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”.