‘Global Commodity Chains and Indigenous Labour’: New SouthHem Publication

Megan Kuster, ‘Global Commodity Chains and Local Use-Value: William Colenso, Natural History Collecting and Indigenous Labour’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 22.2 (2021):


This essay explores both Indigenous responses to natural history collecting in nineteenth-century colonial New Zealand, and the methodological limitations and possibilities of using the colonial archive to explore such questions. In particular, the essay emphasizes the themes of knowledge production and the use-value of labour, raising questions about how scientists, collectors and Indigenous informants interacted with one another along the global commodity chain of the natural history specimen. It asks: Whose production of natural history knowledge is approved, reproduced and recorded in Colenso’s archive, for what purpose and in what format? And what are the different valuations or hierarchical gradations of labour that emerge in his various accounts (published and unpublished) of the expedition? The essay suggests that issues surrounding the citation of Indigenous labour in nineteenth-century natural history knowledge production are entangled with the valuation of natural history specimens as commodities in the global imperial marketplace. Its first claim is that differentiated forms of labour surface in relation to tropes of natural history “discovery,” and that Colenso’s mode of citation reveals the division of primary and secondary labour-value in the field of imperial natural history collecting. Its second claim is that scientific specimen discovery had a value in a wider commodity chain that was both recognised and resisted by Indigenous peoples. More specifically, the essay argues that the differentiation of labour and the use-value of natural history specimens provides a way of reading Indigenous traces in the colonial archive, adding to understandings of the material practices of natural history some sense of how Indigenous people responded to coercions for assistance by European collectors.

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