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Het topje van de ijsberg

Boschman, Nienke; Hacquebord, Louwrens; Veluwenkamp, Jan



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Boschman, N., Hacquebord, L., & Veluwenkamp, J. W. (editors) (2005). Het topje van de ijsberg: 35 jaar

Arctisch centrum (1970-2005). (Volume 2 redactie) Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing.

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21

From Tropical Africa to Arctic Scandinavia 



A.H.J. Prins as Maritime Anthropologist 

 

H.H.T. Prins and  H.E.L. Prins



 

I

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 



come as a surprise that he chose to dedicate his doctoral thesis, an often-cited 

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 

research program?   

B

RIEF 


B

I OG RA PHI CA L 

S

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 



 

 

22



mother in her ancestral village of Barneveld. There, Prins grew up under the 

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 



power in neighboring Germany, young Prins had few opportunities for distant 

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 



world, Prins dreamed of a forestry career on Sumatra or elsewhere in the Dutch 

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 



specialised in ethnology. A year later, having acquired his “doctoraal” degree, he 

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 



him safe harbour at their Harderwijk home while he served in the underground 

movement.  



 

 

23



 

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 



Groningen, where he later became the founding director of the Institute 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 



based on his strong publication record. In addition to scores of encyclopaedia 

entries and scholarly articles in a wide range of international journals such as 



Man and Anthropos, he published in Dutch newspapers and magazines. 

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 



his first major book The Coastal Tribes of the Northeastern Bantu: Pokomo, 

 

 

24



Nyika, Teita. His 1953 thesis, East-African Age-Class Systems: An Inquiry into 

the Social Order of the Galla, Kipsigis and Kikuyu, is an internationally acclaimed 

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 



Maritime Culture in Islamic East Africa (1965). Instead of dedicating this 

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 



and his family considered home. In 1960, he published an annotated 

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

th

-century heroic knight Jan van Schaffelaar: Requiem voor een 



Gelderse Ruiter.  

 

In 1984, Prins published his theoretical manifesto Copernicaanse 



Cultuurkunde on the occasion of his retirement as Groningen’s Anthropology 

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 



health. Two years into his retirement, yet another major maritime anthropological 

study appeared, titled Handbook of Sewn Boats: The Ethnography and 



Archaeology of Archaic Plank-Built Craft, followed by In Peril on the Sea: Marine 

Votive Paintings in the Maltese Islands (1989). In the early 1990s he researched 

 

 

25



the maritime history of the city he had embraced as his own and wrote 

Groningen: Middeleeuwse Hanzestad vanaf de Waterkant (1994). Meanwhile, he 

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 

sailing ships.  

R

OLE I N  T HE 



D

EVE L OP ME N T  O F 

A

R C TI C 



A

N T HR OP O LO GY

 

With some justification, anthropology has been criticised as the “brainchild of 



colonialism.” Indeed, the discipline in The Netherlands was historically identified 

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 



anthropology graduate programs in the 1960s searched for less remote and 

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” 

indigenous people. 

 

Although Arctic anthropology has become an important international 



specialisation, in the early 1960s there was not yet much interest. Because of its 

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 


 

 

26



whaling, their search for the Northeast Passage about 400 years ago, and, more 

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 



opportunities, Prins and a handful of his colleagues at Groningen, the country’s 

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 



and setting up fieldwork training sites in northern Scandinavia and adjacent 

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 



Groningen, Prins himself began to venture to the far north annually, in particular 

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 



European Arctic, it is noteworthy that his maritime anthropology focus was 

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, 


 

 

27



had influenced Prins’ work on Kenya’s ancient coastal city of Lamu (1959, 1964). 

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 



subject he loved best: traditional ships, including those made and used by those 

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 

Centre.  

 

Another publication by Prins concerning Arctic Scandinavia appeared as a 



“case study” in his already-mentioned 1986 book A Handbook of Sew Boats, 

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.    

C

OD A



 

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 



medieval church in Noordlaren he belonged to. Romantic scholar and gentleman 

 

 

28



adventurer, Prins died in early 2000, six years after his first stroke that had left 

him almost wordless and unable to write or read. He was buried with a simple 

Indian Ocean dhow sailing ship engraved on his tombstone.  

S

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. 

 

 


 

29

 



 

 

Tentoonstelling Sámi Ællin; the every day lif of the Norwegian reindeer lapps (1971).  

Foto: Centrale Fotodienst RUG. 

 

 



 

 

 

 

30



 

 

 

Traanoven Smeerenburg. Foto: Frits Steenhuisen. 



 

 

 



 

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