Burke highlights eccentric French explorers

Edmund Burke III, professor of history at UC-Santa Cruz, spoke about the work and customs of French anthropologists working in Morocco at the turn of the 20th century yesterday.

The lecture, entitled “Extreme Ethnography: France and the Exploration of North Africa,” highlighted the discoveries and habits of French ethnographers in the years before France gained colonial rule there in 1912.

Burke said that although France was the best positioned of the European powers to colonize Morocco, it knew little about this land.

“By 1900, Morocco was largely unknown to Europeans, a kind of Tibet on the doorstep of Europe,” Burke said.

While researching his new book, “The Ethnographic State: France and the Invention of Moroccan Islam, 1890-1925,” Burke discovered that French explorers adopted different behaviors in the hope of blending into Moroccan society. As they trekked Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, explorers dressed in native garb and at times tried to pass themselves off as beggars.

“What made me bolt upright was when I started to notice the details of the disguises and realized the extremes of their behavior,” he said. “The more I thought about it, the more I found it weird.”

Burke told the story of Charles de Foucauld, who in 1883 traveled through Morocco’s mountains dressed as a Moroccan Rabbi. His book about his travels garnered him fame back in France. Burke noted that during this time, the French admired their explorers in the same way people looked up to astronauts in America during the 1970s.

Subsequent explorers would employ other tactics to try to look inconspicuous. Some would travel barefoot. Others traveled armed and with mules, which served the undesired purpose of making them stand out. Burke said that their goals included serving their empire.

“Ardent patriots, their decision to explore the Sahara and especially Morocco was, above all, a patriotic one,” he said. “By mapping previously unknown territories for France, they were contributing to the expansion of the empire and even more to the spread of progress.”

Students had favorable reviews of the professor’s lecture. Stephanie Hassell, a third-year doctoral student in history, said she enjoyed the discussion portion of the talk, in which the research approaches of French and British explorers of that age were compared. She also learned more about French ethnographers’ use of disguise.

“I didn’t know that the practice of disguise was so prominent,” Hassell said. “I didn’t know that this was a common practice for French ethnographers, and so I was immediately curious as to the extent to which British ethnographers did that.”

Erin Pettigrew, also a third-year doctoral student in history, said she found the talk fascinating. Pettigrew’s area of concentration is African history. She plans to conduct research in the West African nation of Mauritania.

This quarter she is teaching a course called “Colonial Anthropologists and the Production of Knowledge about Africa: Inadvertent Imperialists.” Burke’s talk brought up some points to think about as Pettigrew proceeds with her studies.

“It made me think about my identity as a non-African and how that can affect the sort of information that one gets in interviews,” Pettigrew said. “I definitely do not dress in disguise, but I’ve thought about that as being something that can help you or something that could work against you and what that could mean for my own work.”

The lecture was co-sponsored by the Mediterranean Studies Forum, the Center for African Studies and the French Culture Workshop.