Empires of Opportunity: German Scholars between Asia and Europe in the 1850s


Moritz von Brescius

PhD defended at: 

European University Institute, Florence



The thesis investigates the involvement of German scientific experts in the British Empire in Asia during the mid-nineteenth century. At that time, German scholars were confronted by the lack of any formal overseas possessions in which to realise their scientific ventures. However, as they were equipped with internationally recognised expertise in sciences as diverse as geography, botany, and physics, German savants faced multiple ‘empires of opportunity’. These were the imperial systems that other European powers had established overseas that provided ample potential to satisfy their curiosity and scholarly ambitions. Especially the British Empire in India was a key site for a new generation of university-trained Germans to survey and administer foreign lands. The work focuses on a small band of scholars – the three Munich-born Schlagintweit brothers – who, between 1854-57, found employment in the East India Company. Their case is used to illuminate patterns of transnational recruitment and the significant debates that accompanied their placement, work, and legacy.
The thesis provides a profound exploration of several important aspects of the brothers’ scientific project in South and Central Asia. Through a rich contextual analysis, it re-examines significant themes related to travel and knowledge production in a colonial context. These include issues of observation, recording, collecting, and looting. Special attention is given to the role of cross-cultural encounters for the realisation and the scientific legacy of the expedition. The work demonstrates how different nationalities and cultures were involved in the Company’s enterprise, and analyses how European and indigenous actors collaborated to explore and document the landscapes, natural formations, and cultures in Asia. By using a wide array of new materials in eight languages (four of them non-European), the work makes a major contribution to our understanding of the multiple and often fraught relationships and dependencies that accompanied cross-cultural knowledge production in the field.