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Leather trousers and leopard skin waistcoats:

Missing objects and endangered material knowledge in the Kalahari

A Collaborative Doctoral Partnership studentship between the British Museum and the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

This studentship was awarded to Novelette-Aldoni Stewart, who commenced her doctoral research in October 2019.

Project Overview 

In a letter to his brother dated 12 April 1823, the early missionary to South Africa, Robert Moffat (1951, 72), wrote:

As to clothing, I shall first mention what can be procured here. I often wear a Bichuana cap made of fox [jackal] skins. Trousers of a prepared antelope skin… Last winter I had a waistcoat and jacket made of tiger [leopard] skin for the cold weather.

The British Museum holds a number of artefacts sent to London by Moffat, acquired from the London Missionary Society museum (Wingfield 2018), but, sadly, no leather trousers or leopard skin waistcoats. In attempting to tell alternative stories that challenge museum visitors’ perceptions about the past, it can become necessary to consider objects that did not find their way into museum collections, and to explore ways in which they may nevertheless be implicated in these collections.

The primary focus of this project are the relevant historic collections at the British Museum: a number of more traditional leather items, as well as needles and needle cases (some made from leather), and knives (some with sheaths made from leather). Worn suspended from the neck by leather straps, these speak to the significance of leather processing in the daily lives of many nineteenth century Kalahari residents. 

This PhD will involve working with relevant collections alongside historic accounts to develop a detailed understanding of nineteenth century leather and skin processing in the Kalahari. It is anticipated that it will also involve a period of fieldwork, working with partners in Botswana, to document contemporary methods used by craftspeople in the region today. 

Research questions include:

  • How closely do contemporary modes of craft leather processing relate to examples from historic collections?
  • To what degree did leather production, already a focus for precolonial trading networks (Wilmsen 1989), become re-oriented towards the European market?
  • What was the ecological impact of new hunting technologies such as guns and horses?
  • How did the production of leather clothing respond to missionary endorsed forms of dress (Comaroff & Comaroff 1997)?
  • Was the technology of leather production impacted by contact with European modes of tanning, including the preparation of skins for taxidermy by natural history collectors in the region (such as William Burchell & Andrew Smith)?

 

Background

This PhD would contribute an important strand to the umbrella project, Re-collecting the Missionary Road, initiated in 2017. This seeks to re-collect and re-assemble a wide range of artefacts associated with the missionary road: written accounts, images and objects brought to Europe by missionaries and travellers, alongside the evidence of these encounters that remains embedded in African landscapes and communities. An ongoing field project led by Wingfield and Ashley at the Kuruman Moffat Mission, a national heritage site in South Africa, included archaeological excavations focused on a trading complex associated with the early mission in 2018. Archival evidence (Morton & Hitchcock 2013) suggests that the resident trader sold 300 fur karosses at Grahamtown in the Eastern Cape in 1845 for around £240 (approximately £20k today), described as ‘of beautiful workmanship’ and displaying ‘in a very favourable light the industry as well as the ingenuity of the Bechuana tribes from whom they are obtained’. 

Supervisors 

Dr Chris Wingfield (Sainsbury Research Unit) - Chris.Wingfield@uea.ac.uk

Prof. Ceri Ashley (British Museum) -  CAshley@britishmuseum.org

References

Comaroff, J. and J. L. Comaroff (1997). Of revelation and revolution : The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier. Chicago ; University of Chicago Press.

Moffat, R. and I. Schapera (1951). Apprenticeship at Kuruman : being the journals and letters of Robert and Mary Moffat, 1820-1828. London, Chatto & Windus.

Morton, F. and R. Hitchcock (2013). "Tswana Hunting: Continuities and Changes in the Transvaal and Kalahari after 1600." South African Historical Journal 66(3): 418-439.

Wilmsen, E. N. (1989). Land filled with flies: a political economy of the Kalahari. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Wingfield, C. (2018). "Articles of Dress, Domestic Utensils, Arms and Other Curiosities: Excavating Early 19th-Century Collections from Southern Africa at the London Missionary Society Museum."Journal of Southern African Studies: 1-20.