Knowledge and colonialism

The Duality of Maria Sibylla Merian

Text Lena Leimgruber  | Illustration Alma Klingberg

uncommonly for a woman of her time, the German artist and researcher Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) travelled to Suriname in 1699, at that time colonised by the Dutch, to research and paint the local flora and fauna.[1] This exploration was most likely the first voyage from Europe that was completely intended for scientific research and fieldwork, which is why Merian deserves to be talked about. Merian was a unique, sophisticated and knowledgeable female artist-scientist of the 17th and 18th centuries but by relying on slaves for her fieldwork, she also contributed to colonialism. Another interesting and important aspect here is that Europe of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries was in an important era of development in art, science and politics, which were privileges reserved for educated men. The intellectual environment considered women who shared their opinions and discoveries as strange and rebellious. These notions were challenged by Merian who asserted herself in a male-dominated professional environment.[2]

In Suriname, the Dutch West India Company relied on slave labour for producing goods such as sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco. On arrival, seeing the slaves’ hard work in the fields, Merian expected assistance and partnership from European colonists, which she did not receive. Instead, she was helped and assisted by Africans and Amerindians, that is, people who were enslaved by the Dutch. This relationship between Merian, a white and e­ducated European, and the non-white and (in terms of European knowledge) unedu­cated slaves, is complex. Soon after her arrival, Merian realised that she would need their help in order to make scientific discoveries.With the assistance of the slaves, Merian and her daughter collected insects, reptiles and plants and made original drawings from life. The result of this journey and research is the collection of paintings and descriptions called Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium: 60 tropical plant species and more than 90 different animal species were drawn and described based on Merian’s own originals. Some call Merian ”the world’s first ecologist” and her Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium is often described as the first comprehensive field study in zoology.[3,4]

However, to create this impressive legacy and long-lasting impact, there was a lot of work to be done. The slaves played a major role in the development of Merian’s research due to their knowledge. In Suriname, Merian had a few slaves of her own, »myne Slaven« (»my slaves«) in her words.[5] By using possessive pronouns, Merian supported the colonial separation between European and non-European by placing herself above the slaves. On the other hand, in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Merian describes the horrible circumstances of female slaves as »the Indians who are not treated well when in service with the Dutch«.[6] In contrast to this quite caring statement and reflection, the use of possessive pronouns shows how ­Merian, like the colonisers, saw slaves as a form of property. To put it differently, with statements like this Merian steps into the shoes of the superior coloniser and thus separates herself from the colonised and inferior slaves.[7] 

The african and Amerindian slaves in Suriname knew the environment Merian wished to explore and study extremely well. Conse­quen­tly, the European settlers in Suriname were meaningless to her fieldwork and, instead, her work blossomed with the help of the slaves. Natalie Zemon Davis describes this as follows: »When she [Merian] found an unknown plant so delicate that its cut leaves would wither in the heat, she had ›my Indian‹ dig it up by the roots and replant it in her garden for study.«[8] Interestingly, rather than judging the Amerindians and Africans, Merian criticised the power-hungry Euro­peans.[9] She did not understand the colonisers’ indifference toward exploring the local flora and fauna, which was in strong contrast to her intentions. Accor­ding to Merian, there was more to discover than sugar and other locally sourced goods.[10] This clearly separates Merian from the other European people in the colony since she came to Suriname with the goal of research, as opposed to the goal of colonising the local people. Merian represents the intellectual and curious European who came to the Americas to do research, whereas the colonisers showcase the greedy ­Euro­peans. It is important to emphasise that when we speak of colonisers, as in the white people in Suri­name, we are looking at a heterogeneous group. This fact becomes clear when we look at Merian who stands out as the untypical coloniser – since she did not come to Suriname with precisely that goal. Similarly interesting is the train of thought that through the help of the Amerindians and Africans, Merian was dependent on them, which is, of course, juxtaposed to the usual superiority of the colonisers towards the enslaved people. Obvi­ously, we do not know the full extent of the working relationship between Merian and the slaves. Hence, it is difficult to assume the way the work was actually done and what spec­ific roles the slaves had in it. We can assume, as this is in a superior-vs-inferior colonial context, that Merian told the slaves what to do, leaving the slaves with no choice. This context is somewhat similar to the typ­i­c­al slave-master situation, where the slaves worked in the sugar­cane fields or plantations. Here, the slaves performed labour for the masters who had the right to determine the labourers’ conditions such as working hours or pay (if there was any). This implies that slaves were deprived of their rights and voices. 

What we can do is try to understand this complex dependence that Merian found herself in due to wishing to have access to the slaves’ knowledge, which allowed her research and fieldwork to develop and advance. An explicit example of this knowledge is the maggot that the slaves brought to Merian to show its unusual metamorphosis, something Merian would probably not have experienced without their help.[11] Fully aware of her reliance on the slaves, Merian appreciated and, as a good scientist, acknowledged their help by crediting the slaves as a collective in her work. Nonetheless, she did not explicitly credit them as contributors by name.[12] However, crediting them to this given degree exemplifies her respectful approach as a white woman in colonialism.

…we should not forget the bitter side of the story…

After all, the world finally learns about Maria Sibylla Merian, her research and journey to Suriname. She was not only a female scientist in a male-dominated early modern Europe, but she also innovatively contributed to her research field. Merian’s contextual­isation within the colonial aspect shows two contrasting sides: While she showed a form of awareness other Europeans did not, Merian was still a part of the colonial system. In my opinion, Merian should absolutely be considered an active part of the powerful colonising Europeans, yet I plead for her recognition as an artist-scientist who produced relevant and fruitful discoveries. This woman has finally received a long-overdue and deserved place of honour in the history of sciences. Without doubt, there is hope that her scien­ti­­f­­ic and artistic achievements (embodied by her one-of-a-kind journey which resulted in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium) will from now on be duly recognised. However, as with all things in life, we should not forget the bitter side of the story, and the stories that are not told. Praising Merian, as she deserves, should always include thinking of the people who suffered for it along the way – in this case, the slaves in Suriname. Ω


  1. Natalie Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins. Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 140.

  2. Ulrich Kutschera, »Pionierin der Entwicklungsbiologie und Ökologie: Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717).« Biol. Unserer Zeit47, nr 1 (2017), 28.

  3. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, »Maria Sibylla Merian: The Dawn of Field Ecology in the Forests of Suriname, 1699–1701.« Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas 45, nr 1 (2012), 18. 

  4. Paravisini-Gebert, »Maria Sibylla Merian«, 10. 

  5. Maria Sibylla Merian, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.M. S. Merian, 1705, 36. 

  6. My translation. »De Indianen, die niet wel gehandeld worden«, Merian, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 45. 

  7. Bill Ashcroft et. al, red., Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies (London & New York: Routledge, 2004), 169; 171.

  8. Davis, Women on the Margins. 175. See also Merian, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 36. 

  9. Davis, Women on the Margins. 184.

  10. Davis, Women on the Margins. 184.

  11. Paravisini-Gebert, »Maria Sibylla Merian«, 12.

  12. Davis, Women on the Margins. 194.