Royal Geographical Society Wiley Digital Archives Fellowship: Animals of the RGS

Earlier in 2021, I was fortunate to be awarded one of eleven Wiley Digital Archive Fellowships. This fellowship grants access to the Royal Geographical Society’s pre-1945 digitised collections. The RGS, in collaboration with Wiley, have digitised hundreds of thousands of items, hosted on an online platform (the Wiley Digital Archive). In this, the first blog post from my fellowship, I will share a little more about my project, Animals in the Royal Geographical Society’s archives. As well as my work, please do check out the work of the other fellows.

Animals of the Royal Geographical Society #AnimalsRGS

Outside of London Euston station is a statue of a man, Captain Matthew Flinders, squatting on a map of Australia with compass in hand. Underneath Flinders’ left leg sits a cat ‘Trim, his close companion.’ Flinders was an English navigator who led the first circumnavigation on Australia and his beloved cat Trim accompanied him on expeditions. This is not the only memorial of Trim (and Flinders), with a statue also erected in Flinders’ hometown of Dorington and, at Sydney’s Mitchell Library, Trim boasts his own statue erected in 1996 on a window ledge behind a statue of Flinders that has been standing since 1925.

Trim’s contributions to geographical exploration are publicly memorialised, but he is far from the only animal whose service has been employed or demanded in the history of geography. It is within the entangled histories of geography and colonisation that the multispecies must be contextualised, troubling how friendship and care can sometimes be extended across species more generously than towards fellow humans.

In the RGS collections, there are over 300 photographs tagged birds, 200 cats, 700 dogs, ‘horse, pony, or donkey’ over 3000, 2700 for cows, and 99 photographs of whales. There are many thousands more manuscripts, monographs and maps that are returned in searches for animals.

In this fellowship, I am interested in human-animal histories of various kinds: (1) the use of animal labour in supporting expeditions; (2) friendships and collaborations between geographers and their companion animals; (3) interspecies conflict in encounters with animals along the way; and (4) geographers mapping discovered species, expanding our knowledge of the other-than-human world. Each of these human-animal histories offers interesting new ways of thinking about multispecies histories, but also in understanding geography and space as always more-than-human.

In the Antarctica expeditions (1910 to 1913), Cecil Meares is photographed sitting with his dog Osman; making a dog harness; chopping seal meat for the dogs. Similarly, Fridjtof Nansen poses with his dogs in 1880, and the image of two smiling porters fording a river carrying a dog (1933) reveal how humans and dogs have explored the world together (Frank S. Smythe Collection).

Portraits of dogs on the Endurance Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition (1914-1917) such as ‘Saint’ (n.d), and ‘Sugger’ (1893) on Fridjtof Nansen’s 1893 Fram North-East passage expedition reveal these dogs as more than workers. The documentation of the dogs who laboured with expeditions memorialise the vital multispecies codependence of geographical knowledge.

However, it is not only labour and companionship of dogs to be found in the archives. There is also a path of interspecies violence following geographical exploration. From seal chopping to hunting and fishing parties, and stuffed animal trophies (RGS images online, Will Gordon), the archives hold the left behind remnants of practices that threatened conservation and biodiversity.

Finally, I will also look at animals being mapped, and studied in the 19th and 20th Century from the Galapagos Islands (Clements Markham et al., Manuscripts Collection, 1880) to ‘marine observations’ (Maury, Journal Manuscripts, 1861) to ‘Africa: Correspondence relating to the preservation of Wild Animals’ (India Records, 1906). With technological developments and changing geopolitical priorities on post-enlightenment expeditions, animals became subjects of knowledge, and the RGS collections are a vital documentation of these interspecies relations.

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