James Forbes’ Mango and the Art of British Indian Empire

Apurba Chatterjee

In  1765, James Forbes, a mere Scottish lad of less than sixteen years of age, set sail to India following his appointment as a Writer for the English East India Company (EIC) in Bombay. Forbes was to stay in India for eighteen years, and he gradually rose to prominence as the Collector of the district of Dhuboy, in present-day Gujrat. As he contemplated his journey, he quoted the following from Adam Fitz-Adam’s The World (1754),

O say, what yet untasted bounties flow

What purer joys await Hindostan’s plains?

Do lilies fairer, violets sweeter blow?

Or warbles Philomel in softer strain?

Do morning suns in ruddier glory rise?

Does evening fan her with serener gales?

Do clouds drop fatness from her wealthier skies?

Or wantons plenty in her happier vales?[1]

Although the growth of the EIC’s political power during the eighteenth century had resulted in a steady rise in the number of British men going to India, it cannot be denied that, as a young man, Forbes would have been overwhelmed by his Indian sojourn. His longing for home was perhaps laced with an anticipation of what he was to expect in a new and distant land. For Forbes, Britain constituted the only possible measure of what India could be. Settling into his official responsibilities, Forbes adjusted to his ‘new normal’ by seeking a sense of familiarity through drawing and painting.

Figure 1. James Forbes. Frontispiece of Oriental Memoirs (1813).

Whilst his training for the Company’s service must have included draughtsmanship, it would not be out of place to think of arts as an important part of his upbringing in a family claiming descent from the Earl of Granard.[2] Visual arts not only helped Forbes cope with the absence of his loved ones, but also provided a much-needed respite from the boredom caused by the complicated administrative business of British Indian rule.[3] The familiar letters (compiled in thirteen volumes) that he had written home abounded in images. In addition to these, Forbes’ artistic practice enabled him to understand and mentally re-organize his life and surroundings in India. This, in turn, privileged his position as an expert, and earned him recognition in London’s intellectual society upon his return,[4] and Forbes ultimately published an account of his Indian experiences in four volumes as Oriental Memoirs (1813).

India did not disappoint Forbes, and he found himself amidst the bounties of nature that permeated his imagination. What excited him the most was the mango which, to him, was the best fruit India had to offer. Forbes’ fascination with this fruit was not out of place, given that the importance of mango was deeply embedded within Indian culture and society. Mango symbolized fertility and prosperity, and the mango tree had long-standing ritualistic significance in the practices of Hinduism and Buddhism. Whilst Siddhartha Gautama is known for resting in the mango grove of the celebrated courtesan of Magadha, Amrapali (who herself was found beneath a mango tree by her foster father and hence named after the fruit, amra), mango leaves adorn kalasha (sacred pitcher) as an invocation of nature interwoven with human existence in India. Such a harmonious union of humanity and natural environment was not simply confined to religious life; in Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Dui Bigha Jomi, a dispossessed peasant, on return to the land of his ancestors in the Bengal countryside, is overcome with nostalgia when greeted by fruits falling from a mango tree that he had known since his childhood.

Forbes’ interest in mango echoed those of foreign visitors and conquerors in India before him. Whilst Buddhist pilgrims like Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang had immediately recognised the fruit’s importance in Indian life, when Babur founded the Mughal empire following his victory at the First Battle of Panipat (1526), mango was one of rarest sources of comfort in Hindustan, which to him, was otherwise ‘a country of few charms’ with ‘its heat, its violent winds, its dust’.[5] For the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, none of the fruits in Afghanistan or Central Asia could parallel the sweetness of mangoes.[6] The Mughals embraced the tradition of sending fruits in India, thereby giving diplomatic acts of the state a personal touch. Practices as these, when continued under the British, were to assume new meanings in light of the political economy of their Indian administration. Whilst occasional gifting of seasonal fruits continued between the British officials and Indian royalty, the emotive reciprocity of such interactions faded away due to the limitations of hunting and land rights as they were imposed on the latter.

Although delightful to his heart, mango thoroughly eluded Forbes’ mind. In his letters, Forbes fell short of reference points as he attempted to describe this amazing fruit to his acquaintances back home. According to Forbes, in their appearance, mangoes, to some extent, could be compared to European fruits like apple and peach. The taste was, at the very least, mysterious, as Forbes has written, ‘if you can conceive a fine nectarine, improved by the flavour of the pineapple, and still heightened by the orange, you may form some idea of a choice mango’.[7] Mangoes, in all their forms and varieties, were ideal for pickles, preserves, and tarts, and Forbes was strongly in favour of them being imported to Britain.

Whilst the verbal description of the fruit posed difficulties for him, the visual medium allowed Forbes to prevail. Presented here is an image of mangoes of Mazagaon in Bombay from the Oriental Memoirs, based on his original illustrations. There are two ripe mangoes, almost apple-like, golden and yellow in colour, on a branch surrounded by leaves. The degree of textural details on the leaves can be easily noted, and the presence of spots on the leaves is suggestive of natural wear and tear. On the top can be seen a beautiful butterfly which, according to Forbes, is found on the mango tree itself, approaching the blossom that shows steady signs of their bloom. The gnarled leaves are a reminder of the Dutch convention of still life paintings, which itself was the medium for the representation of exotics, thereby bolstering the ideas of colonial expansion.[8]  

Figure 2. Forbes’ depiction of mangoes, from Oriental Memoirs (1913).

Dutch still life paintings have also been associated with the celebration of prosperity and affluence, which often was understood as an outcome of human expertise in agriculture.[9] Forbes’ inference, however, is different. Although Forbes acknowledges that local Brahmins brought him fruits and flowers for the purposes of drawing, he did not praise cultivators who in his opinion, got away with not working hard because of the fertility of Indian soil.[10] This idea was taken a step further in his published work, where he explicitly referred to the peasantry in India as lazy. Where he did praise their labour, Forbes did so in order to criticize Indian governments as despotic and oppressive.[11] Central to the colonial appropriation of natural resources was the denial of expertise and labour of the colonized populace.[12] Such an attitude, however, was also an expression of deep-seated anxieties of misinformation, and an unwillingness on the part of Indians to share their knowledge of nature with Britons.[13] Indeed, although Forbes had been able to bring back to Britain and grow many an Indian plant in Stanmore Hall, his own efforts to cultivate mangoes were unsuccessful.[14]

This brings me to another aspect concerning the still life tradition: Vanitas or Memento-Mori which signified the ephemerality of existence.[15] Whilst the ideas of Vanitas stood as check and balance against the Dutch pride in their growing power and luxury, the adaptation of this trope by Forbes in India is a reflection of the prosperity of, and the problems associated with, upholding British rule. Forbes, nevertheless, remains full of hope for the British prospect and their everlasting dominion in India, as understood from the presence of the butterfly on the blossom.

James Forbes’ depiction of the mango reveals the entanglement of visual arts and natural history within an imperial context, thereby raising questions regarding power and agency in early British India. The domestication of exotica came not only at the cost of alienating natural productions from their original contexts, but was also based on the amplification of such acts of displacement through their aestheticization. Our aspiration towards a decolonial future thus must empower us all to stride past the lure of  familiarity and received wisdom, and to demystify such cultural representations in search of voices that have remained, and yet remain, unheard.

Dr Apurba Chatterjee is a research fellow at Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum, Bremerhaven. She completed her PhD on visual arts and the early British Indian empire at The University of Sheffield. Her research interests include imperial history, visual and material cultures, and Postcolonialism.

[1] James Forbes Manuscript, Vol. 2, p. 3 (Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, USA)

[2] Ketaki Kushari Dyson, A Various Universe. A Study of the Journals and Memoirs of British Men and Women in the Indian Subcontinent, 1765-1856 (Delhi, 1980), p. 180.

[3] Jeffrey A. Auerbach, ‘Imperial Boredom’ Common Knowledge, 11.2, 2005, pp. 283-305.

[4] Forbes became a member of both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries .

[5] Thomas Watters,  On Yuan Chwang’s travels in India, 629-645 A.D. (London, 1904), p. 66; Fa-Hien, Travels of Fa-Hien, trans. James Legge (Delhi, 1971); and Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, Baburnama, trans. Annette Susannah Beveridge, Vols. 1 and 2 (New Delhi, 1922), pp. 503-4, 518, and 532.

[6] Nur-ud-din Muhammad Salim ‘Jahangir’, The Jahangirnama: memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India, trans. and ed. W. M. Thackston (Oxford, 1999), pp. 24 and 81.

[7] Forbes Manuscript, Vol. 2 (YCBA), p. 12.

[8] Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (London, 1990), p. 108.

[9] Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked, p. 105 and Miya Tokumitsu, ‘The Currencies of Naturalism in Dutch “Pronk” Still-Life Painting: Luxury, Craft, Envisioned Affluence’ RACAR: revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review, 41.2 (2016), pp. 30-43.

[10] Forbes Manuscript (YCBA), Vol. 2, p. 21.

[11] James Forbes, Oriental Memoirs, Vol. 1 (London, 1813), p. 19; and Forbes, Oriental Memoirs, Vol. 4, p. 248.

[12] Beth Fowkes Tobin, Colonizing Nature. The Tropics in British Arts and Letters, 1760-1820 (Philadelphia, 2005), pp. 22 and 32.

[13] Mss. Eur. 95 (Robert Kyd papers), p. 54b (British Library).

[14] https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/still-life [Accessed on 21 July 2020].

[15] Dyson, A Various Universe, p. 186.

Figure 1. Portrait of James Forbes.

Figure 2 and banner. James Forbes’ depiction of mangoes.

Both images were provided by the author from Oriental Memoirs(1813), and are understood to be in the public domain.

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