Boschman, Nienke; Hacquebord, Louwrens; Veluwenkamp, Jan
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Arctisch centrum (1970-2005). (Volume 2 redactie) Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing.
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From Tropical Africa to Arctic Scandinavia
H.H.T. Prins and H.E.L. Prins
N T RO D U CTI O N
Most anthropologists associate A.H.J. Prins with the African tropics, not with the
European Arctic. It is true that his scholarly research took place primarily in East
Africa. Yet, Prins is also known as a pioneer in maritime anthropology, and it is
this particular specialisation that connects the geographically distant culture
areas in his research program. During almost fifty years of scholarship, Prins
travelled extensively and crossed boundaries between countries, centuries, and
disciplines. Observing and interviewing Swahili seafarers, Teita peasants, Boni
hunters, Maltese mariners, Dutch skippers, and Lapp fishers, he also delved into
African and European archives. The weight of his research concerned East
Africa’s peoples and cultures. Of about 75 scholarly publications, some 69
percent deal with Africa, 16 percent the Mediterranean and Middle East, 12
percent The Netherlands, and just 3 percent Arctic Scandinavia. Appearing
toward the end of his long scholarly career, his publications about Scandinavia
all have a maritime focus.
Although Prins did not publish much in Scandinavian anthropology, it may
comparative study of East-African age class systems (1953), to the Swedish
ethnographer Gerhard Lindblom (1887–1969). Such incidental facts of personal
history aside, how do we explain his deep interest in Arctic anthropology in light
of his overall research output? What were the forces that drove him from the
Indian Ocean to the Arctic Sea? Why did he collaborate with a small group of
fellow Groningen scholars to found the Arctic Centre as an interdisciplinary
I OG RA PHI CA L
KE T C H
Known as Peter, his nom de guerre during his years in the Dutch Resistance
movement, Adriaan Hendrik Johan Prins was born on 16 December 1921 in the
old Hanseatic town of Harderwijk on the Zuyderzee shore. When his father was
appointed railway station chief in IJmuiden, the family moved to this North Sea
coastal city. Only six when his father died, he and his sister settled with their
eyes of his grandfathers – Veluwe painter Hendrik ten Ham E.J.zn and
Barneveld railway station chief Johan Prins. Childhood exposure to seacoasts,
departing trains, and the value of an observational eye helped determine his
later career choices.
As a widow’s son growing up during the Depression with the rise of Nazi
travels. One came in the summer of 1936 when he made a trip to the Norwegian
fjords aboard the Dutch liner Tarakan. Regularly serving as a Dutch East Indies
Muslim Pilgrim ship to Mecca, the Tarakan also made a few summer excursions
for schoolboys sailing from IJmuiden Harbour. Prins, endowed with artistic talent
quite common in his family, sketched and painted ships and the Scandinavian
seacoast during the journey. Doing so, he may have recalled stories about his
grandfather ten Ham’s teacher, the well-known Dutch painter Louis Apol, who
had sailed to the Arctic Sea as an artist aboard the schooner Willem Barents in
1880. Apol produced several oil paintings based on sketches he made to
illustrate the expedition’s published report. One of the oils, depicting a
Norwegian sealing schooner on fire after attack from Russian patrol vessels,
eventually became the property of Prins. It still hangs in the living room at “Huis
ter Aa”, the Prins residence in Glimmen since the mid-1950s.
By age 18, at home in the Veluwe’s vast forests and longing to see the
East Indies. Accordingly, he enrolled at Wageningen Agricultural University for
tropical forestry studies. However, with the outbreak of World War II and Japan’s
occupation of Dutch colonies overseas, he changed direction and studied social
geography at the University of Utrecht, with a special focus on the Indian Ocean.
In 1943, the Nazis ordered Dutch students and staff to sign a "loyalty
declaration". Like many others, Prins refused. Suspending his studies, he joined
the resistance movement, becoming Chief of Intelligence in the VIth Brigade
(Veluwe). Following the 1944 Battle of Arnhem, he was secretly incorporated into
the Second British Army as First Lieutenant in a Special Force Detachment and
helped liberate his homeland.
After demobilisation in June 1945, Prins resumed his studies in Utrecht and
became a research assistant at Utrecht's Institute of Ethnology under Professor
Henri Th. Fischer.
By then, he had married Ita Poorter, whose family had given
In 1947, at age 26, Prins published his first scholarly article on East Africa.
That same year, as a former British army officer, he received a fellowship at the
London School of Economics (LSE) for special anthropology training under
Audrey Richards and Raymond Firth (who had succeeded his mentor Bronislaw
Malinowki as chair of Social Anthropology). While at the University of London,
Prins made lifelong friendships with scholars such as S.N. Eisenstadt, Derek
Freeman, and others who went on to build international academic careers. Then,
equipped with language training in Swahili, he ventured to Kenya as a British
Colonial Fellow for fieldwork among the Teita, a tribal group not previously
studied. Guided by the Senior District Commissioner Harold E. Lambert, a
Cambridge University trained anthropologist specialised in the neighbouring
Kikuyu, Prins was initiated into ethnographic research. He focused on topics
such as kinship and social structure favoured by British functionalists, but it
became soon evident that his enduring interest would be the maritime history
and cultural ecology of seafaring peoples.
In 1951, Prins accepted a post as the first anthropologist at the University of
Cultural Anthropology. Although he lectured at many other places, he remained
there until his retirement in 1984. A committed fieldworker, he made numerous
journeys abroad during and after his tenure at Groningen. These included long
research trips to Ethiopia (1954–55), Kenya, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar (1957,
1965–66, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971), Iraq (1957), Iran (1959), the Persian Gulf
(1970, 1973), Syria and Turkey (1961–62, 1970), South Arabia (1970, 1973),
Zambia (1972, 1974). From 1968–92 he made annual research trips to northern
Scandinavia, and beginning in 1970 travelled to Greece and made frequent
journeys to the Mediterranean island of Malta. A recipient of many research
grants and fellowships (UNESCO, Ford Foundation, the Netherlands
Organisation for Pure Research, etc.), Prins was frequently consulted by the
Dutch government and royal court, which valued his in-depth knowledge about
the peoples and cultures of Africa and the Middle East.
Early on in his scholarly career, Prins gained an international reputation
entries and scholarly articles in a wide range of international journals such as
Moreover, he illustrated many of his books and articles with his own
ethnographic photographs, sketches, and pen drawings.
A year before earning his doctorate at Utrecht in 1953, he already published
and often cited book, reprinted by the USA-based Negro Press in 1970. He
authored several other books, including The Swahili-speaking Peoples of
Zanzibar and the East Coast of Africa (1961, 2nd edition 1967), and a path-
breaking maritime anthropological work titled Sailing from Lamu: A Study of
monograph to Sir Raymond Firth, his LSE mentor who authored the classic 1946
text, Malay Fishermen: Their Peasant Economy, Prins gave the honor to Abdalla
Bujra, his former Kenyan-Hadrami informant, now a University of London-trained
anthropologist based in Ethiopia. Prins’ Sailing from Lamu continues to garner
praise, recently described by American scholar Erik Gilbert as “probably the best
book ever written on East African maritime culture.” Also worth considering is
Prins’ A Swahili Nautical Dictionary (1970). Published in Tanzania, and with a
Preface by his friend Julius Nyerere, most copies of his dictionary were bought
up by the Chinese then active in that nation’s development projects.
By then, Prins had turned his anthropological eye also towards the places he
bibliography on the 800-year history of Harderwijk, the port city where he and his
wife were born, followed by a cultural historical study of Zuyderzee skippers of
the fortified port of Blokzijl (1969), the small city his wife’s immediate ancestors
called home since 1795. He then gave his attention to the cultural history of the
Veluwe village of Barneveld, home to his maternal ancestors for more than five
centuries. This resulted in several publications in the 1980s, including his 1982
book on a 15
-century heroic knight Jan van Schaffelaar: Requiem voor een
In 1984, Prins published his theoretical manifesto Copernicaanse
Chair. This was also when his former students presented him with a Festschrift
titled Watching the Seaside: Essays in Maritime Culture (1984), which includes a
selection of his published articles. A year later, the Dutch government closed the
doors of the 30-year old anthropological institute he had founded in the mid-
1950s due to general budget cuts.
As an emeritus professor, Prins continued his research in spite of failing
study appeared, titled Handbook of Sewn Boats: The Ethnography and
had become deeply immersed in composing an historical analysis of the Knights
of Malta as a late medieval transnational corporation with military religious
estates on the Veluwe. Sadly, that effort was aborted when he suffered a
debilitating stroke in 1994. However, he did manage to complete a detailed
maritime historical study titled “Mediterranean Ships and Shipping, 1650–1850,”
published as a long chapter in The Heyday of Sail: The Merchant Sailing Ship
1650–1830 (1995), a beautifully illustrated British volume on traditional merchant
OLE I N T HE
EVE L OP ME N T O F
R C TI C
N T HR OP O LO GY
With some justification, anthropology has been criticised as the “brainchild of
primarily with the indigenous peoples of its colonies in the East and West Indies
– although Prins, unlike his Dutch peers at the time, did his first fieldwork in then
British Kenya. Not surprisingly, the decolonisation movements in Asia, Africa,
and elsewhere in the Post World War II period brought about a crisis in
anthropology in the 1960s, forcing its practitioners to rethink their profession. Not
always welcome in the newly-independent states, many European
anthropologists turned to their own continent. These historical events also
affected Prins. As this biographical sketch indicates, he gradually shifted his
research focus from Africa towards the Mediterranean and Northern Europe.
With limited research opportunities in the former colonies, Dutch
politically more stable culture areas to send their students to for practical
training. With other Dutch universities selecting locations in the Mediterranean,
Ireland, and so on, Groningen looked northwards to Scandinavia. This region
was especially attractive for anthropological inquiry, as it was inhabited by
traditional Saami reindeer herders and fishers – Europe’s own “exotic”
Although Arctic anthropology has become an important international
proximity to the Soviet Union, however, the entire circumpolar Arctic region
became part of the Northern Hemisphere Security Area during the Cold War. In
this geo-political context, funds became available for scientific research in the
area. The Dutch had interest in the far north because of their history of Arctic
recently, and their involvement in the Spitsbergen tractaat which settled the
Sovereignity of Spitsbergen.
Aware of these developments, and in search of new student training
northernmost academic institution, staked out the European Far North as their
academic arena. Together with the linguists André van Holk (Slavic Languages),
Tjalling Waterbolk (Archaeology) and Andries Kylstra (Finnish Ugarithic), and the
Scandinavianist Amy van Marken, Prins explored opportunities for creating an
interdisciplinary research and teaching institute with a particular Nordic focus. In
1970 they founded the Arctic Centre.
Prins envisioned the Arctic Centre as a vehicle that could serve in identifying
Arctic and Sub-arctic islands. Simultaneously, he established networks for his
graduate students to be trained as museum anthropologists at various museums
in, e.g., Oslo, Bergen, Tromsø, G
őteborg, or Stockholm. At the time, the
anthropological research emphasis at Groningen was on cultural ecology.
Groningen anthropology students were expected to enrol in a three-month
graduate research training period at the end of their second year during the
summer season. This training could take place in a foreign museum or in the
field. In contrast to museum training, students choosing to do fieldwork were
organised as teams and focused on a shared research theme. For preparation,
they took several courses in area studies, theory and methodology, and
language training (Swedish or Norwegian).
As Lapland became the region of choice for ethnographic training at
to study collections in Scandinavia’s anthropological and maritime museums. In
the course of the next few years, several of his students became Scandinavia
specialists, including the nutritional anthropologist Nellejet Zorgdrager (Drs:
1970) who did intensive research among Norway’s Saami.
Considering Prins’ geographic shift from the East African coast to the
influenced not only by his LSE professor Firth, but also by British anthropologist
J.A. Barnes of the University of Manchester. Barnes, initially noted for his work in
Central Africa, became famous for his 1954 study of the Norwegian sea-fishing
community of Bremnes (near Bergen) in which he launched the concept of
“network”. His research, seminal in the development of social network analysis
associated with the “Manchester school” under anthropologist Max Gluckman,
It also framed the work by his University of Amsterdam colleague Jeremy
Boissevain, who applied social network analysis to his Malta ethnography.
When Prins turned his attention to northern Scandinavia, he focused on the
Saami historically known as the Sea Lapps and River Lapps. By the mid 1970s,
his first publication dedicated to Arctic Scandinavia appeared: Development in
Arctic Boat Design: Efflorescence or Involution?. This paper grew out of the
Netherlands-Swedish Symposium on Developments in Scandinavian Arctic
Culture, a 1975 conference that Prins helped organise and host at the Arctic
Another publication by Prins concerning Arctic Scandinavia appeared as a
published by the British National Maritime Museum. In a 1993 article “Louis Apol,
Painter of the Arctic Ocean” published by the Norwegian Maritime Museum in
Oslo, Prins offers some little known historical background about this earlier-
mentioned Dutch artist’s journey to northern Norway and Nova Zembla in 1880.
Writing with exquisite detail about a small Skolt Lapp sewn boat sketched by
Apol in the lee of the skerries near the mouth of the Varanger fjord, Prins reveals
his own deep love for art and sailing vessels. It was a love he carried from the
coasts of his childhood to those of East Africa and the European Arctic.
A.H.J. Prins chose an adventurous life with a profession to match. Even for
those who knew him well, it is a challenge to reduce his life to a clear summary.
We started our biographical sketch by noting that it may come as a surprise that
this anthropologist known for his research in the African tropics was also active
in the European Arctic. So it is perhaps quite fitting to end our portrait with some
paradoxical observations: Always restless, the man loved traditions; a committed
conservative, he repeatedly broke social conventions; a builder of institutions, he
was often an absentee landlord; patriarch of a large family and gregarious in
company, he longed to be alone; generous, he could be self-centred; well-versed
in many languages and an explorer of new horizons, he felt deeply rooted in the
history of his homeland—in short, how could he not have recognized irony in the
name of the rustic inn he frequented in Drenthe, The Resting Hunter?
The hunter found his final resting place on the pastoral cemetery of the late
him almost wordless and unable to write or read. He was buried with a simple
Indian Ocean dhow sailing ship engraved on his tombstone.
AME N VAT TIN G
Een van de oprichters van het Arctisch Centrum van de Rijksuniversiteit
Groningen was Adriaan Hendrik Johan Prins. Prins was hoogleraar in de
Culturele Antropologie aan deze Universiteit. Dit artikel geeft een biografische
schets van zijn leven, en analyseert waarom hij als Oost Afrika specialist mede-
initiator was voor het ontwikkelen van het Arctische werkterrein van de
Universiteit. Een belangrijke factor daarin was de dekolonisatie in wat later de
Derde Wereld ging heten. Dit leidde tot een zelfreflectie bij antropologen die zich
altijd met niet-westerse maatschappijen hadden beziggehouden, en een
heroriëntatie op de eigen regio en het eigen continent. Een tweede factor was de
geringe mogelijkheid voor het emplooi van studenten in de voormalige koloniën.
Ook de Koude Oorlog leidde bij Prins tot een oriëntatie op de noordelijke flank
van het NAVO-gebied waarbij onderzoek en onderwijs in die regio kon gaan
rekenen op financiering vanwege de overheid. Als laatste factor gold de
nabijheid van de noordelijke gebieden voor studenten om hun veldwerk te
kunnen doen omdat het toenemend moeilijk was goede stageplaatsen te vinden
in de tropen, het traditionele werkterrein van de antropologiestudenten. Het
eerdere, maar ook voortgaande onderzoek van Prins in Oost Afrika, en vooral
nadruk op de maritieme antropologie, bleek in een traditie te passen die
daarvóór was ontwikkeld op basis van veldwerk in Scandinavië. Zijn eigen
eerdere Afrikaanse werk en zijn latere Noordelijke werk bleken daarom naadloos
op elkaar aan te sluiten.
Tentoonstelling Sámi Ællin; the every day lif of the Norwegian reindeer lapps (1971).
Foto: Centrale Fotodienst RUG.
Traanoven Smeerenburg. Foto: Frits Steenhuisen.