As I stood in the reading room of the DeGolyer library, I struggled to process the sheer amount of visual information being thrown at me. Before me stood three long tables which were scattered with various photographs, frail and aging, their warm, brown tints calling me closer. The DeGolyer library at Southern Methodist University has an incredibly impressive collection of photographs depicting colonial India and Mexico in the late-18th to mid 19th centuries. These photographs illustrate a wide range of people and sights, from landscapes to depictions of nobility to rugged, honest (and some romanticized, less honest) descriptions of rural life.
One particular photograph catches my eye. It shows a group of men, some standing, some kneeling, some sitting. They all seem to carry a certain air of nobility, although the one seated figure seems to wield a certain amount of authority that the others do not possess. I also suspect that I’m drawn to the photograph because of the incredibly ornate head wraps. The foreign nature of their dress, and consequently, the foreign nature of the picture is what makes the picture so compelling. It carries the implication that there’s a distinct world that’s been captured in this photograph; one that I’m aware of but am able to fully comprehend.
And yet, it is this awareness of the intangible, the desire to discover the unknown which compels historians to dig deeper into the histories behind these photographs. But why? Out of all of the various forms of media that refer to 19th century India, why have historians chosen to collect and dissect something like photography?
What does it mean to take a photograph? American society has crafted a very specific context around that action. To take is possessive. So when someone takes a photograph, they are capturing something very essential about whatever subject matter is before them and keeping it for themselves. In the same way that we use photography to capture faces, historians use photography to capture things which lie beneath the surface, things with less immediacy but as much importance. Capturing histories. Capturing culture.
For example, the aforementioned photo, titled ‘Goals, or Hereditary Slaves of Katiawar’ is an interesting statement about Britain’s relationship with the customs of colonial India. ‘Goals’ were a class of servant in India. (Machado 261) They often came from the bloodlines of people who couldn’t afford to pay off debts, or from people who had previously functioned as aides and servants to nobility. However, it is very possible that the individuals pictured are of a higher order of servants. Notice the nature of their clothing; it appears very clean and moderately expensive. Articles of clothing such as sashes and vests indicate higher levels of social caste that just a simple servant.
In Katiawar, the import of African slaves was a very common practice. Slave labor would be used for the domestic and agricultural maintenance of the elite and ruling classes of India. (EIC 179). What’s so compelling about this entire situation is that Britain, India’s colonizers, had already abolished slavery. Even though the British could strongly imply that slavery was not to be tolerated, the way in which they dealt with slavery in India was much more relaxed. British presence in India was often ‘ambivalent’ or even outwardly supportive of ‘slaveholder’s property rights’.
So this particular photograph is a visual manifestation of a very awkward and complex association between Britain’s version of morality and India’s version of reality. There’s also the very interesting and perplexing pattern of a subjugated population turning around and subjugating others, in India’s case, poorer Indians and Africans having to be subservient to richer Indians. It also reflects an unfortunate consequence of imperialism, the idea that the colonized population can adopt the worst aspects of the people colonizing them, often adopting their ideologies and to a degree, mirroring them.
Another wonderful capability of photography is to capture the kineticism of everyday life. One particularly interesting photograph depicts an entire community of Indians who are involved in railroad construction. The scene is teeming with life; robed women sit to the left, presumably conversing while performing some sort of labor with their hands. In the middle of the scene, the road is absolute chaos; people bathed in swaths of white cloth going to and fro, a jumble of carts and wood, what appears to be a dark, sun-beaten, lanky man carrying some sort of apparatus or raw material on his back and side. Down to the right, a pantheon of somber, standing figures stares directly at the camera. Straw shanties and livestock bookend the picture; framing it to focus our interest and restrict our movement within the composition, but also achieving a feeling of movement and instability.
The irony of the rural nature of this photograph is that it actually depicts railroad construction. The British commissioned several rich, white industrialists to build railroad systems throughout India (IRFCA 1). Likely, the British were using the Indian people to construct their railroads because of their knowledge of the land and the very cheap labor that was afforded to them. Undoubtedly, the people who were making these railroads were wholly unable to actually use them. The physical object which is dictating so much of how they live their lives isn’t materially present; rather it is a symbolic figure that comes to represent their own lack of agency. It’s also very representative of how Indian society worked: the indigenous people of India were subjected to labor but were ultimately separated from and denied the fruit of what their hands wrought.
A lot of the photographs of colonial India work along these lines. They’re rich, loaded images that retrace the histories of India’s interactions with the British Empire. In general, they’re also an incredibly interesting look into the patterns of colonization, which is why these images have been paired with a series of images from colonial Mexico. Mexico’s colonial history with Spain takes considerably different forms than that of colonial India’s. But when historians harness the nature of photography and its ability to convey deeper themes, they see fundamental similarities between the two societies and histories.
One photograph is an incredibly dark depiction of an execution by hanging. To the left is a short tree, one that barely seems able to bear the weight of a body. It’s a compositionally disruptive element that brings the movement of the eye to a screeching, dead halt. It’s a pause that allows the viewer to take in the solemn nature of this scene. Strewn from the tree are two lifeless bodies, swinging from the tree. Their faces are dark and obscured. While this quality robs us of knowing their identity, it also transforms them into metaphorical beings; these figures which are victims of violence are representative of the larger Mexican populace, who are victims of violence and mistreatment from their colonizers.
The figures in the middle of the photograph are less provocative, but equally, if not more informative concerning colonialism in Mexico. The boldest standing figure is incredibly dark and foreboding, more of a specter than a human. He is heavily strapped with what appears to be ammunition around his chest and waist. To his right is a large, black firearm on which he is placing his weight. His sombrero is also striking. Because the most stereotypical characterization of Mexicans from the outside world is a figure in a sombrero, this figure is transformed into a sort of archetypal Mexican male. This is what also makes this scene very disquieting. The Spanish often characterized the indigenous people of Mexico as base, immoral and violent, and the role that this figure serves as executioner serves to reinforce this notion.
The most powerful and yet somehow least visible element in this picture is the pair of white men, standing in between the hanged individuals and the executioner. The two aforementioned figures command so much immediate attention that this pair of people is easy to miss. However, this is ironic considering that it’s very possible that these individuals are the ones who have ordered the execution. There doesn’t seem for there to be any other reason for these men to be present, and generally speaking, executioners don’t execute people purely of their own volition, rather they’re commissioned. But even though they are the most insidious element in this photograph by contracting the death of others, they play the background by allowing the Mexican executioner to be the focus of the viewer’s fear.This also strongly relates to the first image in the patterns that colonizers adopt in the control of the colonized population. Instead of directly imposing their will on the colonized, they often influence certain elements of the colonized to indirectly do their dirty work.
The figures in the previous photograph expose something very unsettling in the realm of photography. Photography is incredibly subjective; the biases of the photographer are crystallized and trapped within each picture. This is most easily shown in Spanish characterization of the Indians of Mexico.
One photographer illustrates the typical Indian as a part of an overarching series called ‘Types of Mexicans’. The photograph shows two, short Indian men standing in the street, outside of a house, Their clothing is very simple and very cheap. They’re wearing identical ponchos made of a very thick material that must be uncomfortable to wear. They each have a very dirty pair of white or khaki shorts, and they’re both barefooted. The street they’re standing in is strewn with trash, making it an inconvenient place to travel barefoot. The shelter they’re standing in front of also reflects a low socioeconomic standing. It’s roof is made of straw, ad it’s enclosing facade is made of many large, sturdy sticks woven together as some makeshift door/wall.
This picture serves to reinforce the common characterization of Indians in Mexico. The Spanish generalized them as poor, uneducated, and unable to govern themselves properly. The unorganized, impoverished nature of these two Indians and their surroundings reinforces this generalization.
Machado, Pedro. “Africa in India.” In Ocean of Trade: South Asian Merchants, Africa and the Indian Ocean, C. 1750-1850, 261-263. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
“Relating to Slavery in the East Indies.” In East India: Slavery, Volume Three, 179. Vol. 3. East India Company, 1841.
“IR History: Early Days – I.” [IRFCA] Indian Railways FAQ: IR History: Early Days. Accessed April 30, 2015.