Displaced Peoples, Displaced Things: Of Arrows, Bananas, Forests and Tea Plantations

5 minute read

Museum curators often struggle with how to present and interpret weapons in ethnographic collections. Often, they can be evidence not of violence or conflict but of people, place and encounters, that link to wider and unexpected histories. Three bows and arrows from Northeast India tell a tangled tale of tea, indentured labour, migration, botany, and the exclusion of Indigenous Peoples from state-managed forest reserves. 

In 1959, Norman Wilson Simmonds, English botanist and world authority on bananas, donated to MAA a bow and three arrows he had acquired in the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal. He wrote that they were made by people from the Santal community, an Adivasi (Indigenous) population who live predominantly to the south and west, in southern West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Bihar. A smaller community live further north in Assam. How did Simmonds come by these arrows? What do we know of the people who made and used them, and what brought them to northeastern India?

A set of three arrows.

Figure 1: Three arrows. Santal People. North West Bengal, India. Makers unknown. Donated by Norman W. Simmonds, 1959. MAA 1959.309 A-B.

The Santal people are community of so-called ‘Tribal’, or Indigenous people, living mostly in areas of the Indian states of Jharkhand and southern West Bengal. Speakers of a distinct language and with their own developed traditions of belief, practice, performance, and oral literature, the name they use to refer to themselves is ᱦᱚᱲ ᱦᱚᱯᱚᱱ (Hor Hopon), or ‘children of humans’. ‘Santal’, or in colonial-era sources ‘Santhal’, is an exonym – a term applied by outsiders – and this is how neighbouring communities have spoken of them.   

Santals are one of over 700 peoples recognised in the Indian Constitution as Scheduled Tribes, who make up about 9% of the country’s population – more than 100 million people (or 1.5 times the population of the UK, for example). There have been many terms used to collectively describe these diverse groups. ‘Tribes’ or ‘Tribal’ as a constitutional term owes much to its thorough reinterpretation by India’s anthropologists prior to independence. It is widely seen as problematic, with connotations of primitiveness and backwardness: many identify as आदिवासी (Adivasi), or Original Inhabitants in Sanskrit, a term which was coined in the 1930s and has grown in popularity. 

When researching MAA collections for the 2017 exhibition Another India, I was looking for artefacts that were, or could be, associated with Adivasi and Indigenous communities throughout India. A significant collection from Chota Nagpur in Jharkhand had come into the Museum from English colonial administrator Sir Edward Albert Gait in 1916, thought to have been collected by pioneering Indian anthropologist Sarat Chandra Roy. A group of chank shell bangles, probably from Bengal, and said to have been ‘worn by Santal women’ was donated by marine biologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, bible historian, and marine historian James Hornell in 1923. An extraordinary portrait bust of Phullo Murmu, a young Santal woman working in the Tata steel plant in Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, was donated by the English sculptor Marguerite Milward in 1949 (expect a blog about Milward in the future). The only other Santal artefacts in MAA at the time were a bow and three arrows donated by a ‘N.W. Simmonds’. 

Simmonds also donated at the same time a bow of bamboo from the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea.  

The catalogue card for the Santal bow records that it was:  

Made by the Sonthal people, from whom it was confiscated by the Forest Department, as the owners were hunting illegally. 

There is no further information, but this brief statement poses many questions. Why were Santal people from hundreds of miles away in the region at all, let alone hunting ‘illegally’? In what circumstances could the bow and arrows have been ‘confiscated’? 

In India, the tea gardens of the northeastern colonial province of Assam were worked by families from Adivasi, indigenous or ‘tribal’ peoples from across eastern and central India. The descendants of these indentured labourers still toil in the tea gardens of independent India today, many in conditions of economic hardship. Separated from their cultural traditions for generations, they are widely referred to as ‘Tea tribes’, or the ‘Tea-garden community’ (Bates 2000).

The Forest Service was established under British rule in 1864 and sought to protect the country’s forestry resources and to ensure sustainable exploitation. From the outset, indigenous populations for whom forests had traditionally been sources of livelihood and often the centre of their cultural and spiritual life, were seen as a threat to this sustainability. Reserve Forests were established, and indigenous communities excluded from them. It is likely that the Santal hunters whose arrows were taken from them had been apprehended in a restricted area.

Cover of a book with the image of two ripe bananas, the name of the book in yellow, and the author's name.

Figure 2: Bananas. Norman Wilson Simmonds, 1959.

In the same year that Simmonds donated the bow and arrows, he published his landmark book on bananas titled, cleverly, Bananas. But immediately after his return from his expedition, in 1956, he published details of the specimens he had collected, and the places he had visited, in Botanical Results of the Banana Collecting Expedition, 1954-5.

From his accounts we can trace his journey. He seems to have been in India in late April to mid-May 1955, beginning in Darjeeling, West Bengal and travelling north into Sikkim (Gangtok and Dikchu). He then went back down to West Bengal via Rangpo to Kalimpong, and continued further into the East Khasi Hills in Assam to Mahadeo and Cherrapunjee. He then travelled to Byrnihat District on the border of Assam and Meghalaya, in the northern Khasi Hills, continued to Nagaon, Golaghat near what is now the border with Nagaland, and to the Methomi tea estate in Panbari Reserve, 35 miles west. He then went into Nagaland and Manipur and back into lower Assam, arriving in Haflong on 13 May 1955.

Simmonds writes that his research trip to north-eastern India was ‘assisted by officers of the West Bengal Department of Agriculture, especially K.C. Bahn.’ (Simmonds p.156). It may have been Bahn, or the Conservator of Forests for West Bengal A.K. Gupta, who gave him the bow and arrows. We do not know under what circumstances the gift was made. Had there been an encounter with Santal people that made this make sense? Could Simmonds have been present when the hunters were apprehended, and the tools of their livelihood taken from them? 

While it is impossible to be certain about the events that led to the transaction, or the people involved (either the Santal hunters or the government forestry officials), the episode transforms these objects from weapons or tools into materialisations of other stories. 

It is grimly ironic that even after leaving their ancestral homeland, perhaps in an attempt to escape the aftermath of a rebellion or the restriction of their traditional livelihoods by the ever-growing reach of the Forest Office, to labour in the growing tea plantations that served millions of consumers across India and around the world, the Santals who made and used these arrows once again fell afoul of Forest Officials. Now in the collections of MAA, the arrows encourage us to explore the diverse narratives embodied in artefacts: to appreciate the potential for objects to be evidence that locates people in relation to places and events that have local, and indeed global significance, and call attention to the conditions in which the descendants of their makers live and work today. 

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