Academic unearths lost Amazonian ‘specimen’ photos
A university researcher has discovered photographic images of two native Amazonians who were brought to Britain in 1911 as part of efforts to highlight human rights abuses.
Lesley Wylie, a lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Leicester, believes the images, which were presumed lost, are those of a man and a boy shipped to London by Irish revolutionary Roger Casement, who was hanged for treason in 1916.
Dr Wylie made the discovery among a photographic collection relating to the period of the rubber boom in Putumayo – a border region in the Amazon – held by a museum at the University of Cambridge.
The images depict the subjects naked to the waist against a pale background, in half-length front and profile shots, in accordance with the genre of anthropological photography of the time, and have been published as part of a research paper on Casement.
Casement made trips to the Amazon in 1910 and again in 1911 on behalf of the British government to investigate alleged atrocities against the indigenous population by a rubber company.
The diplomat – who hoped to raise awareness of atrocities in Putumayo – is known to have arranged for the two “natives” – named Omarino and Ricudo – to be shipped back so that he could introduce them to leading figures of the British establishment and arrange for them to be painted and photographed.
Dr Wylie, who has published the photographs in the Irish Studies Review, said: “The photographs essentially reduce the subjects to racial “types” – the man and boy are no longer regarded as individuals but as physical specimens supposedly embodying certain racial characteristics.
“I came across the two photographs among a photographic collection held by the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
“Although the catalogue card identified the sitters simply as ‘Two slaves from Putomayo (sic) river, Up. Amazon, Colombia’, I suspected immediately that they were the two Amazonians that Casement had brought to London in 1911.
“I had previously seen a copy of William Rothenstein’s painting of the subjects, and there was a strong resemblance between it and the photographs.
“Although Casement mentions the existence of these photographs in his personal correspondence, scholars had assumed up to now that these images had been lost.”