Matthew Rampley

Dreams of Global Adventure in the Czech Nineteenth Century

Matthew Rampley

Dreams of Global Adventure in the Czech Nineteenth Century

The Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures in Prague is currently hosting two intriguing, mutually illuminating, exhibitions that deal with the global interests of Czech culture in the late nineteenth century. The first, with the title Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne and Phileas Fogg, is ostensibly about the Czech reception of the novels of the famous French novelist, while the second, Emil Holub, is about the Czech-Bohemian explorer (1847-1902), who gained renown amongst Czechs for his journeys of exploration through southern Africa in the 1870s and 1880s. They raise interesting and important questions about traditional perceptions of Czechs and their place in the world and, amidst all the tourist attractions of Prague about Alfons Mucha and Franz Kafka, cast it in a rather different light. It is all the more regrettable, therefore, that when I visited the museum, the exhibition spaces were almost empty. For they merit serious attention. 

The first, on the ground floor, is a handsomely curated show about Jules Verne, taking, as its leitmotif, his novel Around the World in Eighty Days. First published in 1873, the title could almost apply to the novel, too, for it enjoyed rapid worldwide success.  A German translation was published in the same year, as were versions in English and Polish, with editions then appearing in, for example, Finnish and Italian, (1874), Hungarian (1876) and Turkish (1895). With its depiction of a global journey across ‘exotic’ lands that would be beyond the reach and experience of most, it no surprise that the novel was hugely popular with Czechs, too. A translation into Czech was published in 1873, and almost all of Verne’s novels were published in Czech translation very soon after they first appeared in the original French. They have remained perennial favourites in Czech culture ever since. Due to bowdlerized editions and translations, they have largely been regarded as children’s books, but it is important to note that they were written for an adult readership and that Verne was viewed as a serious author of literary merit in his own lifetime. Indeed, in recent years there has been a growth of serious academic interest in his work.

The exhibition, which takes up the two spaces on the ground floor, follows Phileas Fogg’s journey around the world, but it makes clear that his trip was not so much a voyage around the world as one around the British Empire, and this forms its main focus. It approaches Verne’s novel not as an adventure novel per se but as a guide to the world of European global colonial dominance in the late nineteenth century. Thus, Fogg’s trip through the Suez Canal is presented in the light of the French attempts to conquer Egypt under Napoleon and the role of the canal in facilitating the commercial ambitions of Britain and France. His sojourn in Aden (Yemen) is set against the backdrop of European orientalism, and his travel across India is explained with reference to the British conquest of India and the activities of the British East India, but it also highlights the fact that even Austria had commercial and colonial ambitions towards India. As a final example, the display on Fogg’s visits to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Yokohama points towards the problematic role of these port cities as instruments of enforced modernization and westernization in the late 1800s.

The exhibition consists of a sequence of texts and historic images placed alongside the walls of the exhibition space, supplemented with display cases of objects from the permanent collection of the Museum.

Instalation view of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne and Phileas Fogg, 2023, foto: Matthew Rampley

These include, for example, an ancient Egyptian mummy, Islamic silverware, ivory carvings, a decorative window-frame from India, Chinese porcelain and textiles. Although some of the objects are individually quite striking, such as the dancer and the figure of Parvati astride an elephant, none of them are intrinsically linked to the story of Phileas Fogg. Rather, they recreate the sense of the world in which Around the World in 80 Days was set, one marked by an intense global exchange of images and objects. 

Bronze figurine of Shiva, exhibited in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne and Phileas Fogg, 2023, foto: Náprstek Museum

Verne’s novels took place in a rapidly changing world of European colonial dominance and technological progress; much of Fogg’s journey was only possible because of the network of railways that had been laid down from the mid-19th century, and Fogg’s celebrated winning of the bet (he had initially forgotten to take into account the change of time when he arrived at his club in London) was only conceivable because of the growing standardization of time prompted by the introduction of railway timetables.¹

The objects on display point towards the fact that, like their British and French counterparts, 

Czechs were not only avid readers of Verne, but also travellers and collectors. They, too, acquired artefacts from the cultures they encountered in the Islamic world, India, Asia, North America, as if following a similar route to Fogg. The second half of the exhibition mentions some notable examples, such as Ida Pfeiffer (1797-1858), Otokar Feistmantel (1848-1891), Josef Kořenský (1847-1938). Of these, Kořenský is perhaps best known to Czech readers, for he was a prolific author of travelogues and books about cultures outside of Europe, especially written for schoolchildren. They are still to be found in the travel sections of most second-hand bookshops across the Czech Republic.

Instalation view of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne and Phileas Fogg, 2023, foto: Matthew Rampley

The context of the British Empire invites questions about the extent to which Czechs were themselves guilt of some degree of complicity in the European colonial project. Certainly, Feistmantel, who worked for the British Geological Survey in India, can be seen in this light. Pfeiffer, on the other hand, published accounts of her travels as early as the 1850s and gained official disfavour for her criticisms of colonial rule.²

The exhibition consequently navigates this treacherous terrain of modernity and European imperialism. Some visitors might expect a more critical approach, but the exhibition is meant to be popular and light-hearted. Scattered around the two rooms are cases with figurines by contemporary artist caricaturing episodes and characters from Verne’s novels.

Ladislav Badalec, Rocket capsule from Verne, The Men on the Moon.
Michal Dudáš, A Deep-sea Diver, from Verne, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Colonialism – and the extent to which Czechs were entangled in it – is handled with tact and without the performative denunciations that often characterize discussions of the subject. It is a thoughtful contribution to ongoing debates. Only one observation is perhaps missing. It is striking that although France had no shortage of colonial ambitions; in the ‘scramble for Africa’ of the 1880s it was in fierce competition with Britain. Yet for Verne, a French writer, the modern world was primarily anglophone, with American and British citizens and culture being central not only to Around the World in Eight Days but also to many of his other novels, too. France was almost invisible in most of his novels of world-wide enterprise and adventure. The exhibition tacitly recognizes this, but it would have been good to see the issue acknowledged more directly. 

Britain looms, too, in the background of the other exhibition, on Emil Holub, on the first floor of the museum, curated by Tomáš Winter of the Institute of Art History in Prague. For this traveller and explorer, often celebrated in Czech culture (he is still a fixed item in school history books in the Czech Republic), modelled himself on David Livingston. Unlike Livingston, however, he was not motivated by missionary zeal, but by a desire for scientific and cultural exploration. The exhibition traces out in detail Holub’s exploratory journeys, beginning with his departure from Prague for Cape Town in May 1872. On a nearly seven-year long expedition between August 1872 and May 1879 he travelled widely through British colonial territories, covering what is now South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, mapping the land and collecting vast quantities of cultural and natural scientific artefacts. He then mounted a second exhibition, starting in December 1883, but it ended prematurely in tragedy and disaster in 1886, with two European members of the party dying of disease and an attack on the expedition by the inhabitants of the Mashukulumbwe land on the boundary of modern-day Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Although he planned a third expedition, lack of funds and illness prevented Holub from fulfilling his ambitions. The world of such expeditions was usually a masculine affair, but the exhibition takes care to highlight the important role played by Holub’s wife Růžena / Rosa Holubová, in planning and leading the enterprise.

Emil Holub exhibition. Photo: Matthew Rampely

Much of the exhibition consists of displays of objects that Holub brought back and donated to the National Museum, ranging from stuffed animals to items of clothing, weapons, ritual artefacts that Holub gathered from the various peoples he encountered on the way. It also displays his drawings, maps and notes taken during his expedition. 

Holub undertook significant research while in southern Africa; he was the first to map the area around the Victoria Falls in any detail, for example. However, he gained prominence primarily because of his tireless promotion of his findings once he arrived back in Europe. In 1880 he published a widely read account of his travels in Czech, German and English, to be followed, in 1890, by a volume relating his second expedition. 4

Advertisement for Holub’s Seven Years in Africa (1880).

In addition, he delivered numerous popular lectures on his experiences. Yet what most ensured his lasting legacy were the two exhibitions he organised, first, in Vienna, in 1891, and then, a year later in 1892 in Prague. At a time when ethnographic exhibitions were an object of considerable popular curiosity (in 1895 Prague was the site of the large-scale Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition), these events guaranteed Holub’s prominent profile. The Náprstek has has painstakingly recreated the 1892 Prague exhibition, with a plan of the grounds and period photographs showing the extent of the event.

Plan of the 1892 Africa exhibition with period photos.

They were financial failures, but they were nevertheless successful in promoting his activities. Yet as the poster for the exhibition indicates, Holub was trading in clichés about Africa, and it is at this point that the Náprstek adopts a more openly critical, inquiring tone, than that Jules Verne show. For it acknowledges the problematic aspects of Holub’s work, in which Holub portrayed African peoples as quasi-specimens of natural-historical scientific investigation and, in other writings, advocating the necessity of European colonial rule over them. The exhibition also deals head on with perhaps the most problematic legacy of Holub: the rock carvings of the San people in South Africa, which he transported back to Prague, having first detached them from their original location during his second expedition, damaging many in the process. This is an egregious example of the colonial plunder and acquisition of the objects of another culture that was so typical of European ‘explorers’ in Africa and elsewhere. It is no wonder that Holub’s second expedition was attacked by hostile local inhabitants, and one can only speculate as to the undocumented behaviour of Holub and his party. 

Poster of the 1892 Prague Africa exhibition.

The exhibition highlights this problematic legacy, although without the ritualised denunciation that so often arises in discussions of this topic. As a result, Holub comes across as a much more ambiguous figure. His scientific achievements were noteworthy, but he typified the European colonial explorer that has been the subject of such censure in recent times. In this respect, the Holub exhibition is a welcome intervention in a long overdue debate over colonial complicity in Czech culture. 

Where one might have wished for a little more in both exhibitions, was reflection on how it was that Czech society, in the middle of Europe, should have been so fascinated with travel in ‘exotic’ locales. The contemporary interest of, for example, the French, British, Americans and Germans is easily explained by the fact that they had intense political, economic and cultural contacts with peoples across the globe. Was it precisely because the Czech lands were landlocked that its inhabitants were so drawn to tales and adventures in ‘exotic’ places? Undoubtedly this will have been one reason, and both exhibitions would have benefited from some kind of exploration of this question. Although Around the World in Eighty Days mentions the fact of Verne’s popularity in the Czech lands, it says little about how his works were received, or about how we might interpret the significance of that phenomenon.

Both exhibitions thus left one wishing for a little more. Nevertheless, taken together, they are important contributions to the critical understanding of Czech culture and history, and they will hopefully create a platform for a more general public debate about the relation of Czechs to European colonialism and its legacies. Consequently, they should be on the agenda of anyone planning a museum visit in Prague.

Around the World in 80 Days continues until 31 October 2023, and Emil Holub until 31 May 2024. 

1  Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Los Angeles, 1992). 

2  Ida Pfeiffer, Eine Frauenfahrt um die Welt : Reise von Wien nach Brasilien, Chili, Otahaiti, China, Ost-Jndien, Persien und Kleinasien (Vienna, 1850).

3 M. E. Chamberlain, The Scramble for Africa (London, 2010).

4 Emil Holub, Sedm let v jižní Africe: příhody, výzkumy a lovy na cestách mých od polí diamantových až k řece Zambesi (1872-1879) (Prague, 1880) and Druhá cesta po Jižní Africe: Z kapského města do země Mašukulumbův: Cesty v Jižní Africe vykonané v letech 1883-1887 (Prague, 1890).