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What is it that historians do?

By Dr Nigel Chancellor and Dr Lutz Jermutus

Composite image of Shweta Varahaswamy temple, Three Princesses of Mysore c.1806 and smallpox virus lesions

A simple answer is that they investigate the past and, as Arnold Toynbee points out, ‘history is just one damn thing after another’; so there is a lot of history to choose from.


Historians are spoilt for choice and make their research decisions based on individual whims; consequently, they are self-indulgent and notoriously difficult to get out of bed in the morning, or so the rest of the University would have it! But, it is individualism that drives both the quantity and quality of historical research.

Professor Mary Beard once organised a Pt II History Special Paper for classicists and historians to show the latter how to work with a very restricted choice of written archive material, and to confront the classicists with the problems of interpretation and discrimination where there are abundant sources to choose from, including those generated by social media. The first ‘document’ considered by her astonished class was a transcript of the infamous ‘Squidgy Tapes’; the intimate and illicit telephone recordings of conversations between Diana, Princess of Wales and James Gilbey, made on New Year’s Eve 1989. The focus of the paper was to consider the ‘construction and deconstruction of the image of ‘emperors’ from Augustus to the present day’. In Augustus’s day, reports that his daughter Livia had been caught ‘in flagrante...’ with a centurion on the temple altar, illustrates the circularity of human behaviour and historical evidence.

Mary Beard’s approach to historical interpretation is fundamentally different from an earlier methodology based largely on the narrow parameters of written texts. For example, under the former conventions of classical historians, the answer to the question ‘what did Roman Emperors do?’ came the reply that they sent out daily messages to the provinces of the empire, and because these messages were recorded texts, they were regarded by many as the best evidence, and even the only legitimate way to answer the question. On the other hand, Mary Beard’s undoubted contribution to the methodology of contemporary historical research has been to unlock the imagination as a powerful tool of historical interpretation. Imagination enables links between the facts of inscriptions, buildings, monuments and texts to answer the question asked of so many earlier Trinity Hall students by their Director of Studies, Professor Jonathan Steinberg*, ‘What, we must ask ourselves, is really going on here? ’ Mary Beard regards her latest book, SPQR- A History of Ancient Rome, (Profile Books, 2015) as a work in progress demanding ‘a particular sort of imagination’ to establish synergies with contemporary humour, family life, and freedom, while not over reacting to the filth, squalor and brutality of Roman life.

The Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain

Being an ‘imaginative’ historian, I visited the current exhibition at Tate Britain, The Artist and Empire, with the keen interest of an Indianist of the 18th and 19th centuries. Art history as evidence requires a particular combination of imagination and scholarship to tease out the meaning of a painting. To my great surprise and pleasure, I encountered a very striking three quarter length portrait of three Indian women, two of whom wear jewelled headdresses and heavy gold bangles set with what appear to be rubies and pearls. These two flank a central figure more simply dressed with her arms on the shoulders of her companions. The figure on the left has a diaphanous purple sari covering her arms and upper body which are clothed in a modest bodice with tight sleeves to the elbow. Her strikingly beautiful face is turned to look directly at the painter, whose careful detailing includes a blemish in the skin pigmentation above and below the right side of her mouth. In contrast, her companion to the right of the central figure, is younger and even more beautiful, with a flawless complexion. Again, she engages the viewer with a compelling and serious gaze. She stands with her left shoulder turned inwards, raising the border of her plain white sari to her left shoulder with her right hand to reveal her left arm encased in the tight sleeve of her bodice.

Thomas Hickey (1741-1824) Three Princesses of Mysore c.1806 Oil paint on canvas 1240 x 1000 mm Private collection, courtesy of Tate Britain

The painting was attributed by the renowned Keeper of Drawings Paintings and Prints of the India Office Collections at the British Library, Dr Mildred Archer. The artist is the early nineteenth century Irish painter, Thomas Hickey (1741-1824). Hickey travelled to India in 1795 with a view to being appointed as the official painter to the East India Company. He realised that British military expansion in India would reveal people and places who would fascinate the public at home with images of ‘the exotic’, in addition to  portraying  heroes such as Arthur Wellesley as the conquerors of oriental despotism. Archer identifies the subjects of Hickey’s portrait as, ‘Temple dancing girls or experienced courtesans - Madras-1805.’(Mildred Archer, Indian and British Portraiture, 1770- 1825 (London,1979).

“Chancellor’s compelling interpretation” of the portrait

When I first saw Hickey’s portrait and read Archer’s attribution, I felt immediately uneasy that all was not as the ‘expert’ described; Hickey ‘yes,’ but, dancing girls? ‘no!’. The voice of Steinberg in my ear, ‘What, we must ask ourselves is really going on here?’. ‘Dancing girls’ without ankles or feet with bells in this ¾ length portrait? - unlikely; and with no sign of a ‘temple’ anywhere in the composition, was Archer’s attribution sound? Slowly, the evidence for a revision mounted. My own research into the history of South India after Wellesley’s defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799, revealed that the bejewelled headdresses were not those of dancing prostitutes but, of identifiable wives of the Maharaja of the State of Mysore, some 250 miles north-west of Madras (Nigel Chancellor, ‘A Picture of Health: The dilemma of gender and status in the iconography of empire’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 35, 2001). Of greatest significance, the state records of Mysore described the agreement reached between the British and the Maharaja’s Chief Minister in 1806, that the royal family should receive the recently arrived British vaccine for small-pox as the alternative to the customary process of variolation. In this, dried pustules from the previous year’s small-pox victims were blown up the nose of the recipient by a Brahman priest using a straw; this typically induced a mild infection of the disease but subsequent immunity. However, occasionally this custom could cause, rather than prevent, smallpox disease making a rather risky vaccine. Furthermore, the process was invariably accompanied by pigment discolouration around the patient’s mouth and nose, as shown by the first figure discussed above. The action of the youngest queen in lifting the border of her sari to her shoulder was not to display her figure in a coquettish manner, but to show how the much safer Jenner’s vaccine could be transferred ‘arm to arm’ to a female recipient of high social status without loss of dignity or modesty.

In my opinion, a striking portrait of three beautiful Indian women has been saved from stereotypes based on a long established trope that portraits of beautiful unattached women with no known provenance of social or political status must be categorised as actresses, prostitutes, or temple dancing girls. I maintain that this portrait is of unique and significant importance as a milestone in both Indian and British medical history. It is a record of promoting western medical science through co-operation with one of India’s most senior royal families, whose actions carried great social and political influence. The acceptance of the new vaccine was substantially increased across South India and beyond following its public exhibition in Madras. It is a significant early example of the acceptance of indigenous people and especially of women as ‘legitimate’ figures in the colonial discourse, sadly rejected through bigotry and prejudice by the mid-19th century.

The debate, starting with the Archer attribution, now supported by later advocates of the ‘dancing girls and prostitutes’ theory, is set against my own thesis in the catalogue of the current Tate Britain exhibition. I am delighted to report that the Tate curators have declared themselves in support of ‘Chancellor’s compelling interpretation’, and if that isn’t enough to get a Cambridge historian out of bed in the morning, I don’t know what is!

*Professor Jonathan Steinberg MA PhD, Emeritus Fellow, former Vice Master, and former Director of Studies in History at Trinity Hall

Dr Lutz Jermutus takes the discussion up to the present day

Smallpox virus lesions on the chorioallantoic membrane of a developing chickWhat Jenner had of course stumbled upon in his research was the observation that cowpox was in fact a naturally occurring, attenuated, i.e. a significantly weakened, form of smallpox. Live attenuated viruses (LAVs) are one of the key modern techniques to deliver vaccines. Today, genetic engineering or repeated passaging of a virus in the laboratory are used to generate viral variants that are much less virulent and grow much more slowly. This, in effect, gives our immune system an immediate advantage, and it is now able to overpower the virus with ease acquiring immunity against the virus in the process. In contrast, the original virus, as used in variolation, could spread so quickly that the immune response could be outrun by the exponentially increasing viral replication.

The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine is maybe one of the best known LAVs in modern clinical practice, consisting of a mixture of three attenuated viruses. Also, the nasal flu vaccine, Fluenz, which was given for the first time this winter to UK school children, is a live attenuated form of the flu virus while the standard, injected flu vaccine is comprised of inactivated virus. While LAVs tend to give better protection, since they very effectively mimick infection of the real virus, they can require more precautions in terms of handling, in particular often storage at low temperature and more complex procedures for sterilisation.

Celebrity endorsement for new medicines has all but disappeared in Europe where prescription medicines can by law not be advertised to the public but to prescribing doctors only. In contrast to the wives of the Maharja of Mysore, celebrities today are often exposed to a far more critical view of modern medicine which is perhaps best illustrated by the MMR controversy where Tony and Cherie Blair, Nigella Lawson, Fiona Phillips and Carol Vorderman, amongst many others, were suddenly interviewed on details of human immunology. As we know now, their inability to influence the majority of parents led to outbreaks of the three viral diseases against which the MMR vaccine is providing protection. Today’s societies often require a more balanced picture of the risks and benefits of a new therapeutic approach, and so while celebrities can play a critical role in ‘nudging’ patients to new medicines, to compliance, or to behaviour change, it seems that a simple message, as in the extraordinary painting currently on display in the Tate Britain, is no longer possible in today’s modern world.’

Dr Nigel Chancellor MA, PhD, DL
Graduate Mentor; Research Associate, Centre of South Asian Studies; Director of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Trust; member of the Trinity Hall Association Committee

Dr Lutz Jermutus BSc, MSc, PhD, FFPM (Hon)
Fellow Commoner in Biotechnology

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