The Curiosity Corporation that Defined Colonialism

Rich with meticulous archival detail and more than 200 years of the East India Company’s history, Company Curiosities provides little in the way of argument or critical intervention, leaving the reader to interpret its vast expanse of material.

Company Curiosities: Nature, Culture and the East India Company, 1600-1874 by Arthur MacGregor (image courtesy of Reaktion Books)

In response to an early-19th-century call for new plants, animals, or artifacts, hopefully “useful” ones, to add to the recently funded India House — the museum, storehouse, and headquarters of the infamous East India Company — a colonial governor-general forwarded what became one of its most iconic objects: Tipu’s Tiger. Stolen from Tipu Sultan’s palace at Seringapatam by company forces, the hand-painted wood-and-metal automaton could be manipulated via a small organ and window at its back to attack an attached automatic soldier, eliciting roars, screams, and waving arms, all of which were originally designed to symbolize British defeat. Displayed in the museum’s main hall in Central London and “hacked,” apparently, to play various British songs, Tipu’s Tiger drew shrieks of joy and horror from visitors fascinated by a region most would never visit. Meanwhile, studious readers poring over the company’s collections sighed a breath of relief when the machine’s handle broke in 1843, finally silencing the beast.

Tipu’s Tiger, a symbol of the East India Company’s ruthless looting (or, in their words, “collecting”), makes visible the company’s struggle between private and public interests, between commercial and governmental financing, and between the radically different forms of colonial encounter happening in situ and back in Britain. It’s fitting, then, that the tiger graces the cover of Arthur MacGregor’s recent compendium of colonial collections, Company Curiosities: Nature, Culture and the East India Company, 1600 – 1874. And a compendium is precisely what the author, former senior curator of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, offers up. Rich with colored illustrations, meticulous archival detail, and more than 200 years of institutional and material history, the book provides little in the way of argument or critical intervention. Rather, it hands the information over to readers, leaving us to interpret its vast expanse of material. Here are the collections, MacGregor seems to say; you write the story.

There is value in this type of collections-based history, even if the narrative — particularly the author’s “Preamble,” a 28-page political timeline of the East India Company’s rule — sometimes makes for a sluggish read. Divided into two parts, “The Company Collects” and “India Viewed from England,” MacGregor is careful to differentiate between the lives and collections of company servants working on the ground and the narratives produced about South Asia and its products back in Britain.

Sources abound in this work. The author deftly navigates between company memorandums, herbarium specimens, and ethnographic objects, presenting a model of how to deal with nontextual sources: how to read illustrations alongside taxidermied specimens, official reports, and private correspondence. Students of everything from economic history to botanical illustration will find themselves riddled with references and paths into wide-ranging archival and museum collections, whose histories have privileged white and male sources. MacGregor begins to unravel this trajectory, considering objects collected and produced by South Asian experts and women patrons, hinting at a more inclusive, if not fully decolonial, way of writing history.

Tipu’s Tiger (image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum)

In producing such an exacting catalogue of the company’s collections, spanning almost three centuries, some depth of analysis is inevitably lost, seen occasionally in glimmers. Company Curiosities is decidedly a story of company rule in South Asia. As such, it largely ignores company dealings — oftentimes between outposts — in Southeast Asia, China, Cape Town, and islands across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Company officials, like Calcutta Botanic Garden Director Nathaniel Wallich (1786–1854), traveled widely outside of South Asia, corresponded and traded with political rivals, and, in many cases, were not British. 

Rich in its material history, MacGregor’s narrative neglects the company’s social complexity, which might leave readers wondering if such complexities and subtleties of interaction, both local and global, undergirded the company’s longstanding commercial success. Wallich, notable for his long and successful reign over a flailing and ill-designed colonial garden, was born in Denmark, traded with botanists from Munich to Jamaica, and employed countless South Asian artists, middlemen, and brokers to produce the hugely successful natural histories that secured his place on the company board. MacGregor credits only those who Wallich himself credited. The people who maintained the Calcutta Botanic Garden, beyond a few important British collectors, remain invisible. Cases like this flourish in company records, raising the question of whether the botanist’s seemingly transnational identity was, in fact, company norm.

Lengthy appendices and almost 70 pages of notes lend the book a spirit of scholarly generosity and intellectual thoroughness. Unfortunately, the book’s price (roughly $50), as well as its size and weight, render it significantly less accessible. Yet Company Curiosities is a commendable collection of sources amassed by a scholar who has long worked in the field and gained access to numerous archives, encompassing a staggering array of sources. Historians dealing with massive collections would do well to study MacGregor’s method, if only as a way to articulate the type of history they want to write.

After being looted from a palace outside of Mysore, packed and shipped across oceans, passed through countless hands belonging to high-ranking British officials and children alike, and transferred between three institutions within Britain, Tipu’s Tiger claims a complicated narrative entangled in the vast network of the East India Company, its “possessions” now scattered across archives and continents. But Tipu’s Tiger, like each plant, animal, and artifact in MacGregor’s pages, also has a history that predates company seizure and lives on outside of its newest home, the Victoria & Albert Museum. The lingering question haunting MacGregor’s book is, then: Is it possible to write a history of such a massive collection without obscuring the sometimes mundane, sometimes remarkable, oftentimes violent biographies of individual objects and the people caught in their web?

Company Curiosities: Nature, Culture and the East India Company, 1600 – 1874 (2018) by Arthur MacGregor is published by Reaktion and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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