For a while a picture has been doing the rounds on the internet of a woman carrying a man in a basket on her back with the claim that it depicted “A Sikkimese woman carrying a British man on her back, West Bengal, India, circa 1900” or “A Bengali woman carrying her British ‘master’ during British colonial rule in 1903 India.”, in others there’s even a claim of the man being an officer.
Understandably this photo gets quite a bit of attention whenever it is shared, at first sight it appears to be a typical example of colonialist oppression; a poor native woman being forced to carry her British master.
But if you tried to find out more about it, a quick google search would lead you to an article with the title ‘The myth of the British colonial ‘master’ and his infamous piggy-back ride’ that claims the picture shows something very different.
According to it’s author, a certain John Kelly PHD the photo does not show a British coloniser forcing a Bengali woman to carry him at all, but that what we see is actually a local woman willingly demonstrating her strength to a French colonial administrator of French Indochina called François Pierre Rodier during his visit to Myanmar (Burma) after he had mentioned how impressed he was by her being able to carry such heavy loads.
A believable claim backed up by what at first sight appears to be a thoroughly researched story with plenty of sources.
Mr. Kelly claims to have done extensive research, getting in touch with professors and historians, asking people to check archives for him, etc. etc.
He discovered that the photo was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons in 2013, tracked down an old book that described the scene and finally got historian Ali Rahnema in Paris to check out the ‘French archives nationales’ to find Rodier’s diary, which he did.
The diary confirmed the whole story and Mr. Kelly concluded that this was the man in the photo.
I have to admit I was impressed with the article and have shared it on several occasions when I saw the photo being shared online, but I did want to know more and was becoming more and more suspicious about what Mr. Kelly was claiming.
For starters, Mr. Kelly never responded to any requests for more information and the evidence being shared was never quite conclusive.
Where were the images of the documents found in the archives and why were book titles not accompanied with page numbers that would help find the information being mentioned?
But another big red flag was that Mr. Kelly’s research somehow completely ignored or failed to trace the photo’s internet history beyond that one post on Wikimedia Commons.
For instance, the blog only mentions the photo being uploaded to Wikimedia Commons in 2013 (here) but the photo was originally uploaded to Flickr much earlier, all the way back in 2008.
It had been removed years ago, so it’s no wonder that most people wouldn’t be able to find it, but there are sometimes ways to find traces of photos that are no longer online and I found traces of them.
The original upload contained a description that explained that the photos were taken by the uploaders great-uncle Pandy when he was posted in Calcutta as a merchant for Ralli Brothers, a famous Greek trading company based in Manchester.
It sure looked like this was the original uploader of the photo and what they claimed clashed with what Mr. Kelly had uncovered…
Unfortunately the Flickr uploader had not been active in years and didn’t respond to my questions, Mr. Kelly didn’t reply either, even the companies both the uploader and Mr. Kelly were connected to didn’t answer my emails, so the investigation came to a standstill.
But then I was contacted by Jolyon Jenkins, journalist, radio producer and presenter of BBC radio 4’s programme ‘Archive on 4’. He wanted to do an episode on the subject of Fake History and we arranged an interview.
During our chat the subject of this photo and the inconsistencies in Mr. Kelly’s work came up.
We compared our finds and sadly Mr. Kelly had also ignored Mr. Jenkins’ requests for information but a few days after our interview Mr. Jenkins managed to contact the person behind the Flickr account that first uploaded the photo and got the whole story from him.
I’m going to suggest that you listen to the full episode here, not only is it an interesting programme about Fake History in general, but it also features an interview with me and explains the complete story behind the photo in question.
You can listen to the episode by clicking here or on the picture and link below;
I’ll share some of the findings and details surrounding the photo that were revealed in the broadcast.
The part where this picture is talked about starts at 37:11.
Inconsistencies in Mr. Kelly’s article;
- Mr. Kelly claims Mr. Rodier is mentioned in “The Burma book”, assuming he means the book “Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity” by Martin Smith that he mentioned earlier, but the name Rodier is not mentioned in the book even once.
- The Rodier diaries Mr. Kelly claims are in the French National Archives but they don’t appear in any of their catalogues or even the Colonial Administration Archives catalogues.
- Mr. Kelly claims Ali Rahnema did research for him in the archives but he didn’t.
- There is no trace of his diaries.
What the family told us about the photo;
- The Flickr account owner’s great-uncle and grandfather who are seen in the photographs were British merchants for a Greek Jute trading company named Ralli Brothers with an office in Manchester, the men were stationed in India around 1903-1920, mostly around Calcutta.
- The descendant likes to think the photo in question does indeed describe the women demonstrating their strength.
- The identity of the man in the basket is not certain.
- Another photo of 3 women, including the one carrying the basket (I think) doesn’t give the impression of the women being forced to carry men around all the time, it’s more like a tourist sort of atmosphere, but of course there’s no way of being sure.
From other sources we learn;
- The Greeks had been trading in India for longer than the British.
- British traders were angry about the Non-British firm Ralli Brothers getting a big contract.
- The family story fits what we see in the photos, the material used for Jute grows in the Bhutia area and it looks like the merchants were visiting the area where much of their produce came from.
Although I have seen roughly 40 photos from of “Great-Uncle Pandy’s Ralli collection”, I will not share them online as the family has chosen to remain anonymous and decided to remove them from the internet, I will share one of them that I managed to find online on another website and also on Wikipedia, because I think it shows the woman who carries the basket and she deserves a bit more attention.
I think the woman on the right is the woman who was carrying who we assume was Great-Uncle Pandy as she is the only one with light coloured tolled up sleeves and a lighter band at the bottom of her dress.
The others also clearly wear shoes while she appears to be barefoot although it’s difficult to be certain.
Here we have a photo of some other Bhutia carriers (then named coolies) around 1875, as you can see they’re using the exact same baskets;
The story of this being a typical depiction of colonial oppression of women being forced to carry their masters is unfounded in this case, I base this conclusion mostly on the story behind the photos but also on the fact that these baskets were generally used for transporting goods and not full-grown men.
The following images also show that when Westerners were being carried around in the colonies, it was often done in ways that were quite a bit more comfortable than having to squeeze yourself into a tiny basket on a woman’s back;
It seems that Mr. Kelly’s analysis of the photo is flawed.
So in conclusion;
The photo most likely shows a Sikkim Bhutia woman in the early 20th century carrying a British merchant who works for a Greek trading company based in Manchester, Britain.
A man who did not belong to the ruling British elite and who did not come not from the region where she was from, but just a visitor from Calcutta.
He is of course still a Westerner and part of the colonial ruling classes while she is still someone under colonial rule.
But she is not carrying her British colonial master nor her French colonial master nor a British officer and there is no evidence that she is being coerced to do so, then again there is also no prove that she is doing this voluntarily or as part of a demonstration, although the latter seems more likely.
The carriers from that region were indeed known for their strength and ability to carry heavy loads.
This of course means that although most people who share the picture are indeed making claims about it that are incorrect, anyone who tried to correct the photo by sharing Mr. Kelly’s article is also wrong.
That includes me. I have deleted my tweets that included Mr. Kelly’s story and shall in stead now share this article whenever I see the picture being shared.
This hasn’t changed the fact that that anyone claiming that this woman is forced to carry her colonial master is still incorrect.
Anyone making claims about this photo that tell us more than is written in this article is making assumptions or using their imagination, because after all this research we still don’t know the exact circumstances surrounding the taking of this photograph.
Picture(s) found online, used for (re-)educational purposes only.
I do not own the copyrights to these images, I only share them here for educational purposes to try and make sure the real story behind it becomes known and people will stop spreading false information.
If the copyright owner objects to the sharing here, kindly contact me and I shall alter the article.
If you’re interested in using any of the images here get in touch with the copyright owners mentioned in the article.
Feel free to contact me with questions.