THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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49 posts categorized "Modern history"

08 December 2017

Hostess with the mostest… and so much more: introducing the Ishbel MacDonald Archive

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Imagine the Prime Minister having to pay to run Downing Street out of her own pocket – seems unreasonable from today’s perspective, but until fairly recently this was an expectation for the British Prime Minister. The recently acquired archive of Ishbel Peterkin née MacDonald (1903-1982) sheds light on the burdens of this. Ishbel was the eldest daughter of Ramsay MacDonald, the first Prime Minister for the Labour Party in the UK, first in 1924 and again from 1929 to 1935. When Ishbel’s mother Margaret passed away in 1911 Ishbel acted as her father’s host during his political career living alongside him at 10 Downing Street and running the house.

MacDonalds in Garden Hampstead
The MacDonald family in their garden in Hampstead, North London. Ishbel stands behind her father Ramsay. © With kind permission of Ishbel Lochhead.

Ishbel visited Downing Street prior to the family’s move and was perturbed by the big, empty house. Previous Prime Ministers had brought their own furniture – and then taken it away with them. The MacDonalds, however, were not moving from a grand residence but from their modest family home in Hampstead. To prepare, Ishbel and her sister purchased linen, crockery and cutlery with their own money, while Ramsay MacDonald arranged a loan of paintings from the National Portrait Gallery. These intimate domestic details reflect an interesting shift in 20th-century politics. MacDonald was of more humble origins than his predecessors in government who had set a precedent for running Downing Street as an extension of their wealthy homes.

Guestlist Thurs 11th Dec 1930

Guestlist Thurs 18th 1930
Guest lists for 11 and 18 December 1930 © With kind permission of Ishbel Lochhead.   

Ishbel’s effort to run Downing Street modestly did not stop with the furnishings but in hosting and feeding guests. Carefully preserved notebooks of guest lists and menu cards paint a vivid picture. We can see who was eating with the Prime Minister and when, including place settings inked on the left in red. The menus themselves suggest that the MacDonalds had to budget carefully and were unconcerned with the culinary fashions of the day. Typical menus of the period from society events showcased a classical, often ostentatious French repertoire, usually written in French. By contrast Ishbel’s menus contain simple dishes like ‘Nut Roast’ and ‘Roast Chicken.’

Menus 18th and 11th Dec 1930
Menus for 11 and 18 December 1930. © With kind permission of Ishbel Lochhead.

Ishbel MacDonald’s papers will offer researchers a fantastic insight into her efforts running 10 Downing Street as well as a record of her fascinating life more generally. Ishbel was an active politician in her own right, elected to the London County Council in 1928 and again in 1931. She was the subject of public fascination and when she decided to leave politics to run a pub in 1935 the move was covered by extensive media coverage. The archive contains correspondence, detailed diaries, and scrapbooks and notebooks relating to the family's time in politics.

Luncheon 2nd December 1930
Guest list and menu for luncheon on 2 December 1930. © With kind permission of Ishbel Lochhead.

The archive is currently being catalogued with the aim of making it available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room by the middle of next year. In the meantime please contact eleanor.dickens@bl.uk with any enquiries.

Eleanor Dickens
Curator, Politics and Public Life

16 November 2017

Scandalous and formidable Lady Holland

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Elizabeth Vassall Fox, Lady Holland, is known as the celebrated hostess at Holland House, Kensington. Wife of Whig politician Henry Richard Fox, 3rd Baron Holland, she gathered together the greats of political and literary society for her famous ‘salon’. Their circle were known as the ‘Holland House set’, with the guests being meticulously recorded in her Dinner Books.

Lady Holland kept a journal from 1791 to 1815, documenting her lengthy continental journeys as well as her time in England. She hero worshipped Napoleon Bonaparte, despite her country being at war with him! She preferred male company but had female friends, including other notorious ladies, such as Lady Bessborough, Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Oxford. Her own scandalous early life, involving adultery during her disastrous first marriage, divorce and an illegitimate child, could have resulted in disgrace but Lady Holland surmounted these obstacles to become a dazzling success in society.

Portrait of Elizabeth at NaplesEngraving of the portrait of Elizabeth at Naples in 1793 (Vesuvius in the background) by Robert Fagan © National Portrait Gallery, London

Born in 1771, daughter of Richard Vassall and Mary Clarke, Elizabeth was beautiful, intelligent and vivacious, and heiress to a considerable fortune. Aged fifteen, she was married off to the much older Sir Godfrey Webster, a mismatch made in hell. They had five children. Desperate for foreign travel, she persuaded Webster to take her on a tour of Europe that lasted several years. She ignored her husband, throwing herself into a busy social life and the admiration of many men. One was Thomas Pelham, who remained besotted even after their affair was over, writing to her frequently.

In 1794, in Naples, Elizabeth met the love of her life, Henry Richard Fox. Not quite love at first sight- she disliked his suntan and initially seemed to prefer his friend Lord Granville. But soon they were smitten with each other and inseparable until his death in 1840.

BL Add MS 51927Elizabeth’s first impressions of Lord Holland, from her journal of 3rd February 1794 (Add MS 51927, ff.124v-125). She describes him as “not in the least handsome” and having “many personal defects, but his pleasingness of manner and liveliness of conversation get over them speedily. He has just returned from Spain, and his complexion partakes of the Moresco hue”. She is concerned about his “very complex disorder, called an ossification of the muscles in his left leg”.

She gave birth to Lord Holland’s son, Charles Richard Fox, in November 1796. Webster divorced her on 4 July 1797. He was awarded Elizabeth’s entire fortune of £7000 per annum, £6000 ‘damages’ from Holland and custody of the children. In 1796 Elizabeth had devised a plan to keep hold of at least her daughter Harriet by successfully faking the child’s illness, death and funeral in Italy. The secret came out in 1799 and Harriet was restored to Webster.

Add MS 36370 North East View Holland HouseNorth East View of Holland House, June 10th 1812. Drawing by John Buckler (Add MS 36370, ff.105-106).

On 6 July 1797 Lady Webster became Lady Holland and settled into her happy second marriage, with further children born. The couple began entertaining on a grand scale, attracting illustrious and numerous guests, and the Holland House set was born. Guests included the Prince of Wales, Whig politicians, literary figures such as Sheridan, Byron, Dickens and Wordsworth, and continental luminaries.

Add MS 51957 dinner bookDinner-book entry for the day Lady Holland died, and those who dined on the following days, written by her devoted servant, Harold Doggett (Add MS 51957, ff.186v-187). He had been writing the records, hence the ‘post mortem’ entries. Lady Lilford is her daughter Mary Elizabeth and Colonel Fox is her son Charles Richard Fox.

Lady Holland had a reputation for being an imperious battle-axe, who alienated people and dominated her husband. The latter showed no objection to her ruling the roost, as long as she didn’t interfere with his politics. She fell out with Lady Caroline Lamb when she objected to the affair her eldest son Godfrey was having with the married, deranged and promiscuous Caroline. Lady Caroline got her revenge by lampooning Elizabeth as the ‘princess of Madagascar’ in her novel Glenarvon. The nickname ‘Old Madagascar’ stuck!

Zoë Stansell
Manuscripts Reference Specialist

Further reading:

The Holland House Papers are held in the British Library Manuscripts Collections: Add MS 51318-52254

The papers of the 3rd Lord & Lady Holland (437 volumes) are referenced: Add MS 51520-51957

Items relating to Lady Holland, I have touched upon above, are: General Correspondence of (letters to) Lady Holland: Add MS 51845-51856

Lady Holland’s Journals: Add MS 51926-51940

Holland House Dinner Books: Add MS 51950-51957

Sonia Keppel, The Sovereign Lady (1974)

Earl of Ilchester, The Journal of Elizabeth Lady Holland (1908)

C.J. Wright, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography articles on ‘Lady Holland’ and the ‘Holland House set’. The online ODNB is a subscription database, available on British Library reading room computers.

 

09 November 2017

Testimony from the Trenches: personal journeys of WW1

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First-hand accounts of war provide us with details missing from official reports, and offer insights into personal survival strategies, ranging from the mundane and superficial to the profound. Collections at the National Archives, Imperial War Museum and National Army Museum cover official and non-official narratives, ranging from military documentation and papers of high-ranking or well-known officials, to the private collections of individuals from the rank-and-file.

The British Library also holds personal archives relating to a number of conflicts, including the recently-catalogued archive of Alfred Forbes Johnson, which will shortly be available for consultation in our reading rooms (Add MS 89235).

AddMS89325box

Letters in the archive, following re-housing. Copyright held by Tim Johnson, on behalf of the family of A F Johnson.

Lieutenant Johnson was drafted into the Royal Garrison Artillery from the Artists’ Rifles in 1917, and discharged in the spring of 1919. His archive consists of trench maps, retrospective war diaries, collected memorabilia and correspondence with family members.

AFJportraitPortrait of Alfred

Daily letters to his wife Essie allow a good grasp of how he, his colleagues and family managed and made sense of their imposed obligations. Alfred’s philosophy was to spend life productively, no matter the circumstances, and with good humour.

'This is a weird state of affairs here. The Hun is shelling something about a quarter of a mile on the left, and on the right there is a band playing.' (16/08/1918)

His strategies included exploring the landscape, villages and towns of France and Belgium, engaging in debates of the day with Essie and the Mess, and involving himself in lectures, sports and intellectual activities. Most significantly, the British Museum employee read avidly, favouring satire, the humour of Dickens, and other classics, popular novels and magazines of the day.

'I generally manage to read a book every time I am at the O.P. as there are generally many hours in the early part of the day when it is too hazy to see anything.'

AFJreading

Magazines which Alfred and colleagues read at the time are held in the Library’s journal collections. A flyer included advertises how reading material was distributed to the troops. The Sphere illustrates the first tube strike in London in 1919, which Alfred discusses with Essie at the time.

Alfred expresses regret at losing out on bonding with his new-born son Christopher in his two year absence. Yet he gained from his experience too: a Military Cross, a vastly enriched literary repertoire, skills in French, German, Italian, and even a new-found tolerance for Americans!

The archive also includes letters from other serving family members. Alfred’s brother-in-law Reggie died of wounds following his involvement in supporting front-line duty. The battles at Loos and Polygon Wood have since become notorious landmarks for reckless objectives in warfare.

'The German Minenwerfers are terrible things, you hear a slight pop & then see the bally thing coming over, it is very hard to judge where they will let, so you are kept in suspense with your eyes protruding out of your head watching the torpedo till it hisses down…. Dugouts werent much use against these blighters.' (20/04/1916)

The young man eagerly describes his knowledge of German and British ammunition, makes frequent requests for Lemon Fizzers from his mother, and tells of his generally uncomfortable experience:

'In the night we have heaps of company, rats & mice & the other livestock.. everytime you wake [the rats] are fighting & squeeking all over you.. the other night one took a flying jump on to my face, he had been washing his feet I believe, it was just like a wet rag.'

In what was to be Reggie’s last letter he anticipated that American involvement would bring about an end to the war; it was to be the last his family heard from him.

'Essie hasn’t given my pants away has she? I shall want them when Peace is declared, which may be soon if America has declared war.' (04/05/1916).

19CountyLondonRegimentPhoto sent on to Reggie's next of kin following his death

Find further stories of servicemen from the British Library collections at Europeana 1914-1918, as well as many commissioned articles exploring the effects of the war.

Layla Fedyk

Cataloguer, Modern Archives and Mss

27 October 2017

Paper bag reveals forgotten history

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This 130 year old paper bag reveals that Indian sweetmeats were being sold in London in the late 19th century, much earlier than most people would expect. This lovely piece of ephemera is one of my favourite items in Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage, an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham until 04 November. It is one of many items in the exhibition that illuminate the forgotten story of early South Asian influences on British life and culture.
  Item 29 Evan.9195 paper bag
Evan.9195

The paper bag is at the British Library thanks to the enthusiasms of Henry Evans, a conjuror and ventriloquist, who performed under the stage name ‘Evanion’. He collected this bag as well as posters, advertisements, trade cards and catalogues which give lively insights into popular entertainment and everyday life in the late 19th century. Connecting Stories also features this beautiful poster which gives more details of the Indian themed entertainments on offer at Langham Place – snake charmers, wrestlers and dancers known as nautch girls.

Item 28 Evan.2591 India in London
Evan.2591

A review in The Era newspaper for 16 January 1886 tells us that this ‘exhibition of Indian arts, industries and amusements’ was held under the auspices of Lord Harris, Under Secretary of State for India. The entertainments included a pageant representing the durbar or levée of an Indian potentate. The reviewer was most derogatory about this, complaining bitterly that he could not understand it because it was conducted in Indian languages. He was also unimpressed by the music, declaring that a performer on a tom-tom ‘rapped away like an undertaker on a coffin’! He was much more enthusiastic about a silent comedy sketch and the arts and crafts on display. The reviewer instructs his readers that ‘visitors to India in London should not leave without tasting the quaint Indian sweetmeats made at a stall in the gallery’ which may have been the treats destined for the paper bag at the British Library.

Despite being held under the auspices of the Under Secretary of State for India, all was not well with the organisation of the entertainments at Langham Place. The St. James’s Gazette for 19 February 1886 discloses that Mr W S Rogers of the India in London exhibition was charged with ‘having kept open that building as a place of public resort without first having complied with the requirements of the Metropolitan Board of Works’. Furthermore, it was ‘unfitted for the reception of the public with due regard to their safety from fire, and that the real and only remedy was to pull down the building and erect a new one.’ He was fined £50. Concerns for health and safety evidently came to London earlier than one might have imagined, as well as Indian sweetmeats.

Connecting Stories with logos

Exhibition details are on the Library of Birmingham website 

Penny Brook
India Office Records

Further reading
Evanion catalogue  
British Newspaper Archive 
Asians in Britain web pages

Untold Lives blogs about Connecting Stories:
Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage 
Miss Jenny the cheetah visits England 

 

 

26 October 2017

Gardening in the 18th century: a seed shop in North-East England

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Gardening became a popular pursuit in the 18th century. The plants to cultivate rose sharply with new varieties flooding in from abroad, mostly sold as seeds. In the 17th and early 18th century, seeds were sold by greengrocers and street tradesmen but gardening’s increasing popularity meant dedicated seed shops were soon springing up. By the late 18th century most provincial towns had at least one seed shop and many had nurseries too. Seeds were advertised in innovative ways. As well as the usual trade-cards, seed catalogues were printed with sale prices and descriptions of each plant. These catalogues were where most gardeners encountered new plants on offer. All of this is evident in the sole surviving copy of a seed catalogue printed in Houghton-le-Spring, a provincial town near Durham, in 1779: A Catalogue of ...Seeds…with their Season of Sowing, Planting and Culture: Chiefly Adapted to the Northern Climates by seeds-man James Clarke, whom we know little about.

SeedCatalogueTitlePage
This seed catalogue demonstrates the provincial popularity of gardening and the vastly increased demand for seeds outside London. It reveals what plants were grown in northern climates and, in particular, what new cultivars were successfully sold and grown in 1779. A surprising variety of slightly tender fruit is listed, for example. Amongst the assortment of apricots is the Anson's variety – ‘a kind lately introduced into English gardens’. The Brunswick variety of fig described on page 39 was imported from the Mediterranean during the 18th century and is still a very popular cultivar today.

SeedCatalogueFigs
We can also see that gardening was opening up to a wider audience during this period. James Clarke explains in his introductory note that he is ‘deviat[ing] from the common method of seeds catalogues … [his] chief design and wish in this work, is to render the general knowledge of gardening more easily attainable to the young and unexperienced’. He provides thorough guides to growing melons and cucumbers in ‘hot-beds’. Exotic fruits were grown in England long before 1774 but would’ve been a novelty for Clarke’s customers. These guides were indeed unusual. A basic seed list with prices was, as Clarke says, ‘the common method of seeds catalogues’. 

SeedCatalogueCucumbers

So who was James Clarke? He was clearly a shrewd businessman. Providing planting instructions encouraged amateurs to buy his wares, increasing his profit. It also ensured customer success with their seeds, promoting him as a reputable seller. He has, however, proven difficult to trace. Only a marriage license for James Clarke, Houghton-le-Spring, and Elizabeth Purdy survives from 1770. His designation was ‘gardener’, a general term for all those involved in gardens.  

The rise of gardening and its related trades was part of the emergence of consumerism in the late 18th century. Products that were previously seen as essentials were suddenly subject to changing tastes and fashions, fuelling consumer demand and stimulating growth. This little seed catalogue, with its tempting descriptions of growing the latest fashionable exotic crops, is testament to these changes.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

19 October 2017

Grimaldi family correspondence

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Louisa Edmeads was the wife of a curate at Over, Cheshire. We’ve recently catalogued a collection of her letters to her brother William in London, chiefly 1819 to 1829, dealing with domestic matters – health, clothing, family, neighbourhood gossip, work, and, above all, money. Money for goods from London, for cloth to make William shirts, for postage and transport by canal, for lodgings. This in itself provides a fascinating glimpse into the affairs of an early 19th-century family in straitened circumstances.

Grimaldi letters versos
Letters of Louisa Frances Edmeads (1785-1873) to her brother William Grimaldi (1786-1835). Add MS 89258

The family was, however, an unusual one. Louisa was the daughter of William Grimaldi (1751-1830), descendant of Alessandro Maria Grimaldi, head of the Genoese Grimaldi family, who left Italy for England in 1684. William senior was a renowned miniaturist whose customers included members of the aristocracy, but his finances were a continuing cause for concern to his children. Louisa was particularly anxious for him to leave his unsatisfactory lodgings and set up home with William, or their younger brother, Stacey Grimaldi (a successful barrister):

LFE to WG 9 June 1819 Merely to get rid of this rent
'Merely to get rid of this rent' (Letter from Louisa Edmeads to William Grimaldi, 9 June 1819)

There were other problems. William senior’s enthusiastic 'Methodising' and going out every evening caused friction with Stacey, but there was no hope of inducing him to change his habits. As Louisa writes: 'The arrangements between these two personages keep my mind in a constant state of anxiety & suspense, both by night & by day' (28 June 1819).

At one point Louisa even suggests a stealthy departure from his lodgings:

LFE to WG 17 Aug 1819 to abscond (2)
‘It would be a most unpleasant & painful thing for my Father to abscond but I do not really see any other means by which Mr W. can be brought to any kind of terms' (Letter from Louisa Edmeads to William Grimaldi, 17 August 1819)

There is affectionate exasperation over their father’s ways: 'As long as I can remember he has found occupation in arranging his Enamel Colors - & I doubt if he would ever complete that job if he had 50 years to do it in' (10 August 1822).

Despite tensions, the family worked together to try to solve problems. Louisa constantly urges William to find a better situation  than the one he held with Josiah Wedgwood, at St James’s Square, and issues frequent invitations to Over, and Cricklade, Wiltshire, their home from 1821. Though she writes only disparagingly of her own artistic efforts (she was herself a miniaturist of some ability), there is often a practical side to the letters. She asks William to admire her visiting card box and get his 'varnish person' to finish it; she draws a plan of her new house at Cricklade ('We hope to get in by Sept. – but workmen are great plagues' (9 June 1829)); and she describes in great detail the fabric, cut and style of the shirts she sews for him.

Tantalisingly, there are no letters at all from 1821, perhaps because of some disagreement with Stacey Grimaldi, into whose hands the letters later passed. In that year he published The Toilet, a significant early example of movable book publishing. Designed by William Grimaldi senior, each illustration showed an article from a lady’s dressing table or toilette (apparently sketched from Louisa’s dressing table), in the form of a flap, which the reader could lift to reveal a specific virtue. Despite the correspondence gap, earlier and later letters show that Louisa took a keen interest in The Toilet, which was a great success, even selling copies to local acquaintances.

A fine lip salve crop

A fine lip salve (open - cheerfulness) (3)
A fine lip salve – hand coloured illustration from The Toilet, by Stacey Grimaldi (2nd ed, 1821). When the flap is opened, we see 'cheerfulness' (British Library shelfmark: Cup.410.d.29).

Other highlights include a trip down the salt-mine in Winsford, treatment of her brother-in-law for lunacy, and the protracted process of finding a new curacy ('I write this from Salisbury – which is already swarming with clergymen on the watch for all the crumbs from the Bishop’s table … Edmeads is out for a long morning’s fishing' (30 July 1820)). The letters are a useful new source for local and social historians, and for anyone interested in the untold lives of women of the early 19th century.

Tabitha Driver
Modern Archives and Manuscripts

The Grimaldi family letters (Add MS 89258) are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Follow us on Twitter @BL_ModernMSS

17 October 2017

The life and loves of a ‘tremendous literary rebel’, Michael Madhusudan Dutt

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Dutt’s colourful life included romantic adventures, a change of religion and travel to Britain and France, in keeping with a man describing himself as ‘a tremendous literary rebel’. His exceptional creative talent led his biographer Ghulam Murshid to praise him as ‘the father of modern Bengali poetry’.

Item 14 add_or_5606 compressed
Michael Madhusudan Dutt, (1824-73)
Watercolour on ivory. Undated
Add.Or.5606

Around 1833, Dutt and his Hindu parents moved to Calcutta where his father’s success enabled him to provide his son with a good education. The young Dutt entered a world of culture and debate. He began his own writing career and developed a love of English literature and a longing to visit Britain. Towards the end of 1842 he was horrified when his parents began to plan an arranged marriage for him, declaring ‘I wish (Oh! I really wish) that somebody would hang me!’ Shortly afterwards, Dutt converted to Christianity, possibly motivated at least in part by a wish to evade the marriage.

Dutt baptism 1843 cropped
Dutt’s baptism at the Old Church, Fort William, 09 Feb 1843
IOR/N/1/64 f.101

Obliged to leave Hindu College after his conversion, he continued his studies at Bishop’s College, still supported by his parents, but unfortunately a rift later developed between him and his father. In December 1847 he left Calcutta for Madras where he struggled to find employment until the father of Charles Eggbert Kennet, an old friend from Bishop’s College, helped him to obtain a post teaching at the Madras Orphan Asylum. Aged twenty-four, in 1848 Dutt married seventeen year old Rebecca Thompson from the Madras Female Orphan Asylum. Today, a relationship between a teacher and a pupil would be considered scandalous, but early marriage was then considered entirely respectable for young women such as Rebecca. The Kennet family seem to have remained on good terms with the young Dutts as they appear as witnesses to the baptism of their daughter Bertha Blanche Kennet Dutt. Their contemporaries were much more concerned by the fact that Dutt, an Indian man, was marrying a girl of British descent, as this was possibly the first time that this was known to have happened.

BL-BIND-005137759-00313 cropped
Bertha Blanche Kennet Dutt’s baptism at St Mark’s Church, Madras (Black Town), 15 Nov 1849
IOR/N/2/C/2 f.130

Dutt and Rebecca had four children together, but when he returned to Calcutta after his father’s death in 1855, he left her and started a new life with another European lady, Henrietta Sophia White. Finally achieving his dream of studying law in England, he was called to the bar in London though he and Henrietta spent much time in France. They eventually died within a few days of each other in Calcutta in 1873. I do not know what became of the unfortunate Rebecca and her children.

The watercolour of Michael Madhusudan Dutt is on display in Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage, an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham until 04 November. The exhibition and community engagement are a partnership between the British Library and the Library of Birmingham. They have been generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Details of opening hours and events are on the Library of Birmingham website

Connecting Stories with logos

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records and curator of Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage


Further reading
Ghulam Murshid, Lured by hope: a biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt / by Ghulam Murshid; translated from Bengali by Gopa Majumdar, ( New Delhi ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2003)
Michael Madhusudan Dutt, The heart of a rebel poet : letters of Michael Madhusudan Dutt / edited by Ghulam Murshid, (New Delhi ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004)
Clinton B Seely, The slaying of Meghanada : a Ramayana from colonial Bengal / Michael Madhusudan Datta ; translated with an introduction by Clinton B. Seely, (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004)

Find My Past for British India Office collections 
Asians in Britain 

Untold Lives blogs:
Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage 
Miss Jenny the cheetah visits England
Bevin Indian Trainees during the Second World War 
East India Company trade with the East Indies 
Ranjitsinhji, our glorious hero bold 
First World War Indian soldiers' letters in 'Connecting Stories' exhibition 

29 September 2017

Spies or Pandits? Colin Mackenzie’s Indian Assistants, 1788 to 1821

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One of the British Library’s most iconic art works is a small oil painting of Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), the first Surveyor General of India, standing alongside three Indian men. The identity of the Indian men is lost to us today, but the level of attention and detail that Thomas Hickey used to paint their faces shows that this picture was intended to make them recognisable as distinct individuals.

F13 small
Portrait of Colin Mackenzie with three Indian assistants by Thomas Hickey, 1816. (F13)

Colin Mackenzie conducted extensive research, mainly in the south of India, during his four-decade career in Asia. The immense collection he assembled is the largest archive of information from South Asia to ever be gathered by an individual. However, to assemble such a vast collection, Mackenzie relied heavily on the assistance of educated, multilingual Indians who performed an astonishing variety of tasks for him. Known as 'pandits', they mainly worked as translators, but during field surveys they also collected manuscripts and transcribed oral histories.

F13 detail 1

F13 detail 2
Close-ups showing the faces of the three Indian men. (F13)

Another task performed by these Indian assistants was to walk ahead of Mackenzie and his survey team to announce their impending arrival. They would brief the inhabitants at these places of the arrival of foreigners, and the intentions behind Mackenzie’s investigations. The earliest documentary evidence of an Indian assistant working for Mackenzie appears to record one such advance foray in 1788. It is from a set of four maps by an anonymous Telugu artist. Mackenzie labelled one of these maps with the caption, 'Harcara Sketch of Guntoor obtained or observed by one of my Harcaras'. (WD2673) The word 'harkara' means a messenger, informant or spy.

WD2673 crop
Map of Gunthur prepared by a 'harkara' in 1788. (WD2673)

Mackenzie’s Indian assistants should not be viewed merely as passive employees. Their role was to explain Indian knowledge and culture to their European colonizers, and they understandably used this position to their advantage. In particular, it was possible for them to increase the social status of the communities they came from by conflating their importance in the documents they translated and interpreted.

Colin Mackenzie openly acknowledged the contribution of the Indian men who assisted with his research. It is impossible to say how many Indian assistants he employed during his long career in Asia, from the 1780s to 1821. In 1808 alone he was employing at least 12 Indian assistants. Mackenzie regarded many of these men as family, and in one version of his last will and testament he bequeathed a tenth of his estate to two of his Indian assistants. As for the painting by Thomas Hickey, Mackenzie chose to have his portrait painted alongside three Indian men, thus reflecting their central role in creating his collections.

Will
A passage from Colin Mackenzie’s will saying that Kavali Laksmiah and his younger brother Kavali Ramaswami should receive a tenth of his estate.  (IOR/L/AG/34/29/33, folio 249)

The portrait of Colin Mackenzie with his three Indian assistants is on exhibition in Stornoway’s Lews Castle Museum until 18 November 2017. Curated as part of An Lanntair’s Purvai Project, 'Collector Extraordinaire' celebrates the life and work of Mackenzie, one of Stornoway’s most famous natives. The Purvai Project aims to inspire artists and performers by looking at Colin Mackenzie’s work. But how should we view his Indian assistants? 

Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia

Further reading:

David Blake, 'Colin Mackenzie: Collector Extraordinary', The British Library Journal (1991), pp. 128-150
Jennifer Howes, 'Illustrated Jaina Collections in the British Library',  in J. Hegewald, Jaina Painting and Manuscript Culture, Berlin: EB Verlag, 2015. See page 263.
R. H. Phillimore, Historical Records of the Survey of India, 1800 to 1815. Surveyor General of India, 1950. See pages 355-356.
Phillip Wagoner, 'Precolonial Intellectuals and the Production of Colonial Knowledge', Society for Comparative Study of Society and History (2003), pp. 783-814