Labour, Collaboration, Conflict, and Discovery: Finding Animals in the Royal Geographical Society Archives (Animals of the RGS, Fieldnotes IV)

I wrote this talk for the 2021 Animal History Group Summer Conference, which was hosted online in July. The theme of the conference was Animal Archives, and I was delighted to be accepted to speak for the first time about my work in the Royal Geographical Society’s Archives amongst a fantastic line-up of speakers. In this post, I have included the transcript of my talk and the images I shared (courtesy and copyright of the RGS) and there will be a recording to follow in the next few weeks.

Captain Flinders & Trim

© Catherine Oliver, 2018

Outside of London Euston station is a statue of 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 to Australia, and his beloved cat Trim accompanied him on expeditions. This is not the only memorial of Trim, 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. Trim’s contributions to geographical exploration are publicly memorialised, but he is far from the only animal whose service has been employed, and companionship honoured, in geographical exploration.

Expeditions across the world relied on the labour of animals like dogs and horses but, as the archives reveal, these animals were more than workers, they were often included in geographical exploration as companions and collaborators, in conflict, and in mapping the world. In this essay, I am going to present my initial findings and some animal histories drawing from my research in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, but first I share a little bit more about this project.

The Royal Geographical Society’s (Digital) Archives

Royal Geographical Society, Lowther Lodge. (1975, January 1). Wiley Digital Archives: © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

The Royal Geographical Society, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is the UK’s learned society and professional body for geography. The Society was founded in 1830, as a dining club in London where members held informal dinner debates on current scientific issues and ideas. Under the patronage of King William IV, they later became known as The Royal Geographical Society and their Royal Charter was granted under Queen Victoria in 1859. In 1912 they bought the Society’s current home – Lowther Lodge in Kensington. For many of those early years, The Society was closely allied with colonial exploration in Africa, India, the poles, and central Asia.

Today, you can still find the RGS in Lowther Lodge in South Kensington, on the edge of Hyde Park. In a normal year the Society is filled with geography students, geographers, and members using their collections and meeting for geography’s annual conference in September. The collections at the RGS hold over 2 million items: journals, maps, diaries, photographs, artefacts, films, and books from the last 500 years of geography. In 2018, The Society in collaboration with Wiley began the work of digitising their whole collection. The collection is now hosted on Wiley’s Digital Archives platform and work is continually being undertaken to tag, code, and make the archive more easily accessible. As part of their launch on the Wiley Digital Archives, the Society launched their inaugural fellowship programme, inviting geographers in to undertake small research projects. Mine is, of course, on the animals of the RGS archives.

Historical Animal Geographies

Low Auroral Arc showing above hills, June 3rd 1903, noon. 12 boxes of photographs taken during the ‘National Antarctic Expedition 1901-1904 (Discovery)’. R. W. Skelton, L. C. Bernacchi, et al., Albums, 1901-1923. Source: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

As a geographer researching the histories of animals in geography, I follow others in this (inter)disciplinary niche who remain firmly rooted as animal geographers first and foremost. For example, in their 2018 book Historical Animal Geographies, Rutherford and Wilcox foreground themselves as ‘animal geographers first,’ who ‘seek to unsettle the presumed boundaries between the organisms that make up this world.’ My background as a geographer demands that I attend to the construction, ordering, and relationality of spaces in my archival work. Bringing this geographical perspective to the history of geography itself, I hope to explore and share in this talk the ways in which animals have been subject to and part of colonial expansion and violence (Swart); and have been implicated in remapping the world in various ways. As I delve into histories, I hope not to reconstruct animal lives of the past, but to share and trouble the different modes of exploitation and collaboration to argue that since its very inception there has been no human geography, only a beyond-human one.

Animal Workers

Dog Harness, page 152, Armitage, B. Albert, & Nansen, F. (1905). Two Years in the Antarctic: Being a Narrative of the British National Antarctic Expedition ©Royal Geographical Society

In the history of geographical exploration, there has never been a time when animals were not relied upon and exploited in order for men (and it was, for the most part, men) to “explore” and colonize the world. The most recognisable of these animals to a general public may well be the sled-dog. Sled dogs were usually huskies or Samoyed dogs, who were bought and shipped from Siberia and Russia to expedition ships.


Osman, lead dog on the Terra Nova Expedition, 1910-1913 ©Royal Geographical Society

This dog is called Osman, and he was a worker on the Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole between 1910 and 1913. Osman, of course, did not just arrive in the South Pole asking for a job. Rather, the dog handler on this expedition, Cecil Meares who in his previous line of work was a fur trader, had personally collected Osman and the rest of the expedition dogs from Siberia to New Zealand. During his time on the expedition, Osman was expected to pull sleds and lead expeditions, and his handlers would feed, exercise, and provide kit for him and the other dogs.

Sugger and Kaigao

Left: Sugger, Johansen’s Last Dog and Right: Kaigao, Nansen’s Last Dog
Nansen, Fridtjof. 1894–1895. “The Arctic.” Lantern Slides. ©Royal Geographical Society

The next two dogs I want to briefly talk about are called Sugger and Kaigao. Sugger and Kaigao were both Samoyed dogs who laboured as sledge drivers on the Fram Expedition (1893-1896) between 1894 and 1895. This Expedition was led by the Norwegian explorer, scientist, and diplomat Fridjtof Nansen and set out to reach the North Pole by harnessing the natural east-west current of the Arctic Ocean. Nansen’s journey north on the Fram began by sailing to the New Siberian Islands in the eastern Arctic Ocean, where he froze the boat into the pack ice and waited for this current to carry the boat North. After 18 months, Nansen and Johansen, his second in command, left with their dogs and sledges to head for the pole. They didn’t make it but they did get to the Farthest North latitude at the time, reaching Franz Josef Land whilst the Fram drifted west into the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Fram Dogs

The Start from the Fram. “The Arctic.” Lantern Slides. 1894–1895. ©Royal Geographical Society

Nansen was celebrated as a hero after the Fram expedition, but what I found particularly interesting was, again, the framing of dogs as companions as well as workers. Nansen, Johansen and the Samoyeds spent a long journey north together, battling extreme conditions. How did they bond? What did their community look like? How did they rely on one another? And how did they take up these multiple roles of companion and worker? In the portraits at the opening of this section, Nansen and Johansen each had a “last dog” who appears to have been their own favoured companion.

The Fram Procession

The Procession 17th May 1895. “The Arctic.” Lantern Slides. 1894–1895. ©Royal Geographical Society

Does the inclusion of these dogs offer them membership of the expedition community? Were they granted special treatment or companionship? How did they shift between labourer and companion? The ‘special relationship’ between dogs and humans is stark. The men clearly had affection for their dogs, particularly having been living in close and extreme quarters for a significant amount of time. In these close-knit community collectives, animal workers were not only workers but, species and individual dependent, became companions.

Animal Companions

Fridjtof Nansen with Sledge and Dog. The Arctic.” Lantern Slides. 1894–1895. ©Royal Geographical Society

For some animal studies scholars, particularly those following Donna Haraway’s theorisations of human-animal relationships, there has been a shift in the framing our relationships with animals to ones of collaboration that include some exploitation by unavoidable necessity. From this perspective, the role of animals in geographical exploration would be far simpler to understand than what I have read in the archive. As Giraud and Hollin (2016) have critiqued of these perspectives of care:

‘A caring approach to knowledge production has been portrayed as epistemologically radical, ethically vital and as fostering continuous responsibility … Ultimately, however, care relations were used to manufacture compliancy.’

Meares & his dogs

Ponting, H. (1911, January 3). Meares and dogs on ice-house. ©Royal Geographical Society

It would be easy to see Cecil Meares, for example, as a reformed fur trader who, yes, sold furs, but met these dogs on an exciting adventure and loved them as companions, even as he had to work them to survive and produce knowledge. The portraits of Meares with his dogs, and of his dogs, reflect this narrative. However, part-way through the expedition, Meares quit after clashes with Captain Scott, who was leading the journey. He couldn’t leave the expedition for several months, until the summer relief shift arrived. Did Meares continue to spend time with these dogs that we are led to believe he cared for? No. He absolved all his duties and spent his last two months away from the animals. In their portraits, not only Meares but Osman was presented as a respected individual, further troubling these ideas of care and control. But how far can we trouble care and control where animals are picked up, packed up, and deployed around the world?


Jack, Archibald. 1838–1984. “Tibet and Lhasa.” Albums. 1838–1984. ©Royal Geographical Society

Sticking with dogs for a little longer, I want to introduce you to TW.

TW is captured in multiple pictures riding horseback both with and without his owner, Archibald Frederick Maclean Jack, and looking out over the skies and hills of Chumbi valley in the Tibetian Himalayas in 1938. Two years earlier, Archibald Jack had competed in the modern pentathlon at the 1936 summer Olympics. In World War II, he served with the Royal Engineers and was honored with the Military Cross for his service in Serbia in 1943.

Jack, Archibald. 1838–1984. “Tibet and Lhasa.” Albums. 1838–1984. ©Royal Geographical Society

While T.W. features in multiple images and appears clearly as a beloved and devoted companion, there is no mention of the dog in the diaries in which these photographs are contained. The dogs in the archive are often positioned as companions, or as the best friends of geographical exploration. But can a friendship rely on such dynamics? Would these dogs have chosen this life, were they given a choice? For the expedition dogs, they were central, but for TW, a beloved companion I’m sure, there was no mention of them, suggesting that this dog is so mundane that they are not seen as worth documenting.

Interlude: Why Dogs?

L-R: Hurley, Frank. No Date. “Dog in Kennel.” Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Hurley, Frank. No Date. “Portrait of Dog.” Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Hurley, Frank. No Date. “Expedition Dog.” Wiley Digital Archives: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). 

The stories that I have told so far are about dogs. The centrality of dogs to the story of the archives is to my own slight discomfort, in reproducing a field already oversaturated with some species over others. I just want to pause here and emphasise that in the history of geographical animals, a hierarchy is reproduced. It’s very easy to just read through the archive and do the same, to prioritise canine or equine life through the lens of the geographers who documented this stuff. But should we trust that gaze? Almost certainly not. While workers and companions lend themselves to canine lives, this is a reflection of the gaze of the archive and of geography’s colonial vision, not a universalistic vision of who is or has been companions or workers, nor does it reflect the multispecies stories of the archive.

Animal Conflict

Camp at Majeba, Turkey. Baker, Samuel. 1861–1873. “Watercolours.” Albums. Wiley Digital Archives: © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Geographical exploration was undertaken, more often than not, as part of colonial expansion projects. While these archives are held by the RGS, they contain materials from expeditions from nations across Europe. Where these were not colonial expansionist projects, they were often the direct beneficiaries of colonial expansionist projects. In this part, I want to show you some images from further back in the geographical archive. These images are all from a collection of watercolours in the Sir Samuel White Baker Collection, from between 1861 and 1873.

Finale of Lioness

Baker, Samuel. 1861–1873. “Watercolours.” Albums. Wiley Digital Archives: © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG

Within Samuel Baker’s “Watercolours” collection, there is a series of pictures of white men and “natives” [sic] hunting animals. In these two images, the first, Finale of Lioness, depicts a lioness lay with a paw in the air swatting a rock thrown at her as her front leg bleeds. To the right foreground, a white hunter in hat and shirt is next to two shirtless native men. All three are carrying guns, and one has thrown the rock at the lioness.

Final of Lion Hunt

Baker, Samuel. 1861–1873. “Watercolours.” Albums. Wiley Digital Archives: © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG

The second painting, Finale of Lion Hunt, shows a large male lion taking up most of the page. The lion’s legs are splayed, he is lay on the floor, one paw reaches up as he looks back at the hunter. There is blood on the lion’s side. In the foreground on the right, the white hunter’s gun is aimed at the lion’s head, a bullet just released and mid-air. To the left of the white hunter’s leg, in the nearby bushes, is a shirtless native man.

Giraffe Hunting at Sofie Atbara River

Baker, Samuel. 1861–1873. “Watercolours.” Albums. Wiley Digital Archives: © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Samuel Baker was an English explorer, officer, naturalist, big game hunter, engineer, writer and abolitionist. He began hunting in Scotland and consistently hunted throughout his life in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. His “observations of the animal world” through the lens of his gun are recounted in his book Wild Beasts and Their Ways (1890).

Quarrel over Hippopotamus Meat

Baker, Samuel. 1861–1873. “Watercolours.” Albums. Wiley Digital Archives: © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

In the geographical archives, it is impossible to ignore the violence that followed expedition and exploration, and the central role of geography in the colonisation of the world. These pictures upfront the “trophy” of hunting animals for sport and power as deeply entangled with white Western domination and oppression of the world. Animals played different roles in colonialism and were affected differently by explorers from Europe (see, for example, the work of Sandra Swart).

Samuel White Baker Shooting Ostriches and Antelopes, Settite River

Baker, Samuel. 1861–1873. “Watercolours.” Albums. Wiley Digital Archives: © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

These animals were hunted down for sport by men specifically travelling to do so, yet the same act for subsistence by Indigenous people is depicted as brutally violent. It is not hard to see how animals were differently positioned as victims or trophies to entrench colonialist narratives of Otherness. I’m going to talk a little bit more about colonial animals in the next section, specifically on “discovery.”

Animal Discovery

Two Maps of the World showing the Ranges of Existing & extinct animals. 1870. RGS Images Online. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

These maps, in German, show the range of extinct and existing animals across the world. Stumbling across these maps allowed me to study, translate, and begin to think about the role of animals in geographical exploration, and the role of geography in knowing animals. Across expeditions, animals were photographed, written about, and documented to take “home.” A lot of our knowledge about other species was documented in these ways, divorced from the lands, people, and multispecies communities in which they are rooted and instead captured and extracted in the view from outside.

Birds in the Archives

Stels, Simon Van Der. 1685. “African Bird.” Wiley Digital Archives: © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

In this final section, I will be talking a little bit about a set of drawings of birds that I found in the archives recently. These are from a published book of coloured plates recording birds seen in Africa by Eduard Rüppell, a German naturalist and explorer, with sketches by John Hanning Speke, an English explorer and military officer, and James Augustus Grant, a Scottish explorer. From what I can work out, the birds contained in these images were documented by Rüppell in Africa, then sketched by Grant and Speke. 

Rough Sketch of a Bird

“Rough Sketch of Bird.” No Date. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Rüppell’s first expedition to Africa set out in 1821. In 1822, they reached the Gulf of Aqaba, heading to Alexandria via Mount Sinai then, in 1823, travelling up the Nile. Throughout the Journey, Rüppell and his team were collecting samples. They left the continent in 1827, but soon returned in 1830. On this return visit, Rüppell became the first naturalist to cross Ethiopia (or Abyssinia). He had been sent by Frankfurt’s Nature Association, collecting plant and animal species. Around 100 plant species were identified by Rüppell’s collections, with collections also emerging on birds and mammals. Rüppell gives his name to seventeen animal species, including a warbler, a vulture, a fox, and a bat.

Four Karagwe Birds

“4 Karagwe Birds.” No Date. RGS Images Online. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Speke and Grant, it seems, set out in Rüppell’s footsteps in 1860. They were accompanied by Rüppell’s earlier insights and, thirty years after Rüppell, Speke and Grant left Portsmouth and headed for Zanzibar. Speke and Grant are known on this expedition for ‘discovering the Nile,’ ‘resolving the issue’ of the source of the Nile. On their return to England in 1863, they were welcomed as heroes, but Speke’s discoveries soon had doubts cast upon them as his full report on the trip for the RGS faced long delays, leaving him unable to defend his discoveries. Grant, on the other hand, wrote many contributions to the journals of the RGS and further afield, with his most notable being “Botany of the Speke and Grant Expedition” in the Transactions of the Linnean Society. Speke and Grant both have African animal species named after them, notably tortoise, gazelles, and a lizard.

Five Karagwe Birds

So, it seems that neither Speke and Grant, nor Rüppell, were much on the hunt for birds. Yet, the Royal Geographical Society holds these beautiful sketches entangling these two expeditions on the African continent together. These reports for the Society were not only ones of discovery, but ones that mapped the continent and its animals along with its people for colonial centres of powers.

Birds Collected at Mininga

“Birds Collected at Mininga.” No Date. RGS Images Online. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Looking at these birds, sketched onto the page, by European men searching for and arguing over the source of landscapes and species they are always outside of, dominating over, were also made subjects of the colonisers. They were mapped, drawn, detailed, and debated a world away from their lands. Acquiring these knowledges were marks of prestige and the naming of these species after these European “explorers” carries with it and marks upon these birds, many of whom might now be disappearing, a trace of this violence.

The Role of Animals in Geography

L: Johnston, Harry. 1908. “Market Women.” ©Royal Geographical Society; R: Johnston, Harry. 1908. “Haitian Peasant.” ©Royal Geographical Society.

This leads me, then, to wrap up with reflections on the violence and absences of animals in the geographical archives. As I said at the start of this talk, the geographical archive is allied with colonial expansion and must be approached through a critical lens. In this talk, I have discussed how animals have been workers, companions, in conflict with, and “discovered” by geographers. To end, I want to briefly reflect on the animals that aren’t there, and to emphasise the ways in which geography has been founded on animal legacies, of labour, companionship, conflict and in narratives of “discovery.”

The oldest inhabitant of Galle (this tortoise belonged to a Dutch Governor and is supposed to be 140 years old). F. Sternberg ©Royal Geographical Society.

This photograph is of “the oldest inhabitant of Galle,” tortoise belonging to a Dutch Governor who was supposedly 140 years old. I want to direct your attention, however, just behind the tortoise, to this chicken. Chickens are difficult to direct out of their paths, and to ask not to come into particular areas. They are flighty, and likely would not take kindly to photographers picking them out of their shots. Studying this photo, I find it hard to believe that this chicken was meant to be part of this photograph.

In the archives, I have been surprised by the absence of some animals, like chickens, more so than I have by their presence. The chicken is an extraordinary but ubiquitous bird. They have always been part of the societies we live in, across the world. However, the historical geographical gaze does not attend necessarily to the ordinary world. Reports of chickens the world over were unlikely to be praised or even taken seriously, because what interest is a chicken to a colonial archive documenting the world “out there”? Yet, this chicken has found their way in, disrupting the Othering human gaze of explorers and revealing the other ways that we might read along the archival grain to contend that no geography is ever human alone.

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