Desktop version

Home arrow History

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font


<<   CONTENTS   >>

A Visible History of Exploration

During my research on the Wise Collection I found out about those who came into contact with the collection in a tangible way, in particular Thomas Alexander Wise and William Edmund Hay. Discovering their life stories enabled me to understand the historical context in which the maps and drawings of what was later called the Wise Collection were commissioned, produced, and purchased. It also enabled me to understand their ambitions to ‘collect Tibet’. Maya Jasanoff says about collectors:

Collectors make excellent guides across imperial frontiers because of their active, tangible engagement with other cultures, and their preoccupation with status and self-fashioning. Furthermore, by moving objects to Europe, they played an active role in representing foreign cultures to a wider Western public.

(Jasanoff 2006, 8)

These collectors and their world have vanished. But the objects they collected, moved, and brought together still tender proof of their passion. In Britain and its former colonies—indeed, around the world—the artefacts give hard evidence of the human contacts that underpinned the otherwise intangible quantities of globalization and empire.

(Jasanoff 2006, 12-13)

This statement is also true for Thomas Alexander Wise and William Edmund Hay. There is not much that remains from their lives. Of course, we can find their names in various official lists and records, we know when they left for India as young men and when they returned, we know the names of their spouses and (if there were any) their children. There remain just a few personal letters that give us an idea about their personalities, about their thoughts, worries, and dreams. The most sustainable trace they left is probably their publications and the material things that remained: objects that these men collected during their lifetime. These objects were the record of their life in India: the things with which they had surrounded themselves, things they had chosen to collect, things that were given them as presents, and things they explicitly commissioned. So, what kind of knowledge is represented in the British Library’s Wise Collection? What were Hay and Wise interested in? What does the collection of maps and drawings tell us about their makers and collectors?

At first sight the maps in the collection give the impression of visual narratives of a pilgrimage undertaken by the lama who produced them. Joseph Schwartzberg states that places of religious importance figured prominently on primarily secular Tibetan maps, even those believed to have been drawn primarily for intelligence purposes at the behest of the British (Schwartzberg 1994, 672). The Wise Collection maps are primarily neither secular nor religious but represent an interesting mix of both categories. The result of a collaborative project between two players from different cultural backgrounds—a Buddhist lama and a British official— the maps reveal complex in-depth knowledge of Tibet. Traces of this collaboration can be found at various points. By comparing the picture maps with earlier Chinese, Tibetan, and European maps a hybrid characteristic can be found. So far, no other maps of the same period have been found that are even approximately comparable to the Wise Collections’ maps. The lama developed his own style of drawing and created maps with a hybrid character. In drawing these unique maps, he combined both Tibetan style with text inside them and European-style accuracy. The maps are dominated by illustrations of major monasteries. Some of them even dominate the landscape. Furthermore, numerous accompanying drawings provide a wide spectrum of information about monastic life and rituals. If we look closely at the maps and analyse these images, we realize that the maps represent quite another kind of knowledge about Tibet—detailed information referring to power and control—important knowledge for somebody with a strategic interest in Tibet. The panorama shown on the maps represents the area along important travel routes. The maps present information about topographical characteristics like mountains, rivers, lakes, flora, fauna, and settlements. Furthermore, they contain many detailed illustrations of infrastructure such as bridges, ferries, travel route roads, and mountain passes. Numerous remarks in English provide additional information on travel routes, travel times, the nature of rivers, quality of bridges, and the altitude of mountain passes. The maps of Southern and Central Tibet are dominated by illustrations showing monasteries, forts, and Qing residences and garrisons. Nearly 30

A Visual History of an Exploration of Tibet 55 such residences are shown on these maps, all located at strategic places: close to monasteries and forts as well as at border crossing points. The maps of Western Tibet illustrate its sparse population, and while they show fewer monasteries, there are more marketplaces and tazam stations (literary, ‘horse bridge’, government post station, a halting spot where one could get fresh horses). Thus, these maps show information for somebody who is interested not only in strategic details but also in information about spheres of influence, like who has the power and which places are important. Forts, monasteries, and Qing residences and garrisons were the three main seats of power in mid-nineteenth-century Tibet, and these circumstances are reflected in the maps. All the details shown on the maps provide a wide spectrum of information that makes Tibet accessible for outsiders.19

It is notable that the illustrations start (or end) where the influence of the British Empire ends, at the ‘old established borders’ between British India and Tibet. We can assume that Hay oversaw the drawing and production of the maps. Nevertheless, he played a passive role. The lama was the more active member of the team, providing his ‘insiderknowledge’. He produced what Michael Aris called ‘a unique view from within’. Every time I look at the Wise Collection in the British Library I am overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the material, by the beauty and vivid colour of the illustrations, and by the precision of all the little intricate details. The composition of the landscapes and visual narratives make them a unique, comprehensive ethnographic atlas of the Himalayas. I wonder how Hay and Wise regarded their ‘Tibet collection’. Did they regard it as ‘curious’? Did they value the collection in terms of its scientific significance? I wonder if they were aware of the maps and drawings’ true value. Matthew Edney stated in Mapping an Empire:

The trigonometrical surveys were privileged because they represented a European science beyond the scope of the Indians themselves. Indians made maps, which were in turn used by the British, but they could not make maps of the quality of those based on European “scientific principles’”.

(Edney 1997,317)

In general the British surveyors in British India believed that their sketches and descriptions were true and correct representations of the environment. The pundits’ exploration reports and maps were produced and published by the British. Would Montgomerie—or any other British official—have been able to ‘read’ the set of detailed maps showing the ‘great road’ between Lhasa and Gartok made by a Tibetan ‘insider’? Most of the information collected by the pundits during their exploration tours between the 1860s and 1880s was already in England in the form of the later Wise Collection. But it was probably not recognized, because reference material about Tibet’s geography was very rare. The first Tibetan dictionary was published in 1834; later versions did not appear before the 1870s. Thus only a few people in Europe would have been able to read and translate the Tibetan notes on the maps and drawings. In a way, the maps without an English key for the numberings were not ‘readable’ at all for most Europeans. The ‘picture maps’ were probably regarded as nice curiosities, made by a Tibetan. Nevertheless, the Wise Collection can be seen as a ‘visible history’ of an early exploration of Tibet—from the British point of view. The collection represents the result of a collaboration between two key players from different cultural backgrounds, one of them probably having strategic interests in mind but also a personal interest in a ‘blank space’. The lama who was willing to share his knowledge about Tibet was probably not aware of his role in this context—in contrast to the pundits. How did he perceive Hay or any other ‘Englishman’?

There is one drawing in the Wise Collection that shows a range of people from different Tibetan regions and its borderlands. The individual people are shown in great detail with their characteristic attributes such as clothes, headgear, and the objects they carried. The only figure that does not seem to fit in the picture at the first glance is a man sitting on a chair—representing an Englishman. To my mind, this drawing represents one of the most important accompanying drawings in the entire Wise Collection.

The acquisition of systematic knowledge about Tibet not only focused on topographical knowledge but also included information about Tibetan society, its people, and travellers in that area. Some maps, indeed, show pilgrims, travellers, traders, officials, and others as they moved from place to place. The illustrations shown in this drawing represent an important key to other maps and drawings in the collection because most of the people depicted here—in detail—can be found on other drawings as well, but on a smaller scale. This drawing reminds of European maps made during the ‘age of discoveries and exploration’ that show not only the ‘new discovered areas’ but also ethnographic drawings and descriptions of the respective natives on the map’s edge.20 The English language note for the person in the first row states: intended for an Englishman’, and a pencil note adds: ‘a Missionary’.

There is no Tibetan caption given for this person. He is the only one represented sitting on a chair; he is shown wearing white trousers and a white-blue patterned jacket with buttonholes and golden buttons. He has black shoes, red socks, and a black-white hat. His facial features are presented in detail and differ from the other people shown in the drawing: his eyebrows and nose are bigger. The faces of the others are depicted in more stereotypical ways. The lama probably portrayed a person he knew, or did he have a certain person in his mind, like William Edmund Hay or one of the Moravian missionaries? The style of the illustration is

A Visual History of an Exploration of Tibet 57 reminiscent of other portraits of Englishmen who were portrayed sitting on chairs, such as those showing Warren Hastings (1732-1818) and the explorer William Moorcroft (1767-1825). I wonder why the lama placed him at the start of the row. This placement could represent the Englishman’s position in the hierarchy, or at least the lama’s perception of his position. Why is he shown at all amongst the other people who are residing or travelling in Tibet? There were no Englishmen in Central Tibet in the mid-nineteenth century, unlike the Western Himalayan borderlands. I get the impression that the Englishman is looking in the direction of all the people shown in the drawing, holding paper, and making notes about them. He seems to represent a person collecting information—did the lama experience him like this?

 
<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics