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One of the aims of the project is to begin to untangle the many ways in which objects come into museum collections. Here we investigate the provenance of a fly whisk associated with the Indian Uprising of 1857-8.

Recently, Friederike Voigt (Senior Curator, Middle East and South Asia) and I had the opportunity to examine objects in the collections of the Department of World Cultures at National Museums Scotland that are relevant to the Military Collections and Empire project.

Provenance research is uncovering that the department has a number of objects associated with individuals that came from a military background, and it will be interesting to see if we can begin to determine why it was that objects came into these collections, and not the military collections held at the War Museum in Edinburgh Castle.

One of the captivating objects we saw is a finely beaten and chased silver fly whisk mounted with fine golden hair (possibly yak) and associated with the Indian Uprising of 1857-8. An engraved silver plaque affixed to the object declares:

“Spolia Opima” The Chowrie of Koer Sing, A Great Leader / in the Indian Mutiny War of 1857-9 / Killed 20th April 1858 on the River Ganges / Lieut. Geo. G. Pearse Captor

Detail of chowrie, or fly whisk (A.1948.229)

Above: Detail of chauri, or fly whisk (A.1948.229).

The hallmarks beneath the inscription indicate that that plaque was added in 1901, and that the silversmith is most likely to have been Frederick Bradford McCrea – Army & Navy Co-operative Society Ltd. The head and collar of the fly whisk is decorated with a series of stylised petals. The long grip tapers inwards terminating in a rounded finial.

During the Uprising Koer Sing (now, Kunwar Singh, 1777-1858) fought a guerrilla campaign against the British. After fighting alongside the rebel leader Tantia Tope at Cawnpore, Kunwar Singh sought to return to his estate at Jagdishpur, Bihar. While crossing the River Ganges, and pursued by Brigadier Douglas of the 37th Regiment, Kunwar Singh was wounded in the arm by British artillery fire.

Wall painting of Kunwar Singh at Jagdishpur, in P.J.O. Taylor, A Companion to the ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 (1996), Plate 2.

Above: Detail of a wall painting of Kunwar Singh at Jagdishpur, in P.J.O. Taylor, A Companion to the ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 (1996), Plate 2.

While the silver plate declares that Kunwar Singh was killed on the River Ganges, according to other accounts, including G.W. Forrest’s A History of the Indian Mutiny (1912), he met his death a few days after he reached Jagdishpur on 21 April. This is not the first instance where I have seen conflicting accounts of historic events on object plaques when compared with published contemporary narratives.

The ‘captor’ of the object, Lieutenant (later General) George Godfrey Pearse (1827-1905), Royal Artillery, was born in Madras, India. He fought in the Second Anglo-Sikh War 1848-9; on the North-West Frontier, 1849-55; and importantly, the Indian Uprising, where he commanded the 3rd Regiment of the Sikh Irregular Cavalry.

One of the aims of the project is to begin to untangle the many ways in which objects came from the imperial periphery to institutions at the metropole including our own, as well as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Further research into the life and collecting practices of Pearse may yield insights on this issue, as it is known that Pearse presented a collection of Iron Age tools excavated in South India to the British Museum in 1868. Links have also been made between Pearse and the army officer and archaeologist General Augustus Lane Fox Pitt Rivers (1827-1900), as a number of objects connected to Pearse are now in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Further reading

Saul David, The Indian Mutiny (2003).

Dr Nicole HartwellBy Dr Nicole Hartwell, Postdoctoral Researcher

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