Race, anthropology and German colonial venture in Melanesia.

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Friedrich Hermann Otto Finsch (1839–1917) is often credited as the first European who conducted substantial exploration of the Sepik region of New Guinea, beginning with an 1885 journey up the Sepik River. Finsch was also an ornithologist and in spirit of his time he collected various specimens of natural history, as well as indigenous artefacts.

In 1884–85, travelling on the German steamer Samoa (purchased and fitted in Sydney), Finsch explored the northeast coast of New Guinea, also visiting British New Guinea. In a book Samoa Travels (1888) Finsch recounts his exploration accompanied by illustrations based on his original sketches, maps and descriptions of the geography, people and culture of the region.

While German traders and plantations were present in the Pacific since the 1850s, this expedition had a strong political purpose to entrench German colonial presence in the region. With the support of Bismarck himself, Samoa crew raised German flags in various islands and on New Guinea mainland, thus establishing in 1884, of Kaiser Wilhelms-Land as a German protectorate, later known as German New Guinea.

Finsch established towns, ports and coined geographical names, usually after German politicians and nobles. Bismarck Archipelago (north Solomon Islands) is a prominent example. The capital of the Kaiser Wilhelms-Land was modestly named Finschhafen in his honour. The Sepik River was to be Kaiserin Augusta, named after Augusta Marie Luise Katharina (1811–1890), a Queen of Prussia and the first German Empress. Finsch became Bismarck's Imperial Commissioner and for a few years steering the German colonial holding of New Guinea.

His legacy is intertwined with colonial politics and anthropology. Among his large collections are over 1000 artefacts from Melanesia held at the American Museum of Natural History (with extensive detailed catalogue and illustrations). Another 2000 artefacts are kept in some major museums, including Vienna, Rome, Petersburg and Field Museum in Chicago.

And Finsch is considered one of the most prominent plaster casters of people’s faces. Producing casts (often by coercion) was organically linked with measurements and racial classification. Such comparative studies meant to inform scholars about the history of human progress and demonstrate superiority of some and inferiority of others. Finsch assembled a sizeable collection of human faces cast in plaster. Their replicas were sold. For example 150 his casts are at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology at the University of Florence and 160 at the Australian Museum.

The facial casts were sold to the Australian Museum with the following promotion in Finsch’s letter of 1884: “I enclosed also a catalogue of my plaster-casts, facsimiles of Aborigines of the South-Seas, which are now for sale. This collection stands unrivalled and forms a great source for study and show for Anthropology, and I think ought to be represented in the Galleries of your noble institute.”

The casts represent many cultural groupings, including New Guinea (53), Indonesia (10), Burma (Myanmar - 19) and various Micronesian islands (Kiribati, Federated States of Micronesia – about 40). There are also individual casts from China, Japan, Ghana, Philippines, USA and Australia (3).

This strange collection, however, stands as a material reflection of personal discovery that began to undermine racial dogma. Finsch’s expectation of neat racial classification in the Pacific proved unrealistic. He concluded that races cannot be distinguished because they “merge into one another to such an extent that the difference between Europeans and Papuans becomes completely unimportant.”

I wish that racial convictions, still strong in many societies, were swept by intellectual maturity and normal human friendliness.

Further reading:

Hilary Susan Howes. The Race Question in Oceania: A B Meyer and Otto Finsch between metropolitan theory and field experience, 1865–1914. (Germanica Pacifica Vol 12) 2013.