Oscar Mallitte’s Photographs of Assam

‘Gowhatty from the River’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)

I came across the photographs of Oscar Jean-Baptiste Mallitte (c. 1829-1905) when I was doing some internet research on a new found interest – colonial photography. Mallitte was a pioneering photographer who visited Assam in the 1860s (I have not been able to discover the exact date of his visit). Today his photographs are significant because they embody the colonial British view of Assam.

Mallitte was a surgeon who had arrived in Calcutta from France in the summer of 1857; here he gave up his original profession and, within a short time, established himself as a photographer. In December 1857 he became the first, or nearly the first, person to photograph the Andaman Islands when he accompanied a British expeditionary party led by his friend Frederic John Mouat, also a surgeon and keen photographer. (Mouat’s contributions include the founding of the famous Bethune Society.) Mallitte was the official photographer when Lord Canning, Governor-General from 1856-58, toured the North-West Frontier.

Mallitte’s photographs of colonial Assam, which clearly were officially commissioned, can be accessed from the British Library’s online gallery. There are twelve of them: (1) ‘Gowhatty from the River’; (2) ‘American Mission Grounds at Gowhatty’; (3) ‘Christ’s Church, Gauhati’; (4) ‘The Strand Road at Gowhatty from the West’ (5) ‘Native village at entrance to Shillong’ (6); ‘Monolith stones, Shillong’; (7) ‘The Bishops Fall, Shillong’; (8) ‘The Landing ghat at Tezpore’; (9) ‘Tea Gardens,  Cachar’; (10) ‘Eastern frontier police force’; (11) ‘The Noa Nuddee’; and (12) ‘Jack tree’. (The medium is not identified by the British Library but could be albumen silver print.) Judging from the state of the Brahmaputra in ‘Gowhatty from the River’ and ‘The Landing ghat at Tezpore’, Mallitte must have undertaken the trip in the dry season; from his itinerary, one assumes it took him at least a couple of months to complete his task.

‘The Landing ghat at Tezpore’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)

Mallitte’s images are important because they are a visual approximation of the way the British saw Assam. But this does not mean that their meanings are fixed; we can and should interpret them in our own way. For example, Mallitte’s seemingly innocuous photograph of the jackfruit tree ought to remind us of the close connection between plants and colonialism (the Opium Wars in China, sugarcane in the Caribbean, tea in Assam). ‘Tea Gardens, Cachar’, which shows forested land turned into an orderly and productive garden under the benign supervision of tea planters, can be related to the photographs Mallitte later took of indigo manufacturing. British indigo planters had acquired notoriety for forcing ryots into indigo cultivation; the Indigo Commission of 1860 noted the brutality of the planters towards the peasantry in Bengal. Mallitte’s photographs, taken in 1877, are believed part of a propaganda campaign launched by the Planters’ Association to counter such negative views. As Christopher Pinney (The Coming of Photography in India) has written, instead of showing the cultivated fields, the literal site of violence, most of the twenty photographs Mallitte took show the indigo factory with its apparent discipline and order.

Photography in the Victorian age was not quite the mass activity that the modern digital camera and cell phone in particular have made it in the twenty-first century. But it was possible for enthusiasts to take up it up as a hobby. At Oxford a shy mathematician called Charles Dodgson (1832-98), better known as Lewis Carroll, had in 1856 bought a Thomas Ottewill Registered Double Folding camera and was indulging his passion for photographing prepubescent girls. (There is a famous picture of the original Alice in in a state of dishabille).Photography, invented in 1839, travelled to India with something of the swiftness of the technological innovations of our time. Already in 1840 you could order a daguerreotype camera from Calcutta’s Thacker, Spink & Co. The Photographic Society of Bombay was formed in 1854; by 1856 there were photographic societies in Calcutta and Madras. (Mallitte’s friend Mouat was the first president of the Photographic Society of Bengal).

But in the age of empire photography had other uses as well. Colonial administrators turned to it to record their political and military achievements. It was also seen as an instrument of surveillance and as a reliable scientific way of documenting knowledge about the native. The People of India was an ambitious exercise of this kind; an eight volume photographic survey (1868-75), it began life as a private collection of Lord Canning but, after 1857, became an official project of the India Office. In addition, there was a market for photographic images of India in Britain. The revolt of 1857 increased this demand; photographs not only added to the veracity of journalistic reports but also satisfied the voyeuristic curiosity of the public. It was to supply this need that the pioneering Italian photojournalist Felice Beato (1832-1909) came to India in 1858. Beato’s late arrival (he was recording the Crimea War when the revolt occurred) meant that he had to reconstruct the events for photographic purposes. To create his famous picture of the badly damaged Sikandar Bagh, where a reported 2,000 sepoys were killed, Beato seems to have had skeletal remains of the sepoys disinterred or rearranged.The photograph would not have been possible without the permission and approval of the colonial authorities.

Photography was admired by the Victorians for its supposed objectivity but its conventions were of course mediated by cultural ways of seeing. Landscape photography, for example, was influenced by the traditions of Western perspectival painting. When Mallitte visited Assam in the 1860s the age of European exploration and discovery was over. Though Mallitte had come to photograph a frontier, there was, in a sense, nothing really new to see, know or discover. In fact, even in the late 1840s, the botanist Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) was advised to visit northeast Himalaya and Darjeeling rather than Assam since Assam had already been botanically annexed by explorer-botanists like Victor Jacquemont (1801-32) and William Griffith (1810-45). Mallitte came at a time when colonial governmentality was establishing itself in Assam.

A nineteenth-century travelling photographer’s equipment was anything but light. When the well-known photographer Samuel Bourne (1834-1912) set off on a nine-month expedition to Kashmir in 1866 his photographic equipment made up twenty loads while his retinue consisted of over fifty people. As an official photographer, Mallitte would have had government-arranged logistical support in the form of transport (rail, elephants, boats, and porters), accommodation (dak-houses), and provisions. This dependence of the travelling nineteenth century photographer (even a commercial travelling photographer like Bourne often had turn to the administration for help) meant that he had to follow definite official instructions as to where, when, and how to take his photographs. In 1858 the photographer John Murray was requested by Lord Canning to take some photographs of military sites in north India. Christopher Pinney has documented the details of the grant and logistical support received by Murray along with the Lord Canning’s detailed instructions about the particular views and results to be obtained.

‘Eastern frontier police force’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)

Mallitte’s dozen photographs reflect and reinforce the discursive construction of Assam as a remote frontier that needed to be ‘improved’ and incorporated into the colonial and imperial system.  They narrate some of the changes brought about by the British annexation of Assam: the introduction of law and order (‘Eastern frontier police force’), the establishment of the tea industry (‘Tea Gardens, Cachar’), the invitation to the American Baptist missionaries ‘to elevate the character of the people’ (‘American Mission Grounds at Gowhatty’), and the coming of steamers (‘The Landing ghat at Tezpore’). The photographs are carefully posed ones; human beings are allowed to enter the frame only for the sake of providing scale and ambience. (Perhaps this is why some of Mallitte’s photographs have a touch of desolation.) The photographs also use the ‘monarch of all I survey’ (or all-seeing panoptic eye) technique familiar to readers of travel writing.

‘Tea Gardens, Cachar’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)

Mallitte’s photographs of the Andaman Islands were thought to have been lost but were recently discovered. In the nineteenth century lithographic engravings circulated widely unlike photographs which had limited viewership. Some of Mallitte’s Andaman Island images became quite well-known when his photographs were copied and published as lithographic engravings. But I have no idea how his photographs of Assam were received.

Mallitte is remembered now for his Andaman Island photographs which picture a landscape and people just coming to colonial attention. But when he came to Assam, Mallitte was travelling to an area that had already been subjected to the disciplining gaze of colonial governmentality. I think it is interesting to compare Mallitte’s photographs with those of his contemporary Benjamin Simpson; the latter’s photographs of Mishmi and other tribes are ethnographic.  Though he recorded the alien (‘Monolith stones, Shillong’) and the picturesque (‘The Bishops Fall, Shillong’), Mallitte’s choice of subjects (and itinerary) was obviously determined by the official nature of his task.

‘The Strand Road at Gowhatty from West’ (Source: British Library’s online gallery)