Tracing the history of East African artefacts in the Smithsonian

Tracing the history of East African artefacts in the Smithsonian


William Louis Abbott, a medical doctor sent to East Africa to gather artefacts for the Smithsonian in 1887, collected hundreds of pieces of art, craft, and culture from across the region.


Professor Amy Stambach of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has undertaken extensive research on this collections history, and just how these items came to Washington DC.


Read more about Professor Stambach’s work in the following articles:

Ethnology Unboxed: The Making of Culture Through Its Performative (Un)doing. Ethnologies,

Sourcing and shipping museum objects from East Africa to the Smithsonian, 1887–1891, Business History,



Hello and welcome to ResearchPod. Thank you for listening and joining us today. In this episode, we will be looking at the work of Professor Amy Stambach of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Stambach has undertaken extensive research on the history of East African artefacts in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and how these came to be sourced, and shipped from the Kilimanjaro Region in East Africa to the Smithsonian in Washington DC.


Today’s Smithsonian Division of Anthropology was founded in the late 1800s. The East African artefacts collection had its beginnings with Otis Mason, an American Ethnologist, appointed as the Curator of Ethnology. Mason was captivated by human invention and how the evolution and progression thereof was evident in different cultures. He requested a number of natural scientists, one of whom was William Louis Abbott, to collect objects that would reflect this cultural evolutionary progression. The museum industry at the time, was growing in the US and anthropologists were using materials collected by natural scientists to develop theories about cultural evolution and history. This created a market for art and artefacts at the time.


William Louis Abbott was a medical doctor, born to a wealthy family in Philadelphia. He never practiced professionally as a medical doctor. He had an inheritance from his father and used this to finance his trip to East Africa. His initial time in East Africa was also dedicated to personal safaris and hunting sprees, in addition to sourcing objects for the Smithsonian. He kept a travel journal of his time in Africa and he used this journal as a basis to compose letters to his mother and sisters.

Abbott sailed for East Africa from London in 1887. His ship stopped in Malta before crossing the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and sailing down the East African coast. The ship finally docked at Lamu in Kenya from where Abbott described a multinational crew from Goa, Malay , China and Britain. While docked at Lamu, an American, Samuel Ropes, boarded the ship. Ropes operated a shipping business from East Africa. He invited Abbott to stay with him in Zanzibar and taught Abbott much about Zanzibar’s international culture and the coastal wars involving Britain and Germany. It was from Zanzibar, that Abbott planned his trip into the interior of East Africa.


Professor Stambach found that Abbott’s record of his East Africa trip (1887–1890) indicated a number of linked commercial zones under the influence of different leaders and authorities. There was a coastal zone linking Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa and Pangani, and the islands of Pemba and Zanzibar. This zone linked goods traded from the Indian Ocean into the interior. A second middle zone where local pastoralists were the main traffickers of goods, lay between the Coast and Mount Kilimanjaro. The interior mountain regions where farmers lived and herded cattle, formed another zone. Goods were used in the interior as money, and these trading goods included beads, wire and ‘mericani–or American cotton cloth sheeting’.

Abbott set out on his first inland trip, with a caravan of 19 men. He described the order as, ‘First, the guide carrying the American flag, then the head of the expedition, then the steward, and gun bearers, then the cook and his aids, followed by the rank and file of porters carrying the boxes and bales, and finally the caravan’. During this trip which lasted 39 days, Abbott was able to successfully trade cloth, clothes, and beads in exchange for a piece of land. He built a home upon this land and it was here that he stored his collection of objects and specimens as he travelled. He returned to Zanzibar in 1889, after he had collected a good deal of objects. He then spent time packing these specimens and making arrangements to ship this batch of collections to the Smithsonian. He also began planning for his next trip into the interior.


When Abbott travelled back to Kilimanjaro, he was introduced to a powerful chief in the region, Mandara. Abbott wrote of this meeting that ‘A large, stout man came forward wearing an old felt hat. He had only one eye. I immediately saw it was the famous Mandara. He grinned all over, he was in very good humour and very jolly. I told him I was the Merikani (my only name in Africa)’. The next day, Abbott took Mandara gifts of red cloth, silk muscat cloth, a bottle of gin, and a Navy revolver. Over time, Abbott came to base himself at Mandara in an unoccupied house formerly built by a German trader. Mandara’s health deteriorated over the next year but the trade of goods continued. Mandara asked Abbott to source him a specific mix of alcohol which he could use as medicine. Mandara also wanted a cannon to kill one of his greatest enemies, involved in killing people and selling people into slavery.


Professor Stambach recounts that Abbott later felt increasing pressure to trade on Mandara’s terms. While visiting other villages and chiefs on the mountains, Abbott encountered slavers and areas where he found handicrafts and household items left behind by people chased from their homes. It was from these goods, that Abbott received items such as initiation aprons, beer tubs, and cooking utensils for the Smithsonian, in exchange for cloth and trinkets. Abbott befriended many to source for his collection. He also paid children to collect specimens for him and build models. This ran counter to Mandara’s culture and contributed to conflict between the two men. This was made worse when Abbott and others cut down trees which had deep meaning and connection for the people. Without notice, Mandara cut off Abbott’s water supply.


By December 1889, Abbott had a sizable collection of weapons and utensils for the Smithsonian and some for friends. Within his collection of 247 objects, were snuffboxes, miniature models of buildings, shields, ceremonial dress, and everyday household goods. This final collection was shipped back to the Smithsonian by Ropes’s shipping company. Upon receiving the collection, Otis Mason noted that ‘Dr. Abbott had unpacked and presented to the museum a large and very important ethnological collection from the Wachaga’ who lived on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro Mountain.’


The collection which Abbott sourced for the Smithsonian would not have been possible without the relationships he built in East Africa. Samuel Ropes introduced Abbott to various important business connections, such as Arab and Indian merchants, the Zanzibari Sultan and British diplomats in East Africa. These connections were instrumental in facilitating Abbott’s introductions to people in the interior and eventually to local tribal authorities, including Mandara on Mount Kilimanjaro.

The region of East Africa in the nineteenth century was a vibrant trading route from the coastlands to the mountain interiors. The social conditions and personal relationships of the time were key to enabling trade. These trading exchanges had extremely old historical roots, dating back to the fifteenth century, when East African coastal communities traded with Portuguese, Indian and Arabic speaking travellers.

By the time Abbott arrived in East Africa, there was an established commodity trade between the United States and East Africa. There was also a rush by European governments to establish political power there. Abbott was himself not a trader or political diplomat. His records show that he was aware of the political dynamics of commodity trading, weapons and people trafficking. His letters also show that commodity trading was deeply influenced by connections of relationships between local leaders, traders, and entrepreneurs extending from East Africa’s coastlands to the snow-capped peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Before departing East Africa, Abbott gave Mandara ‘two watertight iron chests gorgeously painted in checkerboard pattern. which he had wanted. Abbott said that this exchange pleased Mandara immensely. After Abbott left East Africa, he travelled to other parts of the world and continued collecting for the Smithsonian, eventually becoming one of the largest collectors for the museum.

Abbot’s collection of East African objects is currently stored in the Smithsonian’s Suitland, Maryland location. His letters are stored in the Smithsonian archives.  In recent years, Professor Amy Stambach had an opportunity to unbox items of this collection that had remained untouched for nearly 120 years. Together with a long-time friend born in East Africa where Abbott had sourced some of his collection materials, Professor Stambach examined the objects and their labels, debating and discussing the sources of the objects and their connection between people and place.

Professor Stambach says that the Smithsonian collection reflects the culture and politics of the past, a time when the Smithsonian sought to ‘survey, store, and sample the world’. It also reflects the business practices of the day, some of which continue in new forms. Professor Stambach explains that her friend from East Africa with whom she unboxed Abbot’s collection at the Smithsonian, is today herself a successful business entrepreneur who sources and trades East African handicrafts to sell through online commercial platforms to buyers in Europe and North America.

That’s all we’ve got time for – thanks for listening, and be sure to stay subscribed to ResearchPod for more of the latest science. See you again soon.

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