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Surveys and Power

John Keen’s contributions to the British Museum and Dalton and Joyce’s publications arose out of a long-established imperial practice of surveying and appropriating knowledge from occupied territories, a mapping of Empire in which, as we have seen, artefacts and illustrations played a far from straightforward role. Knowledge was sought out and recorded for its commercial and strategic value, its use for navigation, trade, military and diplomatic planning, accessing natural resources, propaganda, entertainment, commerce, etc. Drawing was part of British military training and in 1849 John Frederick Herschel published A Manual of Scientific Enquiry: Prepared for the Use of Her Majesty’s Navy and Adapted for Travellers in General, teaching detailed, objective styles for describing coasts, settlements, and specimens of natural history. Large survey projects were also set up to document terrain, populations, resources, and antiquities that lay within British jurisdictions, and most territories had a surveyor-general. Images and artefacts as well as texts were initially collected and collated privately, then by institutions and learned societies, such as the East India Company and the Geographical Society of London (now the Royal Geographical Society), and museums, in which many remain.

Imperial appropriation of local knowledge and resources expressed itself in narratives and imagery of ‘discovery’. As we have seen, these cultivated an aesthetic of emptiness and ruin instead of settlement. They valorized European explorers and exploration for its own sake while neglecting the historical and current knowledge of indigenous residents— explorers, diplomats, civil servants, scholars, scientists, and artists. The second- to fifth-century complex in the state of Hyderabad now called the Ajanta Caves is a good example. In 1819, a hunting party led by British officer in the Madras army, Captain John Smith, ‘discovered’ them when an unrecorded local person showed him the entrance to 30 Buddhist monasteries and meditation rooms carved into the rock. They were decorated with murals, on one of which Smith left his signature. The fame of the Ajanta murals grew and in 1844, the Royal Asiatic Society and East India Company sponsored another British soldier in the Madras army, Captain Robert Gill, to copy and, after 1856, photograph them in two and three dimensions (stereographs). A Bombay Cave Temple Commission was set up by the Royal Asiatic Society in 1848 which, in 1861, evolved into an Archaeological Survey of India. In London, paintings, watercolours, and photographs of the caves illustrated scholarly publications as well as serving the growing commercial market for exhibitions and images of spectacles that most Europeans would never see first-hand. Gill’s paintings were put on show at the East India Company Museum and reproduced in the Illustrated London News, framed to appeal to British appetites for the romantic and ‘exotic’ (see Figure 3.7). Of the 30 works, 25 were lent to the Great Exhibition in 1851 and later at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, where they were destroyed in a fire in 1866.

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Figure 3.7 Detail, Robert Gill (1804-1879), ‘Paintings in the Ajunta Caves (Museum of the East India House)’, Illustrated London News, 8 September 1849.

Source: © Mary Evans Picture Library.

Felix Driver has pointed that colonial surveys of this kind, conducted to appropriate and exploit, also have potential to reveal ‘hidden histories’. For example, it is now known that Gill’s paintings were a collaboration with a successful Indian portrait painter called Culiannee (Costaras and Patel 2008, Vol. 2, 596-597). Driver points to British and local military, civil, and amateur researchers such as the British sailor Linton Palmer and the Rapa Nui islander and soldier (Juan) Tepano Rano (Driver 2015, 21-23). The texts and images they generated offer more nuanced understanding of images of Empire. Tepano helped shape the archaeological survey of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) carried out in 1914 and 1915 by the Royal Geographical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the British Museum under British archaeologist and anthropologist Katherine Routledge. He became an acknowledged, sought-after expert in, and guardian of, his island’s culture. The naval surgeon, Linton Palmer, travelled around the world and donated six albums of amateur drawings, photographs, and cuttings to the Royal Geographical Society. On a British Naval mission to help the Hudson Bay Trading Company colonize the land of the Songhees nation on the west coast of America, on and around what is now known as Vancouver Island, Palmer made drawings of Songhees people, landscape, buildings, artefacts, and activities at this precise historical moment. They included a portrait of the Songhees leader, Cheealthluc. Cheealthluc’s British naval captain’s dress jacket could only have been acquired as a high-status gift or powerful bargain. This and the Russian cap reflect his role in the decisive diplomatic negotiations then going on with Britain, Russia, and the United States which led to a treaty with the British. Following colonization, the Songhees population dwindled to a few hundred. Driver points out that when they recovered in the twentieth century, Palmer’s drawings of the nation at the moment of colonization took on a different historical currency, forming part of the evidence in a legal action against the Canadian government accused of failing to honour the treaty, successfully settled in 2006 (Driver 2015, 19).

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