Discovering the Amazon: Leicester researcher in startling photo find

Posted by pt91 at Dec 16, 2010 11:25 AM |
It’s a glimpse of a bygone age: two native Amazonians shown in half-length front and profile shots. These are anthropological photographs taken to be scrutinised by some of the leading figures of Victorian society.
Discovering the Amazon: Leicester researcher in startling photo find

Both photographs courtesy of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

Dr Lesley Wylie, Lecturer in Latin American Studies in our School of Modern Languages, discovered these photographs during research for a book on the Putumayo, a border region in the Amazon.

The man behind the pictures is Roger Casement (the man behind the camera, incidentally, was pioneering photojournalist John Thomson), a British consul reporting on human rights abuses in the Amazon. His work is largely overshadowed by his later role as an Irish revolutionary (there's a good potted biography of him on the BBC wesbite).

Casement made his trip to the Amazon in 1910 and again in 1911 on behalf of the British government to investigate alleged atrocities against the indigenous population. He brought back more than verbal or written testimony of what he discovered there - he arranged to have two ‘natives’ shipped back so that he could introduce them to leading figures of the British establishment and arrange for them to be painted and photographed.


It may seem contradictory behaviour to our modern-day sensibilities, but these dehumanising pictures were commonplace in the Victorian era. In fact, this in itself is of interest to researchers, since Casement has so often been regarded as resistant to this colonial mindset.

However, whatever success Casement achieved was shortlived. In 1916, he was a co-conspirator in the Dublin Easter Rising and was hanged for treason that year.

The discovery of the pictures has been published by Dr Wylie in Irish Studies Review but she came across them almost by accident whilst conducting research for an Art and Humanities Research Council-funded research project, American Tropics: Towards A Literary Geography, based at the University of Essex.

Dr Wylie explains:

I came across the two photographs among a photographic collection held by the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Although the catalogue card identified the sitters simply as “Two slaves from Putomayo (sic) river, Up. Amazon, Colombia”, I suspected immediately that they were the two Amazonians that Casement had brought to London in 1911. I had previously seen a copy of William Rothenstein’s painting of the subjects, and there was a strong resemblance between it and the photographs. Although Casement mentions the existence of these photographs in his personal correspondence, scholars had assumed up to now that these images had been lost.”