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The Race Question in Oceania

A. B. Meyer and Otto Finsch between metropolitan theory and field experience, 1865–1914


Hilary Howes

In 1873 the German naturalist A.B. Meyer spent five months in New Guinea. He had expected «bloodthirsty and untamed savages» and was amazed to find «men of milder customs». His compatriot Otto Finsch returned from a voyage through Hawaii, Micronesia, New Zealand and Torres Strait declaring Germany’s most respected anthropologists wrong. Human races could not be neatly distinguished: they «merge into one another to such an extent that the difference between Europeans and Papuans becomes completely unimportant». This richly interdisciplinary book explores the transformative impacts of personal encounters in Oceania on understandings of human difference, and illuminates the difficult relationship between field experience and metropolitan science in late nineteenth-century Europe.


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Readers are advised that this book contains names and images of people who have passed away. The PhD thesis on which this study is based was written in association with the ARC Discovery Project on ‘European Naturalists and the Constitution of Human Difference in Oceania: Crosscultural Encounters and the Science of Race’, based in the Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (now School of Culture, History and Language) at the Australian National University, under the direction of Bronwen Douglas and Chris Ballard. The project focused on the reciprocal significance of metropoli- tan racial ideas and actual regional encounters in representations of indigenous Oceanian people by European naturalists from the late 1760s to the late 1880s. Its main collective outcome, the 2008 edited collection Foreign Bodies: Oceania and the Science of Race 1750-1940, has been an important source of information and theoretical insight for my own work. My first debt of gratitude is to the Project’s Chief Investigators, Bronwen Douglas and Chris Ballard, Chair and member of my supervisory panel respec- tively. This study has benefited enormously from Bronwen’s fierce intellect and meticulous scholarship, from Chris’s holistic vision and breadth of knowledge, and from the time, advice, support and encouragement, generously given, of both. I am also grateful to the members of the Race Reading Group and Writ- ers’ Workshop, organised by Bronwen and Chris, for stimulating discussion and critique: Brett Baker, Andy Connelly, Karen Fox, Elena Govor, Vicki Luker, Sandra Manickam, Carlos Mondrag...

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