“Fascinating insight” – Undreamed Shores by Frances Larson

usflhbEthnocentrism, or cultural ignorance, means thinking one’s own culture is superior to another, or the right way to live. This has been a feature of colonialism ever since the days of the Raj and probably long before. When the first colonisers set foot on the shores of the New World they certainly considered themselves to be superior, as did the Spanish conquistadors, whose swordsmanship left the Incas in no doubt of the fact. As the world continues to struggle with the demons of slavery, genocide and racism – the outcomes of historical ethnocentrism – it is enlightening to remember the individuals who tried to shake it off.

The discipline of Anthropology (the study of the development of human societies and culture) can be a cure for ethnocentrism, if it is administered correctly. But in her new book, Undreamed Shores, which evokes the hidden heroines (note the gender) of British Anthropology, Frances Larson does not really fully explore the link between anthropology and ethnocentrism. She does however make another point that draws a strong parallel between ethnocentrism and the role of women, because both are, at the end of the day, related. Patriarchy, like colonialism, has a long and chequered past.

The 8th of March, in case it passed you by, was International Women’s Day. And yet, on this day of communal reflection, the focus is almost always on the future, so we must rely on writers and researchers to remind us of the past, and Frances Larson does this. Emmeline Pankhurst once said, ‘I would rather be a rebel than a slave’, and that quote just about sums up this anthology of memory about the female anthropologists of the early twentieth century, who broke new ground in a male dominated university environment, never once abandoning their dream.

In the early twentieth century, there were no female anthropologists. The discipline was blindingly male orientated, not surprisingly because the study of anthropology often meant travelling to far-flung corners of the Earth in search of uncharted waters, or undreamed shores. There were many undiscovered peoples and places in those days, but even though men such as David Livingstone had already ‘civilised’ Africa decades before, women were still trapped in the world of domesticity, with most of them barely leaving home unless they married. Undreamed Shores examines the lives of those that dared to, and looks at what it took to make them do it.

In the autumn of 1913, Maria Czaplicka, a woman of ‘unresting’ passions and dramatic mood swings – both of which probably marked her as a female liability rather than a visionary – began organising a trip to Siberia. Czaplicka was desperate to work in the field of anthropology, and her ‘exhaustive, methodical approach’ attracted the attention of classics scholar Emily Penrose, who managed to get her a research grant, after several rejections. Maria Czaplicka was of Polish origin, but she had passed the exam for university and eventually made her way to Oxford, where her knowledge of Slavic texts made her stand out, in spite of the fact that she was female. She undertook a journey and a period of study of the indigenous Siberian population that few men would have contemplated. She strapped herself, semi-recumbent, into a sledge pulled by reindeer, and covered a world with no reference points, physical features or social norms. She endured ‘pain, hunger and exhaustion in her determination to document the people of Siberia’, in a land where a hot drink would apparently freeze as soon as it was poured out of a thermos flask.

While Frances Larson gives a thrilling account of the journey, the motivations of these women are a little glossed over, which is a pity. Still, their determination certainly shines through, although the struggle against male prejudice and social norms are not particularly surprising. Oxford University had always been a men’s club. Scholars were not even permitted to marry as the presence of women in their lives was thought to be an obstacle to progress. It wasn’t until 1878 that women were eventually allowed to attend lectures, and even then they were treated with ‘suspicion and horror by the male establishment’. Why, goes the ancient rant, did Oxford University or any other place of academia need them in the first place? This was the question on some male lips until Emmeline Pankhurst came on the scene and pushed the women’s vote to the top of the political agenda. Here Frances Larson gives a subtle answer.

Pioneering women anthropologists, such as Czaplicka and Katherine Routledge, who studied the populations of Easter Island and other parts of Polynesia, would have had a very different view from that of their male counterparts who had been until then viewing their discoveries through the double lens of ethnocentrism and sexism. They would have been a breath of fresh air in a discipline that had been stagnating for decades and needed to shake off the shackles of its prejudice. Change finally came thanks to sheer staying power. A new generation of female anthropologists proved that ‘fieldwork in other cultures must be done by women as well as men if it was to have credibility’. But more than that, these liberated women set a torch to a beacon that would burn into the twentieth century and beyond. They did not shirk from hardship, and showed themselves the equals of the men.

In 1914 Katherine Routledge was writing to her niece from a boat in the South Pacific Ocean. ‘I don’t think you have yet been to Robinson Crusoe’s island,’ she wrote, because ‘Aunt Katherine was writing her own adventure story,’ and she knew it. ‘Can you see Crusoe with his umbrella and his goatskin clothes coming out of the cave?’ she wrote, ‘I felt as if I could.’

Any Cop?: Doesn’t always analyse the motives or the outcomes but still provides a fascinating insight and an inspirational read.

Lucille Turner

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