Author Archives: sumitamukherjee

Anthropological Exhibits at Glasgow

On 1 April (2014), Rosie Spooner led a fascinating discussion on international exhibitions in London, Glasgow and Canada, including postcards from her personal, family archive. Apart from discussion on theory, material culture and the relationship between metropole and periphery we also discussed the ways in which people were often used as exhibits in themselves at imperial exhibitions. Invariably these were African men and women who were brought over to recreate village scenes. Although in Glasgow they also had Highland village scenes with real people used as exhibits.

This idea of the ‘human zoo’ has been in the news this week. In 1914, Norway hosted such an exhibition which had a Congolese village with Africans dressed in ‘traditional dress’ as exhibits.

To quote from The Independent, 20 April 2014:

The original exhibition, called The Congolese Village, was staged in Frogner Park, Oslo, and opened by the King of Norway. It ran for five months and, as well as a roller coaster and pantomime theatre, showed 80 African men, women and children living in palm-roof cabins, surrounded by indigenous artefacts and going about their daily routine of cooking, eating and making handicrafts.

It was the idea of a London-based Hungarian-born impresario named Benno Singer, and was marketed as a carnival freakshow. It tapped into an enthusiasm in other parts of Europe for human zoos, which were supposed to show off the civilising effect of colonialism. Huge crowds gathered to see a similar exhibition in Belgium, despite some of the 267 Congolese villagers dying during the show’s run and being unceremoniously buried in a common grave.

And now artists in Oslo are planning to recreate this exhibition next month. Despite planning to use this as a way to confront the racism of Norway’s past, some anti-racist groups are horrified by the idea as are some neo-Nazi groups. It will open on 15 May and run for four months, all going well.

As the Huffington Post, 18 April 2014, explains:

Mohamed Ali Fadlabi, of Sudan, and Lars Cuzner, of Sweden and Canada, are calling their project “European Attraction Limited,” an attempt to challenge notions of postmodern racism and the treatment of minorities today through historical reenactment.

Would this work in Glasgow? Would a re-enactment of the Sri Lankan waiters and Indian potters at the 1888 Kelvingrove Exhibition, or the aforementioned Highland villages, meet with approval, concern or apathy?

John Lavery's painting of an unknown Indian potter at the 1888 Kelvingrove Exhibition

John Lavery’s painting of an unknown Indian potter at the 1888 Kelvingrove Exhibition


The Imperial Exhibition at Kelvingrove (part 2)

Here are some more photos from the current display at the Kelvingrove Museum relating to the 1888 International Exhibition, which included exhibits (animate and inanimate) from parts of the British Empire, especially India.




Britain and the Sea (BBC One)

David Dimbleby is currently presenting a series on Sunday nights on BBC 1 called Britain and the Sea. Episode three aired on Sunday 1 December 2013 entitled ‘Trade and Romance’ and covered the West Coast of Scotland. In his own boat, Rocket, Dimbleby sailed from Craobh Haven to the city of Glasgow, a city that he described a number of times in the programme as the Second City of Empire.

As Dimbleby entered the port of Greenock, he started to explain why Glasgow was the ‘Second City of Empire’. It should be noted that Tom Devine was credited under the ‘Thanks’ at the end of the programme, although he did not appear and Dimbleby took all writing credits.

Tobacco, sugar and cotton came to Glasgow from America because it was a shorter sea route than to London and saved up to three weeks:

Screengrab from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

Screengrab from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

A quarter of the world’s locomotives and a fifth of the world’s ships were built on the Clyde as heavy industry took over in the second half of the nineteenth century:

Screengrab from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

Screengrab from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

At James Watt Dock at Greenock, warehouses were built for the sugar, known as the Sugar Sheds from 1886, as the large ships sailing from America could go no further down the Clyde, and with 400 ships a year coming into Greenock. As Scotland processed a quarter of Britain’s trade in sugar, Dimbleby argued that the Act of the Union helped Scotland as they could now engage in free trade within the British Empire, particularly with America.

And more tobacco was coming through the Clyde than in all of the rest of Britain combined creating the ‘Tobacco Lords’. They built up the city of Glasgow with their wealth and had streets named after them:

Screengrabs from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

Screengrabs from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

Dimbleby ends the journey in Glasgow, pointing out the Glenlee (the Tall Ship at the Riverside Museum) that was built in 1896 and carried cargo from Glasgow to Liverpool and South Africa and Australia. He ends the programme by explaining that the city of Glasgow was built on its commercial wealth from trading with the Americas and the Empire, justifying its claim to be the ‘Second City of Empire’.

But for Dimbleby this is a heroic aspect of Scotland and Glasgow’s history – without stopping to consider that it built its wealth on the exploitation of others. Would any other city today like to boast that it grew out of the wealth accrued from possessing an empire? I’m not sure London would be proud today to claim that it is the first city of Empire, that the City of London grew out of exploitative financial relationships with the colonies and unequal trade agreements. Or that Glasgow should be proud that it built its wealth on trading in sugar and tobacco that were grown on labour-intensive plantations (almost all slave plantations). Not to mention the exploitation of the shipbuilders etc on the Clyde.

It was actually a fascinating programme, very well put together, as we followed David Dimbleby on his journey. And he is, of course, a great presenter. It’s still on iplayer to watch until 15 December, and it’s well worth the watch. It informed viewers about greater Glasgow’s links with imperial trade and the history of shipbuilding. It wasn’t all about Glasgow, as the earlier parts were great when Dimbleby was sailing through the canals and locks. Of course, empire was not all ‘bad’ either, but if Dimbleby had only shown some awareness of the complexities of Britain’s imperial history, if only with an aside, then I would have felt much more comfortable at the end.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

As armistice day approaches, we remember the millions who died not only in the two World Wars but in in conflicts since. It is a day of national remembrance but it is not just about British men and women. The contribution that men and women from Britain’s empire played in the war effort should not be forgotten – thousands of whom also died for Britain.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the cemeteries and memorials for the 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars in 153 countries. Their website provides a database of the men and women who are remembered (although there are many who are not named).

But as men and women from the empire came to join British forces, many of their bodies were not repatriated and many were buried or cremated in Britain or in the fields of war. Rupert Brooke’s famous poem, ‘The Soldier’ talks of:

If I should die, think only this of me;

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England

Well, similarly there are parts of Britain that are for ever Indian, Canadian, South African, Australian etc.

A quick search of the cemeteries in Glasgow brings up many who originated from these countries and were buried in Scotland. Just two examples include –


Peter Mathai, a 20 year old Indian who served in the Navy during World War Two


Annie Winifred Munro, a South African nurse, who died during World War One.

So on November 11th, remember their contributions too.

Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project

The Guardian today (Wednesday 28 August 2013) features an article on the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project today. An online database created by researchers at UCL tracing the impact of slave ownership on Britain.

It traces the British slave owners who were compensated following the abolition of slavery and inevitably a number can be traced through Glasgow and Scotland. In recent years, some innovative research has been taking place in Glasgow University and elsewhere on the Glasgow and Scottish links to slavery and slave-ownership. In the meantime, the Legacies of British Slave Ownership website is a good tool to search for Glasgow links.

A quick search for Glasgow in the database brings up hundreds of entries. The first is for a John Adam, a merchant claiming compensation for holdings in St Vincent, whose addresses in Glasgow included Queens Terrace and Virginia Street. He was claiming for £231 17s 2d.

According to the newspaper, the database can be used as a family history tool – to search whether your ancestors were involved in and benefitted from the slavery business. Will be interesting to see what further links and information it brings up as the project continues.

Related articles

Indian Lascars in Glasgow

One way of exploring Glasgow’s relationship with empire and status as ‘Second City of Empire’ is by looking at various men and women from the colonies of the British Empire who visited or settled in the port city of Glasgow. One major way that men and women came to Glasgow was through the ships carrying imperial trade and the ships bringing back British colonial officials. ‘Lascars’ (Indian seamen) often worked on these ships – below deck – and often either ‘jumped ship’ or made it be known that they were settling in the UK.

Indian lascars had been arriving in Britain since at least the 18th century and soon became notable presences portside. Major works on lascars include books written by Rozina Visram and Laura Tabili. Other books that look at Scotland’s relationship with lascars include ones written by Bashir Maan and one edited by Thomas C. Smout. For anyone interested in narrative stories about Indian lascars more generally, Amitav Ghosh’s current Ibis Trilogy includes stories about some lascars in the Indian Ocean.

Lascar, built by Scotts Bowling in 1939 in Yard no. 353. The ship to its left is unknown but is believe to have been built in Glasgow. From the Bill Lind Collection. From Flickr

Lascar, built by Scotts Bowling in 1939 in Yard no. 353.
The ship to its left is unknown but is believe to have been built in Glasgow.
From the Bill Lind Collection.
From Flickr

There is plenty of other research going on about lascars and Glasgow, including their involvement (or not) in the 1919 Port Riots. The Glasgow Indian Union was set up in 1911 and took up a number of issues relating to Indians in Glasgow, including the discrimination against lascars after the 1925 Special Restriction (Coloured Seamen) Order of 1925 that required seamen to report regularly, and be classified as ‘aliens’, if they did not have documentary proof of their nationality. The recent Stephen Poliakoff drama on BBC2 called Dancing on the Edge showed how a black Jazz band had to go through certain constraints in 1930s London because of this order.

Many lascars gave up their jobs on the ships to open up cafes and curry-houses, or become ‘peddlers’. Are there any descendants of that early South Asian settler population living in Glasgow today? It would be great to get more stories and comments on this for the blog.