Untold lives blog

192 posts categorized "South Asia"

05 November 2020

Making gunpowder after the English method

A letter dated 2 February 1725 from the East India Company directors in London to their Council in Bengal contained sections on the manufacture and use of gunpowder.  The Company was concerned about the quality of saltpetre being sent from Bengal and sent instructions on how to improve it.  They were also keen to stop gunpowder being wasted.

Saltpetre was a key ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder.  The Company directors complained that the quality of saltpetre arriving in England had been declining for some years.  Very little had been bought at the London sale in March 1724, so they had decided to analyse samples from the 600 bags of saltpetre which had arrived from Bengal on the Lethieullier, Bridgewater, and Sarum.  The man who refracted the saltpetre reported that, although it looked white and good, there was a quantity of salt left in it.  The directors concluded that the Bengal Council must have employed unskilled people to refine the saltpetre, or their workers hadn’t been careful to separate the salt which was essential if good gunpowder was to be made.

Directions for refining saltpetre ‘Directions for Refining Saltpetre after the English manner, in order to make Gunpowder’ IOR E/3/102 f.240v Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

They sent ‘Directions for Refining Saltpetre after the English manner, in order to make Gunpowder’ based on advice from experts.  The workers in Bengal were to use these in a trial on a small amount of saltpetre to see how they got on.
• Dissolve the saltpetre in fresh boiling water.
• As the scum rises, take it off and put it to one side.
• When no more scum rises, draw off the liquor into vessels and let it settle.  The remaining filth or earth which makes the petre look so dirty will sink.
• When the liquor is perfectly clear, draw it off and boil with a gentle fire until a thin film can be seen on the surface.
• Pour into large shallow coolers, no more than eight inches deep.  The saltpetre will shoot into crystals.
• Decant any surplus liquor.  Either start again with fresh saltpetre added to it or boil it down by itself for a second shooting.

 

View of a Fort St George Madras from the sea, with a church to the left, hill peaks behind and ships in the foreground, including one firing guns.View of Fort St George, Madras, 1782, with a ship firing guns © The Trustees of the British Museum


The letter also reported complaints from the owners of East India ships about the great expense of gunpowder lavished on salutes.  The directors ruled:
• No more than nine guns were to be fired when Company ships arrived at a port in India and had a fort to salute.  The forts were to return salutes with only that number.
• Nine guns when captains first came onshore from Europe or were leaving for Europe. Just seven guns for saluting captains at any other time.
• No more than five guns to answer country ships (except foreigners).
• No more than nine guns when the Governor, members of Council, or other Company personnel came on board or left the ship.
• Be as frugal as possible when using gunpowder at festivals, funerals and other occasions.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/3/102 ff.231-240 Letter from East India Company directors in London to Bengal, 2 February 1725

East India Company saltpetre warehouses at Ratcliff

08 October 2020

The Law of Forfeiture: Applying English Traditions in India?

In a delicate case from 1864 the Privy Council considered whether the English practice of forfeiture following a suicide should apply to a subject of the British Raj.

Following the death of Rajah Christenauth Roy Bayadoor in Calcutta on 31 October 1844, a second will was discovered, written by him that morning, which left a portion of his estate to the East India Company (EIC).  Since his death was by his own hand, Bayadoor’s widow, Ranee Surnomoyee, disputed the validity of this will on the grounds that it was not written in sound mind.  The court found in favour of Ranee Surnomoyee, declaring the second will to be invalid.

The Court House, Calcutta - a hand-coloured print by Frederick Fiebig in 1851, showing people in the foreground, with a cart and a palanquin.The Court House, Calcutta, where the case would first have been heard.  A hand-coloured print from the Fiebig Collection: Views of Calcutta and Surrounding Districts, by Frederick Fiebig in 1851. British Library Online Gallery

An appeal was then made to the Privy Council against this verdict on behalf of the EIC, citing the law of forfeiture in cases of suicide.  A digitised copy of the response of the Council is available to view on the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII).

Known as felo-de-se within English common law, meaning 'crime of his-, or herself', suicide in England was associated with restless souls.  Confirmed victims were historically buried at crossroads with a stake through their heart, possibly in an effort to stop the soul from wandering.  The law was only changed to allow burials within churchyards following the tragic death of Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh in 1822.   Even then, restrictions still applied.   In her book on Victorian attitudes to suicide, Barbara Gates states that churchyard burials were allowed without Christian rites and restricted to 'at night, between the hours of nine and midnight, and his/her goods and chattels must still be turned over to the Crown'.

Robert Stewart  Viscount CastlereaghRobert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, took his own life in 1822, probably due to stress and depression caused by the strain of his political career and public unpopularity. The suicide of such a public figure inspired the re-examination of related English laws. Image from Jonah Barrington, Historic Memoirs of Ireland (London, 1833) BL flickr

Intended as a deterrent to criminals, the law of forfeiture passed the deceased’s property to the Crown and away from inheritors.  It also applied to suicides, which were considered a crime against the individual, God and the Crown.  Abolished by the Forfeiture Act 1870, the practice was applied infrequently, even at the time of our case.

In the appeal the representative of the EIC did not further contest the second will.  Instead he argued that English law, including forfeiture, applied in the colonies.  The privy councillors therefore had to consider the application of these laws in India.

They examined cultural differences between Britons and Indians to find examples of where British law did not fit with Indian traditions.  The main examples given by the Council were polygamy and child marriage.  Although shocking to Victorian sensibilities, these were part of the culture and beliefs of Indians at the time and so the EIC had allowed them to continue.  Therefore, by adapting English law to suit Indian culture, the EIC had set a precedent.

In conclusion, the Privy Councillors expressed their surprise at an effort to enforce forfeiture following a suicide as late as 1844 and their confusion at its application to an Indian Hindu.  They found in favour of the descendants of Rajah Christenauth Roy Bayadoor and allowed them to retain possession of his property.

Matthew Waters
Cataloguer, Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Barbara T Gates, Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories, 2nd edn (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - Stewart, Robert, Viscount Castlereagh and second Marquess of Londonderry

 

24 September 2020

Bringing the children home

In the 19th century, the East India Company made increasing efforts to bring the trade in enslaved people in the Gulf to an end.  The majority of the people imported into the Gulf came from the East Coast of Africa and Zanzibar, but some also came from India.  These were usually women and children who had been kidnapped from their homes to be sold in the Gulf.  It was one of the responsibilities of British Agents in the Gulf to discover and rescue these children.

This was not always easy.  The local rulers could be uncooperative, and the merchants and traders would disguise the origins of the children to avoid detection.  The Native Agent at Muscat complained that his efforts to emancipate children had turned the population against him.  Even after they had tracked down the children, the Agents faced further difficulties in freeing them; the British Government stipulated that they must avoid force, but also directed that no money should be handed over, to avoid stimulating the market.  The Native Agent would look after the children at the British Government’s expense until he was able to place them on a ship to Bombay [Mumbai].  The Senior Magistrate of Police at Bombay was responsible for reuniting children with their parents or finding an alternative situation for them.

Photograph of the buildings of the Muscat Consulate and Agency on a waterfront

The Muscat Consulate and Agency, c. 1870 (Photo 355/1/43)

Mahomed Unwur [Muhammed Anwar] lived with his brother, Mirza Abdulla [‘Abd Allah], in Butcher Street, Bombay, when he was twelve.  One morning his brother sent him to the bazaar where he met a man who enticed him on board a ship with sweets.  Two weeks later, he arrived at Muscat and lived there for six or seven months with the man who had kidnapped him.  He was offered for sale privately at different houses during this time, until one day, when he was gathering dates at the Customs House, he was taken to the house of the Native Agent.  He finally returned to Bombay in November 1843, where he was reunited with his brother and returned to live with him.  This happy ending was sadly fairly unusual for kidnapped children.  On the same ship returning to India as Mahomed Unwur was another child, a girl.

Painting of a street in Bombay busy with people, 1867‘A street in Bombay’, chromolithograph by William Simpson, from India Ancient and Modern, 1867. BL Online Gallery 

Eleven-year-old Auzeemah [‘Azimah] knew that she had been born in a village near Moradabad.  She was kidnapped and lived in Moradabad for three or four years.  A man then took her to Muscat and tried to exchange her for a boy, but while at Muscat she was discovered and taken to live with the Native Agent until she could be sent home.  Unfortunately, she remembered so little about her parents or her village that, despite lengthy enquiries by the Government of Agra, her parents were not found.   Auzeemah was instead placed with a family in Bombay who would bring her up.

Anne Courtney
Gulf History Cataloguer

Further reading:
The stories of Mahomed and Auzeemah can be found in IOR/F/4/2034/98123.

 

15 September 2020

Hunter, Campbell, and the politics of archiving famine

In the suffocating heat and violent downpours of early August, 1866, Sir William Hunter, his wife, infant son, and a Portuguese nurse, journeyed to Midnapur in Bengal, where Hunter had been appointed Inspector of Schools for the South-Western Division.  They travelled by road in their victoria driven by Hunter himself.  The carriage and horses were crammed on a ferry by which they crossed the torrential river Damodar.  The crossing took fourteen hours, and Hunter drove on until the route was cut off by a chasm created by the floods.  Horses unhitched, the carriage was dragged down the bank to the other side of the chasm.  They reached a rest house which offered little provision.  They travelled again, until, hungry and exhausted, they finally arrived at their destination.

Sir William Hunter driving a carriage with his wife, infant son, and a Portuguese nurse, journeying to Midnapur in heat and violent downpours.Sir William Hunter driving a carriage with his wife, infant son, and a Portuguese nurse, journeying to Midnapur in heat and violent downpours.  Image reproduced by the kind permission of the artist ©Argha Manna.

Hunter then left at once to survey the area as the government was anxious to learn about the effect of the Orissa famine on schools in neighbouring districts.  To his horror, he found Bishnupur, the ancient capital of Birbhum, a ‘city of paupers’, as he noted in his letter to the Director of Public Instruction.  The famine relief operations were disrupted by a cholera outbreak.  At his own expense, Hunter set up a temporary orphanage for starving children who roamed the streets, feeding on worms and snails.

The author of The Annals of Bengal - a text often mined for information on the notorious famines in Orissa (1866) and in Bengal (1769-70) - was not simply an excavator of archives.  An aspect of his life not often told seems to be epitomised by this stark physical encounter with famine-affected areas, which officers like Hunter (and their families) could not avoid.  For Hunter, writing the famous Annals was punctuated by such experiences, as he developed his comparative analytical methods, placing side by side archival findings which allowed him to reconstruct the 1770 Bengal famine, and his immediate knowledge of the Orissa famine a century later.

Head and shoulders portrait of Sir William Hunter, dressed in a formal jacket and tie.Portrait of Sir William Hunter. Image reproduced by the kind permission of the artist ©Argha Manna.

These two famines are infamous events in the history of British administration of the Bengal Presidency.  The first resulted in the loss of 10 million lives, and yet the East India Company’s revenue increased in that famine year; during the second, 200 million pounds of rice were exported to Britain while a million starved to death in Orissa.  Hunter’s analytical method relied on recovering local ecology, history, and demography, loosely modelled on the English annals of parishes.  As Hunter wrote to Cecil Beadon in 1868, ‘My business is with the people’ - a rather risky remark perhaps in an epistle to the former lieutenant-governor of Bengal, recently deposed for his mishandling of the Orissa famine and scant attention to the suffering of ‘the people’.  Moreover, Hunter’s approach was analogical, comparing not only past and present famines, but British and Indian models of record keeping; and, finally, it was predictive.  Hunter believed that better administration and prevention of future famines were possible through historically informed reflection on current experience ….

Portrait of Sir George Campbell to the waist, seated with a stick in his left hand and dressed in an informal shirt and jacket.

Portrait of Sir George Campbell.  Image reproduced by the kind permission of the artist ©Argha Manna.

For the rest of this story about Hunter’s differences with his contemporary Sir George Campbell who also shaped interpretations of the Orissa and Bengal famines; their negotiations with colonial governance; their lasting impression on archiving famine; and their publication of a little-known collaborative collection of records of the Bengal Famine of 1769-70, see the full article on the Famine Tales project blog Food Security: Past and Present.

Ayesha Mukherjee
Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the Department of English and Film, College of Humanities, University of Exeter, and the Principal Investigator for the AHRC projects Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800, and Famine Tales from India and Britain.

Illustrations by Argha Manna
Graphic artist and journalist based in Calcutta, currently creating a graphic narrative of the 1770 Bengal famine for the Famine Tales from India and Britain project.

With grateful thanks to Dr Antonia Moon for drawing my attention to IOR/V/ 27/830/14 and to Professor Swapan Chakravorty for directing me to valuable sources on colonial archiving policies in India.

 

08 September 2020

Captain Charles Foulis and Commodore George Anson

Charles Foulis (c.1714 – 1783) became wealthy from his maritime career with the East India Company.  For his second voyage he served as first mate under Captain Robert Jenkins on the Harrington bound for St Helena, Bombay and China.  The ship arrived at Bombay at the end of July 1742 and had an encounter with Angria’s pirate ships whilst returning from Tellicherry.

On 18 December 1742, Captain Jenkins died of ‘a feaver and flux’ and was buried with military honours in Bombay.  Foulis took over as captain of the Harrington and sailed for China, his first voyage east of India.

Portrait of George Anson, three-quarters length standing to left, looking towards the viewer, holding a telescope in both hands, his left elbow resting on a grassy ledge beside his hat, wearing a suit with sword and wig.Portrait of George Anson, 1747 - Courtesy of  British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Meanwhile, Commodore George Anson (1697-1762) was continuing a voyage around the world in the Centurion, the last remaining ship of his small fleet.  When the Centurion called at Macao in November 1742, neither the Europeans nor the Chinese wanted this armed warship to approach Canton and threaten the delicate trade balance.  However, she was badly in need of repair, water and stores, and assistance was reluctantly given.  She departed on 19 April 1743, supposedly for England.  There was huge consternation when she returned nearly three months later, towing the Spanish treasure galleon Covadonga as her ‘prize’ worth about £60 million in today’s money.

Anson made his way up river towards Canton, threatening violence to the Chinese officials who tried to stop him.  When the Harrington arrived on 17 July, Captain Foulis was caught up as a pawn in the affair, torn between his respect for Anson and his responsibility to the East India Company.

Foulis went on board the Centurion to discuss the situation with Anson.  Eventually on 28-29 July the Centurion was allowed upstream and Harrington, with a local pilot aboard, guided her through the channels.  After delicate negotiations, Anson was permitted to visit Canton for a meeting with the Chinese officials.

The Centurion left China in December 1743 and the Harrington at the end of January 1744. On 4 July Anson’s magnificent procession of 32 wagons of treasure passed through the streets of London on its way to the Tower.

Introductory page of the journal and log of the Anson 1746Introductory page of the journal and log of the Anson 1746 - IOR/L/MAR/B/549A Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Foulis’s next voyage was in the 1746/7 season as captain of the Anson, under the management of David Crichton, a relative of his wife.  The Anson had a battle with the French outside Bombay but the captain got his papers and treasure landed before the ship was captured.  Foulis managed to return to England and on 2 November 1748 the East India Company Court of Directors agreed that Captain Foulis had ‘done his Duty and behaved like a Gallant and Discreet Officer and is Justly entitled to the Courts Favour’.

From 1750 to 1755 Foulis captained the Lord Anson for two uneventful voyages before retiring from the sea to manage voyages for the East India Company.  Between 1759 and his death in 1783 he managed 38 voyages made by 12 ships and was a significant figure in the shipping lobby.

The memorial erected by Captain Robert Preston to Charles Foulis in St.Mary’s church, Woodford, Essex.

The memorial erected by Captain Robert Preston to Charles Foulis in St.Mary’s church, Woodford, Essex, as a testimony of his gratitude. Foulis had managed three voyages which Preston made as captain and then worked with him in the City. In his will Foulis named Preston as his ‘residuary legatee and executor’. Author;'s photograph. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Charles Foulis had other connections with the East India Company: his sister Margaret married William George Freeman, a director in 1769, 1774-76 and 1778-81.  His wife had a sister who married Andrew Moffatt of Cranbrook House in Ilford, another Principal Managing Owner who was involved in shipping insurance.

Georgina Green
Independent scholar


Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/654D Journal of the Harrington 1741-1744
IOR/L/MAR/B/549A Journal of the Anson 1746-1747
IOR/B/70 East India Company Court of Directors’ Minute Book
Sally Rousham (ed.), The Greatest Treasure - Philip Saumarez and the voyage of the Centurion (Guernsey Museum, 1994)
Glyn Williams, The Prize of all the Oceans (Harper Collins, 1999)

 

02 September 2020

Nil Darpan: the Indigo Revolt and the trial of Reverend James Long

Nil Darpan (sometimes Nil Durpan) or The Indigo Planting Mirror was a Bengali play written by Dinabandhu Mitra in 1858-59.  The drama was written in the context of social agitation in Bengal, known as the Indigo Revolt.  The play examines the treatment of the Indian peasantry or ryots by the indigo planters.  It was first published in 1860.

Indigo Factory Bengal, 1863, showing layout and work on different processesWilliam Simpson - Indigo Factory Bengal, 1863 (shelfmark WD 1017) Images Online

Mitra’s play shone a light on the behaviour of certain European indigo planters, the worst excesses of which were further exposed by an official report of the 1861 Indigo Commission.  Ryots were forced to plant indigo, a crop which was in demand by the international textile industry but which degraded the land.  They had to take out loans and sell the crop to planters at fixed (low) prices, forcing them into a cycle of debt and economic dependence that was often enforced with violence.  The play reflected the realities of intimidation, exploitation, violence (including sexual violence), and lack of redress through the judicial system experienced by many in Bengal.

Title page of Nil Durpan and portrait of  author Dinabandhu MitraTitle page of Nil Darpan and portrait of Dinabandhu Mitra from Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer. A history of the renaissance in Bengal, from the Bengali ... Edited by Sir Roper Lethbridge (London : Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1907.), p.94. 

In 1861 Mitra sent a copy of his play to Reverend James Long, who had run the Church Missionary Society school in Calcutta where Mitra was educated.  James Long, an Anglo-Irish priest, had been in India since 1840, and was particularly interested in what he called the ‘Native Press’.  Long had previously assembled lists of books and other publications in Bengali.  He believed that vernacular writings were an important barometer of the feelings of Indian people, and that they had often been ignored by those in power.  Long mentioned the play to William Scott Seton Karr, Secretary to the Government of Bengal, who in turn brought it to the attention of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Peter Grant.  Grant requested an English translation of Nil Darpan, which Long arranged, and which was almost certainly carried out by Michael Madhusudan Dutt.  The translation was edited by Long who also provided his own introduction.  500 copies were printed, and some copies were distributed by Long in official Government envelopes.  This action appeared to give the translation official sanction.

Portrait of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and bust of James Long in KolkataPortrait of Michael Madhusudan Dutt from Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer, p.30, and bust of James Long in Kolkata via Wikimedia Commons

Nil Darpan quickly reached the attention of both the indigo planters and the pro-planter press, who felt that they had been defamed by the play, and by Long’s introduction and by Mitra’s original preface.  As a result James Long was taken to court by Walter Brett, proprietor of the Englishman newspaper, together with the Landholders Association of British India and the general body of indigo planters.  The trial for libel took place in July 1861, and there was much sympathy expressed for James Long.  Yet he was found guilty, sentenced to one month in jail and fined 1,000 rupees.  The Bengali author Kaliprasanna Singha immediately paid the fine on Long’s behalf.

Nil Darpan was the first play to be staged commercially at the National Theatre in Calcutta; it was one of a number of politicised plays which provoked the Government of India into enacting restrictive censorship measures on Indian theatre via the 1876 Dramatic Performances Act.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Nil Darpan or the Indigo Planting Mirror, A Drama. Translated from the Bengali by A Native (Calcutta: C.H. Manuel, 1861)
Statement of the Rev. J. Long His Connection With The Nil Darpan (Calcutta: Sanders, Cox and Co., 1861)
Claire Pamment (2009) 'Police of Pig and Sheep: Representations of the White Sahib and the construction of theatre censorship in colonial India', South Asian Popular Culture, 7:3, 233-245.
Geoffrey A. Oddie, Missionaries, Rebellion and Protonationalism: James Long of Bengal 1814-87 (London: Routledge, 1999)

 

27 August 2020

Collections in the UK on Indian Independence and Partition

The India Office Records and Private Papers, held at the British Library, contains one of the largest archives outside South Asia of records relating to the Indian independence struggle, and the eventual partition of pre-1947 India into the independent states of India and Pakistan.  This includes official government records, as well as significant collections of private papers.

Photograph of Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for IndiaMahatma Gandhi and Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India, 18 April 1946 - Photo 134/2(19) Images Online c13486-31

 

However, there are also a wealth of records on this subject to be found in local archives, libraries, and record offices around the UK.  Here are a just a few examples of some of the wonderful collections available to be explored.

There are of course many libraries in London which hold collections relating to Indian Independence, including the National Archives, the Parliamentary Archives, the Marx Memorial Library, and the London School of Economics Library. There are also a great many important collections to be found at Oxford and Cambridge, for instance:
• The Bodleian Library in Oxford holds the papers of Clement Richard Attlee, British Prime Minister 1945-1951, along with the papers of several British politicians who were involved with Indian affairs and Indian civil servants.
• Cambridge University holds the papers of many British politicians involved in the administration of British India, while the Centre for South Asian Studies holds the private papers of many members of the India Civil Service and their families, and officers and other ranks who served in the Armed Forces in India at the time of Independence.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru & Mr M.A. Jinnah walking together in the grounds of Viceregal Lodge, SimlaPandit Jawaharlal Nehru & Mr M.A. Jinnah walking together in the grounds of Viceregal Lodge, Simla,  11 May 1946 - Photo 134/2(28) Images Online c13486-35

 

Elsewhere around the UK are wonderful collections on this subject, here are just a few examples:
• The Keep Archive Centre in Brighton, which holds a collection of letters from Gandhi to Madeleine Slade (often known as Mirabehn), many written while he was at Yeravda Prison and during his period of fasting; and a collection of official papers and reports accumulated by Major-General Thomas Wynford Rees, Commander of the Punjab Boundary Force, August and September 1947.
• Correspondence between Jawaharlal Nehru and Eleanor Rathbone, May-Nov 1941, at University of Liverpool, Special Collections & Archives.
• The Mountbatten Papers and the papers of Lieutenant Colonel Nawab Sir Malik K H Tiwana (relating to the Punjab and its partition), both collections at the University of Southampton.
• Papers of Dr V.N. Sharma, Director General of Hospitals in India which include photocopies of letters and photographs sent to him by Subhas Chandra Bose at Hull History Centre.
• Quit India poster (Bombay, 1942) at West Glamorgan Archive Service.

Map showing India and Pakistan boundaries, dated 1947Map showing India and Pakistan boundaries, dated 1947 - Maps MOD OR 6409 Images Online B20151-85

In recent years there has been many fascinating projects to collect oral histories relating to independence and partition.  To name just three:
• The Memories of Partition Project Archive, a project to record the memories of those affected by the 1947 Partition of India is held at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, University of Manchester.
• The White Line - Here, There, Then, Now Oral History Project, in which interviews were carried out with people who eventually migrated to Huddersfield to record their memories of pre-Partition, the Partition era and what happened afterwards, is held at Heritage Quay, University of Huddersfield.
• India: A People Partitioned Oral Archive at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).


John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Indian Independence Collection Guide 
Archives HUB 
AIM25 
The National Archives (TNA) Discovery
Scottish Archive Network 
List of UK archives 
Chris Cook (ed), The Routledge Guide to British Political Archives: Sources since 1945 (Routledge, 2006)

25 August 2020

The Temples of Mahabalipuram and the early days of Heritage Conservation

A Privy Council appeal from 1893 reveals an attempt to preserve historic monuments in India at a time when British heritage conservation was in its infancy.

Appeals to the British Privy Council are available for free on the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) and include many cases from British India.  This appeal concerns an area of land on the east coast of India containing a quarry and a group of temples then known as the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram.  It was purchased by the British government from the Mudaliar family around 1890.

Mahavellipore. The Five RathsThe Pancha Ratha or Pandava Rathas, at Mamallapuram near Madras from James Fergusson's Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India (X590) Online Gallery  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The monuments near the town of Mahabalipuram were created in 630-668 CE and now form a UNESCO World Heritage site.  They consist of several raths, or monolithic temples, and caves cut into the rock.    The site is famed for a sculpted frieze depicting the Descent of the Ganges.  After visiting in 1841 James Fergusson, architectural historian, described the sculpture as ‘the most remarkable thing of its class in India’.

The rock sculpture of Arjuna’s Penance, MahabalipuramThe rock sculpture of Arjuna’s Penance, Mahabalipuram (WD 4206) Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Privy Council appeal brought by the Mudaliars concerns the value of the rock remaining in the quarry.  The judgment was given in the Mudaliars’ favour.  However, the document begins by describing the temples, not the quarry: ‘the Government of India is desirous of saving from destruction, and of preserving as public monuments, certain works… known as the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram'.

There were worries that the structures were in danger.  The appeal mentions that the Mudaliars had begun using explosives in the quarry, so ‘local authorities felt alarmed and advised the Government to interfere’.

While government intervention was common in India, in the United Kingdom the rights of landowners made the purchase of sites for their preservation more difficult.  The British Ancient Monuments Protection Act was enacted in 1882 to survey and record the locations of ancient sites, but had no powers to force their purchase.

Mahavallipore. Cave with a structural VimanaCave with a structural Vimana at Mahabalipuram from James Fergusson's Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India (X590) Online Gallery  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Fergusson, who described the temples in the appeal, travelled India in the 1830s and 1840s.  From 1845 he used a camera lucida to sketch Indian architecture for publications like his Illustrations of the Rock Cut Temples of India.  Many of these illustrations are available to view on the British Library website.

In the preface to a later edition, Fergusson notes that his images had captured the British imagination: ‘In consequence of the interest which these publications excited among those interested in the study of Indian Antiquities, a memorial was addressed to the Court of Directors of the East India Company, praying them to take steps to prevent further desecration and destruction of these venerable monuments of the past'.

Books like Fergusson’s publicised the value of historic monuments and increased pressure for their preservation.  In 1895 the National Trust was founded and was soon followed by additional conservation legislation in the UK.

Meanwhile, the Archaeological Survey of India, whose records are held at the British Library, took over the preservation of the site at Mahabalipuram.  The monuments were maintained in the intervening years and are now the main tourist attraction in the area.

Matthew Waters
Cataloguer, Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Privy Council Appeal: Secretary of State for India in Council v Shanmugaraya Mudaliar and others (Madras) 
J. Fergusson (1841) Illustrations of the rock cut temples of India (Vol.1), London – Preface from 1864 edition
Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1925-1932 (IOR/V/21/99)

 

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