Objects Unpacked: St Andrews and the Empire

This blog article is a small excerpt from the Objects Unpacked talk at the MUSA Collections Centre on 2nd September

I’m Jo, Operations Officer at the Museum Collections Unit. A bit about me – I received my Masters in Modern History in December last year, specialising in Scottish History in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’ve been at MUSA as a member of staff since 2013, and it’s been fascinating to study the history of Scotland whilst working alongside objects of national significance. As part of my Masters I researched the Scottish contribution to the Empire, and was surprised to find how extensive it had been.

Objects with Jo
The selection of objects was wide-ranging: from the Zimbabwean mask (middle), to a bark basket from c18th America, and c20th Moroccan homeware

I was inspired to give this particular Objects Unpacked talk upon my return from a career break to volunteer in Zimbabwe for 3 months at the beginning of the year. Having researched the influence of Scots in the Empire in books and archives, the lasting impact of this influence was hammered home to me when I found myself standing in ‘Fife Street’ in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo; or finding shortbread complete with tartan packaging in the local supermarkets. It was fitting that one of the first objects I came across when researching for this talk was the Zimbabwean mask which is modern and was recently donated to the Collection.

The Empire

Terrestrial Globe
The Terrestrial Globe dates from 1806 and shows parts of Canada which were yet to be discovered by the British

What do we mean by ‘empire’? I believe it’s most appropriate to use the term loosely, to refer to the involvement of Britain around the world since the sixteenth century right up to very late in the twentieth century. The global imperial influence of Britain comprised everything from the settlement and administration of a formal colony, the establishment of trade links between the colonial power and the colonised countries, as well as the military element which often played a part in colonisation.

The terrestrial globe offers a fascinating snapshot of the British Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was made by J. & W. Cary of London in 1806, and you can see that parts of Canada are yet to be discovered. It also details the discoveries of Captain Cook and Captain Vancouver.

The Zodiac Bowl

Zodiac bowl
The Zodiac Bowl

This bowl is part of the Heritage Collection, which is a Collection of Recognised National Significance. There are so many strands of history brought together in this bowl, and it’s fascinating. It’s thought to originate from Burma, and each of these twelve side panels is embossed with a sign of the zodiac.

The bowl was presented to the University of St Andrews in December 1827 by Lieutenant Colonel Brodie, a former student. It was brought from Madras by Hugh Cleghorn, Professor of Civil History at the University 1773-1793.

A little further research reveals the object’s links to some of the most important people of the day. Hugh Cleghorn brought the bowl from Madras, presumably when he returned from India in 1800. Cleghorn left his post as Professor of Civil History in 1793 to become a spy for Henry Dundas. Henry Dundas was known as the ‘Manager’ of Scotland from the 1780s right up until 1806.He was so powerful in Scotland that his critics pejoratively termed him ‘King Harry the ninth’. The link to the Empire is obvious – from 1784 onwards, the British government had the final word on all major appointments in India by the East India Company; and as President of the Board of Control from 1793 until 1801, Henry Dundas held the key to many lucrative careers. He used his position to establish a system of patronage, which allowed him to control the votes of almost all the MPs from Scotland during this period. In 1806 he was impeached by parliament for misappropriation of funds, and although he was acquitted, he never held political office again.

Henry Dundas
Henry Dundas, former Chancellor of the University and ‘Manager’ of Scotland in the late c18th

Dundas was Chancellor of the University of St Andrews 1788–1811, and it must have been during this period that he came into contact with Hugh Cleghorn. In 1793, Cleghorn left his post at the University to travel to Switzerland. His mission, recorded in correspondence with Dundas, was to persuade the leader of a group of mercenaries stationed in the Dutch colony of Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), to switch his allegiance to Britain. Cleghorn was successful and in 1796, Ceylon fell to the British. Cleghorn’s tombstone in Dunino states ‘He was the agent by whose instrumentality the Island of Ceylon was annexed to the British Empire.’ Later, he became the first Colonial Secretary of Ceylon. No small feat for a Professor of History from a corner of Fife!

In this talk we looked at how many different ways in which people associated with the University influenced the British Empire. We’ve discussed how some of these objects were connected to the greatest political issues of the day, and explored how the University acquired them. One of the University’s greatest strengths is its multicultural and cosmopolitan student body, and this has long been one of its greatest traditions as well.

The next Objects Unpacked talk is on 7th October at the MUSA Collections Centre 1.15-1.45. Curator Claire Robinson will be discussing the Recording Scotland collection


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