Black and White and Dominant

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Types of Naga Chiefs, Types of Otherness, Types of Imperialism – April 11, 1891 (Page 318)

These etchings – which were made from photographs, as the reader is twice reminded – turn a seemingly impartial, anthropological eye toward North-Indian tribesmen. The ethnographic focus of the images, manifested in the precise detailing of ritual and costume, creates a coldly scientific aura. (The same coldness can be seen in illustrations of “the lower manipurish classes”). I will argue that this colonial representation helped make a case for the expansion into Manipur that was then taking place.

To again build on John McBratney’s work on Indian ethnography, this kind of quasi-scientific depiction of tribesmen invokes “the authority… of rationality” (McBratney 149) After all, the explicit oddness of these exotically adorned (and pierced) Manipur tribesmen amplifies the implicit normality of the English consumer. This contrast is accentuated by the onlookers to the wrestling match, the only subjects who aren’t scantily clad within the images, who can thus be read as stand-ins for the journal’s reader. Indeed when Black and White asks one week later “What is to be done with Manipur?” the answer relies on the rhetoric of colonial rationality: “The (British) Government will have ample time to consider (this problem) carefully and impartially… The natives must be made to see that everything is done calmly and with justice” (18 April).

The second image’s taxonomic label (“Types of Naga Chiefs from the Hill Districts”) and the repeated tag “From A Photograph” serve to exaggerate the sense of scientific certainty. Yet the apparently anthropological steadfastness coexists with a heightened sense of fictionalization: the very process of etching undermines the sensation of photographic truth, as does the artificial pose of these chiefs and wrestlers. Just as the latter are arranged as for a portrait (with three sitting at the center between one man standing and one sitting), the wrestling illustration seems artificial because of the subjects’ immobile pose. Indeed here is no actual wrestling here, just as there is no dancing in “Bundook Dancing Girls Before the Governor of Sierra Leone,” an image that shows two staid young women sitting motionless, despite its sexually suggestive title. Such inconsistency shows that the ethnographic iconography relies just as much on colonial fictions as scientific realities.

The Bundook dancers’ gaze at the reader is mirrored in “Types of Naga Chiefs,” in which the stares register as defeated and needy. This pathos is amplified by the title “Manipur Disaster,” which refers to the long-standing turmoil into which Britain inserted itself, weeks earlier, when English officials were killed by locals (Collier’s). The “disaster” ended on April 27, when military intervention was followed by eight years of British “supervision” of the Manipur government (Britannica). By placing the pair of images above the banner of “Disaster,” the journal seems to be supporting the British imperial efforts to help these apparently pitiful wrestlers and chiefs, instead of calling explicitly for vengeance.

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