Images that reflect on our values

It appears to be dehumanising today, but a century ago it conformed with racial ideology when two Amazonian youths were exhibited in London’s social and academic circles as ‘living curiosities.’ New research at the University of Leicester highlights exploitation that continues to this day.
Ricudo (man) and Omarino (boy).

The discovery of two photographic images – presumed lost– by a University of Leicester researcher has helped to reconstruct the experience of two native Americans who were brought to the UK to publicise atrocities in the rubber districts of the Amazon in the last century.

Dr Lesley Wylie, Lecturer in Latin American Studies in the School of Modern Languages, was carrying out research for her book on the Putumayo, a border region in the Amazon. Her book forms part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded research project, American Tropics: Towards A Literary Geography, based at the University of Essex.

The photographs were found among a photographic collection relating to the period of the rubber boom in the Putumayo held by the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

They depict the subjects naked to the waist against a pale background, in half-length front and profile shots, in accordance with the genre of anthropological photography at that time. The photographs are thought to have been taken by John Thomson, a pioneering travel photographer and photojournalist, born in Edinburgh.

Dr Wylie said: “The photographs essentially reduce the subjects to racial ‘types’: the man and boy are no longer regarded as individuals but as physical specimens supposedly embodying certain racial characteristics. This privileging of the visual was an important feature of British imperial policy of the time. Although the two Amazonians were not British subjects, these photographs can be situated within a tradition of imperial photography which sought to record and document human ‘types’.”

The images have been published as part of a research paper on Roger Casement – remembered as an Irish revolutionary and co-conspirator in the Dublin Easter Rising for which he was hanged in 1916.

The two Amazonians were called Omarino and Ricudo. Omarino had been ‘presented’ to Casement during a trip to the Amazon for payment of a pair of trousers and a shirt while Ricudo, a married man of 19, had been separated from his wife after Casement ‘won him’ in a game of cards.

Dr Wylie said that, despite the fact that today these ethnographic photographs strike us as somewhat dehumanising, Casement’s decision to commission them would not have been out of the ordinary in 1911; rather, it was consistent with the racial ideology of the time. This in itself is of interest to researchers, since Casement has so often been regarded as resistant to this colonial mindset.

Dr Wylie said: “Whilst it has been possible at least partially to reconstruct the story of Omarino and Ricudo, and their trip from the forests of the Amazon to the busy streets of London, many other stories from the Putumayo, then and now, remain untold.

“As part of my research I came across testimony given by Omarino and Ricudo recounting stories of violence, displacement, and murder. Today, indigenous communities in the Putumayo, now in the war-torn south of Colombia, are bearing the brunt of the latest tropical boom – in cocaine rather than rubber – as well as ongoing political violence.”

This article originally appeared in LE1 Autumn 2011.

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