From the bright, bold colours of a busy market place, silk saris, luxurious chintz textiles, images of kings on elephants and sculptures of god, to more than 300 objects including coins, artwork, sculpture, maps, weaponry, ceramics, textiles and clothing, sourced from over 15 lending institutes including the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and her Majesty the Queen’s own Royal collection, the ‘East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia’ exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum was as exhaustive as it was alluring.
The exhibition, which opened to the public on 1 June and lasted till 18 August, showcased various aspects of the trade which Australia had with India, a fact that many Australians are unaware of today. The early trade connections with India, which flourished over two centuries ago, were crucial to the growth and the survival of colonial Australia.
The East India Company was one of the world’s most powerful corporations of its time. It came to control the lives of millions in India, with its influence in New South Wales, Britain’s struggling first colony in the southern hemisphere. Sugar, rice, shoes, cloth, candles, cattle and other essentials were imported from India to New South Wales.
Explaining his concept for the exhibition, Dr Erskine says, “I have always been interested in the act of settlement. My PhD focused on the settlement on Pitcairn Island of mutineers from the bounty and I was intrigued by the notion that a group of sailors could arrive at an island they had never seen before and start a settlement. As I read about the first years of European settlement in Australia, I found myself reading more about India and the power of the East India Company – and that’s when the concept for an exhibition surfaced.”
He adds: “Perhaps unsurprisingly given the East India Company’s right to raise its own armies, mint its own coinage and collect taxes, many people are confused as to whether it was a trading company or a sovereign power.”
“To understand the story of colonial Australia’s engagement with India we have to step back and understand what was happening in India at the time,” says Dr Erskine.
This exhibition gave people a chance to examine rarely seen artifacts from the ship ‘Sydney Cove’ wrecked en route to Port Jackson with a cargo of Indian goods in 1797, and Indian currency including gold used by merchants who exported seal oil, timber, coal and horses from the fledgling colony.
Artifacts on display included the bejewelled sword that belonged to the Indian leader Tipu Sultan, who was killed by East India Company forces at the battle of Seringapatam in 1799, and Indian cargo from the ship Sydney Cove wrecked en route to Australia in 1797.
The exhibition also featured some of the forgotten stories of early settlers in the colony through documents and objects.