Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Diplomatic Gifts: Issues of Colonial Appropriation in the White Tower Museum

September 9, 2010 · 4 Comments

In addition to its collection of British royal armour, the White Tower Museum at the Tower of London had an incredible collection of armour and weaponry from countries including China, Japan, Germany, and Russia.  Of particular interest to me was a helmet and a dagger, both of Indian origin.  The dagger, also known as a Katar, is decorated with a scene which includes the Hindu deities Krishna (playing the flute) and Vishnu.  Both serve a cerimonial purpose and were not meant for use in battle.

What suprised me when reading the plaque next to these items was the was the lack of detail in describing how these items were obtained.  The plaque in question simply stated that the helmet and dagger were given as a diplomatic gift to the East India Company, who then donated it to be exhibited in British museums such as the White Tower.  Without explaining the influence of the East India Company in colonial India, little context is given to the aquisition of these “diplomatic gifts”.

First, the East India Company was known to use violence to achieve its trade monopoly on the Indian Subcontinent.  In many cases, the company hired local mercenaries, also known as Sepoys (although I dont remember if the term was used in the description of the Rebellion of 1857 in White Teeth).  This divide and conquer strategy, pitting the local population against each other, allowed the company to profit extensively through exploitative trade and working conditions as well as consolidate power throughout the subcontinent.

Also, many of the so called treaties that were formed between the East India Company and the local ruling classes were later violated by the company, so to term any gifts from the local nobility as “diplomatic” is to completely whitewash the lack of concern that the company held for these agreements.  These treaties were often formed under duress or fear of violence, so the local ruling class likely had very good reason to give the invaders valuable gifts that they would normally retain for posterity.

I asked a curator in the museum if he had more specific information on how these two treasures were obtained by the East India Company, but unfortunately he was unable to tell me anything about the object besides it being on loan from another museum in the UK. He also interestingly stated that the items were donated to a museum because the company had no use for them.

Do you think that describing these items as diplomatic gifts is appropriate?

Categories: 2010 Tyler · Museums · readings

4 responses so far ↓

  •   Matthew Michrina // Sep 9th 2010 at 18:02

    Diplomacy is a funny thing, as it doesn’t necessarily have to be fair or non-coerced. India probably gave these gifts to the East India Company so that the EIC would like them more and wouldn’t be so mean. Either that, or they forced the Indians to give them gifts. Either way, it is still “diplomacy,” as it is concerned with relations between two countries (or one country and one NGO, in this case).

  •   bowmanc // Sep 9th 2010 at 18:40

    Though the complete origins of all artifacts may be interesting to note, it would be nearly impossible to do so for all the different items we’ve seen in the museums. It is certainly tempting to assume the nature of the gifts (i.e. whether it was forced, stolen, or otherwise) and I would bet it wasn’t exactly on the friendliest of terms; however, I don’t want to be bias in my judgement from the portrayals of EIC. It would be interesting to know whether the EIC donated it specifically to be used in the White Tower, or simply the British Gov, and when they did so.

  •   Karl // Sep 10th 2010 at 12:46

    Good background for your readers on the EIC and how it operated.

  •   stepheniem // Sep 10th 2010 at 14:34

    Out of curiosity, was the person you talked to am actual curator or one of the museum guards who was watching to make sure no one made off with anything? A curator would/should have had more information than what the person gave you. Also, you did you happen to note what museum it came from because that could also shed some light on its acquisition.

    Generally, I found the diplomatic gifts in the exhibit interesting because they spoke to another side of the imperialism we’ve seen at places like the British Museum. Instead of the “spoils” we’ve seen elsewhere, these were of a different breed entirely. Nonetheless, I’d love to see the provenances of all of them.

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