More Than Malinowski: Polish Cultural Anthropologists You Should Know
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Polish Cultural Anthropologists You Should Know, Bronisław Malinowski on the Trobriand Islands, 1918, photo: Wikimedia Commons, malinowski_triobriand_isles_1918-fot-cc.jpg
Perhaps you've heard of Bronisław Malinowski, the Polish anthropologist whose approach to field research continues to impact the discipline today. He's not the only Pole, however, to contribute to the study of cultures far and wide. Here, Culture.pl introduces you to a few others – from a chronicler of Ainu folklore to the first woman to lecture at Oxford.
For many years, Polish ethnology developed as so-called ethnic studies (ludoznawstwo), or research on traditional peasant communities. On the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries, the constitutional reformer had Hugo Kołłątaj postulated ‘getting to know the habits of the common people’. According to evolutionary theories trendy throughout the 19th century, peasant culture was the source of Poland's 'original traditions'. Romanticism, with its attention to folklore, also supported the growth of Polish ethnic studies.
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The beginnings of ethnology are intertwined with those of colonialism, as they developed simultaneously. In a Poland under occupation, however, this was primarily an internal colonialism – a nobleman examining the culture of its own servants. In places where the European imperialism was growing, the need for the ethnographer, arose, one who would study the ‘indigenes’.
Before the expeditions of Malinowski, 'desk' anthropology was the most popular method of study. Those working in it did no field research at all; instead, they analysed information supplied by merchants, seamen or missionaries. As one can imagine, such analyses were often based on the so-called 'Chinese whispers' phenomenon: with travellers embellishing their accounts, often focussed on those cultural differences which might seem more ‘sensational’, from the European point of view.
Malinowski was destined to become a hero for students of the social sciences worldwide, as he developed a code of conduct for fieldwork – one which, in principle, has remained unchanged to our times. Long story short, it was based on ‘participant observation’, i.e. a long and intensive stay among the studied community (‘a tent put up in the middle of a village’). A researcher was also to avoid thinking in categories and stereotypes originating from one's own culture, instead tasked with capturing another's way of looking at things.
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Ethnology in exile
It's possible that two eminent Polish researchers – Wacław Sieroszewski and Bronisław Piłsudski – would never have become ethnographers had they not been political prisoners.
Wacław Sieroszewski (1858-1945) didn't have the easiest life: His mother died early, and his father received a long prison sentence after the January Uprising. Sieroszewski himself was expelled from high school – for participating in clandestine patriotic meetings and for brazenly speaking the Polish language, which was banned. He also joined a socialist movement, for which, as a 20-year-old, he was sentenced to serve time at the infamous 10th Pavilion of the Warsaw Citadel. Not for long, however. After participating in a riot, during which he attacked an imperial general, and for circulating a prison bulletin, Sieroszewski was expelled to Siberia.
In 1880, he arrived at Verkhoyansk, where he married a young Yakut woman named Arina Czełba-Kysa. Twice, Sieroszewski tried to escape with other fellow prisoners, aided by his wife. But he was caught and sentenced for life as the leader of these deserters. This time, he was sentenced to a settlement 'a hundred viorsts away from a trade road, river and town’.
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Sieroszewski's life among the autochthonous people resulted in his fundamental work Dwanaście Lat w Kraju Jakutów (Twelve Years in the Country of the Yakuts). A friendship with a Yakut shaman enabled Sieroszewski to describe local beliefs in detail.
As a law student in St. Petersburg, Bronisław Piłsudski (1866 - 1918), the Marshal’s elder brother, became acquainted with the circle of revolutionists gathered around an organisation called Narodnaja Wola (Nation’s Will). Piłsudski participated in a plot to assassinate emperor Alexander II. The traitors were discovered, and some of them were hanged (i.a. Alexander Ulyanov, Lenin’s elder brother), while the rest were sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia.
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Sentenced to 15 years of hard labour, Piłsudski was sent to Sakhalin Island. First, he worked in the woods logging trees, then as a carpenter on a church construction project. There were few educated people in Sakhalin, so in time, Piłsudski was assigned various other tasks. He worked as a teacher and at an office, and was tasked with establishing a meteorological station.
Leo Sternberg, a well-known ethnographer also emprisoned in Siberia, inspired Piłsudski to study the culture of the Ainu people, who inhabited Sakhalin and the islands of Northern Japan. In 1902, Piłsudski married their leader’s wife, bearing two children and ultimately staying with the Ainus. This story, however, came to a sad end: In 1906, Piłsudski left the island illegally, but the tribe’s leader forbid his wife from joining the Pole.
Piłsudski was a pioneer in using multimedia methods in ethnography. He kept photographic documentation and recorded Ainu songs and rites on Edison’s discs, or prototypes of the vinyl record. (Today, these are housed at the Museum of Japanese Art and Technology ‘Manggha’ in Krakow.) In the 20th century, the Ains were forcefully assimilated by the Japanese. After many years, they managed to reconstruct their ethnic difference, thanks to the research material collected by the ethnographer.
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In 1903, Piłsudski and Sieroszewski traveled to the Japanese island of Hokkaido together, in order to continue their studies on the Aines’ culture. Their contribution into the research of the Russian Far East and Japan cannot be overestimated, and they ultimately received numerous awards and invitations to prestigious associations. Today, their works are canonical for specialists in the cultures of this part of the world.
An 'outcast' in Oceania
Imperial prison was also a part of life for Jan Kubary (1846-1896). At 17 years old, he participated in the January Uprising. When the rebellion was suppressed, he left for Dresden, where he agreed to collaborate with the police in exchange for the chance to return home. Kubary didn't make the best spy, however – for warning young revolutionaries of their impending arrests, he was arrested himself and sentenced to exile. The sentence was annulled when he agreed once more to work with the police.
Such a life wasn't for him, however, so Kubary escaped on foot from Warsaw to Berlin. In Germany, he worked as a collector of items for a natural history museum to be established in Hamburg. According to the prevailing trend, the museum offered German visitors the opportunity to view various marvels from exotic lands. Of Kubary, the newspapers wrote: 'He travels across far seas and collects all the ethnographic and zoological peculiarities for one of the German tycoons.'
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Jan Kubary in Palau, from the book 'Wielcy Znani i Nieznani' ('Great Knowns and Unknowns') by Lucyna Smolińska and Mieczysław Sroka, photo: Wikimedia Commons
Oceania became Kubary's home, with only short breaks until the end of his life. Visiting and studying the largest archipelagos in that part of the Pacific, Kubary was in some of these places the first European to visit. He wasn't fond of the white colonisers, however, as he wrote to the travel magazine Wędrowiec (The Wanderer):
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Peaceful settlements, covered with palm trees, are inhabited by the natives, as well as by missionaries who came here to teach the former. The missionaries were followed by runaways from Botany-Bay and Norfolk [British penal colonies], to demoralize the indigenes. Since 1830, a whole range of attempts have been made to civilize the Samoans; in reality, however, one can observe a genuine invasion of the European damage and demoralization to the hitherto blissful land (...) a caricature of civilisation’.
Living in the Pacific, he still had troubles in his private life. His employer went bankrupt, which left Kubary with no means. When he settled on the island of Ponape and established a plantation, it was destroyed during a riot by the local people, and post-revolutionary authorities expropriated him. ‘I am a poor outcast’, Kubary wrote in a letter to his mother.
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Today, Kubary remains somewhat forgotten, if unjustly so. His research in Oceania was unprecedented, although he was self-taught, having left Europe equipped with no background in ethnography whatsoever. In his 28 years among the Papuan people, he integrated with local communities gained competence in their languages. Apart from ethnographic works, Kubary left behind many geographical and natural reports, as well as an impressive collection of items, which are now housed in European museums.
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Maria Czaplicka's book 'Mój Rok na Syberii' ('My Year in Siberia'), 1916, photo: Polona
The lives of Maria Czaplicka (1884-1921) and Bronisław Malinowski follow twin paths. Born in the same year, they both stopped studying science in order to dedicate themselves to the new field of anthropology. The two studied in London in the same year, and their first scientific works were written based on the aforementioned 'desk' research. In the case of Czaplicka, it was a monograph, Aboriginal Siberia, which described the Siberian peoples to a British reader. The work was based on Russian and Polish literature.
Continuing her studies at Oxford, Czaplicka defended her PhD thesis before Malinowski did. She also became the first woman to lecture at the university and a member of the prestigious Royal Geographical Society. She was also politically involved in the suffrage movement, as well as in matters concerning the fight for Poland’s independence. And all this several years before UK women were granted the right to vote!
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Czaplicka’s greatest research project was the Yenisei expedition – a 5,000-kilometre-long ethnographic journey along one of the greatest rivers in Asia. Although it was very difficult to raise funds for this work, her mood remained enthusiastic, as she wrote in her book Mój Rok na Syberii (My Year in Siberia):
Has any Polish woman before gone to Siberia so willingly?
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A Tofalar man in present-day Siberia. The Tofalar people, who live in the Irkustk region, represent the smallest ethnic group in Russia. According to the census from four years ago, there are 654 people in their community. Photo: Laski Diffusion / East News
The fact that the expedition was led by a young woman was sensational for the press. She was head of a team of four: an American anthropologist, Henry Hall; an ornithologist, Maud Haviland; and a painter, Dora Curtis. People they met along the way could not understand the sense in dragging themselves along the Siberian emptiness (an eternal problem for anthropologists). Czaplicka explained that she was going into Tungusic territory to get to know each and every inhabitant and to share news of them in her country.
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Unfortunately, Czaplicka didn't enjoy this success for long. In 1919, she had to surrender her Oxford Chair to her predecessor, who had returned from the war. She moved to the less prestigious University of Bristol. A candidate for one of the most prestigious academic scholarships, funded by Albert Kahn, long-lasting formalities concerning the attainment of British citizenship made it impossible for her to receive the funds. Tragically, in 1921, she committed suicide by taking mercury chloride.
Cameroon & the Polish cause
Stefan Szolc-Rogoziński had loved travel literature since he was a child, dreaming of sea travels and geographical discoveries. He remembered:
I would often be penalized for drawing little maps during lessons or for plotting routes for journeys on the school maps.
After high school graduation, he joined the Marine Academy in Kronstadt, against his father’s will. In 1880, Szolc-Rogoziński was awarded the rank of officer and set off for his first trip – from Vladivostok around Africa. The trip inspired him to start a research journey into little-explored Central Africa, to the area of today’s Cameroon.
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A photo from the Polish station founded by Stefan Rogoziński; pictured: the cacique and men and women in traditional dress; photo: Stefan Szolc-Rogoziński / Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe
Upon his return to Poland, Szolc-Rogoziński started a broad-range promotional campaign to advertise and raise funds for this goal. Interest in the undertaking, as well as an ensuing nationwide debate, exceeded his broadest expectations. Throngs of volunteers applied to join the expedition, willing to take the adventure of their lives. The project enjoyed a fervent support of those such as the writers Bolesław Prus and Henryk Sienkiewicz, the latter of whom donated fees from several of his lectures to the undertaking. On the other hand, others mocked Szolc-Rogoziński and made fun of his project, calling him a daydreamer, as he was only 20 years old at that time.
Despite his youth, Szolc-Rogoziński demonstrated impressive public relations skills – he advertised the expedition as a national mission which was to turn the world’s eyes to the Polish cause. Despite all the sensation he inspired, the fundraising proved to be a difficult task. A sufficient sum raised at last, in 1882, a team of five people set off from France on board the old sailing ship Łucja-Małgorzata. A flag donning a siren, the emblem of Warsaw, hung above their heads.
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Szolc-Rogoziński bought the island of Mondoleh on the Cameroon seacoast, where he set up the research station ‘Stephany’ – in honour of its founder. The expenses included:
10 bales of fabric, 6 guns, three boxes of gin, 4 coffers, 1 black coat, 1 top hat, 3 sun hats, a dozen red caps, 4 dozen jars of pomade, a dozen bracelets and 4 silk handkerchiefs
Despite being well-liked and supported by local tribe leaders, the station didn't survive for long, as German and British colonists arrived in Central Africa. Szolc-Rogoziński’s journey, however, was not only a purely ethnographic expedition, the researchers were also interested in geography, however, they collected quite a lot of field materials concerning the then Cameroon inhabitants. Items collected by the young entrepreneurs were donated to the newly opened Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw.
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The Cameroon expedition was well-remembered in the interwar period, owing to the perceived fantasy of the Polish overseas colonies. The Maritime and Colonial League, which was established in the Second Republic of Poland, claimed the Cameroon lands on the international arena. The claim was justified with Szolc-Rogoziński’s expedition.
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Written by Patryk Zakrzewski, May 2015; translated by IS, Aug 2016; edited by LD, Feb 2019