Crocodiles of Empire: A Collection Ecology of False Gharials from Borneo

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


Natural history museums in the Global North owe much of their authority to animals collected in the Global South. This unequal distribution of the planet’s natural heritage is the historical result of intimate and often invisible linkages between natural history repositories and evolving schemes of colonial exploitation and coercion. At the centre stage of this paper, is research into the provenance of a series of false gharials (Tomistoma schlegelii) collected by the German naturalist Salomon Müller in Borneo in the early nineteenth century. The collection is now stored in the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden which houses one of the world’s largest collections of plants, animals and minerals from colonial Southeast Asia. By reconstructing the collection circumstances of the false gharials, this paper reflects upon the role of local crocodile hunters (pangererans), their perception of nature, and the societal function of crocodile hunting in the early nineteenth century Dutch empire in Southeast Asia. Taken together this essay argues that natural history collections should not only be read as biodiversity heritage, but rather as the historical product of a process in which different notions of ‘the environment’ got inextricably entangled.
Period7 Jul 2022
Event titleEuropean Society for Environmental History conference 2022: Same planet, different worlds: environmental histories imagining anew
Event typeConference
LocationBristol, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • history of science
  • history of natural history
  • biodiversity heritage