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John McAleer talks about the National Maritime Museum’s new permanent gallery.

Lucinda Blaser: Hi, I’m Lucinda Blaser and I’m here with John McAleer, Curator of Imperial and Maritime History, and we’re here to find out about our new gallery, Traders.

John McAleer:
Thanks Lucinda. Yeah, our new gallery, Traders: The East India Company in Asia will be opening at the end of September [2011]. And some people might be wondering why is a maritime museum doing a gallery about a company that people generally associate with India, a landlocked empire and the Indian interior. And I suppose there are lots of facts that I could give you to sort of dispel that myth. But one of the best facts that I’ve come across in relation to the East India Company, is that in 1701 the company bought enough tea to brew about 4 million pots of tea. Essentially, later, a 100 years later, it’s importing enough tea to brew about 950 million pots of tea.

So if you think about the impact that this East India Company had on what people in Britain drank – and it’s huge, obviously – all of this has been done on ships. It’s all been done through long distance, maritime trade and that’s really why we’re doing this gallery, why we’re putting this story on display in the Museum here. And it’s not just a story of tea, there’s lots of other commodities that the East India Company trades in; things like pepper, all sorts of other spices, textiles; then it becomes the textile trader to the world in the 18th century; and of course, tea.

So the East India Company had a massive impact on what people in Britain ate, what they drank, what they wore; the way that they looked at people, their attitudes towards other people, and places around the world. So it’s a huge story, a big story about commodities, luxury items and things that we eat and drink. But it’s also a story of wealth and power and the pursuit of profit. So it’s a really important story, not just from domestic ritual point of view, of what’s in your larder at home, but also about how the economics of the world work, and how they changed by virtue of long distance maritime – maritime trade.

And we’ve got some other things that you may expect to find in a museum dedicated to the history of Britain and the sea. We’ve got ship models, both European and Asian ship models are on display for the first time. We’ve got oil paintings, we’ve got edged weapons; we’ve got coins and medals. We’ve got some figureheads, and we’ve got some textiles and flags. All sorts of different types of things that make up the Museum’s collection here, that we’ve put together to try and tell the story of the East India Company and Asia.

Some of the things people might be familiar with them from previous galleries that we’ve had on display here at the Museum; a large figurehead from HMS Seringapatam, which shows Tipu Sultan, one of the great enemies of the company; and he’s depicted on this figurehead that was put on a British ship, a Royal Navy ship in 1819, but built in India.

We’ve got some old favourites like a portrait of James Lancaster who’s the commander of the first East India Company voyage to Asia. So we’re very lucky that we’ve got, I think, the only surviving portrait of this commander of the first voyage to Asia.

And then we got lots of things that haven’t been on display before, or haven’t really been looked at in this way before. So we’ve got a portrait of Robert Knox, who was shipwrecked in Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, and kept as part of this sort of domestic household, the menagerie of the King of Kandy for 19 years. He essentially was kept in a zoo for 19 years and learned the language, about the people and the customs. And came back and wrote his memoirs, which some people have argued provide the basis, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. So his story’s in the gallery.

We’ve got a fantastic henta-koi from the Nicobar Islands. Henta-koi are called ‘scare devils’. Essentially, they’re objects that scare away bad spirits, that drive away colds and flus; so you could use one today Lucinda, probably. And again, it hasn’t been on display for a very long time indeed.

Why is it there? Well, has anyone heard of the Nicobar Islands? They would have done in the time of the East India Company because they’re a very important way station on the way to South East Asia in the Bay of Bengal. So, we’re trying to bring in some places that are very important to the history of the East India Company and had a huge impact on what – was the story of Britain and the East India Company. But they’ve sometimes slipped through the pages of history, because we’re used to flying to places now, with the Suez Canal changed and the way that people travel between Britain and India.

So, lots of different things. We got a flag from Canton, the Chinese Imperial flag, captured in 1857 by a Royal Navy squadron. So, lots of different new objects, quite impactful objects, things hopefully that will make people think about this story that they’re encountering, and provide lots of different perspectives on what is a complicated, complex story; hopefully one that the gallery tries to convey to visitors in a sort of friendly and engaging way.

Lucinda: John, thank you.

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