Maurice Vidal Portman
A British naval officer and assistant superintendent at the British-Indian penal colony of the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the 1890s, Maurice Vidal Portman is known for producing the most extensive photographic record of the islands’ native inhabitants at the time.
Born into an aristocratic family in the city of London, Canada, Portman joined the Royal Indian Marine at the age of sixteen and, in 1879, he was appointed Officer in Charge of the Andamanese at Port Blair. The detailed ethnographic and linguistic studies he carried out during his two-decade tenure also informed two other publications: Notes of the Languages of the South Andaman Group of Languages (1898) and A History of Our Relations with the Andamanese (1899).
Portman photographed most of his subjects at the Andaman Homes, a series of shelters run by him and other officials, where natives were brought, sometimes by force or coercion. In a manner characteristic of the ethnographic studies of the time, and to ensure maximum visibility and physiognomic clarity in his photographs, he made sure that his subjects were naked and posed (usually) frontally, with any of their accompanying tools or weapons clearly in the frame. When photographing individual subjects, he often used a backdrop of the chequered Lamprey’s grid and sometimes included instruments such as callipers within the frame. His group and individual photos predominantly featured men, typically between the age of thirteen and thirty and often casually posed, while his photos of heads or busts — constituting a smaller set — equally represented men and women. To carry out detailed measurements and analyses of height, temperature, weight, lengths of abdominal breathing, the size and shape of hands and feet, he used a set of anthropometric instruments sent by the British Museum.
When not using a grid, Portman used a dull or grey background, produced by smoke, so that subjects were foregrounded, their natural settings or contexts having been erased and replaced with an abstract one. There are accounts of how he made assistants out of the Andamanese, training them to perform menial jobs such as cleaning, washing and mixing, and also accounts of his attitude towards his colonial subjects, which alternated between generosity and brutality. The record produced through this long and complicated engagement resulted in a collection of eleven volumes of anthropometric or process studies, four volumes of physiological data or “Observations on External Characteristics.” In addition, he created a detailed photographic record of the manufacture of various implements and weapons so that they could, if required, be replicated by other craftsmen. He could not, however, complete his project as ill health forced him to return to England.
Scholars have argued that Portman’s mode of colonial intervention served to ‘tame’ rather than to ‘civilise’ and that he kept his subjects like semi-domesticated pets, which he viewed as savage but docile. This attitude partly stemmed from his vehement opposition to the sanctioned practice of cultural ‘improvement’ of the colonised and partly from his desire for authenticity in his photos. His persistence in the face of several challenges posed by the tropical climate, disease, logistics and the sheer scale of the operation, however, begged a deeper analysis of his less-apparent motivations. Some scholars suggest that his stylistic choices reveal his uneasy commitment to discipline, while the photographs themselves imply an underlying homoerotic tendency.
In his obituary in The Times of London, Portman was dubbed the “Father of the Andaman Islanders,” and was feted as a dauntless adventurer, scrupulous investigator and record-keeper. Although he has been prolific in the work he produced, there is little information available on the man himself. His few scattered texts and famous photographs remain the only sources of available insight. In recent decades, his extant plates and notes, now scattered across collections — such as of Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford and British Library, London, UK — have come in for a more critical evaluation. One such critique that reimagines and challenges the framework in which Portman operated is the work Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs (2000–04) by Pushpamala N and Claire Arni.
Our website is currently undergoing maintenance and re-design, due to which we have had to take down some of our bibliographies. While these will be re-published shortly, you can request references for specific articles by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.