Long Reads

Indian treasure trove in a Welsh corner

Prasun Sonwalkar/London
Filed on August 20, 2021

(National Trust)

The largest collection of ‘loot’ is officially acknowledged to be in the Powis Castle in north Wales.

One of the many Indian slang words incorporated in the English language is ‘loot’. A large number of items gifted or acquired during the long colonial encounter were transported to Britain, and are now based in museums and part of the Royal Collection and private holdings in families of former soldiers and officials. But the largest collection of ‘loot’ is officially acknowledged to be in the Powis Castle in north Wales, nearly 300 km from London, where most tourists rarely venture. Except historians and some antique lovers, not many in the Indian subcontinent are aware of its existence or location. A visit to the castle and its holdings is well worth the trek across motorways and smaller roads through sylvan countryside, before being faced with the reality of colonial loot.

The castle, set on sprawling grounds, is host to the largest private collection of its type in Britain, comprising priceless items brought by Robert Clive (1725-74) and his son, Edward Clive (1754-1839). The senior Clive is credited with laying the foundation of the British Empire in India by winning the Battle of Plassey, while the junior Clive was governor of Madras when Tipu Sultan was defeated and killed in 1799 in Srirangapatna. Both carried home a large number of items, including idols of Hindu gods, hookahs, swords, paintings, textiles, gold, ceremonial armour and jewellery following their conquests in India.

Their collection reached the Powis Castle through the marriage of Edward Clive with Henrietta Herbert, daughter of the Earl of Powis. The National Trust, which manages the castle, says that the marriage provided financial security for Powis through the wealth and colonial power the Clive family had amassed in India, while bringing aristocratic prestige to the Clive name. Edward continued his father’s colonial activities in India, adding to the family’s collection of Indian treasures.

Following the recent ‘retain and explain’ approach to items and artefacts, the trust acknowledges the dubious ways in which the collection was acquired and brought to England. Photography is not allowed inside the museum, but a large noticeboard explains Robert Clive’s character and exploits in colonial India.

The Clive Museum in the castle has more than 1,000 items, including a palanquin built for Siraj ud-Daulah, the then ruler of Bengal. When he was overthrown in the Battle of Plassey, it was said to have been abandoned, seized by the British troops and brought to Britain by Clive. The most prominent item in the collection is a gold tiger’s head finial, studded with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies, one of eight from Tipu Sultan’s throne. It was taken from the throne and given to Henrietta by Arthur Wellesley, later the 1st Duke of Wellington. After Tipu Sultan was killed, his throne was broken up, with parts sold, and distributed as prized trophies or made into parcels to pay British troops.

Also in the collection is Tpu Sultan’s magnificent state tent, made of painted chintz, seized by Edward Clive. The trust notes that at Powis, it was used as a marquee for garden parties, highlighting the uncomfortable ways objects were used to signal colonial dominance and subjugation through appropriation. “Like the tent, its (tiger head finial) importance in conveying Tpu Sultan’s personal status compounded the cultural, as well as physical, colonisation undertaken by the Clives,” the trust says.

The trust adds: “Some objects in the Clive Collection were looted during his, and later Edward’s, establishment and maintenance of power in the Indian subcontinent. Robert amassed a vast fortune in gold, silver and jewels as spoils of war in India and this family wealth was passed down through generations. Ultimately it was invested in renovating Powis Castle and Gardens. The Museum shows how legacies of British colonialism continue to be visible today. Furthermore, the often-violent stories of how such precious objects came to be at Powis reinforce the need for new research into our colonial histories.”

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