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Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science

Author(s):Flandreau, Marc
Reviewer(s):Attard, Bernard

Published by EH.Net (September 2017)

Marc Flandreau, Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science. Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 2016. xix + 421 pp. $105 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-36044-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Bernard Attard, School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester.

Marc Flandreau, a financial historian and professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies and Development in Geneva, has written a book about white-collar crime, science and power in mid-Victorian Britain. He argues that the often fraught relations between knowledge, truth and value meant that the incentives to exploit and commercialize scientific knowledge for private gain were as great for the Victorians as they are today. Victorian anthropology thus serves as a metaphor for the wider dilemma facing social science and Flandreau’s ambition becomes nothing less than to write a book “about modernity and its birth” (p. xv). At the heart of his study is the conjuncture in the 1860s and early 1870s of the foreign loan boom on the London Stock Exchange, the institutionalization of anthropological science and what Flandreau views as the reconstruction of British imperial policy. These are connected by a large cast of characters (including Flandreau’s white-collar criminals); by their often occluded links with the British state; and, above all, by the great mid-nineteenth century expansion of the capital market and its pervasive impact on Victorian society.

It will already be evident that this is no ordinary book of economic history. In fact, it is not written as economic history at all, or certainly not the kind concerned with quantification and model testing. This is not a criticism but merely a signal to the readers of this review. In both research method and discursive practice, Flandreau self-consciously uses the techniques and craft of the historian rather than the social scientist. The narrative form has been chosen to discover his particular truths. Where Flandreau remains distinctively a financial historian is in choosing the tools of financial economics to analyze the ways in which Victorian anthropological knowledge was created, appropriated and turned into value on the Stock Exchange through the creation of financial securities that could be puffed, sold, shorted and otherwise manipulated. The problem of value, Flandreau asserts, is “at the heart of the social sciences” (p. xi), which are never disinterested. Throughout, however, the analysis is grounded in the painstaking accumulation of qualitative evidence and the moral vision of Anthony Trollope’s great contemporary novel about white-collar crime and corruption The Way We Live Now, written in 1873 and serialized in 1874–75.

The foregoing explains the subtitle of Flandreau’s book: “A Financial History of Victorian Science.” Anthropologists figure in the main title because at the heart of his story is the brief career of the Anthropological Society (colloquially known as “the Cannibal Club”), which broke away from the Ethnological Society of London in 1863 and then merged back into it to form the Anthropological Institute in 1871. By coincidence or design (the particular conjuncture matters most to Flandreau) the attacks on the reputation of the Anthropological Society which led to its ultimate demise happened almost simultaneously with the formation of the Corporation of Foreign Bondholders in early 1869, itself an amalgamation of several smaller bodies. Just as significantly, they occurred when upstart part-time or quasi anthropologists were becoming increasingly disruptive as orchestrators of public opinion and promoters of financial schemes associated with parts of the world, notably Central America and Africa, about which they claimed special knowledge. Most notoriously, these individuals were mixed up in some of the hopelessly grandiose ventures, like the Honduran interoceanic “ship-railway,” that were eventually investigated by the 1875 Select Committee on Foreign Loans. For Flandreau, however, his characters were not simply representative of the diverse interests and activities of the British upper-middle class but engaging in a deliberate and carefully staged traffic between the Victorian learned societies and the Stock Exchange as a result of which scientific truths were established, manipulated and turned to commercial advantage. Flandreau is thus also seeking to recast the history of Victorian anthropology and reinstate several relatively forgotten and sometimes disreputable figures. In his version, the rivalry of the Anthropological and Ethnological Societies was not, as conventionally understood, a contest between alternative versions of anthropological science: the one racist, sexist and possibly bankrolled by the American South (the Anthropologicals); the other concerned exclusively with the disinterested pursuit of scientific truth (the Ethnologists). Rather, it was a struggle over the ownership of anthropological knowledge (and thus the value that could be extracted) between insiders and outsiders in Victorian society, i.e. social groups whose status and access to power differed considerably. The final merger of the two societies and creation of the Anthropological Institute is interpreted as a successful bid by the political and scientific establishment to reassert control over the creation, uses and abuses of anthropology after the various disturbances — scientific, financial and imperial — with which members of the Cannibal Club had been associated.

This is a rough summary of a complex and sometimes convoluted argument whose many threads Flandreau assiduously follows. His method is the piecing together of apparently isolated fragments of information to discern patterns, correspondences and connections, some of which are candidly speculative. For those with a general interest in Flandreau’s work but who only want the gist of his argument, the Preface (also containing his apologia), Introduction (“The Stock Exchange Modality”) and Conclusion (“Catharsis: The Displayed and the Hidden”) will be sufficient. The Introduction, in particular, sets out Flandreau’s arguments about the “stock exchange modality” — best summed up in his own words as “the ‘art of puff’ or the promotion of bubbles” (p. 8) — as a form of knowledge, and “brokerage” as a Jungian archetype which connects the never disinterested efforts of the anthropologists to what went on more obviously in the Stock Exchange. In fact, Flandreau describes the stock exchange modality as his book’s “true subject” (p. 4) and the source of its contemporary relevance.

Otherwise the meat of the book is in 11 chapters, each comprising several short sections. The first (“Writing about the Margin”) is a conspectus of what follows, introducing the key characters, institutions and themes. The emphasis here is on the connected worlds of Victorian science and finance. Chapter Two (“Rise of the Cannibals”) presents Flandreau’s reinterpretation of the origins of the Anthropological Institute and the rivalry between its two predecessors. Chapter Three (“Anthropologists without Qualities”) investigates the social origins of the Anthropological Society and therefore the sociology of Victorian science itself. By doing so, it also seeks to rehabilitate the Cannibals from the allegation that they were peculiarly racist and sexist, arguing that they were not conspicuously more so than their rivals. Chapter Four (“The Ogre of Foreign Loans”) turns attention to the foreign loan boom of the 1860s and early 1870s. Here the learned societies contributed by lending their authority to the dubious assertions of financiers and promoters. Chapter Five (“The Learned Society in the Foreign Debt Food Chain”) switches to the anthropologist as entrepreneur and white-collar criminal, taking as its model George Earl Church, a U.S. citizen and sometime vice-president of the British Royal Geographical Society, who promoted an abortive Bolivian railway in the early 1870s and a government loan which soon went into default.

Chapter Six (“Acts of Speculation”) explores the notion of good faith (bona fide) and the rituals involved in testing it. For Flandreau, far more than the gentility of Cain and Hopkins’ “gentlemanly capitalists,” a person’s bona fides was the basis of reputation and trust — one of the “technologies of trustworthiness” — in both Victorian science and the Stock Exchange. Chapters Seven and Eight (“Wanderlust: The Upbringing of a Victorian Racist” and “Salt-Water Anthropology”) follow the career of Bedford Clapperton Pim, naval officer, anthropologist, entrepreneur, conservative Member of Parliament and (in Flandreau’s account) white-collar criminal. Pim’s history exemplifies the “interestedness of science.” Anthropology allowed him to create a form of property which he used to launch his grandiose transportation schemes in Central America. In his hands, it becomes one of the “micro-technologies of globalization.” Chapter Nine (“The Violence of Science”) turns attention to British imperialism and the role of the Anthropological Society in orchestrating public opinion against the Liberal government over its non-interventionist policy during the Abyssinian hostage affair of 1864–68. For Flandreau it is an instance of how the learned societies were becoming powerful constituents of public opinion whose influence was discerned and responded to by politicians like the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, who had past experience in stock exchange promotion and present connections with individuals like Pim. Chapter Ten (“The Man Who Ate the Cannibals”) shifts the story to Hyde Clarke, an engineer, occasional statistician and writer on business cycles, promoter and anthropologist, whose attack on the Anthropological Society in the Athenaeum in 1868 was instrumental in its ultimate demise. Clarke’s actions are represented here as a bear speculation modelled on the techniques of the Stock Exchange, while Clarke himself, who came to be Secretary of the Corporation of Foreign Bondholders, is characterized as a “fixer” whose social utility derived from performing this function in a variety of contexts.

Finally Chapter Eleven (“Subject Races”) draws together the many threads of the narrative. Here Clarke’s raid on the Anthropological Society and the formation of the Corporation of Foreign Bondholders shortly after in February 1869 are interpreted as part of a bipartisan effort by the Victorian state to take back control of the management of foreign loans and even imperial policy itself from the kinds of persons — delinquent consuls and naval officers as well as stock exchange operators — whose bona fides were manufactured by bodies like the Anthropological Society. It was the assertion of the establishment over the insurgents and incomers, and at its core was “a redefinition of what constituted the contours of good and bad in both finance and anthropology” (p. 261). In this the Liberal politician, banker and scientist, John Lubbock, who served in senior positions in both the Anthropological Institute and the Corporation, is seen as a pivotal figure.

This is a necessarily inadequate summary of a densely written and closely argued text. The scale of the problem confronting any reviewer will be evident. This is a book about criminality, Victorian science, the foreign loan boom and British imperialism, all within the same field of vision. It is by turns hugely ambitious, challenging, exasperating and deeply personal. Specialists will no doubt have something to say about the various subjects it straddles. For this reviewer it appeals most directly as an exploration of two connected things: the culture of mid-Victorian financial capitalism and the ramifying impacts in the wider culture, society and politics of the rise of a rentier society. Above all, however, it should encourage us to look at the apparently familiar with fresh eyes.

Bernard Attard is a Lecturer in Economic History at the University of Leicester. His most recent publication, “Imperial Central Banks? The Bank of England, London & Westminster Bank, and the British Empire before 1914,” appeared in Olivier Feiertag and Michel Margairaz (eds), Les banques centrales et l’État-nation (Paris: Presses de Science Po, 2016).

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):19th Century