Racial Science and Human Diversity

Joost Coté

Fenneke Sysling’s compact book, published by the ever-enterprising NUS organisation, opens up a further avenue for an international inspection of the Dutch colonial archive. In her introduction the author argues that unlike an earlier “focus on the dichotomy between the rulers and the ruled … and … on the colonised as one category” in (Dutch) colonial history, this book focuses on the ‘discovery’ of its diversity. It is an important point and the author goes some way in demonstrating the link between this European discovery of the “diversity that the anthropologists were after” and the development of the Dutch colonial state.

However, the book’s conclusion that, even so, “anthropologists hardly ever made their knowledge useful for colonial policy” (p. 179) would seem to depend on the distinction Sysling insists on between ‘anthropology’, by which she means ‘physical anthropology’, and ‘ethnography’, the term she prefers for what is now generally understood as ‘cultural anthropology’ (The Dutch practice of a volkenkunde is not discussed.) The distinction is important since it would be hard to argue that volkenkunde did not play a significant role in shaping at least the discourse of colonial policymaking.

After leading readers through a (very) general introduction to the field of study and overview of the book’s content, five interrelated chapters examine “several generations of Dutch physical anthropologists”, a species who the author argues, have “so far escaped scrutiny, perhaps chiefly  […] because the result of their work was not one major scientific breakthrough but page after page of numbers, tables, and figures with few conclusions.”(p.17) Sysling certainly manages to brings these “protagonists” (her term) alive while acknowledging that, apart perhaps from the subjects of the last physical anthropological expedition in 1959 in Papua, little will ever be known of “their hundreds of research subjects”, or “the experience of thousands of people who were measured”. (p.17) Exploring the gradual emergence of the academic discipline in the Netherlands, her canvas features the energetic pioneering ‘amateur’, Herman Frederik Carel ten Kate – known also for his expeditions in the US, Australia, South America, the Pacific and Australia and thus hardly an ‘unknown’ in the Anglophone world - and the prominent first Dutch academic physical anthropologist, Johannes Pieter Kleiweg de Zwaan, and Henrik Bijlmer, anthropologist in Dutch New Guinea, who attract a chapter each. The two remaining chapters outline the development of the broad network of communications between (mainly) Netherlands-based institutions and the activities of anthropologists (and collectors) in the field, and outlines the procedures which supported the development of this study. Notable in this regard is Chapter 3 that looks at the contribution of modern photography, and the use of plaster casts featured on the book’s cover - and now prominently displayed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

This detailed, biographically focused research into the activities of these Dutch (and some German) physical anthropology enthusiasts clearly shows how the (militarised) expansion of the frontiers of Dutch colonialism in the archipelago made possible increased access to ‘the field’. The development of Dutch craniology - the collection and inspection of skulls as well as other skeletal remains – together, increasingly, with anthropometry, the measurement of ‘live heads’ in the field, is shown to have been dependent upon anthropologists’ ability to access the ‘fruits’ of the colonial processes of warfare, incarceration and familiarisation. With the expansion of the colonial frontier, the ‘resources’ of the huge Indonesian archipelago became increasingly available as their laboratory and was thus crucial for the ‘scientificisation’ of the activities of these pioneers.

This is a book about collecting, an activity which gradually developed a specific methodology – and these days an unpleasant reputation. We read of heads recovered from battlefields; heads traded with ‘professional’ indigenous head hunters; heads collected from psychiatric institutions, and prison execution yards; heads dug up from graves or lifted off palings; heads collected openly, through coercion, or stolen at night. As this practice of collecting began to attract protest from indigenous communities and potential informants, collectors began to use more secretive measures and subterfuge. However, as securing the provenance of skeletal remains became recognised as an essential element of the emerging science, engagement with the indigenous population ultimately became necessary.

This is also a story of the dependence of European intellectual enterprise on interaction between metropole and colony. In quoting from letters and manuals detailing instructions for colonial collectors, Sysling provides some horrific word images of body parts, of foetuses and of whole children in bottles; of how ‘soft tissue’ could be removed from bodies, skulls de-fleshed, and whole bodies prepared for transportation to Dutch medical schools and museums; of individual skulls belonging to once brave warriors, rebellious ‘natives’, devious criminals, the mentally insane or even former comrades. Back in the Netherlands specimens were put on show to provide grisly ‘education’ for innocent ethnological museum goers, while behind the closed doors of medical departments in the Netherlands, whole ‘carefully preserved’ bodies from the jungles of the East were dissected in the interests of science to help train up prospective doctors and scientists. 

Sysling is at pains to emphasise that Dutch physical anthropologists refrained from connecting physical characteristics to “primitive mentality” (p. 136). This was in line with the Franz Boas school of physical anthropology in the US and was possibly influenced by the perspective established by the purported founder of Dutch craniology, Petrus Camper (1722-1789) – according to M.C. Meijer (1999, 2014), but not cited by Sysling, who devotes only one sentence to Camper. There were of course branches of racial science at work to undertake this role. Although it only receives brief mention in this book, eugenics also had its advocates in the Indies in the form of the Eugenetische Vereeniging in Nederlansch-Indië (the Netherlands Indies Eugenic Society) established in 1927, although, as Anne Stoler (2002) has suggested, it focussed its attention on evaluating the social contribution of the colony’s large mixed-race Indo-European community. It was, as Hans Pols (2007) has shown, rather the new sciences of psychology and psychiatry that were able to more effectively substantiate colonial assumptions about the ‘lesser’ abilities present in the ‘human diversity’ in the colony.

Although the book, then, demonstrates a clear association between the development of physical anthropology and colonialism, this account confirms the author’s assertion that it was largely irrelevant in terms of its impact on colonial policy. Nevertheless, if Dutch physical anthropologists themselves refrained from drawing negative conclusions about racial characteristics – and even in some cases expressing positive appreciation of physical characteristics – and thus, in this sense, did not contribute to a ‘ruler and ruled’ characterisation of colonialism, it formed part of what Anne Stoler described as “racialized common sense”, as Sysling admits: it hardly required the ‘scientific measurements’ of these new scientists to convince old colonial hands of the link between ‘diversity’ and ‘inferiority’.

Meijer, M.C., Race and Aesthetics in the Anthropology of Petrus Camper (1722-1789) (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1999)
Meijer, M.C., “Cranial Varieties in the Human and Orangutan Species,” The Invention of Race: Scientific and Popular Representations of Race, eds. Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David & Dominic Thomas (New York: Routledge, 2014): 33-47.
Pols, H., “The nature of the native mind: Contested views of Dutch colonial psychiatrists in the former Dutch East Indies”. Psychiatry and empire, eds. S. Mahone and M. Vaughan  (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).
Stoler, A., Carnal Knowledge and imperial power: Race and the intimate in colonial rule, (Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 2002)