“To tell you the truth, Stein,” I said, with an effort that surprised me, “I came here to describe a specimen. . . .” “Butterfly?” he asked, with an unbelieving and humorous eagerness. “Nothing so perfect,” I answered, feeling suddenly dispirited with all sorts of doubts. “A man!” “Ach so!” he murmured, and his smiling countenance, turned to me, became grave. Then after looking at me for a while he said slowly, “Well — I am a man, too.”
— Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (ellipsis in original)
ETHNOGRAPHIC TRAVEL ACCOUNTS AND THE COLLECTING of objects — whether body parts or cultural products — functioned together in the Victorian era as a means of “knowing” other peoples and places to a degree not previously possible. It is true that travelers had long been involved in the appropriation of foreign peoples and their cultural products: we need only think of Christopher Columbus or James Cook returning to Europe with Native Americans or Pacific Islanders and their handicrafts in tow.1 But the importance of both writing about and collecting foreign peoples took on new urgency at a time when scientific organizations and newly-forming disciplines were seeking not only to classify and catalog races but also to determine the moments and means of their differentiation. The historical development of a racialized humankind as the object of intense scientific inquiry, along with the general growth of scientism and the professionalization of scientific disciplines in the Victorian period, resulted in an intense need for raw materials that could be transformed or interpreted into scientific data about non-Europeans. To a considerable extent, anatomists, natural historians, armchair ethnologists, and anthropologists created this data about race based on the information supplied by travel narratives and by the objects — including skulls, skeletons, and cultural artifacts — sent or brought to Europe by travelers to Africa, Asia, and the Americas.