Daily Archives: August 3, 2011

The Very Image of Empire?

I’m finishing up my graduate course this month with the British Empire, quite a bit late for my expertise (and comfort) but very essential to understanding our course topic: the expansion of Europe in the early modern and modern eras.  Since I’m not that comfortable in the nineteenth century, I naturally looked for some visual materials to help fill in the gaps.  When searching for photographs of India in the early days of the Raj in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, I came across this amazing image by Samuel Bourne:

Wow! I though to myself:  this guy is the very image of the multicultural  British Empire:  he’s in India, in some sort of Scottish regiment of the British military, wearing a turban!  But appearances can be deceiving.  It turns out that Colonel Alexander Gardner, the subject of this photograph, is not British at all, but American, born on the shores of Lake Superior in the (now-Wisconsin) wilderness in the late eighteenth century to a Scottish father and Anglo-Spanish mother. He traveled to central Asia in his teens and never looked back, serving successively the Tsar of Russia and rulers of the Sikh Empire, hence the turban.  I can’t explain the plaid suit.  The notation on Bourne’s photograph indicates that Gardner was 79 years old when he sat for this portrait in the 1860s, near the end of what must have been an amazing life, led on the fringes of the British Empire in both the western and eastern hemispheres.  He’s a novel or a movie waiting to happen, and his sensationalistic, posthumously-published memoirs, Soldier and Traveller:  Memoirs of Alexander Gardner, Colonel of Artillery in the Service of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1898), could provide excellent source material. Very Flashman.

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