Corps de l’article

“Captain’s Log:…” Most people will recognise this as the standard beginning of almost all episodes of the TV science fiction series Star Trek: the captain of the Enterprise recording an entry for his official or personal diary. One wonders how these entries would sound if they were not the captain’s but—for instance—the ship’s cleaning lady’s, janitor’s or cook’s. Surely, they would introduce quite a different perspective on the adventure of exploring the unknown. Precisely such a perspective is now provided in a new book edited by Ludger Müller-Wille and Bernd Gieseking presenting the collected travel-logs and letters of Wilhelm Weike—the servant of the late 19th century’s great anthropologist and scientific explorer Franz Boas. The book consists of a carefully and well edited transcription of Weike’s diaries and letters, written in 1883-1884 and presented here in chronological order. It also includes a short introduction, a time table of the voyage, detailed information about the language and the applied rules of transcription, and finally a long essay by the editors explaining and interpreting the presented material.

Weike wrote his diaries when he accompanied Boas on his famous expedition to the Inuit of Baffin Island. Today this expedition is considered to be a groundbreaking research project and a fundamental experience for Boas that shaped his entire notion of anthropology and his views on the need to preserve Indigenous cultures. In the perspective of his servant, Boas’ scientific exploration adventure to the Inuit presents itself in truly a new light. That is not to say that Weike was ignorant of what Boas tried to accomplish scientifically. In fact, to a certain degree, he was trained to work as an assistant and the two men became something like friends during the voyage, staying in close contact until Weike’s death in 1917. However, the diaries and letters that Weike wrote—explicitly forced to do so by Boas—clearly present the non-scientific point of view.

It begins with his language, a late 19th century working class German with many colloquial elements, today forgotten expressions and a slightly strange grammar. More important, however, is the fact that Weike’s log offers a detailed insight into precisely those aspects of exploration and anthropological field-work that are largely left out in Boas’ or any other scientist’s accounts of their expeditions. Here we a have the voice of the constantly complaining servant who is astonished and sometimes clearly irritated by the amount of energy, bodily work and downright suffering that it takes to explore and survive the unknown. Especially in his letters, Weike underlined the unpleasant aspects of the project his boss was pressing forward and even dared to make fun of him when the great Boas himself seemed exhausted at times.

This changed quite substantially when they arrived in the village of the Inuit where they were to stay for several months before returning home. Here, Weike rather quickly adapted himself to the circumstances, settled and tried to make himself as comfortable as possible. Thus, in opposition to Boas, who approached the Inuit with a liberal, but primarily scientific interest, Weike actually lived among them. Weike was in frequent and close contact with at least 50 of the 300 Inuit of the village, mentioning all of them by name in his diaries. With only minor signs of a racial or civilisational bias, Weike dived into and, to a certain degree, embraced the foreign culture he was confronted with. On several occasions he was thus able to clear difficult situations and to smooth conflicts between the great scientist Boas and his research object, simply because Weike had a far greater insight-knowledge about the Inuit’s daily affairs.

That is not to say that Weike was the better anthropologist. His writings about daily life among the Inuit, about their habits, religious beliefs and social gatherings display a certain curiosity, but centre mostly around Weike’s own doings and perspectives. However, he described the very same culture that Boas observed scientifically, only with the eyes and the voice of a forced tourist. Moreover, Weike was certainly more open-minded than Boas when it came to actually participating in the daily routines as well as in the cultural rituals of the Inuit. As always in regard to those early anthropological research projects, one can of course only speculate as to the fun that the Inuit themselves must have had with two such distinguished European characters living among them. Today, it is often said that Boas trip to the Inuit was the birth of ethnological fieldwork and the method of “participant observation.” After reading the diaries of Boas’ servant, it becomes at least unclear who of the two should really be praised for that innovation.

All in all, the book is surely of limited value in regard of the anthropological data it offers about the Inuit culture of the late 19th century. But it is of great importance for the history of early anthropology and of scientific explorations around 1900. For it reminds us that any scientific discovery is always also a social action taking place in a specific historical context and by no means independently from that background. Sometimes it takes the perspective of a servant from lower-class Eastern Westfalia and his very peculiar, even odd views on a different culture, to acknowledge these social origins of scientific insights; origins that Boas and many other great explorers tend to obscure in their own writings, when they draw their clear-cut scientific conclusions from, in fact, quite contingent experiences: “Captain’s log supplemental….”