JÃ¼rg Schneider, Ute Röschenthaler, Bernhard Gardi, eds. Fotofieber: Bilder aus West- und Zentralafrika: Die Reisen von Carl Passavant, 1883-1885. Basel: Museum der Kulturen, 2005. 247 pp. EUR 32.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-85616-251-1.
Reviewed by Hartmut Krech (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-German (March, 2007)
How Switzerland Saw West Africa
The systematic study of nineteenth-century cultural history has reached a new stage, comparable to that of other historical periods, as is demonstrated by the activities of the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Erforschung des 19. Jahrhunderts, founded in affiliation with the Herzog August Bibliothek at Wolfenbüttel in 2001. The importance of photography as the key medium for elucidating the impact of new technical media of reproduction, information and communication upon the formation of society and culture cannot be underrated. As far as the German experience is concerned, inevitably case histories, micro-analyses and longitudinal studies from Austria and Switzerland will have to be addressed and included in this history.
The publication under review originated in conjunction with an exhibition at the Basel Museum of Cultures, but it far surpasses the standards of a catalogue publication. It must be regarded as a respectable historical study in its own right, limited though its subject matter may seem at first glance. Without the financial backing of influential foundations, Jürg Schneider and his co-editors have succeeded in assembling a dozen scholars from England, Germany, the United States, Portugal, Switzerland, and Africa who are specialists in their respective fields.
As is well-known to anyone working in nineteenth-century studies who has delighted in the joys of archival studies, many historical collections hold table-top albums of photographs collected by travelers, missionaries, colonial servants, military personnel and commercial agents. From a stylistic and artistic point of view, these photographs generally have much in common, as they were produced by photo studios that catered to the tastes of the casual traveler and tourist and similarity and self-similarity were the chief aesthetic values they had to achieve in order to please their customers. Rarely, and increasingly towards the end of the century, the collector was also the photographer. Nevertheless, the fixed arrangement and presentation of a selection of photographs within the tangible confines of an album have a historical and descriptive value of their own, as material representations of the content of a particular worldview.
This collective study of about 100 photographs from West and Central Africa taken between approximately 1869 and 1885 results from an accidental find of about 2,500 annotated photographs contained in the Nachlass of Basel businessman Georges Passavant-Fichter (1862-1952) who toured the world between 1888 and 1889 and kept a diary of about 690 pages. In what can only be called detective work, museum librarian Bernhard Gardi identified about 274 photographs collected by Passavant-Fichter's older brother Carl Passavant (1854-87) on two journeys to the countries between the island of Madeira and present-day Senegal and Angola between 1883 and 1885. The chief value of these photographs lies in their historical significance as early documents of life on the Atlantic Coast of Africa, although quite a few pictures stand out for their artistic and technical merits.
As Peter Haenger explains in his contribution, "Geld und Geist, reisende und forschende Basler," geographical and ethnographical interests had a long tradition in this commercial town in the Upper Rhine Valley, which gave birth to such famous cultural historians as Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-87)--well-known for his romantic theory of a primeval "mother right" (matriarchy)--and Jakob Christoph Burckhardt (1818-97) and housed the influential Basel Missionary Society. Carl Passavant himself stemmed from a rich banking and trading family that entertained international commercial contacts. As follows from Jürg Schneider's biographical sketch, Passavant graduated from the University of Basel, where he studied medicine under the tutelage of racial anatomist Julius Kollmann (1834-1918), only two years after his father's death.
A man of independent means, Passavant made up his mind to pursue an academic career and to obtain the empirical data for his doctoral dissertation on a trip to West Africa. He may have been inspired by the example of his Basel comrades Fritz Sarasin (1859-1942) and Paul Sarasin (1856-1929), who set out for their first field study among the Wedda of Ceylon in 1883. Unfortunately, Schneider leaves much to the reader's imagination here. As Bachofen's nephew, it must have been easy for Passavant to get the support of Berlin ethnologist Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), who was instrumental in organizing anthropological and ethnological research throughout the German Reich. Bastian, in turn, introduced the aspiring Swiss scientist to Gustav Nachtigal (1834-85), who was on the board of directors of the Afrikanische Gesellschaft in Deutschland. According to its statutes of 1878, the society aimed at "the scientific investigation of the unknown regions of Africa, opening them up for culture, trade, and commerce, and consequently eliminating the slave trade peacefully" (p. 32). During the latter half of 1881 and all of 1882, Nachtigal instructed his young Swiss colleague on how to become an Afrikaforscher (pp. 32-33).
Although Passavant's travels spanned about thirty degrees of latitude and finally brought his premature death at the age of 33, their scientific results must be regarded as meager. As Christoph Keller shows in his contribution, Passavant's doctoral dissertation, Craniological Investigation of Negroes and Negro Peoples (1884), was meant to complement his academic teacher's study of the European races. Like Kollmann, he was convinced of the permanence of racial types, thus subscribing to the general colonialist attitude, but he also took an intermediary stand by acknowledging the existence of at least three different sub-varieties that were spread throughout the African continent (pp. 43, 45-46). It seems doubtful that the young Swiss scholar took many measurements during his travels himself. Having lost all of his notes during a fatal boat accident, Passavant drew his conclusions primarily from a comparison of 205 skulls held in European collections or published previously. This fact alone demonstrates his excellent integration within the European network of anthropological science.
While Passavant's dissertation was being published, during his second trip to Africa, his tutor Gustav Nachtigal "raised the German flag" in Cameroon and Togo. Though a civilian and a citizen of Switzerland, Passavant actively took part in a raid of retaliation by German marines on Akwa Town, identifying a native house to the military that was later burnt to the ground (p. 90). Stefanie Michels, in her chapter "Die Berichterstattung über die Kriegsereignisse von 1884 in Kamerun," makes intelligent use of the pictorial language contained in the photographs and woodcut illustrations from contemporary magazines.
Unfortunately, Passavant left only a brief description of his first trip in the appendix to his dissertation and only a few letters of his have surfaced among Bastian's papers. If we acknowledge the fact that only a few substantial corpora of early photographs from West Africa have survived to this day, we must be grateful for the impressive task accomplished by the editors and contributors in reconstructing this body of visual evidence from an important period of African history. It was a wise decision to select singular photographs for review by specialists according to topics like early tourism on the island of Madeira, traditional and Western means of transportation along the coast and on inland waterways, townships and trade centers, indigenous populations as well as the photographic representation of women and men and the first gorillas to be studied in the field. These reviews may well serve as examples of a new approach in historical research, making use of visual information for an interpretation of the development of culture and society. All of the photographs are carefully reproduced and well documented in this nicely designed book, which leaves little to be desired.
. See Hannes Böhringer, Gerd Biegel and Arne Zerbst, DGE19J: Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Erforschung des 19. Jahrhunderts, with its webpage at http://dge19j.hab.de/ (accessed February 24, 2007).
. Also see Philipp Sarasin, Stadt der Bürger. Struktureller Wandel und bürgerliche Lebenswelt, Basel 1870-1900 (Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1990); Lionel Gossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Hans Werner Debrunner, Schweizer im kolonialen Afrika (Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 1991).
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Hartmut Krech. Review of Schneider, JÃ¼rg; Röschenthaler, Ute; Gardi, Bernhard, eds., Fotofieber: Bilder aus West- und Zentralafrika: Die Reisen von Carl Passavant, 1883-1885.
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