Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

An edited version of the paper given by Hilde Nielssen on 30 January 2009 at the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is hoped that a full version of the paper will be published.

Abstract: This paper addresses the different ways James Sibree and Lars Dahle portrayed the Malagasy people and society. Are the contrasts between the two men's texts, otherwise so similar, understandable in terms of the rivalry between the mission organizations? Can they be attributed to differences in scholarly interest, personality or religious affiliation? Do the texts represent differences between British and Norwegian perspectives? If missionary ethnography can be seen as a part of a larger colonial discourse, what difference would it make if one of the authors was a representative of the British Empire, whilst the other came from Norway, a country situated on the periphery of the colonial empires?

James Sibree and Lars Dahle: Norwegian and British missionary ethnography as a transnational and national activity

The settler makes history and is conscious of making it. And because he constantly refers to the history of his mother country, he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension of that mother country. Thus the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation. Frantz Fanon

In this paper, missionaries become the settlers in this quotation. In the 1870s two missionaries, one British and the other Norwegian, published two books with almost identical titles. James Sibree, a missionary working for the London Missionary Society (LMS), published Madagascar and its people in 1870, while the missionary Lars Dahle from the Norwegian Missionary Society (NMS) published the two-volume work Madagaskar og dets beboere (Madagascar and its inhabitants) in 1876-7. Both books were rich in information about the island's history, geography, natural science and ethnography. However, there are also marked differences between the ways these two authors describe the Malagasy population and culture.

The arrival of the protestant mission in Madagascar was part of a larger process by which imperial powers sought influence in the rapidly developing local state in Madagascar. The state apparatus was positive towards, and profited from, European influence. The LMS started work on the island in 1820 but were expelled for a long period between 1835 and 1862. This did not stop the Madagascar mission being one of their most successful ever. This success contributed to the Norwegian arrival in 1867. Whilst, after 1862, the relationship between the missionaries and the Malagasy government was quite harmonious, the relationship between the mission societies was more ambiguous. When James Sibree and Lars Dahle wrote their books, the relatively recently arrived Norwegian missionaries stood as rivals to the LMS. Historically there had been close contact between the British and Norwegian missions, both Sibree and Dahle were familiar with each others’ work and were close friends. However, significant contrasts between the British and Norwegian societies at the time made both the missionaries’ background, and the context for the reception of their ethnographic work, vary.

James Sibree was born in Hull in 1836, and trained as a civil engineer, he was sent by LMS to Madagascar in 1863 in order to lead the construction of churches and other mission buildings. After a few years he returned to England for a two years training for the Congregational ministry before he went back to Madagascar once more. Lars Dahle was born in 1843, and was the son of a farmer. He studied theology and language for five years at the mission school in Stavanger and the University of Christiania (now Oslo). Substantial parts of his book consist of the results of his own studies of the Malagasy language and oral literature, and his assumptions, analyses and theories of Malagasy history and culture based on these studies. If Sibree emphasized local architecture, skills and craftsmanship, Dahle showed, apart from language and oral literature, a particular interest in issues of morality and the “character” of the Malagasy people.

Knowledge about local languages and culture was considered vital for mission work. There were two reasons for this, firstly documentation of local customs and morality was used as proof of the necessity to introduce Christianity, and secondly it was necessary for mission work itself. Sibree wanted to give a representation in his book of “the wonderful story” of the island’s “religious progress”. His book can be read as an account of the long history and successful work of the LMS. In contrast to Sibree, Dahle’s books underline the need for continuous Norwegian mission effort.

Missionary writings contributed in important ways to the constitution of ethnography of as a field of knowledge, and as a written genre. Sibree and Dahl's books appear to us as a mixture of genres and themes. They not only contained ethnographical information; but also history, geography and natural history. Judged by the table of contents, the books appear almost identical. On closer inspection, however, there is a variation in emphasis and elaboration of certain themes, as well as variations in terminology, and subtleties like tone and choice of words in the way they colour their descriptions.

Both books are marked by certain ways of imagining the other. Notions of ethnicity, race, evolution and levels of civilization underlie and structure the texts. While Sibree tended to describe the people in positive terms and stressed their potential for progress, Dahle emphasized what he conceived of as negative aspects. The Malagasy were deemed lazy, with a low working capacity, a poor spiritual capacity, without the capacity of logical thought, and with a limited ability to reason, but more capacity for imagination and emotion.

Sibree’s book was written like a travelogue, where he described his travels throughout the country before dwelling more extensively with flora, fauna, local people and customs. He saw the gradual evolution of Madagascar into a modern state as being the result of English influence. Thanks to this influence, Sibree looked optimistically to the future. Dahle seems not to have shared Sibree's optimistic view. He seems to have attributed the sufferings of the people, following French colonisation, as a divine punishment for their sins. During the time when he wrote Madagascar and its inhabitants, Dahle was also busy with another work, a collection of oral literature, which is still popular today in Madagascar. He believed that Malagasy oral literature provided evidence of a noble past on the island.

The way Sibree focused on levels of civilization, while Dahle was concerned about the lack of racial purity among the Malagasy population, seems to be connected to the different positions of these ideologies in the missionaries’ own home societies. In Norway, Christian universalism was combined with cultural particularism, while in England Christian universalism went together with evolutionism and imperial nationalism. Within nineteenth century Britain, empire was more important than the nation. At the same time Norway was marked by a growing nationalism. Norwegian nationalism idealized the free peasant as the carrier of a unique form of liberty which was considered to be a central element of the Norwegian Volk Geist. Dahle grew up in Norway during the height of national romanticism, a cultural movement that gained massive support and resonance within the population. For Lars Dahle, as for many Norwegians at the time, the rebirth of a nation also entailed a religious vision: the establishment of God's kingdom on earth. For Norwegians, civilization comes from within and can never be imposed by others.

James Sibree’s and Lars Dahle’s texts are more than representations of certain perspectives, or projections of self into other. The writings of Sibree and Dahle were, together with hundreds of similar texts written from many parts of the world, linked to the making of the societies at home. Thus these two texts about Madagascar can be seen as actively connected to contemporary struggles and debates, various ideological streams and social formations going on in Europe at the time.

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