Migrant Knowledge

The Scientist Emil Trinkler’s Exploration across South Asia, 1915–1933

The German geographer and geologist Emil Trinkler remains a rather provincial character for German historians of geography, perhaps because his work dealt with parts of South Asia, a region not under direct German control. A reading of Western science by scholars such as Simon Schaffer and Kapil Raj reveals a dynamic process of knowledge production in which local practitioners in multiple locations beyond Europe played a central role in the formation of canonical or universal scientific knowledge. Drawing on transnational and practice-oriented approaches to the history of knowledge, this essay briefly introduces the work of Emil Trinkler, whose research expedition across northern Afghanistan in 1924 was part of a state-sponsored assignment to survey the region for iron and coal deposits as well as oil reserves. Trinkler’s work is unique in that it offers insight into ways in which scientific knowledge was produced in “mundane places,” that is, away from European centers and laboratories and across intercultural “contact zones.”1 Accordingly, to better contextualize Trinkler’s intellectual network and the role of intercultural knowledge exchange, this blog post unpacks the different knowledge systems that coalesce in his writings. Indeed, it argues that Trinkler’s publications cannot be fully understood without recognizing the limits of his own itinerancy and the role played by local guides and sources. This approach complicates previous ethnographies and cartographic surveys, which have viewed northern Afghanistan as inhospitable and pristine for lack of European accounts.

Oriental Studies and Trade

Emil Trinkler was born in Bremen to a family involved in a small import-export business that predominately traded raw tobacco. At an early age, he taught himself Persian and Tibetan, and after the First World War joined the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich to study geography and geology. During his student years, Trinkler received theoretical training in both anthropology and geography, but the university did not formally offer Oriental studies until Trinkler’s peer and subsequent historian of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, Franz Babinger, was hired.2 Intriguingly, Trinkler’s interests took him not to the leading Seminar of Oriental Studies at the University of Berlin but to the Colonial Institute housed at the University of Hamburg. Founded and directed by the German anthropologist Georg Christian Thilenius, the institute was established to offer practical training in Oriental studies. It functioned as a central clearing house for the organization, retention, and dissemination of knowledge and resources to firms engaged in overseas trade as well as to ethnographers and Orientalists.3 Both universities frequently hosted German consular officials, diplomats, and merchants for lectures and speeches about their time abroad. Thus, Trinkler met Oskar von Niedermayer, a prominent German general who had led the Indo-German-Turkish mission to Afghanistan in 1913/14.4

Niedermayer used his personal connections in the Afghan government to successfully recommend Trinkler as the scientist of the newly-founded trading firm, the Deutsch-Orientalische Handelsgesellschaft A.G. This company, later renamed the Deutsch-Afghanische Compagnie A.G., comprised a broad consortium of German firms that worked closely with the Afghan state. During an intense period of Afghan-German diplomacy (1921 to 1941), the firm facilitated the exchange of goods, industrial tools, and personnel. After formal diplomatic relations were established in 1921, the two countries exchanged students, scientists, and technocrats to carry out a series of state-sponsored projects, including the construction of dams, hospitals, and schools. In this context, Trinkler’s employment was administered through the German Foreign Office, which oversaw his expedition across northern Afghanistan into parts of Northwest India. With financial backing from the German Foreign Office, the firm provided Trinkler with the equipment, local Afghan guides, and resources to set off on his first research expedition across northern Afghanistan.

Although it is important to not negate the role of institutions in knowledge production and to keep in mind that Trinkler’s assignment stemmed from a wider geopolitical pursuit to enhance Germany’s economic and political position in the region, the emphasis here is on something different. I am interested in how Trinkler’s fieldwork across northern Afghanistan functioned as an intercultural laboratory marked by dialog and the circulation of knowledge and knowledge-related practices.5 This view constructs Trinkler’s findings as a dialogical process embedded in daily routines and shaped by his dynamic encounters with local agents and their sources. The practical experience of his guides, and the availability of new Persian sources, led Trinkler to amend British and Russian cartographies and identify the provinces of Qataghan and Badakhshan for their rich farming practices, which local residents had developed by channeling rain and cultivating a wide range of crops, including barley, wheat, legumes, and fruits.

Publications about Northern Afghanistan

Trinkler’s year-long journey in Southern Asia began in 1924 in the city of Serhetabat, formerly known as Kushka and located on modern-day Turkmenistan’s border to Afghanistan. Here, Trinkler was met by a group of Afghan companions, who traveled with him, primarily on foot, across Afghanistan, reaching Peshawar, under the British Raj at the time, in 1925.

Emil Trinklers "Sketch Map of Afghanistan Showing Authors Route"
"Sketch Map of Afghanistan Showing Author's Route." Source: Emil Trinkler, Through the Heart of Afghanistan to India, trans. B. K. Featherstone (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928), via World Digital Library.

Emil Trinkler’s first research trip in 1923 had yielded a series of ethnographic and scientific accounts on Afghanistan and parts of India and the Himalayan-Tibetan plateau, which he surveyed in a subsequent expedition in 1927.6 He published his findings in two different bodies of writing, one ethnographic, the other avowedly scientific. The first was a single book, Through the Heart of Afghanistan to India, which appeared in German immediately after his expedition in 1925 and in English in 1928. Trinkler described his account as “loose diary pages,” which he distinguished from his scientific body of writing. The latter comprised a series of essays and monographs published mainly through the Geographical Society of Munich.7 Collectively, these works shed light not only on the practical dimensions of his fieldwork and related intercultural encounters and knowledge circulations but also on the role that his local guides played in facilitating his expedition, including by healing his sick horse and ensuring that he stuck to his rigorous research timeline.

Reconceptualizing a Space

From his publications, we know that Trinkler brought to the field a set of ideas about his guides and the terrain. Indeed, these ideas were a direct import from his Oriental studies training in Germany. Interestingly, prior to World War One, the British East India Company relied heavily on German explorers and local Afghans to produce maps.8 Having lost its colonies after the World War, however, Germany was no longer content to collect data for British exploration. Instead, it was intent on advancing its own geopolitical position in the region, including by establishing a new relationship with the Afghan state. Trinkler still engaged thoroughly with cartographic surveys previously commissioned by the British and Russian Empires over the course of several attempts to delineate Afghanistan as a kind of buffer state between British and Russian spheres of influence; however, now the aim was to amend or advance these surveys and comment on new spaces that Europeans had not previously traveled to.9

His writings do not just amend these surveys. They also reveal the intersection between his own ideas, his Orientalist training, and, more importantly, the ways in which local guides and Afghan sources viewed the terrain. Beyond accomplishing the previously mentioned tasks, his Afghan acquaintances facilitated the necessary paperwork and authorizations for Trinkler to travel across the terrain, and they organized state-supervised excursions to ancient Buddhist sites. His guides also escorted him through the perils of an unpredictable environment—more predictable to them because they had already walked through these spaces or they were familiar with new Persian accounts of them, which they then passed on to Trinkler.

Trinkler affirmed the importance of the knowledge of local actors for his fieldwork:

A comparison of the Afghan work's accompanying maps (1 : 250,000 [and] 1 : 1,000,000) with the maps published by the Survey of India (Map of India and Adjacent Countries 1 : 1,000,000, sheets 37–38, 1917–18) reveals broad agreement. But it is in the details that [the Afghan source] offers an admirable amendment and supplementation. Thus, we get a much more complete image of the mountainous regions... A European has never traversed this northeastern part of Afghanistan, which explains the British map's "unsurveyed" label.10

Trinkler offered a view into spaces that previous British colonial sources had not been able to access. Northern Afghanistan's close proximity to mountainous glaciers and glacial lakes meant it had been perceived as an ideal place to excavate precious gems such as lapis lazuli. By drawing on new Afghan sources, Trinkler’s research transformed the “unsurveyed” region from a pristine area uninhabited by Europeans, its cultural and religious traditions taken as unchanged since ancient times, into a laboratory filled with agricultural and botanical biodiversity. More importantly, Trinkler’s reconceptualization of the area led to the 1935 German Hindu Kush Expedition headed by the anthropologist and medical doctor Albert Herrlich, the philologist William Lenz, and the botanist Arnold Scheibe. That expedition collected over 4,000 different seed samples and wildflowers, a subject that requires further analysis.

Trinkler's work sheds light on European research in spaces that were beyond direct colonial control, places that Adi Ophir and Steven Shapin have termed “mundane.” Recently, Timur Hammond and Amy Mills have offered a useful insight in this regard. They conceptualize spaces not as ontological subjects or static objects of analysis but as areas that are ontogenetically “unfolding and changing—produced through ongoing social processes.”11 For my purposes, this means viewing Trinkler’s fieldwork across a northern Afghanistan that was no longer simply inhospitable and barren, but instead differentiated with the help of local sources and expertise marked by ever-changing social relations and intercultural encounters. Dependent on the related practices of travel and motion, Trinkler’s fieldwork across northern Afghanistan underlines the importance of viewing spaces and the actors in them dynamically. With this insight, further research can uncover the convergence of many different manifestations of knowledge that are not confined to bilateral transmission between a core and a periphery, or to the binational exchange of diplomatic agendas. The idea, instead, is to consider the multiplicity of knowledge modalities produced by a wide range of actors converging within a given space.

Marjan Wardaki
Marjan Wardaki is a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale University. Previous articles on migration appeared in Modern Asian Studies. Works in progress include several articles on Indian vernacular medicine and​ the connected histories of the science of photography and technological innovations of the camera in India and Afghanistan. Her book manuscript traces the birth of scientific institutions in South Asia through the lens of itinerant scientists and physicians.
  1. Adi Ophir and Steven Shapin, “The Place of Knowledge: A Methodological Survey,” Science in Context 4, no.1 (1991): 3–21. ↩︎
  2. On Barbinger, see Ali Anooshahr, “Franz Babinger and the Legacy of ‘German Counter-Revolution’ in Early Modern Iranian Historiography,” in Rethinking Iranian Nationalism and Modernity, ed. Kamran Scot Aghaie and Afshin Marashi (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014), 25–48. ↩︎
  3. Sara Pugach, Africa in Translation: A History of Colonial Linguistics in Germany and Beyond, 1814–1945 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 119. ↩︎
  4. Oskar von Niedermayer, Unter der Glutsonne Irans: Kriegserlebnisse der deutschen Expedition nach Persien und Afghanistan (Munich: Einhornverlag, 1925). ↩︎
  5. Kapil Raj, “Introduction: Circulation and Locality in Early Modern Science,” British Society for the History of Science, 43, no. 4 (2010): 513–17. ↩︎
  6. Emil Trinkler, Quer durch Afghanistan nach Indien (Berlin: Vowinckel, 1925, and idem., Afghanistan: Eine landeskundliche Studie auf Grund des vorhandenen Materials und eigener Beobachtung (Gotha: Perthes, 1928). ↩︎
  7. See for example, idem., “Das Problem der großen Scharung in den Pamir-Gebieten: Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des östlichen und südöstlichen Teils,” Sonderabdruck aus den Mitteilungen der Geographische Gesellschaft in München, 16, no. 1 (1923). ↩︎
  8. One example: Georg Forster, Journey from Bengal to England: Through the Northern Part of India, Kashmire, Afghanistan, and Persia, and into Russia by the Caspian Sea, 2 vols. (London: Faulder, 1798). ↩︎
  9. For the earliest attempt to control Afghan borders, see Francesca Fuoli, “Incorporating North-Western Afghanistan into the British Empire: Experiments in Indirect Rule through the Making of an Imperial Frontier, 1884-87,” Afghanistan 1, no. 1 (2018): 4–25. ↩︎
  10. Emil Trinkler, “Aus dem westlichen Teil des afghanischen Hindukusch,” Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 71, (1925): 21. ↩︎
  11. Timur Hammond and Amy Mills, “The Interdisciplinary Spatial Turn and the Discipline of Geography in Middle East Studies,” in Middle East Studies for the New Millennium: Infrastructures of Knowledge, eds. Seteney Khalid Shami and Cynthia Miller-Idriss (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 153. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Marjan Wardaki, "The Scientist Emil Trinkler’s Exploration across South Asia, 1915–1933," Migrant Knowledge, January 29, 2021, https://migrantknowledge.org/2021/01/29/emil-trinkler-across-south-asia/.