XXVIII.1 January - February 2021
Page: 90
Digital Citation

The Humboldt Cup: On narrative, taxonomies, and colonial violence

Luiza de Oliveira Martins

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This new forum focuses on the topic of coloniality, in all its forms. The concept of the coloniality of power was first proposed by sociologist Aníbal Quijano to describe a set of practices whose origins he traces to the project of European colonialism. This article introduces the importance of coloniality in the context of a specific artifact on display in Berlin, the Humboldt Cup. The images in the Cup offer an insight into the establishment of racial hierarchies, modes of classification, and narratives of subjugation as fundamental aspects of the colonizing process, manifestations of power that, to this day, have a profound impact on how technology is shaped and developed.

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In his key texts analyzing the concept of coloniality, Quijano [1,2,3] posits that this articulation of power is constituted through the copresence of three fundamental elements: domination, exploitation, and conflict. These three elements are subsequently implicated in what he postulates as the four main areas of social existence: labor, sexuality, authority, and subjectivity—as well as their resources and products [1,2,3]. He recognizes, furthermore, a system of racial hierarchy as the foundation upon which the modern world is structured. Within this hierarchy, the European subject is posited as superior to all others; conversely, other subjects—those colonized, those enslaved—are posited as expendable [4].

Concurrently, a system of knowledge that postulates European culture as superior is enforced; under these conditions, "the relation between European culture and the other cultures was established and has been maintained, as a relation between 'subject' and 'object'" [3]. Philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [5] identifies this as a form of epistemic violence, seeking to impose Europe as the sole narrator of history. The constitution of the West as subject, she points out, implies the concurrent constitution of a colonial other, and the "the asymetrical [sic] obliteration of the trace of that Other in its precarious Subjectivity" [5].

Historian of science Londa Schiebinger [6] offers a compelling account of how the creation of racial and gender hierarchies has permeated the construction of biology and medicine as fields of knowledge. Engaging with the taxonomical system devised by Swedish naturalist Carl von Linnaeus, she points out that traits such as the breasts or the skull were subjected to processes of racialization and sexualization in attempts to produce arguments that would justify the subjugation of femininity and of all racialized peoples. Schiebinger argues that scientists were, in fact, fundamental actors in the colonizing process: In describing, classifying, taxonomizing, and representing this so-called new world, European powers sought to claim ownership over lands, peoples, flora, and fauna. Classifying entire groups of animals based on the presence of breasts was a choice; other characteristics could have been highlighted, such as the presence of hair [6]. White patriarchal domination was thus asserted through notebooks, measuring tools, pens, and paintbrushes just as much as it was through firearms.

The repercussions of this process are vast, deep, and profoundly violent. Scholar Hortense Spillers [7] offers an extensive analysis of the conditions that permeate the construction of gender for African-American women. She argues that African diasporic subjects, as a result of racializing processes, are placed in a position of both social and biological otherness—that is, the social processes that position these subjects as inferior are naturalized in order to justify ongoing subjugation. Spiller's work highlights not only the ways in which gender and race are produced and performed, but also how these performances become sedimented through the coding of social differences as natural, measurable, quantifiable phenomena. Indeed, sociologist Simone Browne reminds us that the collection of census data allows a state to manage populations "by way of formalized categories that fix individuals within a certain time and particular space," thus rendering it "legible in racializing as well as gendering ways" [8]; it is "a technology of disciplinary power that classifies, examines, and quantifies populations" [8].

The technologies of coloniality might shift and change, but their essence remains.

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The curse of coloniality was—and continues to be—manifested in myriad different ways; today's classification technologies, from the census to Linnaean taxonomy, are the result of a long process of domination. One example of this process can be found in the Humboldt Cup, an artifact thought to have been designed and manufactured in the Netherlands in the mid-17th century under commission of Johan Maurits, Prince of Nassau-Siegen and former governor-general of Dutch Brazil [9]. It is made out of an elaborately carved coconut with a silver lid, both held together by a silver frame and mounted on a tall silver foot. The frame that holds the coconut in place divide its surface into three panels, each displaying different depictions of Indigenous Brazilians. The Cup is on display in Berlin, as part of the Wunderkammer Olbricht in the Me Collectors Room; it gets its name from its most famous owner—Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.

Humboldt was a great admirer of the style of ethnographic imagery used in the Cup, considering it a "suitable instrument for scientific studies" because it was "able to omit nonessentials" and thus provide accurate depictions of the world [9]. The Cup, together with other such artifacts and paintings, is part of an imagetic continuum designed to offer a taxonomy of colonized subjects according to their proximity with whiteness, and to establish a narrative of successful colonial domination [10]. Its first panel (Figure 1, left) depicts an Indigenous woman and an Indigenous man. Between them, in the very center of the panel, stands a tall tree—most likely a banana tree, judging from the shape of the leaves. The subjects are wearing small bundles of leaves to cover their genitals and are placed against a luscious natural backdrop. Behind the woman, in the distance, there seems to be an Indigenous village. On her back, she is carrying a woven basket; inside it, beside a variety of tropical fruits, a severed foot. She is also holding a severed hand—implying she is a cannibal, as pointed out by Virginie Spenlé [9]. The man on the other side of the panel is wearing a feathered headdress and holding several Indigenous weapons—a warrior. His body is turned to the outer side of the panel, his left foot half off the ground. He seems to have been caught while taking a step in the direction of the next panel. Spenlé [9] remarks that these figures are almost exact reproductions of two woodcuts that illustrate Historia Naturalis Brasiliae, a volume published by naturalists Georg Marcgraf and Wilem Piso under the patronage of Johan Maurits. These woodcuts, in turn, draw directly from two Eckhout paintings: Tapuya Woman (1641) and Tapuya Man (1641), both currently on display at the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen (Figures 2 and 3).

ins02.gif Figure 1. The Humboldt Cup, displayed at the Me Collectors Room as part of the Wunderkammer Ulbricht exhibition in Berlin.
ins03.gif Figure 2. Tapuya Woman (1641) by Albert Eckhout.
ins04.gif Figure 3. Tapuya Man (1641) by Albert Eckhout.

The second panel of the Cup (Figure 1, middle) depicts, again, two Indigenous figures, a woman and a man. This time, however, she is fully covered by a dress, rather than a jute skirt—a stark contrast to the naked "cannibal woman" figure in the first panel. The male figure is also dressed, indicating his status as a "civilized" native plantation worker [9]. In the background, this time, there are only plants and trees, no Indigenous village in sight. The woman also seems to be walking toward the next panel, reinforcing the idea of a process of progressive assimilation.

The third and final panel of the Cup (Figure 1, right) depicts an Indigenous man on a beach; he is wearing a cloth tied around his waist and holds a spear and a fish. Close to the shore there is a fortification; it is sunrise. On the opposite side of the panel, a woman—European, judging by her mode of dress—offers a fish to the man, while holding a small, naked child by the hand. Spenlé remarks that this figure "can be interpreted as a personification of Europe and the fish she hands the Indian [sic] as the symbol of Christ. The scene can, therefore, be read as follows: the savage [sic] has been converted to Christianity through the intercession of Europe" [9].

The technologies of coloniality might shift and change, but their essence remains.

It is this final scene that makes the Cup such an extraordinary object: Within the space of its three panels, a clear narrative of domination—not only of land but also of peoples and of culture—unfolds. Within this story, it is only through conformity to European notions of progress and culture that the colonized might achieve the ultimate goal of salvation. It is a narrative where colonial domination becomes material precisely through the articulation of the white gaze—deemed a capable and objective adjudicator of the worth of other human beings—and its technologies.

By presenting the narrative of colonial domination and acculturation in the tradition of ethnographic painting, the Cup lends a veneer of credibility and tangibility to what is, ultimately, an imagined narrative of docility and submissiveness; concurrently, it expresses articulations of exploitation and surveillance that shape the world as we know it to this day. Its marks are still imprinted over the lives of many; they still shape relations we establish with the world around us. In her work, scholar Ruha Benjamin [11] has extensively examined the digitalized biometric surveillance of Black people—subjects who have long been hypervisible targets of surveillance by public and private actors.

Browne [8] offers a thorough and compelling account of the surveillance of blackness in the U.S. and Canada—starting with the establishment of chattel slavery and reenacted in the present through the theatrics of airport security, or through the collection of census data. Building her argument, she discusses "lantern laws" in colonial New York City—mandates that determined that all enslaved Black, Indigenous, or mixed-race people must carry a lamp when walking the streets of the city alone after dark [8]. She points out, "Here technologies of seeing that are racializing in their application and effects, from a candle flame to the white gaze, were employed in an attempt to identify who was in place with permission and who was out of place with censure" [8].

Narratives of colonial domination and surveillance persist, carrying their curses through history. They are carved into being in the visual narrative of the Humboldt Cup; they are present in the very foundations of Western systems of knowledge, classification, and hierarchization. They determine, as Browne stresses, those who are granted permission and those who must be censured. Decolonizing our histories requires that we learn to enunciate our selves in ways that directly confront and negate the adjacency to whiteness—reflections of the colonizer—as a condition for humanity.

back to top  References

1. Quijano, A. Coloniality of power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South 1, 3 (2000), 533–80.

2. Quijano, A. Colonialidad del poder, globalizacion y democracia. Utopías, Nuestra Bandera: Revista de Debate Político 188 (2001), 97–123.

3. Quijano, A. Coloniality and modernity/rationality. Cultural Studies 21, 2–3 (Mar. 1, 2007), 168–78;

4. Mignolo, W.D. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Duke Univ. Press Books, Durham, 2011.

5. Spivak, G.C. Can the subaltern speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Reprint edition. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, eds. Univ. of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1988.

6. Schiebinger, L. Taxonomy for human beings. In The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. G. Kirkup, ed. Routledge in association with the Open University, London; New York, 2000.

7. Spillers, H.J. Mama's baby, papa's maybe: An American grammar book. Diacritics 17, 2 (1987), 65–81;

8. Browne, S. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke Univ. Press Books, Durham, 2015.

9. Spenlé, V. 'Savagery' and 'civilization': Dutch Brazil in the Kunst- and Wunderkammer. Journal of Historians Od Netherlandish Art 3, 2 (2011);

10. Fanon, F. The Wretched of the Earth. Reprint edition. Grove Press, New York, 1961.

11. Benjamin, R. Catching our breath: Critical race STS and the carceral imagination. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 2, 0 (Jul. 1, 2016), 145–56;

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Luiza Prado de O. Martins is an artist and researcher whose work engages with reproduction and its entanglements with coloniality. Her current artistic research project, "A Topography of Excesses," examines the transmission of Indigenous and folk knowledges on herbalist practices and reproduction as decolonizing forms of radical care.

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