“Colonial Coin Collecting Networks: Unearthing Indian Voices Through Imperial Archives”

Shreya Gupta, University of Exeter

My paper will trace the biography of Dr Richard Bertram Whitehead (1879- 1967), a British colonial official who formed his coin collection in northwest India and deposited it in the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in England. In this paper, I will use the museum archive alongside his personal archive to bring out the role of Indian actors in his collecting and scholarly network.

I will demonstrate how I have reconstructed these networks from two types of archives. First is the official archive of the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam, consisting of department reports, meeting minutes, and accession registers. These tell us of the terms and conditions of the acquisition of his coins. They also give us the names of the Indian dealers operating in bazaars (markets) in towns in northwest India who supplied coins to the British Museum, and the prices paid for the coins bought for them.

When read alongside the second archive, that is Whitehead’s personal correspondence, stored in five boxes in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Coins and Medals department, we can glean more information about these dealers. Further, we learn about the wide network of people that Whitehead interacted with, both Indian and European, thus showcasing his relationships with a wide network of Indian and European actors who helped him with his collecting and scholarly work. While both these archives are produced by British imperial institutions and elite individuals, reading them ‘against the grain’ helps us understand how they were dependent on Indian dealers for the supply of both coins and information on their provenance from Punjab and northwest India.

Further, reading the letters of Indian collectors and scholars contained within these archives show their ability in using their connections with Whitehead and the latter’s network of European elite men to their advantage, both to build their personal coin collections and ensure the wider reception of their scholarship. The paper will thus help explore how we can use official and unofficial imperial archives in conjunction to help complicate and deepen our understanding of colonial collectors’ activities.

Gupta is a second year doctoral researcher working on an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership at the University of Exeter in collaboration with the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The project titled “Decolonising Collections: Uncovering British and Indian collectors’ networks behind British numismatic collections”, looks at the history of four collections of Indian coins currently held in various museums in the UK. While they are named after white European males, she aims to investigate the role of Indians in creating these collections and in producing expert knowledge about the Indian past on their basis.

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(Photo: private)