Tag Archives: Synge

a very English savage: a small book that will change a lot

Haddon, a radically modern anthropologist, sits next to Dr Rev Dr Samuel, President of the Royal Irish Academy in the cover photo of the book Alfred Cort Haddon, a very English Savage by Ciarán  Walsh, a curator who completed a PhD in the history and philosophy of anthropology in 2020. The cover indicates that the book is part of the series called Anthropology's Ancestors, which is edited by Aleksandar Bošković for Berghahn Books of New York and Oxford. The cover is a detail of a photograph taken in 1885 of a group of natural scientists on board a research vessel chartered for a survey of fishing grounds off the south west coast of Ireland. Haddon cuts a striking figure. He is dressed like a pirate amongst suited academics, a man of action whose natural domain was fieldwork. Sitting to his left is the Haughton, a fellow home rule supporter with a shared who shared a family history of anti-slavery and humanitarian action.

The cover photo shows Prof Alfred Cort Haddon sitting next to Dr Rev Dr Samuel, President of the Royal Irish Academy, and a fellow home rule supporter who also shared a family history of anti-slavery and humanitarian activism (with permission of the Royal Irish Academy © RIA).

Berghahn Books has just provided me with a typeset copy of my book on Haddon, which is due out in September as the fifth volume in the Anthropology’s Ancestors series edited by Aleksandar Bošković. Details are available on the Berghahn website. In this blog I discuss the choice of title and the origin of the project.

What’s in a title?

This book is an innovative account of one of the least understood characters in the history of anthropology. Going against the grain of most scholarship, I argue that Haddon stood in solidarity with the victims of colonialism, and campaigned for a humanitarian anthropology inspired by the anti-slavery activism of his grandparents and his anarcho-utopian associates. His project was considered too radical in the 1890s, and he was marginalised by the scientific community in England.

A pivotal moment in this story is a speech Haddon gave in Ipswich in 1895, just after the Tories and their unionist allies won a general election caused by defeat of the Second Home Rule Bill. He provoked outrage in the press when he publicly declared his support for the political campaign to end British rule in Ireland, and the cultural campaign to decolonise Irish society and other colonies. In the months before he made the speech, Haddon gave a number of slideshows that publicised the scandal of evictions in the Aran Islands.

Evictions in the Aran Islands in 1894 and 1895 caused outrage in the press and, Haddon responded with a series of public slideshows on life in the western isles of Ireland.

Haddon’s speech also drew on his experience of native life in the Torres Strait, and the telling of that story generated the title of this book. His experience of Papuan dance in 1888 triggered a fascination with the function of dance as social ritual across space and time. To understand the symbolism of Papuan dance he had to discover the savage within, and to become an ethnologist he had to become that savage, albeit a very English version of that savage. Adopting this as his anthropological persona, he stood in solidarity with other savages and fought against the genocidal consequences of colonialism.

A. C. Haddon, The Dance of the Zogo Le,1898. Digital scan of a frame from the short film that Haddon made on the island of Mer, Torres Strait. Permission of National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

That struggle continues at several flashpoints across the globe. Amazon activist Celia Xakriaba took to YouTube to call for solidarity with indigenous peoples in a new era of legislated genocide. Her short video captures the spirit of Haddon’s unrelenting criticism of legitimated murder in the colonies; the accidental or deliberate, slow or fast genocides that were the inevitable consequence of colonialism. That activism was what Haddon thought it meant to be an anthropologist in the 1890s, and that claim sets a very English savage apart from most histories of anthropology.

Activist Celia Xakriabá (2020) denounces “legislated genocide” on the Tribal Voice channel.

The head-hunter and the playboy

The other major claim is that Haddon influenced John Millington Synge, which contradicts the common sense that the colonial scientist and literary modernist were on opposite sides in the political and cultural struggle to end British rule in Ireland. Yet Synge joined Haddon in the Dublin Naturalist Field Club in 1886 – when Synge was fourteen years of age – and I trace the consequences of that encounter for both, highlighting the fact that Synge makes several references to Haddon’s work, and tried to replicate Haddon’s photo-ethnographic experiments in the Aran Islands.

A. C. Haddon, Michael Faherty, and two women, Inishmaan, Faherty refused to be measured, and the women would not even tell us their names, 1892. Digital scan of silver gelatine print (Tim Keeffe, Ciarán Walsh, Ciarán Rooney, 2011). Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

Digital scan of original glass plate negative of a photograph Synge took on Inis Meáin (Inishmaan) in the Aran Islands in 1898. (Tim Keefe, 2009, courtesy of the Board of Trinity College, Dublin).

Connecting Haddon to Synge brings me back to the research that triggered my fascination with Haddon. In 2009, I curated an exhibition of Synge’s photographs and brought it to le Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris in 2010. I was surprised by the popularity of the exhibition until Sheila Pratschke, director at the centre, reminded me that Parisians had always embraced Synge as one of their own, and a ‘Sauvage’. A very English savage brings this curatorial project full circle, and provides the foundation for further work on how an English head-hunter led an Irish playboy to the Aran Islands.

circle of texture grey back ground with the words www.curator.ie embossed on it. designed by Ciarán n Walsh