Lukas Affentranger: From Berlin to Mozambique and back: Wilhelm Peters and transcultural knowledge production

PhD-Project, Department of History, University of Basel

In the course of the nineteenth century, Europeans increasingly travelled to Africa. They were adventurers, apothecaries, doctors, missionaries, colonial administrators, military officers or traders. Among them were natural historians who observed, collected, measured and attempted to order the encountered flora and fauna by labelling specimens with systematized concepts developed in Europe in the course of the Enlightenment. Many scientists who later influenced the trajectory of their respective disciplines and became patrons of science came to build their reputation on extensive expeditions into unknown territory all over the world. One of them was Wilhelm Peters, the protagonist in this PhD project.

Wilhelm Peters (1815-1883)

Wilhelm Carl Hartwig Peters studied medicine andnatural history in Copenhagen and Berlin. After finishing his dissertation (on the morphology of turtleshells), he set out for a scientific voyage to southeast-Africa from 1842 to 1848. He visited the major Mozambican settlements along the coast (Ibo, Mozambique Island, Quelimane, Sofala, Inhambane, Lourenço Marques) and along the Zambesi river (Sena, Tete). Peters’ main objective was to collect, describe and, after returning home, to systematically classify the collected specimens and to disseminate his findings through articles in scientific journals. Back in Berlin, Peters reached the top of the academic hierarchy and considerably influenced the production, presentation and circulation of natural history knowledge as university professor and director of the Berlin Zoological Museum and the Zoological Garden.


Contributing to the cultural history of science and knowledge, this thesis examines Peters’ role in the construction, dissemination and transfer of knowledge and the networks, institutions and practices that supported this endeavour. A key aspect in this project is Peters’ travels in Mozambique. The analysis of how Peters conducted fieldwork shall demonstrate the importance of social and cultural practices in the production of knowledge in natural history. The following questions are of importance: What cultural, intellectual, economic and social capitals were necessary to pursue scientific research in remote African areas? How did Peters interact with locals and how did they contribute to the production of knowledge? The main sources for this study are Peters’ extensive travel journal, the specimens he sent to Berlin during his journeys and the numerous letters with his correspondence network consisting of contemporary leading scientists.