How British Artists Helped Conquer India

September 18, 2018

Statecraft and art have a long and storied history, down to the very foundations of the modern state. The Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt famously showed in The State as a Work of Art that the combination of the violence and creativity of the Italian Renaissance spawned both great art and the foundations of nation-states. In the 1949 classic film The Third Man, Harry Lime — played by Orson Welles — expressed the same idea in fewer words:

Remember what the fellow said. In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace. What did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

He was on to something. Art and war affect one another, and the study of one can lead to greater understanding of the other. Recently, the rise of so-called “deep fakes,” highly sophisticated forged images and videos, has seeped from the seedy corners of the internet into mainstream discourse; one analysis recently described them as a “looming crisis for national security, democracy, and privacy.” Machiavelli, who wrote vividly about Lime’s infamous Borgias and their statecraft in his Prince, anticipated the popular appeal of phenomena like deep fakes in his Discourses on Livy. He wrote, “the mass of mankind accept what seems as what is; nay, are often touched more nearly by appearances than by realities.” In an age where the line between “what seems” and “what is” is increasingly blurred, the ability to sense political motivations behind visual information becomes more important than ever. The history of art, filled as it is with stories of deceit, bloodshed, and diplomacy, can train our eyes to spot such political meaning in any image.

Take this portrait at the Yale Center for British Art of Shuja-ud-Daula, a regional ruler in the Muslim-controlled northern India of the late 18th century.

Art historians refer to this type of portrait as a “swagger portrait,” for obvious reasons: Shuja stands confidently in the middle of the canvas, his bow in his hand, his realm, attendants, and armed soldiers behind him. Beyond its beauty and bravado, however, the portrait reveals key insights into the cultural and diplomatic history of India, an increasingly powerful global player. We can see it today through the lenses of geopolitics and soft power as well as the diplomatic history of the Indian subcontinent.

The artist, Tilly Kettle, painted the work as part of a British colonial strategy to create a new language of diplomacy through British art and thereby spread what we might anachronistically call its “soft power.” The art historian Natasha Eaton has shown that the British sent portraitists like Kettle into the subcontinent to facilitate their expansion in the late 18th century. Up until this point in the history of the British in India, the East India Company had been largely a commercial enterprise. As Richard Barnett explains in North India Between Empires, the company at first sought “free trade” — that is, a favorable balance of trade for Britain and the company’s stockholders — rather than direct control over the lands of the Mughal Empire and its regional rulers, the Nawabs. Soon, however, territorial expansion and colonial rule became driving forces of the company’s work. To negotiate the treaties behind this pivot from trading company to state-like entity, the company sent artists like Kettle to the Nawabs to practice portrait diplomacy, a political language that the British felt transcended cultural boundaries.

Diplomacy through portraiture had long been a staple of early modern statecraft in Europe and India. In a time where travel to another monarch’s realm could prove deadly, rulers sent their portraits in lieu of their persons as part of sensitive negotiations. Rulers interacted ritually with portraits as if they were not the representation of a person but the embodiment of that person. Queen Mary I was rumored to have ordered her husband’s portrait removed from her bedroom when she was mad at him, and other kings and queens would greet, bow, and even speak to diplomatic pictures. In India, too, portraiture expressed the will of the state. Take the below miniature of Mughal Emperor Jahangir and the Iranian Safahvid ruler Shah Abbas standing on a globe and embracing, a sign of peace and friendship. Jahangir stands on a powerful lion, however, and encroaches on the Iranian lamb’s map of Persian territory, a subtle expression of territorial ambitions.

In the case of Shuja-ud-Daula, political portraiture may even have tilted the balance of power on the Indian subcontinent in favor of the British, and sown the seeds of their ultimate Raj over much of India. The British and Shuja shared a common enemy: the Rohilla Afghans to the west. The British wished to use the Rohilla’s territory to create a larger buffer state between themselves and the Marathas, another powerful Indian warrior group that threatened British security. They therefore welcomed Shuja when he proposed the annexation of the Rohilla’s land.

It is likely that this very painting, changed hands from Shuja to the British during secret negotiations, and reached Warren Hastings, the infamous governor-general of Fort William. The new language of artistic diplomacy worked. Shuja and Hastings discussed their common strategic interests, and the British soon agreed to send eight battalions and a company of artillery to Shuja. A bloody war ensued, and Shuja easily conquered the Rohillas with his new  allies. Britain’s cultural strategy had succeeded, shifted the balance of power, and helped to pave the way for its increasing power over the Indian subcontinent.

In the end, a British court impeached Hastings for bribery and corruption. Edmund Burke led the charge against Hastings, and focused partly on the deals with Shuja. Burke exclaimed that Hastings “sent a brigade of our troops to assist the Vizier [Shuja] in extirpating these people [the Rohillas] … Those who were not left slaughtered to rot upon the soil of their native country, were cruelly expelled from it.” Had the word “genocide” existed, Burke might have used it. Shuja himself was wounded towards the end the Rohilla War. English doctors could not cure the infection, and Shuja died a few months after the war’s end. The painter, Tilly Kettle, had returned to England, but was miserable there, and soon set out on an arduous voyage by land back to his beloved India in 1786. But he did not make it. His last known stop was Aleppo that year. Kettle is presumed to have perished somewhere in the desert.

Today, the tools of art history may prove as useful as those of military and diplomatic history. Writing for War on the Rocks, August Cole has called artists the United States’ “overlooked strategic asset.” Artists, Cole suggested, can provide imagination and insight that the traditional strategy and planning process overlook. They observe closely, elaborate thoughtfully, and execute boldly. To understand the world and its conflicts, we cannot neglect art. Take a trip to any major museum and you will encounter depictions of battles and statecraft, of conquest and diplomacy. Some colonial artifacts speak of exploitation, other works embody resistance. Each piece holds lessons for and perhaps even solutions to our current predicaments. Winston Churchill painted. So does George W. Bush.

Foreign policy professionals need to look at more art more closely. Christopher Preble has contemplated recently whether memorials that remember wars may also help prevent them. Many other works of art, from protest graffiti to fine swagger portraits, aspire to do the same. Medical schools have started incorporating art connoisseurship into their curriculum in an effort to teach future doctors to look more closely, to develop empathy, and to hone their cultural understanding. These are also key skills for the well-rounded states- man or woman, and should be part of professional training. To understand the full range of history and culture that reverberate in today’s conflicts, let’s head to the museum.


Image: Wikimedia Commons