barber, Mrs. F. W. (née Mary Elizabeth Bowker) (1818-1899) in Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. 1981. Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa. An illustrated history of early botanical literature on the Cape flora. Biographical accounts of the leading plant collectors and their activities in southern Africa from the days of the East India Company until modern times. A.A. Balkema, Cape Town, pp. 87-88.

BARBER, Mary Elizabeth,in: Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (ed.): Women Marching into the 21st Century: Within’ Abafazi, Within’ Imbokodo, 9 August 2000, researched by Group Democracy and Governance. Human Sciences Research Council (Shereno Printers 2000) p. 225.

Cohen, Alan. “Barber, Mary Elizabeth (1818-1899″ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010

Mary R. S. Creese with Thomas M. Creese, Ladies in the Laboratory III: South African, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian Women in Science, Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, A Survey of Their Contributions(Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2010), pp. 9-12.

Harvey, Joyce and Marilyn Ogilvie, eds. “Barber, Mary Elizabeth (Bowker)” in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century. (London: Taylor & Francis 2000), Volume 1, p. 78.

Strohmeyer, Renate,  Lexikon der Naturwissenschaftlerinnen und naturkundigen Frauen Europas. Verlag Harri Deutsch, p. 34.

Short online introductions
South African History
Biodiversity Explorer
Darwin Correspondence Project
English Wikipedia entry
German Wikipedia entry

Articles on her

Schonland, S. (1904). “Biography of the Late Mrs. F. W. Barber.” Records of the Albany Museum 1(2): 95-108.

Alan Cohen, 1999, ‘Mary Elizabeth Barber, The Bowkers and South African Prehistory’ in South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 54, No. 170, pp. 120-127

Alan Cohen, Mary Elizabeth Barber, some early South African geologists and the discoveries of gold, South African Journal of Economic History 15:1 (2000), 1-19.

Alan Cohen, ‘Mary Elizabeth Barber: South Africa’s first lady natural historian’, Archives of Natural History 27:2 (2000), 157-208.

Alan Cohen, ‘Roland Trimen and the Merope Harem’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 56:2 (2002), 205-18.

F. Way-Jones, R. Lubke, F. Gess, Mary Elizabeth Barber (1820[!]-1899), Annals of the Grahamstown Historical Society, 40: 14-21.

Articles with Passages on Barber

Selected articles from the Cape Monthly Magazine (new series 1870-76). Van Riebeeck Society II(9): 159.

William Beinart, ‘Men, Science, Travel and Nature in the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Cape’, Journal of Southern African Studies 24:4 (1998), 792-99.

Joy Harvey, Darwin’s ‘Angels’: the Women Correspondents of Charles Darwin, Intellectual History Review 19:2 (2009), pp. 207-208.

Robert Shanafelt, How Charles Darwin Got Emotional Expression out of South Africa (And the People Who Helped Him), Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 815-842

Books with chapters on Barber

Hilton-Barber, David (2014). The Saint, the Surgeon and the Unsung Botanist: A tribute to my remarkable ancestors (Footprints Press)

Mitford-Barberton, I. (1970). Chapter 7, Mary Elizabeth Barber, Comdt. Holden Bowker. An 1820 Settler book including unpublished records of the Frontier Wars. (Cape Town, Pretoria, Human & Rousseau), pp. 223-256.

Mitford-Barberton, I. (1934), The Barbers of the Peak: A History of the Barber, Atherstone, and Bowker Families (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Mitford-Barberton, I. and R. Mitford-Barberton (1952). The Bowkers of Tharfield (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Mitford-Barberton, I. and White, V. (1968), Some Frontier Families. Biographical Sketches of 100 Eastern Province Families before 1840. Cape Town/Pretoria: Human & Rousseau.

Articles and Books that mention her

Beinart, W. (2003), The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment, 1770-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 117.

Dubow, S. (2006), A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 95, 106, 108.

Dubow, S. (2004), Earth History, Natural History, and Prehistory at the Cape, 1860-1875, Comparative Studies in Society and History 46:1, pp. 123, 126.

Eve, J. (2003), A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape. Cape Town: Double Storey Books, p. 185-187.

T. Gianquitto, Botanical Smuts and Hermaphrodites: Lydia Becker, Darwin’s Botany, and Education Reform, Isis 104:2 (2013), p. 263.

Harries, P. (2007), Butterflies & Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries & Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa (Oxford etc.: James Currey etc.), p. 142.

Johnson, S.D. (2009), Darwin’s legacy in South African evolutionary biology, South African Journal of Science, 105: 11-12, p. 404.

Lester, A. (2001), Imperial Networks: Creating identities in nineteenth-century South Africa and Britain (London, New York: Routledge), pp. 74-75.

Rall, M. (2002), Petticoat Pioneers: The History of the Pioneer Women who Lived on the Diamond Fields in the Early Years. Kimberley: Kimberley Africana Library, p. 15.

Weedman, K. (2001), Who’s “That Girl”: British, South African, and American Women as Africanist Archaeologists in Colonial Africa (1860s-1960s, The African Archaeological Review, 18:1, p. 5

Short introduction

Who was Mary Elizabeth Barber? You may ask yourself. This is a very legitimate question, as  she is not well known. She was a British-born, South Africa-based naturalist who as a two-year-old arrived near Grahamstown, on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony with the 1820 settlers. Reading Irish botanist William Henry Harvey‘s Genera of South African Plants (1838, second edition 1868), she became interested in plants. She corresponded with Harvey and provided him with more than thousand specimens at the Trinity College Dublin Herbarium. This made the curator and later professor acknowledge her in his Flora Capensis (3 vols co-authored with German botanist Otto Wilhelm Sonder, 1859-1865) and his accompanying Thesaurus Capensis (1859-1863). When Harvey’s health deteriorated, she established contact with Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), director at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, London, who named Brachystelma barberae after her in 1867, corresponded with her and supported the publication of some of her articles and forwarded some of her information to Charles Darwin. At the same time, she described and depicted birds for Edgar Leopold Layard, curator of the South African Museum in Cape Town who was working on The Birds of South Africa (1867, new edition 1875-84). She was the only woman he quoted, the first British South African ornithologist and certainly one of only few women at the time working on birds to such an extend. At the same time, Barber was in close contact with entomologist Roland Trimen, curator of the South African Museum. He made her a member of the South African Philosophical Society in 1878 and published her articles in the society’s transactions. Her correspondence became part of Trimen’s and her brother James Henry Bowker’s South-African Butterflies (1887-1889). She was also contributing to archaeology and geology. Her ca. 100 watercolours, sketches and illustrations testify her artistic talent and observational skills and her ca. 50 published poems in The Erythrina Tree and Other Verses (1898, example) show her interest in literature and her versatility. She grew up near Port Alfred, later lived on various farms in the Eastern Cape with her husband, their two sons and daughter. They spent the 1870s in Kimberley witnessing the diamond rush. She returned to the area of Grahamstown, helped her sons ostrich farming and accompanied them to Witwatersrand for the gold rush in 1886. After more than a decade separated from her husband, who was in England, the family joined him and travelled in England and on the Continent, before returning in 1891. Her husband Frederick William Barber died shortly afterwards in Grahamstown (1892). She alternately lived at her sons’ and at her brother James Henry’s in Malvern near Durban and died at her daughter’s in Pietermaritzburg on 4 September 1899. Just to give you a very brief introduction.