Many Australians would be unaware of how much Indians have contributed to this country. Indians have traded with Australia since the first European settlement; they have lived and worked here for over two hundred years. Yet we don’t often hear about this aspect of Australian history. The exhibition, ‘East of India: Forgotten trade with Australia’ currently being held at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney is a welcome opportunity to learn more about this.
Understanding historical context is vital in good histories and this exhibition provides plenty of that. The items shown in ‘East of India’ weave a story of power, wealth, violence, culture and everyday life. The visitor is first immersed in the history of colonial India starting from the time when the Portuguese adventurer, Vasco da Gama, became the first European to find a sea route to India, to the Indian Rebellion in 1857. During the age of empire it was the sea, not the land which provided the transportation through which European nations dominated the globe.
‘East of India’ has some stunning exhibits, among which is a map on a parchment from 1599 with a section of the northern coast of Australia labelled as ‘beach’. I couldn’t help thinking how appropriate that label is! I was also attracted to a tiny locket commemorating the wedding in 1662 between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, Portugal. What struck me as remarkable about the locket was not its form, but the enormity of what it represented. Catherine’s dowry included the Portuguese territory of Bombay (now Mumbai). I found it staggering that the wedding between two people could have such great repercussions for people who lived in a place that required months of arduous travel to reach.
The extraordinary power of the East India Company was conveyed in many artefacts but two drawings captured my attention. One showed the inside of the ‘Sale Room’ at the Company’s palatial London headquarters, East India House. This is where the produce of India was sold, ready for consumption by Europeans captivated by Indian textiles, tea, indigo and saltpetre. Looking down on the crowd conducting business were statues of famous Company leaders adorned with togas. Both the inside and the outside of this building were designed to assert the power of the Company.
The other drawing which I gravitated to was of the East India Docks in London by William Daniell. On the drawing he wrote that the area of water covered by these docks was thirty and a half acres and the area reserved for the Company’s inward bound shipping catered for eighty-four ships. The sheer scale of the operations of the East India Company is staggering.
Yet the East India Company was reviled by many of the British themselves as the cartoons in the exhibition demonstrated. None of the wealth and power that the East India Company once held could protect them from the consequences of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The palace that was East India House was not just sold, it was demolished. Lloyds of London now stands where the seat of the once invincible company used to dominate the street.
India was renowned for its cloth in Europe. In the exhibition visitors can see some stunning designs but I also appreciated the simpler things such as the explanation of what chintz is. Chintz was the English name given to the cloths painted in vibrant colours with dye that Indians called kalamkari.
Care has been taken for the exhibition to appeal to a variety of senses. Delicate fabrics must remain behind a glass screen but a cloth is designed for the touch a well as its visual appeal. Visitors are encouraged to feel a number of samples of khadi – the traditional Indian hand-woven cloth.
Sound is incorporated into the exhibition at a few points. Visitors can hear a song, ‘Jessie’s Dream: A Story of the Relief of Lucknow’ composed by John Blockley and lyricist, Grace Campbell in the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion. There is also a reading of one stanza of a poem, ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ (The Queen of Jhansi) in Hindi and English eulogising an Indian heroine of the Rebellion.
I was thoroughly absorbed in the exhibition when I entered the sections focussing on Indian-Australian connections. The English had a well-established presence in India by the time that the first fleet landed in New South Wales. Crucially, India was significantly closer to Australia than Britain so permission to trade with India was granted with the third fleet. In 1791 Governor Phillip sent a ship to Bengal to gather supplies for the struggling colony in the antipodes; thus commenced an important trading relationship between the two colonies. Perhaps it is the everyday nature of the trade between India and Australia historically that has caused it to be overlooked. Between 1791 and 1845 seven hundred and sixty ships left Sydney to India and twenty-four ships capsized on these routes between 1797 and 1849.
It was not only goods that were exchanged between the two colonies. People also came. Many of the English who worked in India retired to Australia instead of returning back to England, Tasmania being a favoured destination. Indians worked in Australia but at times there was controversy over their terms of employment. In a sound booth visitors can hear actors reading the testimony given by Indian servants to New South Wales magistrates in 1819 complaining about their poor treatment at the hands of a Mr. Browne. This method of presenting the testimonies to visitors works well (more background on this exhibit here). Visitors can also see a contract of indenture signed by one of the Indians working as a servant in Australia. The exhibition notes bring the visitor’s attention to the controversy over such terms of indenture. Such contracts were considered too close to slavery by the British in Australia.
I was reminded of Fiona Paisley’s book, The Lone Protestor. Paisley briefly touches on the early history of people from the subcontinent and their relationship with Aborigines in nineteenth century Sydney and Western Australia. A ship’s roll is shown with the names of seaman thought to be Lascars (the name given to seamen from India) and visitors can see a Sydney Gazette issue describing an Islamic procession by Bengali seamen in Sydney in 1806. However, the exhibition notes share the observation that there are few records surviving about the Lascars of Sydney.
I was further reminded of The Lone Protestor when looking at the items about the Prinsep family who lived in India for many generations. Charles Prinsep founded the Belvedere Estate in Western Australia from where he sold horses to the Indian army. He also exported jarrah sleepers for use by the Indian railways. In The Lone Protestor Paisley mentions Charles Prinsep’s son, Henry, who was the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia and the recipient of letters of protest written by the Aboriginal man, Fernando.
Horses were also exported to India from New South Wales. Among these exporters were the East India Company itself. It purchased a property near present day Blacktown in 1845 and used it to breed horses for the Company’s army in India.
From the middle of the nineteenth century the exhibition fast-tracked to the twenty-first century. At the end of the exhibition visitors can sit down to watch a film specially commissioned by the Australian National Maritime Museum, ‘Indian Aussies – Terms and Conditions Apply’ This is an enjoyable and gently thought-provoking way to end the exhibition (read more about this film here)
I had finished viewing the exhibition, yet there were things I had expected which were missing. Where was the reference to the camels and the Indians who managed them who were so crucial to life and the economy in inland Australia during the latter half of the nineteenth century? I also had expected more focus on Western Australia as I knew that the relationship with India was particularly strong in this colony.
I guessed at the answer – space. This exhibition is large already. How could the curators have included the rest of the history? I asked the assistant curator of the exhibition, Michelle Linder, and she confirmed my suspicion. The curators had decided that the exhibition needed to be limited to the Indian and Australian history up to the mid-nineteenth century. However, this is not mentioned in any of the literature I have read about the exhibition produced by the Museum hence my expectations. For this reason I found the end of the exhibition rather abrupt.
I was thoroughly engrossed in the exhibition. When I emerged I was shocked when I looked at the time. In total I had spent nearly four hours in the exhibition and missed eating lunch. So there were some missing histories. No exhibition can cover it all. Clearly this exhibition had the depth to captivate me to the extent I lost all track of time.
This exhibition brings together a fascinating collection of items from a large number of Australian and British institutions. New South Wales institutions such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Dixson Galleries of the State Library of New South Wales and the Powerhouse Museum contributed items. There were items from the British Museum, the British Library, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston contributed some items as did the National Trust of Australia.
If you have a chance I recommend that you make the effort to see this exhibition. There are many items I have not mentioned in this review which I am sure will captivate others. This is a unique opportunity to see these items in one place and to immerse yourself in a different depiction of our history.
Disclosure: I received a free ticket to view this exhibition from the Australian National Maritime Museum.
‘East of India: Forgotten Trade with Australia’ is showing until 18th August 2013. Ticket information and access to some good background about the exhibition can be found on the Australian National Maritime Museum website. Museum staff have written a number of interesting blog posts about the exhibition on the Museum’s blog. There are some interesting events associated with the exhibition which you can check out here.
5/7/2013: Fellow history blogger, Chloe Okoli, has also reviewed this exhibition. You can read her review here. Each person views an exhibition in a different way, so Chloe’s review is quite different to mine. Take the time to check it out!