Untold lives blog

12 posts from March 2014

10 March 2014

Francis Hamilton’s fish from the Ganges

When Francis Hamilton was born (as Francis Buchanan) on 15 February 1762 on the estate of Bardowie in the county Sterling in Central Scotland no one would have guessed that he would later in his life play an outstanding role in the natural sciences as a pioneer in the study of the flora and fauna of India and Nepal.  After graduating at Glasgow University in 1779 at the age of 17, Francis studied medicine in Edinburgh and obtained his degree in 1783.  He joined the East India Company in 1794, a decision that had a major influence on his life and his career as naturalist.

In zoological circles he is famous for his monograph on the fishes of the Ganges, published in 1822 and based on the fishes he collected during his service with the East India Company in India and Nepal.  This big, two-volume opus contains the scientific descriptions of 271 species of fishes, mostly from fresh waters, and coloured illustrations of 97 of them that were made for him by local artists.  These drawings are among the most detailed and accurate fish illustrations of his time and his monograph is still considered one of the two most important works ever published on the Indian fish fauna.  Hamilton had originally a much larger number of his Gangetic fishes drawn while in India, but a substantial portion of these drawings were taken from him when he returned to Britain.  They remained in India where they were housed in the Royal Botanical Garden in Calcutta.

Because Hamilton’s work is the first comprehensive study of Indian fishes, a large number of the species he described are still valid today and his work is still of the same scientific importance as it was when it was published.  The identification of a large number of fishes from this area of the world relies to a significant extent on colour pattern and colouration in addition to anatomical characters.  While the pattern of markings is represented in Hamilton’s published monochrome plates, the actual colouration of the different species is not.  But it is, of course, represented in his original drawings.  Uncertainty about several of Hamilton’s species could be resolved with reference to the original colour drawings.  The British Library is in the fortunate position of having a set of original water colour drawings from Hamilton that show 103 species of his Gangetic fishes. Even a cursory look at the colouration of one of his illustrated species, the snakehead fish Ophiocephalus auranticaus, demonstrates the scientific importance of these coloured drawings.

  Snakehead fish
Ophiocephalus aurantiacus   Noc

Hamilton’s auranticaus is currently considered the same species as another of his snakehead species, O. gachua.  A comparison of the illustrations of the two, however, shows that auranticaus is a fish that is very different from gachua.

Fish - Ophiocephalus gachua
Ophiocephalus gachua Noc

Without doubt many more problems of this kind can be resolved with Hamilton’s original colour plates. There is currently a project under way to reprint Hamilton’s original colour plates and to make this important source available to the scientific community.

Ralf Britz
Fish Researcher, The Natural History Museum


Further reading:

Francis Hamilton, An Account of the Fishes found in the river Ganges and its branches, etc. (Edinburgh, 1822)

IOPP/Mss Eur E72 - 144 drawings in an album, depicting Gangetic fish. By an Indian artist supervised by Hamilton. 1798 - 1814


07 March 2014

Men behaving badly - British allies in the Persian Gulf

It wasn’t always easy being Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, especially when there was a war on.  This was particularly true of Lieutenant-Colonel C G Prior, Britain’s senior administrator, based at Bushire in Persia, who was knighted in 1943 as Sir Geoffrey Prior and wrote a review of the year of his knighthood in his Administration Report of the Persian Gulf for the Year 1943.

Review of the year in Administration Report of the Persian Gulf for the Year 1943.

 IOR/R/15/1/719 f. 262  Noc

Despite the fact that the Gulf was an exceptionally quiet posting in those war-torn years (the 1941 Report says that the Gulf enjoyed ‘almost perfect peace’ throughout that year), Prior found plenty to complain about.  His review covers everything from his annoyance that the Government of India had stopped the export of cereals, which forced the local populace to give up their habitual diet of rice overnight, vastly increasing the workload of Gulf officers, to the failings of the British military authorities, who were given control over wide areas about which they knew ‘nothing whatever’ and failed to share important intelligence information with civilian colleagues, such as the report of the capture of a German agent called Mayer.

However, Prior reserved his greatest indignation for Britain’s American allies.  ‘It would’, he begins quietly, ‘be agreeable to record that our Allies were cooperative and considerate, but this was not the case.  Almost without exception the American detachment and visiting American officers whether of the Army or the civil organisations showed little desire to consult with their British colleagues or to cooperate with them’.  An instance of this, says Prior, was the decision of the Americans to electrify the perimeter of their camp at Bushire, without giving any intimation of their intentions to the British Army or civilian authorities.  This, says Prior unfeelingly, ‘recoiled upon their own heads as the first victim was an American soldier'.  He goes on, ‘Their behaviour varied from the unsatisfactory to the deplorable’.  Not even the cutlery was safe: ‘At the fête given in aid of the Persian Gulf Fighter Fund at Sabzabad, a number of articles including spoons and forks were stolen from the house, apparently by officers who penetrated the building’.  The crime was perhaps stimulated by the effects of liquor on an unprecedented scale, as ‘The drunkenness shown by the men on this occasion was without parallel in Bushire’.

There were other, even more shocking displays of bad behaviour for British officials elsewhere in Persia, and ‘the incident of the four American soldiers who penetrated the Governor’s house at Khorramshar one night and requested him to supply them with women will long be remembered’.

Prior at least provides some balance by also expressing his disapproval of ‘our Russian allies’. These, ‘though far better behaved’ than the Americans, ‘showed no desire to cooperate’ and perhaps worst of all for the clubbable British, remained ‘inscrutable and aloof’.  Prior concludes unkindly by saying that ‘The Residency as a whole heaved a sigh of relief when both these bodies took their departure’.

Martin Woodward
Archival Specialist, Gulf History Project 

Qatar Digital LibraryCc-by

Further reading: 

British Library, ‘Administration Reports of the Persian Gulf’. IOR/R/15/1/719, ff. 262ff


05 March 2014

‘Our hero is a sportsman’: British domestic interiors in 19th century India

The British public first glimpsed the domestic interiors established by East India Company men and women in India through portraits. Although many artists situated their subjects in verandahs or out in Indian gardens, some painters chose interior settings.  These early peeks soon became unsatisfactory as greater numbers of Britons (including women) embarked for India in the early 19th century. At this point, demand grew for information about life in India.

While early books relied on text to enlarge on topics as diverse as the prevalence of white ants and the dangers posed by tigers, in the 1810s they also came to include images. In 1842, for instance, William Tayler published Sketches Illustrating the Manners & Customs of the Indians and Anglo-Indians.  His employment in the Company allowed Tayler to claim particular knowledge of Anglo-Indian life in Bengal. His images and descriptions aimed to instruct British audiences at home but also contained inherent tensions, depicting both a desire to conform to British norms and a separate Anglo-Indian way of life.  They also hinted at the ways in which men and women might perform that Anglo-Indian identity differently.

Young civilian's toilet - European man being tended to by Indian servants
‘The Young Civilians Toilet’, William Tayler, Sketches Illustrating the Manners & Customs of the Indians and Anglo-Indians (1842)  Noc

In response to the ‘nabob controversy’ of the late eighteenth century, East India Company officials resident in India sought to justify their seemingly luxurious lifestyle. They explained their large retinues of servants by arguing that this was the best means by which they could enact their growing governance roles.  ‘The Young Civilians Toilet’ shows a domestic space with multiple Indian servants performing different tasks and a range of distinctively ‘British’ objects. Riding boots, saddle, gun case and ‘racquette’ remind us that ‘our hero is a sportsman’. A bill for jewellery suggests at his ‘matrimonial intentions’. Despite the rich sensuality of his present life, his affections are clearly suitably bestowed on the greyhound by his side, his beloved depicted in a portrait on the wall and his ‘favourite’ horse in a separate (but more central) portrait beside her.

Young lady's toilet - European woman being attended to by Indian servants
 ‘The Young Lady’s Toilet’, William Tayler, Sketches Illustrating the Manners & Customs of the Indians and Anglo-Indians (1842) Noc

Tayler’s next image is of the young woman at the centre (or near centre) of ‘our hero’s’ affections. Again much attention is given to the servants waiting upon her.  Yet the objects in the room fail to assert a predominantly British character. While a portrait of a British soldier takes pride of place above her dressing table, the foreground is claimed by a fan and shawl.  A parrot sits in front of a Chinese lacquer screen, a reminder of the intra-Asian trade. Indian landscapes are referenced in a painting rather than homely scenes of Britain. A large punkah and a ‘striped cloth Purdah’ also hang in the room.

Tayler is commenting on the material strategies young Britons could use to continue to perform their national identities whilst highlighting their confident engagement with Indian practices. Yet it seems that their different genders presuppose different relationships with India and China. The objects in each room suggest that while the young man remains wedded to Britain, the young woman is in danger of becoming thoroughly entangled with Indian Ocean world. Tayler resolves this problem in a third engraving showing the pair married and sat at the breakfast table. British accoutrements safely surround the woman. Most significantly she now has a dog by her side – no doubt a gift from ‘our hero’. 

  India - Europeans breakfastingNoc ‘The Breakfast’, William Tayler, Sketches Illustrating the Manners & Customs of the Indians and Anglo-Indians (1842) Images Online


Kate Smith
Research Fellow, History, UCL


Further reading:

Thomas Williamson, The East India Vade-Mecum (London: Black, Parry and Kingsbury, 1810)

Charles D’Oyly, The Costume and Customs of Modern India (London: E. Orme, 1813)

William Tayler, Sketches Illustrating the Manners & Customs of the Indians & Anglo Indians (London: Thomas McLean, 1842)

Prasannajit de Silva, ‘Representing Home Life Abroad: British Domestic Life in Early-Nineteenth-Century India’, Visual Culture in Britain, 12:3 (2011)

E. M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (Malden, MA and Cambridge: Polity, 2001)

David Porter, The Chinese taste in eighteenth-century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)


03 March 2014

Mary March of Newfoundland

In the late eighteenth century the native Beothuk people abandoned the coastlines of Newfoundland and moved inland to avoid contact with strangers. However, by 1818, small groups had started to venture down into the coastal settlements and take food from the storehouses.  In March 1819, one victim of these raids gathered a band of men and ventured up river to recover his property. The men came upon three natives a little distance from their wigwams. A native man attacked the group in such a manner that one of their number, John Peyton, was forced to shoot him dead.

A native woman, who afterwards appeared to be the wife of the dead man, did not flee or shed tears. Instead, she went to the murderer of her husband and clung to his arm as if for protection. From then on, she harboured a strange attachment to John Peyton. To him she was full of gentleness and affection, and the last act of her brief eventful history was to remove a ring from her finger and beg it be sent to him.

Mary MarchDemasduwit (Mary March), 1819 Source: Library and Archives Canada © Public Domain

The woman became known as Mary March (native name, Demasduwit or Waunathoake). She placed herself on the sled the men had brought, and calmly held her legs out straight for someone to tie her moccasins! The attention she appeared to habitually expect, and her lack of acquaintance with hard labour, indicated that she was either a woman of a superior station, or that the Beothuk people treated women very differently to most tribes.

Mary is described as elegant, strikingly beautiful, with large eyes, healthy skin and perfect white teeth. Her voice was “remarkably sweet, low, and musical”. When brought to the European settlement, Mary was sent to live with the local missionary Mr Leigh. There she had a room and a chest in which she liked to store knick-knacks given to her by the Europeans. One day Mr Leigh discovered a quantity of blue cloth and his nightcap had gone missing. Upon searching in Mary’s chest, he found the cloth converted into 16 pairs of moccasins, and his nightcap converted into two pairs of children’s stockings. From this, the settlers deduced that Mary had two children, and shared her wigwam with 16 family members.

Mary had a mischievous habit of surprising Mr Leigh. She took great joy in sneaking up behind him quietly and making him jump! She also found the idea of unmarried men to be a most ridiculous and hilarious notion. On one boat trip to the city of St. John’s, Mary mocked Mr. Leigh and John Peyton for being unmarried, saying “You go shore Mr Leigh, you go shore John Peyton, when you go shore, no women!” and promptly burst out laughing.

Newfoundland- St John's Harbour

Narrows in St John’s Harbour, Newfoundland 1798 by E.P.Brenton Online Gallery

After approximately six months, Mr Leigh and John Peyton decided that Mary should be returned to her people. She stayed in the city of St John’s for a short time, and acquired enough English that the settlers hoped of opening up a dialogue with the natives through her. However, common European diseases often proved fatal to the natives. Mary left the harbour at St John’s with a cough and died of consumption on 8 January 1820 just a few miles from her home. She was aged twenty-four. The captain of the ship on which she was carried continued and found her tribe’s wigwams empty. Mary’s body was laid in a coffin filled with the objects she had collected from the settlers, and placed on the shore where her tribe could find her.

Jamie Rhodes
Writer & Creative Writing Practitioner at The Homeless Film Festival

Follow Jamie on twitter @JamieERhodes

Further reading:
"Vocabulary of the Language of the Natives of Newfoundland, procured by the Rev. J. Leigh from Mary March, a native woman taken up the Exploits by Mr. Peyton in March, 1818"; written by Capt. Hercules Robinson, R.N., 1820.  British Library Add MS 19350