“The Archives of German Scientific Travelers in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i:
Collection, Colonialism, and Plantation Labor Migration”


Nicholas B. Miller, University of Cologne

Building on my current Marie Curie project at the University of Cologne with Ulrike Lindner, this presentation will reflect upon the collection practices pertaining to the archives created by two German scientists who resided in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i during the second half of the nineteenth century: the botanist, medic, and immigration commissioner Wilhelm Hillebrand (1821-1886), and the dermatologist and microbiologist Eduard Arning (1855-1936).

During a residence of nearly twenty years in Hawaii, Hillebrand pursued a passion for botanical collecting that served as the empirical basis for his flora of the islands, the first and only to be published during the nineteenth century. Arning on the other hand took hundreds of photographs that today constitute the most treasured collection of visual documentation of the late Kingdom period in Hawaii (the original plates have been transferred from the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg to the Hawaiian Historical Society).

The importance of these two archives is apparent throughout historical scholarship on Hawaii as well as contemporary representations of the nineteenth-century past in contemporary museums and galleries in Hawai‘i, but no study has yet considered at length the collection practices of these thinkers, including their use of indigenous and other local collaborators. Attention will be dedicated especially to the question of plantation labor migration, a colonial process of which both actors generated crucial components of surviving materials.

Taking up the critical impulse of the conference to consider the possibilities of imperial biographies to decolonize ethnographic museums, this presentation will (i) reflect upon the role of natural scientific and ethnographic collection as itself an archive to colonial processes and (ii) consider which narrative strategies can be used to decenter individual collectors in the collective story of archival formation.

Nicholas B. Miller is a Marie Curie Individual Fellow at the University of Cologne, Germany (2021-2023). His Marie Curie project proposes a global history of the plantation through the mid nineteenth-century German botanist, medic, and Kingdom of Hawai‘i immigration commissioner Wilhelm Hillebrand. He is author of John Millar and the Scottish Enlightenment: Family Life and World History (Oxford, 2017) and co-editor, with Ere Nokkala and Anthony La Vopa, of Cameralism and the Enlightenment (Routledge, 2020). He is currently editing with Ulrike Lindner the edited volume Plantations and the History of Knowledge.

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(Photo: private)