J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 01, 2021

A Collection of Art from Bengal via Berwickshire

Last month the Herald in Scotland reported on a collection of Indian art coming to the National Museums Scotland:
Brought back from India in 1766, the collection, which features paintings and lacquer work, was formed by Captain Archibald Swinton while he was in Bengal in north-east India between 1752 and 1766. . . .

The large paintings depict the Nawabs who were ruling Bengal at that time. When Capt Swinton, an army surgeon, first met them, they were the local rulers under Mughal sovereignty but subsequently came under British rule.

The paintings are believed to have been given as diplomatic gifts during this period of transfer of power. . . . An Edinburgh-trained surgeon, Capt Swinton, who lived from 1731 to 1804, travelled to Madras (now Chennai) in 1752 and secured a position as an army surgeon. He served in the East India Company’s army at the beginning of its military expansion in India and subsequently, with his Persian language skills and familiarity with local customs, became an interpreter for the East India Company.
Here’s a biography of Capt. Swinton from the Daily Star of Bangladesh. That article includes the Swinton family painting above, made by Alexander Naysmith in the 1780s.

Evidently the Nawabs gave this art to Capt. Swinton shortly before the East India Company and then the British military forcefully took over India. Indeed, the donors were probably showing off their wealth and power for political advantage.

As a result, this collection doesn’t carry the baggage of art objects and cultural artifacts that came to western countries through looting, conquest, or purchase in a manifestly unfair society.

National Museums Scotland has displayed some of the Swinton collection before. Now those artworks are becoming national property to settle a massive tax bill.

From The Scotsman I learn that the estate at issue belonged to the late Major-General Sir John Swinton, K.C.V.O., O.B.E., D.L., laird of Kimmerghame House and father of the actress Tilda Swinton.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Not sure I think the background to this "gift" of art is quite so anodyne, John.

The 1765 Treaty of Allahabad pretty much gave the British administrative control over the vast state of Bengal, albeit under nominal Mughal oversight. That delegation of power followed recent military defeats for the Mughals and their French allies.

So was the gift of art an equal exchange--or tribute?

On the other hand, the transition from Mughal to East India Company administration/rule was really a migration of power from one outside imperial power to another. At the time, the Mughals themselves were a fairly recent arrival on the Indian scene--their empire was less than 300 years old, really an eye-blink in the vast history of the subcontinent.

So I don't really think it's quite the story of villains and victims that some make it out to be.

Of course the East India Company "administration" of Bengal would turn catastrophic in the early 1770s as they utterly failed to address a cataclysmic famine...

J. L. Bell said...

We don’t know when these artworks came into Swinton’s hands. It could have after the 1765 treaty or in the negotiation of it, or it could have been up to a decade earlier, or spread out over his whole time in India. That was a period of conflict and some cooperation between the Nawabs and the British East India Company, including the siege of Calcutta and the battle of Plassey. The British Empire wasn’t yet at its extractive height.

It’s possible, therefore, that these items were tributes to a British official, even demanded by him. It’s also possible they were personal, private bribes, or customary, open diplomatic gifts. It’s even possible Swinton paid for these items in some way, though I doubt it. I have no idea whether the Nawab rule in Bengal was particularly fair and thus whether the objects were already morally questionable before they changed hands.

I think it’s significant that these artworks ended up in the collection of Dr. Swinton, not at the East India Company or some even more official repository. That suggests Swinton’s superiors saw them as intended for him, not as tribute to the British power.

Many of the objects appear to depict the Nawabs themselves, showing off their power and wealth. They don’t seem to be old artifacts endowed with sacred meaning in the larger Bengal culture. All in all the collection does seem to be the result of interactions between two powerful, rich elites maneuvering for political advantage rather than a powerful empire ravaging another culture.