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Interview with Dr Ricardo Roque: ‘Scientific Occupation’ and the Timor Anthropological Mission in the Late Portuguese Colonial Empire

This past May, Dr Ricardo Roque presented on his research project concerned with the Timor Anthropological Mission in the late Portuguese colonial empire. Dr Roque’s lecture revolved around the concept of “scientific occupation”, a prominent approach in Portuguese late imperial policy, and considered the histories of the anthropometric and racialized projects undertaken by Portuguese imperial expeditions in East Timor, including their enduring legacies today.

Dr Ricardo Roque is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon and an Honorary Associate in the Department of History, University of Sydney. Dr Roque’s research focuses on the history and ethnography of the human sciences, colonialism, race, and cross-cultural contact in the Portuguese-speaking world, from 1800 to the twentieth century.

SEBESTIAN KROUPA: Your research examines the history of human sciences and race in the modern Portuguese colonial empire. In your talk, you focused on the twentieth-century Portuguese anthropological mission in the colonial dominion of East Timor. You showed very convincingly the ties between scientific research, imperialism, and the Portuguese fascist state of Estado Novo. Central to your argument is the concept of “scientific occupation”. Can you describe its place in Portuguese late imperial policy?

RICARDO ROQUE: During the late period of Western overseas imperialisms, there was a shared belief in the colonizing powers of science. Portuguese late imperialism is no exception. In the late nineteenth century, modernizing and regenerating the Portugal’s age-old empire involved appeals for science-based colonialism. Paradigmatic realizations of this ideal were the geographical expeditions launched ardently by the Portuguese government in the 1870s-80s in Africa. After the Berlin Conference of 1885, however, the focus was on another kind of expeditionary movement: military campaigns. Thus, between the 1890s and the 1910s, numerous military expeditions devastated many Indigenous dominions in Portuguese colonies. In this context, asserting colonial sovereignty meant primarily “effective occupation” of territories by the force of arms. Yet in the 1920s-30s there was a renewed emphasis on scientific expeditionary dimensions of colonial sovereignty. The perception was that the work of military conquest had been triumphantly completed; it was time now to continue the Portuguese work of conquest through epistemic means. Portuguese nationalist intellectuals, academics, and politicians were envisaging a new age of imperial domination in African and Asian colonies based on a vast governmental program of field sciences; they claimed it was a national duty of the state to actively promote scientific fieldwork led by Portuguese nationals in the colonies. Field scientists, not the military, were presented as the new expeditionary armies of empire.

The term ocupação científica (literally “scientific occupation”), I hypothesize, was forged in this period to convey this colonial policy vision. The term was deliberately modeled on the notion of military occupation and gained momentum in the political context when nationalist and fascist right-wing ideologies took control of Portugal’s government. In 1926, a military coup in Lisbon led to the fall of the parliamentary Republic and the establishment of Military Dictatorship, which developed into a nationalist-imperialist fascist regime. Headed by António de Oliveira Salazar, the Estado Novo (“New State”) was formally instituted in 1933. The notion of ocupação científica gained traction above all during the first two decades of the regime, when it became the cornerstone of the policies of the Ministry of the Colonies (re-named Ministry of the Overseas after 1951). The program involved the creation of a special governmental department – the Colonial/Overseas Science Board – dedicated solely to fostering scientific research in the colonies, mainly (though not exclusively) through fieldwork expeditions (so-called missões científicas), including on anthropology. Even after the demise of the Portuguese empire in 1974-75, although under a different name, the Board survived as a state scientific institution. Addressing the issue of the longevity of the expeditions and the notion of “scientific occupation” that they originally embodied is a challenging aspect of this history and of my research. Beyond the specific facets of the Portuguese story, these developments prompt wider reflections on the durability and temporality of colonial sciences. Thus, in my research project on the history of ‘Colonial Anthropological Missions’, I am interested in examining their significance in the period of the Portuguese dictatorship – but I am also interested in following their legacies, traces, and ramifications in the democratic age, thus considering how the past of colonial “scientific occupation” might intrude into the present.

SK: How did the fascist orientation of the Portuguese Estado Novo affect the nature of the scientific research conducted in its empire (e.g. in terms of international collaboration)?

RR: Political historians and social scientists have long debated how, or even if, Salazar’s fascist regime of Estado Novo should be positioned comparatively in the taxonomy of twentieth-century fascisms. Some scholars contrast Salazar’s ruralist, secluded, and conservative ideologies with the histrionic and warlike inclinations of its contemporary fascist counterparts, such as Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. This taxonomic debate, however, should not divert attention from the fact that Salazar’s fascism – as Tiago Saraiva’s brilliant book Fascist Pigs has demonstrated – was likewise a deeply modernistic and scientifically minded undertaking, obsessed with nationalist autarchy and science, both at home and in the colonies. I make this point also because for some time, there was a scholarly tendency to disconnect concerns with internationalization and science from Salazarism and to see the fascist period as a dark age of intellectual “backwardness”, extreme isolation, and ruralist immobility. And yet the Estado Novo government also made unprecedented investments into scientific and laboratory research, while also boosting international networking and the international mobility of scientists.

In my work on the Anthropological Missions, I reflect on how the conceptual opposition between foreign and autochthonous, or national, lay at the basis of international collaborations in colonial anthropological sciences. My suggestion is that, on the one hand, foreign scientists were distrusted, and there was a strong nationalist emphasis on nativist and autarkic ideals of science production. It was believed that ethnically white Portuguese nationals alone should command and conduct field research in and on Portugal and Portuguese colonies. On the other hand, foreign scientists were highly regarded as a source of authority, and Portuguese nationalist colonial anthropologists nurtured strategic international connections with a view to self-empowerment. Thus, Portuguese scientists experienced a tension between avoiding and distrusting foreign scientists, while at the same time increasing the internationalization of their scientific activities. In a recent essay (Roque 2022), I examine this tensional relationship between transnationalism and isolationism.

SK: I found especially thought-provoking the parallels you drew between scientific missions and earlier military conquests, between scientific data and imperial spoils of war. In East Timor, the scientific research was highly anthropometric and racialized in its nature. Could you tell us more about the Portuguese scientific mission?

RR: I approach the Anthropological Mission in East Timor as an analytical window through which to explore the history of anthropo(bio)logy as a racial science in the late imperial period – and even beyond it.  The Colonial Anthropological Missions launched in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and East Timor were arguably the largest and most ambitious fieldwork projects in Portuguese human sciences until the 1960s. These were field expeditions aimed to study the so-called “native tribes” of the Empire, mainly from a racial point of view. The definition of “anthropological” encompassed physical anthropology, archaeology, blood group studies, linguistics, and ethnography – but the core program was racial anthropological science, also designated as “anthropobiology”. Yet this research program, as mentioned above, went hand in hand with a political agenda. It is important to bear in mind that the project of “anthropological missions” was designed also with the purpose of establishing sovereignty in the colonies by means of scientific field expeditions. As I have already mentioned, this political notion of “scientific occupation” was in conceptual continuity, or correspondence, with the idea of military occupation. And it is in line with this colonialist correspondence between “scientific” and “military” that I provocatively suggest that it is legitimate to read the field data, objects, ethnographic, linguistic, and biomaterials collected by Portuguese anthropological expeditions in the African and Asian colonies as spoils of colonial occupation. For, if colonial anthropologists were so keen on developing “scientific occupation” as an activity homologous to war campaigns, shouldn’t we also see scientific collections and data through a military lens, as a kind of war plunder? The anthropological expedition to East Timor launched in 1953-54 by the Portuguese Overseas Science Board prompts this broader question.

SK: Indigenous bodies lay at the core of the Portuguese project. How do Indigenous agency and resistance feature in your story?

RR: Access to Indigenous perspectives and agency in colonial archives is a difficult methodological challenge for historians. Yet Indigenous agency – including, but not exclusively, activities of resistance – remains one important lens through which to consider and analyze the development and impact of these scientific expeditions. As primarily an archival researcher, I am particularly interested in retrieving and analyzing archival traces of such perspectives. To begin with, Indigenous agency is a slippery and challenging objective to pursue in the colonial archives of these expeditions because the surviving documentation is often silent, evasive, or biased about Indigenous actions and purposes. In case of the ‘Timor Anthropological Mission’, one interesting dimension is the apparent archival absence of open Indigenous opposition. Archives in Lisbon do not reveal visible traces of East Timorese resistance to the activities of measuring and bleeding their bodies, for example. Fieldwork apparently went smoothly, without open confrontation. Of course, there was a great deal of coercion involved in mobilizing Indigenous bodies for anthropological work, which colonial documents tend to dismiss. Sometimes the documents even point to the contrary, suggesting the expeditionary team was well received and welcomed across the territory. This may have partly been related to old local viewpoints and customs associated with deference owed to the Portuguese outsider authority. In any case, Timorese actions, submissive in appearance, could in reality entail subtle Timorese counter meanings – “hidden scripts” in James Scott’s words – that perhaps were not visible, accessible to, or understood by the Portuguese.

SK: Your research offers unique perspectives by bringing historical methodologies into conversation with historical anthropological evidence. How do you navigate the methodological challenges involved and how can such approaches open up new avenues for thinking about cross-cultural encounters?

RR: I believe reading the expedition archives ethnographically, either along or against the grain, do help us in the task of retrieving Indigenous agency and perspectives. However, in many cases archival work is not sufficient. Twentieth-century expeditions, such as the Timor Anthropological Mission, probably left traces and marks in the memories of Indigenous communities that one should try to investigate and learn about. Hence, I also aim at blending field and archival methods, or moving between fieldwork in Timor and archival research in Portugal. Looking for such traces in the field is a difficult task, almost like looking for a needle in a haystack. But it can prove fruitful. I followed this approach with my colleague, anthropologist Lúcio Sousa, in studying the case of the Indigenous sacred stone artifacts, displayed by the locals to the Portuguese anthrobiopologist António de Almeida in 1957 in the village of Afaloicai (Roque – Sousa 2019). This case shows that the Timorese could avoid or deny providing information to the colonial anthropologist. But Indigenous agency, of course, is not merely synonymous to resistance and opposition. We suggest that the enforced display of sacred artifacts to colonial officials was also a way to assert Timorese notions of power, identity, and sovereignty – perhaps without the Portuguese anthropologist even taking notice of such purposes. The analysis of the Afaloicai events therefore reveals cases of Indigenous tactics of appropriation of colonial projects for Indigenous ends.  

SK: I was especially struck by the remarkable longevity of the colonial institutions and collections, which were renamed and rebranded after the fall of the fascist Estado Novo and remained active long thereafter, even to the present day. The East Timor collections are now housed in the Museum of Natural History and Sciences in Lisbon. Can you tell us about the legacies of the collection, its potential for future historical and scientific research, and possibilities for decolonization?

RR: The collections assembled by the colonial anthropological mission to East Timor were sent to Lisbon and held by the Centre of Overseas Ethnology/Centre of Anthropobiology from 1955 until the late disappearance of this institution in the 2000s – long after the formal end of Estado Novo and the demise of the colonial empire in 1974-75. Subsequently, they moved to the Tropical Research Institute (an offshoot of the Colonial/Overseas Research Board) until 2015, when this institute was dissolved and fused with the University of Lisbon. These collections are numerous and varied. They include archaeological artifacts, audio and film recordings, photographs, anthropometric data, blood group cards, and much more. All this diverse data was collected with the aim of studying the “natives” of the colonies. It is remarkable that in spite of the changes of political regime, historical awareness of the violent and racist dimensions of these colonial collections (including its embeddedness in “scientific occupation”) has rarely been addressed critically or put at the forefront of discussions and policies of how this data should be curated, discussed, remembered – or even forgotten, or given away.

Yet in Portugal, possibilities for decolonization of these collections are yet to be imagined and put into practice – including, but not exclusively, through restitution. One important question we need to ask, I believe, is how to live with, how to coexist with what remains from these colonial expeditions. I try to reflect on this question at a modest scale, for example, in my analysis of the colonial chronotopes that endure in the biological samples of Timorese dried blood in paper cards, collected in the 1950s for racial blood group analysis (Roque 2019). In learning ‘how to live with’ these remains, a critical awareness of the difficult and violent colonial pasts of these collections is required. This past must be exposed and put at the heart of how we relate to their present significance. Critical counter-narratives of science and empire were a step in this direction; they help to dismantle self-glorifying nationalist viewpoints of science and empire. Yet – above all – I feel one needs to do much more in order to involve Indigenous African and Asian actors and perspectives. If one is to finally give up the possessive and extractive premises of “scientific occupation” that birthed these institutions and collections, the sovereignty of the present-day African and Asian communities over their destiny and management should be accepted fully. This is a difficult – but necessary – step to take.