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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Maurice Vidal Portman

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Other: M.V. Portman 
Dates:  1860, 21 March - 1935, 14 February
Born:  Canada, Ontario, West London
Died:  UK, Somerset, Axbridge
Active:  India
Went to the Andaman Islands in 1879 and documented the languages and history of the region. He carried out an ambitious but never completed plan to photograph the Andamanese aboriginals before their extinction due to colonial contact.
The Pitt Rivers Museum has about two dozen in its collection, the British Library has some and there is an extensive collection at the British Museum.

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John Falconer, British Library 
A Biographical Dictionary of 19th Century Photographers in South and South-East Asia

Amateur, India (Andaman Islands)
3rd son of the Hon Maurice Berkeley Portman (b. 1833), himself the third son of the 1st Viscount Portman, and his wife Helen Vidal (she died on 31 March 1860, presumably as a result of postnatal complications).[1]
Royal Indian Marine, 1876-9: 14 Oct 1876-3 Aug 1877, 4th grade officer, State Yacht Establishment; 4 Aug 1877-30 Sep 1877, 4th grade officer, in charge of the Rhotas; 1 Oct 1877-3 Oct 1877 (3 days!); 4th grade officer in charge of Viceroy’s Yacht Establishment; 6 Nov 1877-3 Dec 1878, 4th grade officer in charge of Viceroy’s Yacht Establishment; 4 Dec 1878-14 Jan 1879, 4th officer, Constance (lent for one trip); 15 Jan 1879-17 Feb 1879, officer in charge, Viceroy’s Yacht Establishment; 18 Feb 1879, transferred to Home Department as Extra Assistant Commissioner, Andaman Islands.[2]
Andaman Islands, 1879-1899: Appointed to the Andaman Islands in charge of Andaman Homes, February 1879; attacked and wounded by a convict, 2 Dec 1879; Home on sick leave, December 1880 to October 1883; 2nd class Extra Assistant Superintendent, Port Blair, 1883-88; 1st class Extra Assistant Superintendent, Port Blair, 1889-93; Assistant Superintendent, Port Blair, 1894-1900; retired 11 January 1900: ‘Mr Portman’s health completely broke down during the year and he was obliged to retire from the service of Government’.[3]
The Photographic Project: As a result of discussions with the British Museum during a visit to England in the late 1880s, Portman had agreed to undertake a major photographic documentation of the ethnography and culture of the Andaman Islands. A few years later he gave a fuller account of the genesis and progress of this work, which merits quoting in extenso:
With reference to a conversation I had with Sir Wollaston Franks[4] in 1887 at the British Museum, I wrote to him in November 1889 offering to make for the British Museum a series of photographs of the Andamanese aborigines, in their different occupations and modes of life; the photographs to be in platinotype, and, as far as possible, on 15"x12" plates. I stated that I would bear all the expenses in the matter and required no pecuniary assistance. This offer was accepted by Sir Wollaston Franks on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum, and representations were made to the Secretary of State for India by the Trustees requesting that I might be afforded every facility in the work...
It was arranged that two copies of each volume of photographs were to be given to the British Museum, and, after some correspondence, that a selected series in triplicate was to be given to the Government of India, for which I am to receive Rs.2,000 on the completion of the work. This selected series is practically the same as that supplied to the British Museum. The work was at once commenced, and the following has been forwarded in duplicate to the British Museum, and (with the exception of Volumes 1 and 2), in triplicate to the Government of India in the Home Department:-
Volumes 1, 2. Typical heads of the Andamanese.
Volume 3. Heads of the Andamanese, full face and profile.
Volume 4. Adze and bow-making.
Volumes 5, 6. Bow and arrow-making.
Volume 7. Rope-making and hut-building.
Volume 8. Eating and drinking, packing and carrying bundles, utensils, etc., attitudes, torch-making, greeting, etc.
Volume 9. Painting, tattooing, counting.
Volume 10. Measurements and medical details of 50 males of the South Andman group of tribes.
Volume 11. Measurements and medical details of 50 females of the South Andaman group of tribes.
Volume 12. Full length, full face, and profile views of male Andamanese.
Volume 13. Full length, full face, and profile views of female Andamanese.
Volumes 14 and 15 being the measurements and medical details of 50 males and 50 females of the North Andaman group of tribes have, with the help of Surgeon-Captain W. Molesworth, been completed during the present rainy season, and will be forwarded as soon as the copies are ready. The work has so far met with the approval of the Government of India and the Trustees of the British Museum.
The investigations at the Little Andaman Island are postponed for the present, until the work in the Great Andaman is finished, as the Öngés are neither dying out, nor being contaminated by outside influences, and as the Island can only be visited during a few months of the year, the work there will take time.
After I commenced, I found that, for scientific purposes, the Andamanese are divided into three groups of tribes, the North, the South, and Öngé groups, and my instructions from the British Museum being to answer in every detail, both photographically and in writing, all the questions in the second edition of Anthropological Notes and Queries, the work has really to be done three times over, as the groups of tribes differ much in their weapons, ornaments, etc., and customs. As volumes 9, 10, 14, and 15 show, the record is not only a photographic one, and each photograph has the necessary explanatory letter press attached.
The following, among other reasons, will show how difficult it is for me to fix any period within which the work will be completed:-
New details are constantly cropping up, with suggestions from Sir Wollaston Franks, which alter work partly done. (Volumes 12 and 13 were completed when I was told that the figures must be taken touching a background accurately painted in 2-inch squares, and the whole had to be done over again).
During the past two years I have had few opportunities of visiting the islands, and consequently less work has been done than might have been. The careful work, and more especially the copying, necessary in volumes 10, 11, 14, and 15, has taken up a good deal of time; and last January 60 plates, on which I had taken, at Rutland Island, a series of photographs describing the manufacture of the leaf ornaments of the Andamanese, were found when developed, on my return to Port Blair, to have gone bad from damp and to be useless.
So far as possible a complete record in imperishable platinotype will be made of the Andaman Islander is every action of his life, showing how the tribes differ among themselves, as well as their general peculiarities; and my object, in the photographic part, is to show every step in the making of a weapon, etc., so clearly, that, with the assistance of the finished articles now in the British Museum, it would be possible for a European workman to imitate the mode of work. Attention is always drawn in the letterpress to any notable peculiarity which cannot be expressed photographically.[5]
The original proposal, supported by the Government of India but wholly funded by Portman himself, was clearly over-ambitious, and in April 1890 Portman wrote to Cadell reporting that the series would amount to ‘several thousand negatives’ and asking how many sets Government required, since if they wanted more than six prints from each negative, ‘he will be obliged to ask for payment of actual costs.’ Government replied on 12 May 1890 that six copies would be sufficient.[6]
Soon, however, the original arrangement had to be emended, and on 30 August 1890 Portman wrote to the Chief Commissioner stating that he was unable to afford to give six copies of each photograph to the Government of India: ‘When I first wrote I did not anticipate that during the next three months the price of platinum would be doubled, nor was I aware that photographic materials would spoil so rapidly as I find they do in Port Blair.’ He continues:
‘3. The plates I use - ‘Edward’s Isochromatic.’ 15"x12" - cost £1 16s per dozen in England, and with the cost of packing, freight, and the breakages in transit, cost me about 5s each when delivered here. No less than four batches of platinotype paper, valued at £14 in England, have gone bad this year since arriving here. From these examples, and the fact that I am obliged to keep a stock of platinum salt, value £22, in order to keep pace with the British Museum requirements, and that I have spent over £300 in apparatus, etc., it will be seen that the work is a very costly one, much more so, indeed, than I expected.
‘4. I venture to hope, however, that the Government of India, having regard to their expressed desire for six copies from each negative, will purchase them from me. My charges, which are -
Rs.20 each for 15"x12" prints
Rs.6 each for 8 1/2"x6 1/2" prints
Rs.2-8 each for 5"x4" prints (cabinet heads)
may appear high, but it must be remembered that the prints are in platinotype, and will be bound in albums with explanatory letter-press, exactly similar to those sent to the British Museum, and I would draw attention to the fact that the London Stereoscopic Company’s charges for prints in silver are -
Panel 13"x7 1/2" £1 1s each
Now a sheet of silver sensitized albumen paper, size 22"x17", costs 10d, while a sheet of platinotype paper, when finished, costs me 2s 41/4d, size 15"x12", with the advantage that the platinotypes are permanent.
‘5. Having regard to the fact that the Andamanese race will in a few years be extinct, that there is no other photographic record of them (indeed no professional photographer would undertake the work except at a very high price, as I found when in asking Messrs. Bourne and Shepherd’s agent who was here in January 1889, to make some lantern slides for me, size 3 1/4"x3 1/4", he wanted Rs.10 each for them, and he would not have the facilities for going amongst the Andamanese, or the special knowledge of their habits which I have), and that extreme scientific interest is taken in these people, the photographs will become in a few years worth more pounds than I am charging rupees.
‘6. I have shown specimens of my photographs to another agent of Messrs. Bourne and Shepherd’s, now in this settlement, and he considers them tchnically excellent as photographs, and that my charges for the same are very reasonable.
‘7. The series I am making for the British Museum will, I estimate, contain when finished-
1,268 prints15"x12"
824 prints8 1/2"x6 1/2"
75 prints5"x4"

Elaborate details are shown in this series, which may be more comprehensive than the Government of India require, but I could supply a series giving a very good idea of the aborigines of the Great Andaman Islands, their manners and customs, in the following number of prints -
271 prints15"x12"
175 prints8 1/2"x6 1/2"
50 prints5"x4"

The Little Andaman series would comprise about two-thirds of this number of photographs. The series will take me about eight years to complete, and I should only be able to supply a set of six albums, say, every three months, so the payment would extend over a considerable period of time. ‘8. I would therefore request the favour of your forwarding this letter to the Government of India with such support as you may be pleased to accord it. Specimens of my photographs in different sizes are forwarded. They are chiefly portraits, that branch of photography being considered the most difficult, and they appear to greater advantage when examined through a magnifying glass.[7]
In forwarding this letter to the Under Secretary to the Government of India Colonel Cadell considered that the charges proposed by Portman ‘do not appear to be excessive under the circumstances explained by him’, noting that the total cost of six copies of the reduced set (2,976 prints in all) would amount to Rs. 39,570, spread over eight years. He further added that ‘there can be no doubt of the excellence of the photographs, some specimens of which are being forwarded to your address under a separate cover.’[8]
The response of C.J. Lyall, Officiating Secretary to the Government of India, was less than enthusiastic about this proposal, pointing out in his reply of 3 October that Portman, having originally proposed to supply six free sets of the whole series to Government, now ‘suggests that copies of a reduced series, including photographs of figures and scenery, should be supplied by him at a cost of Rs. 6,595 each, or a total of Rs. 39,570 for six sets.’ In recording that ‘the Government of India hesitates to incur so large an expenditure on this object’, Lyall made some pertinent observations on Portman’s proposals, noting that the earlier losses of material were due to Portman’s own ‘inexperience in photography, and that ‘it would be possible for him to complete the work more economically if he were, like many other amateur photographers who use their art for scientific purposes, to confine himself to taking negatives, which he could then make over to some professional photographer at Calcutta or in England for printing. In this way he would escape the losses due to the spoiling of the costly platinotype paper in the climate of Port Blair; and it would be possible, by taking ordinary silver prints from the negatives, to form a judgement as to whether it was worth while incurring the expense of taking a platinotype print from each of them.’ He went on to suggest that ‘it is also not impossible that if Mr Portman were to arrange his work in this way, he might find that the public and other scientific institutions in Europe would wish to purchase copies of many of his pictures.’ Furthermore, if it were to be a question of paying for the photographs, ‘The Government of India...would not desire to have copies of any except the Andamanese figures and groups. Photographs of scenery are not required, nor photographs of continental Indian types...Three sets of the photographs would also be sufficient for the requirements of Government’. Portman was therefore to be asked to submit a fresh estimate of the cost for three sets of a ‘sufficiently complete series of ethnographic photographs of the Andamanese.’ Clearly a compromise was reached in which for the three sets supplied to the Government of India Portman would receive the more modest remuneration of Rs. 2,000 compared to the proposed sum of nearly Rs. 40,000 for nearly 3,000 prints: as the later progress of the work indicates, this was a wildly ambitious programme, particularly given the difficulties of photographic work in a tropical climate (the single set of the series now in the British Library (OIOC Photo 188/1-13) contains a total of 257 prints, considerably less than the 496 originally suggested).
By 1893, Portman was able to report that the
photographic record of the Andamanese for the Government of India is progressing. Eight volumes in duplicate have now been despatched to the British Museum, while two volumes in triplicate have been delivered at the Home Department in Calcutta. For the latter Mr Portman has sufficient negatives ready to complete another six volumes in triplicate, which will be forwarded as printed...[9]
The report also notes the praise of A.W. Franks, who had greeted the work with the ‘highest approval’ and who wrote to Portman that,
You, however, have worked upon such a comprehensive scale, and have carried out your plans so entirely in accordance with the requirements of science, as to place your work far in advance of anything of the kind that has hitherto been done.[10]
He here gives some further information on his working methods:
27. Mr Portman reports that in the work he is guided by the Anthropological Notes and Queries published by the authority of the Anthropological Institute, and a copy of which has been presented to him by Mr C.A. Read of the British Museum, one of the editors, who is also forwarding to him a case of Tapinard’s Anthropometric instruments, with which observations afterwards to be incorporated with the other work are to be made.
28. Mr Franks has laid such great stress on the importance of the Andamanese ethnographically, and the desirability of recording every detail of their lives before they become extinct, that Mr Portman is working on a much larger scale than heretofore, and Mr Read suggested to him the advisability of publishing the whole work when complete.[11]
In the following year’s report (1894-95), further details were given on the progress of the work:
Mr Portman has despatched during the year two volumes in triplicate of his record of the Andamanese to the Government of India and two volumes in duplicate to the British Museum. These volumes contain the measurements and medical details of the North Andaman group of tribes, and in making them, he has been kindly assisted by Surgeon Captain W. Molesworth, M.B., Indian Medical Service. The measurements and medical details of the Aborigines of the Great Andaman have now been completed, and will shortly be analysed by Dr Garson at the British Museum, the analysis being published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. This part of the record has taken much time, as in addition to the difficulty of procuring suitable people from the North Andaman, the clerical work of making six copies of each volume, which on account of the accuracy required, cannot be entrusted to a clerk, is considerable. It is hoped that the photographic record will now proceed more quickly, but this depends, to a great extent, on the facilities which can be afforded Mr Portman of visiting distant jungle camps, and remaining for several days in each place. Certain photographs, forming part of a subject, are now ready, but Mr Portman has not been able to complete any one subject and send any volumes away during the past year:
1st - Because, after the measurements were finished, and he returned from Calcutta prepared to go on with the photographic work, the epidemic of measles necessitated his sending the Andmanese away from the settlement;
2nd - Owing to difficulties in the matter of water transport in the settlement, he has not, during the year, been able to obtain the loan of a steam-launch, and go about the islands. Without the assistance of a launch, it is impossible to complete the work, particularly in the North and Little Andamans.[12]
It was at this time that the publication of Portman’s history of the Andamans was raised:
The Chief Commissioner has directed Mr Portman to write a history of our relations with the Andamanese, the first part of which is to contain a summary of, and extracts from, the accounts that are known regarding this race. The second part is to contain answers in full to the questions in notes and queries on anthropology. Dr Garson’s analysis of Mr Portman’s measurements of the Andamanese, etc., is to form a supplement to his photograph record. The work is well in hand, although it will be some time before the second part will be ready, owing to the infrequency of our visits to the Little Andaman.[13]
In the following year, Portman appears to have paid less attention to photography in his researches, his time apparently being more taken up with his history:
The ‘Record of the Andamanese’ [ie the photographic record] which is being compiled for the Government of India and the British Museum, is being proceeded with. Mr Portman has, during the year under report, collected material for a comparative vocabulary of the dialects spoken by the South Andaman group of tribes, and hopes to add to this specimens of their legends, songs, and tales, recorded in dialect. He has also written, at the request of the Chief Commissioner, a ‘History of our relations with the Andamanese’, which, when the illustrations for it are completed, will be forwarded to the Government of India with a view to publication. This work contains in twenty-one chapters all that has been written on the subject of the Andamanese, so far as is locally known. He has also consulted Major Temple’s Library of works relating to India and the Far East, and has employed a secretary to extract material from documents and little-known books in the libraries of the India Office and the British Museum. Where incorrect statements occur he has corrected them by notes, and has also answered many of the questions in ‘Notes and Queries on Anthropology’. Much, however, yet remains to be done at Little Andaman, as very little is yet known about the Onges group of tribes. [14]
This lack of photographic activity continued in the following year:
Mr Portman has not been able to proceed with the photographic part of his ‘Record of the Andamanese’ during the year, because he had no opportunities for going about the islands in a launch and taking the necessary photographs. For the same reason the ‘History of our Relations with the Andamanese’ has not yet been sent to the press, for, though the letter-press has been finished for some time, he has not been able to get the necessary illustrations done. Mr Portman has, however, completed ‘Notes on the Languages of the South Andaman Group of Tribes’, which is a fairly comprehensive work containing an analysis of the grammatical construction of the languages, and a vocabulary of 2,286 words in each of five languages; the work is now being printed under the orders of the Government of India...The Little Andaman is scientifically untouched, but as the aborigines there are not dying out, the work can wait...[15]
In the event little further photographic work was to be undertaken, for in 1899,
Mr Portman, whose health was never strong, broke down during the year to an alarming extent. This unfortunately prevented him from taking the photographs necessary to illustrate his ‘History of our relations with the Andamanese’, which was published by the Government of India Press during the year. For the same reason the photographic portion of the ‘Record of the Andamanese’ has not been accomplished and cannot now be undertaken by him..[16]
The volumes were completed as follows:
February 1893 Government of India acknowledges receipt of vol. II.
June 1893 Letter from Portman advising despatch of vols. III and IV.
January 1894 Vols. V and VI despatched.
March 1894 Government of India acknowledges receipt of vols. VII to XI.
December 1894 Superintendent of Port Blair forwards vols. XII and XIII.
(Miscellaneous references in Port Blair Proceedings, 1892-95).
In 1892 Portman was involved in a disagreement with the Superintendent of Port Blair, Colonel N.M.T. Horsford, which was to have some implications for his photographic work. On 28 October Portman sent an aggrieved telegram to C.J. Lyall, Secretary to the Government of India, Home Department, at Simla:
Chief Commissioner has ordered my transfer Viper and deprived me charge Andamanese. No fault found. No reason given. Photographic work consequently stopped. Suffer great pecuniary loss. Have memorialised Viceroy. As great favour may Colonel Horsford’s order be held abeyance till decision on memorial known.[17]
This furious telegram had been occasioned by a letter from Horsford to Portman dated 14 October 1892, in which the Superintendent informed Portman that due to a vacancy he was being appointed to the Southern Division and was therefore required to move to Viper from Aberdeen, where, ‘except when on leave, you have been stationed for upwards of ten years.’ Although the original reason for this move was given as the temporary appointment of Tayler to fill in for a colleague going on leave for two months, Portman’s own transfer was to be permanent:
During Mr Tayler’s deputation Mahamad Ashik Ali Khan will be placed under your orders to carry on the work of the Southern Division, except on Viper Island, with which he will have nothing whatever to do. The whole of the work on Viper will have to be done by you personally. On Mr Tayler’s resuming charge of the Southern Division, you will still continue in charge of Viper, under special arrangements, which will be communicated to you in due course.[18]
Portman was therefore ordered to make arrangements to move as soon as possible after Tayler’s house became vacant, and the requirements of his photographic work were clearly not going to be permitted to interfere with this move:
With a view to enabling you to continue your photographic work for the British Museum, Mr Tuson has been requested to put up a suitable studio for you at Viper. I request you will lose no time in placing yourself in communication with him as to your requirements, so that he may submit his proposals for my consideration and sanction. I am prepared, as far as I possibly can, to meet all reasonable requirements...I have no doubt Mr Tuson will be able to find, or make room, for your electric machine, etc., in one of the buildings at Viper. I shall be pleased to hear that he has succeeded in doing so.[19]
The final paragraph of this letter, with its carefully deliberate insult to Portman’s own pretension as an expert on the Andamanese, reveals clearly the level of personal emnity between these two men:
I have to request that on Mr Man’s return from the Nicobars, a week or so hence, you will, after consultation with him, make over to him the charge of the Andamanese, reporting to me the date of your doing so. You will, I am sure, be gratified that the Andamanese, who have been so long under your charge, will revert to the care of their former friend and master, an officer whose knowledge of their race and language is greater than that of any other living European, and whose kindness to all classes is a household word in the Andamans and Nicobars.[20]
Portman’s reply to this order, dated 15 October 1892, argued that on the one hand Horsford was allowing the photographic work to continue, while on the other he was taking the Andamanese from Portman’s charge,
thereby effectively stopping the work. In my correspondence with the Home Department of the Government of India special attention has been drawn to the fact that my being in charge of the Andamanese enabled me to undertake the work.[21]
Portman’s memorial to the Viceroy, dated 17 October 1892, set forth his grievances in greater detail. He first referred to his earlier memorial of 1890, in which he had complained of his ‘supersession in an officiating appointment by Mr H.G. Tayler’ and had been informed in reply that he be given a suitable appointment should Tayler’s post become permanently vacant or should the establishment be enlarged. When in 1891 Tayler had been permanently appointed to the contested post, Portman had been informed by Cadell that although he was considered ‘intellectually capable of holding any appointment in the settlement’, it was only his ‘extreme delicacy of health’ which made it ‘impossible for him to be appointed to the charge of a district, or of any other division than the one he now holds.’ He further asserted that ‘Colonel Cadell also assured your memorialist that in consequence of this, he would not be moved from the house he resided in.’ After outlining the work he had done on behalf of Government, he came to the main point of his grievance, that Colonel Horsford was now ordering his transfer ‘to Viper, and depriving him of the charge of the Andamanese.’ Because he believed his post at Port Blair was secure, he had therefore fitted out his house with a darkroom and electric light, at a cost of £900:
Owing to this, he has been able to do his photographic work both better and quicker than he otherwise could have done. By the transfer of your memorialist to Viper, this electric light plant, which has only been down a year, and which has been cut up and fitted for this special house, is rendered useless, and your memorialist suffers a serious pecuniary loss.[22]
He also pointed out that Cadell had built, at Government expense, an engine room for the electric light engine, and also a studio and dark room, acts which, in Portman’s view, provided ‘sufficient proof that Colonel Cadell had no idea of your memorialist being transferred to another division.’ Furthermore, being deprived of the charge of the Andamanese, your memorialist is prevented from finishing his ethnographic photographs for the British Museum and the Government of India. This work was commenced...because owing to his official position and the authority he holds over the Andamanese, he has facilities for doing it which another officer would not have.
By thus stopping the work it renders it very difficult, if not impossible, for many reasons, including pecuniary ones, for your memorialist to recommence it at any future period, should this be considered desirable.[23]
Portman therefore
...humbly hopes that both his past services with the Andmanese and the fact that he is supplying the public through the British Museum with a large and costly series of ethnographic photographs at his own expense, may be taken into consideration, and that he may be permitted to remain in his present house, and in charge of the Andamanese for the next five-and-a-half years, during which period he will endeavour to complete his scientific work.
Colonel Horsford’s present order causes your memorialist a pecuniary loss of over one thousand pounds, as besides the cost of the electric ligth, your memorialist has been at an expense of over five hundred pounds for apparatus, etc., for his photographic work, and he is now prevented from recouping himself by sale of his series of photographs, as suggested by the Government of India, because the series is incomplete...[24]
Portman also contributed a number of articles to the Journal of the Photographic Society of India:
"In the Andaman jungles".[25] ‘Scarcely anyone but myself has the opportunity of travelling about in these island, recording their scenery, and studying the savages, and out editor has asked me to describe a few places and people of special interest.’ The article is largely descriptive, with only a few references to photography, although his own work for the British Museum is mentioned briefly: ‘…at this place [Stewart’s Sound] I have taken the majority of my photographs for the British Museum. I wonder other amateur photographers in India do not take up similar work. Ladies might do so much to illustrate zenana life, and the ways of aboriginal tribes could be recorded, etc.’
"Edible birds’ nest collecting".[26] General description of nest collecting trips, with some remarks on his photography around the islands, using both whole plate and 5 x 4 cameras: ‘A whole plate camera is set up in the bows, and a 5" x 4" camera is kept by my side; each is fitted with an instantaneous shutter, and an Eastman’s roller slide and film, and shots are taken at a shoal of porpoises, Andamanese sky-larking, or anything that looks promising.’ (p. 167). Portman also use a 15" x 12" camera on these expeditions. Illustrated with a close up view of birds’ nests.
"On things in general, regarding Port Blair, and photography".[27] Describes photography as a pastime suitable to counteract the ennui of life at Port Blair during the eight month rainy season: ‘Gardening can be done by those who like it; there are pigeons to shoot if you don’t mind the rain; but after the work with the convicts is over, reading is often the only possible pastime. Then photography steps in…; (p. 190). Portman describes his spacious and elaborately equipped darkroom, 32 feet long by 18 feet wide and 16 feet high. Here he had installed large sinks, work benches, running water supplies, electric light for bromide printing and an Eastman’s daylight enlarging apparatus. There was even ‘a telephone connected with my house, as the darkroom is at some distance on the other side of the road.’ (p. 191). He also made use of the Andamanese in his work: I have trained some to assist me, and they are now really useful, both when I am taking photographs, knowing what to hand me at the right moment, and also in the dark room rocking plates during slow development, washing trays, glasses, etc., mixing solutions, and holding the printing frames in the open, in uncertain weather.’ (p. 191). Portman writes that recording the life of the Andamanese, ‘in the most minute detail,’ could be ‘rather monotonous,’ but he had also been experimenting with a number of processes, among them collotype printing: ‘Seeing the Photo Autocopyist highly spoken of in England, I got a very complete outfit with various coloured inks for 15" x 12" work. At present I have turned out nothing but the most awful daubs, but then collotype work is difficult, and the inking up requires a training I have not had. I believe this process would do here if one was taught it, but only in the dry weather. I am in hopes that Mr. Dunsterville [qv] will pay the Andamans a visit in the autumn, when I shall Iask him to try this’ (p. 191). He also writes: ‘Carbutt’s films I have not yet tried, having to use up a large stock of plates and paper negatives, but next season I intend to use them exclusively, and am going to try carbon printing by single transfer, though I am horrified to hear, after having sent for the materials, that Colonel Waterhouse [qv] does not think it will answer here. I know Eastman’s transferotype paper won’t do’ (pp. 191-92). He also enquires about the permanence of carbon prints: ‘Will Colonel Waterhouse kindly give me his opinion on the following:— Are prints in carbon as permanent as platinotypes? In order to do justice artistically to some of my photos for the British Museum, I should like to use several of the carbon tints, but at the same time have to consider permanency to be of the first importance’ (pp. 192-93). As well as describing some of his equipment, in particular his ‘pet camera,’ a Meagher 8" x 5", suitable also for stereoscopic work, he gives a detailed account of his studio set-up:
My studio is built according to a design I found in Mr. H. P. Robinson’s book on The Studio. It is 48 feet long, 20 feet wide, and the walls are 14 feet high. Above them is a shingle roof. Three sides are enclosed with wooden walls, but one 48 foot side faces north 12° west, which angle I find suits this latitude best. On this side there is a wooden wall 5 feet high, and then an open space to 14 feet high. Thus, I require no top lights, and by the blinds, recommended by Mr. Robinson, am able to get any lighting I like. (Indeed, just lately, I have been complimented by a professional photographer on the ‘Rembrandt’ effects I get, which he was unable to imitate.) At one of the studio is a brick platform, 3 feet high, 8 feet deep, and 20 feet wide, and on this I place my figures in repose, etc. For the Andamanese, I use ordinary artist’s canvas; and for Europeans, I use one of Marion’s gradated cloth backgrounds. For Andamanese single figures for scientific measurement, I use a background of canvas tightly stretched, and painted in black and white chequers, each chequer being exactly two inches square. The figure must touch this background. Natives are such good sitters that I wonder more amateurs don’t go in for genre pictures and studies…’ (p. 192).
In closing, Portman writes that he has just ordered Wheatstone’s reflecting stereoscope: ‘It is to take 15" x 12" prints enlarged in bromide from the ordinary 8 x 5 stereo negatives, and sounds a most effective instrument’ (p. 193).
The paper negatives of these studies are held by the Museum of Mankind, London. Portman also wrote a detailed article setting out his photographic methods.
Publications: A manual of the Andamanese languages (London, 1887) and A history of our relations with the Andamanese (2 vols, Calcutta, 1899), The exploration and survey of the Little Andamans (Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. 10, 1888, pp. 567-76), Notes on the Andamanese (Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. 25, pp. 361-71), Notes on the languages of the South Andaman group of tribes (Calcutta, 1898). See also Report[s] on the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the penal settlements of Port Blair and the Nicobars (Calcutta, 1889-1900), Photography for anthropologists (Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. XXV, 1896, pp. 75-87).
Died at 3 Station Road, Axbridge, Somerset.
Times Obituary, 22 February 1935:
Mr M.V. Portman
‘Father’ of Andaman Islanders
Mr Maurice Vidal Portman, who died at Axbridge, Somerset, last week at the age of 74, had done a remarkable work in the Andaman Islands. The third son of the late Hon. Maurice Berkeley Portman, he joined the Royal Indian Marine at the age of 16 and was some time in charge of the Viceroy’s yacht. ‘L.P.’ writes of him:-
Many old Anglo-Indians, as well as a vast circle of friends of later years, will have been grieved to hear of the death of ‘M.V.’, one of the large number who carry out brilliantly and immensely responsible work in the East and are now never heard of in England.
From 1879 onwards, when he was first made ‘Officer in Charge of the Andamanese’, Maurice never ceased to labour on their behalf. In many parts of the islands the natives were still either ferocious enemies or at best half-tamed; and his work consisted in making contact with them and very gradually bringing them to recognize the value of British rule. Above all men he had the ‘native touch’, that rare, mysterious gift that attracts and makes friends at once with natives; and slowly, through a long period of years, he made his gift prevail - work of extreordinary difficulty, for most of them were as shy as wild animals, and often of extreme danger - he would frequently have to land on their beaches, standing up in an open boat, amid a shower of poisoned arrows. But in course of time he won them by sheer personal magnetism. He doctored them; they were very rapidly dying out from venereal disease. He judged them and, if necessary he hanged them. Often for weeks together he lived with them, almost like one of themselves, but always intensely respected and loved. Not only did he carry out a colossal amount of daily administrative work, but he found time to write an exhaustive history of them and their islands, as well as a grammar of their language, and to perform an immense amount of anthropological research, the value of which was repeatedly recognized by the British Museum and other authorities. He made himself the master of 12 or more Indian dialects, for which he was made a fellow of Calcutta University. For his brilliant administrative services he had ‘the thanks of the Government of India,’ a very high honour, no fewer than 13 times.
For 20 years or more he was ‘everything and everybody’ at Port Blair. Then, at the age of 45, incessant over-work and ill-health proved too much for his extraordinary frail physique; he was invalided home, for the last time, and his active life came to an end.
A man of intense magnetism, charm, and sympathy, a brilliant and most amusing talker, he mader friends among all men wherever he went, from aborgines to Viceroys; and never was friendship so staunch, so ‘understanding’, and so highly valued. A great fighter, he was always at war officially; carrying on a tussle with Asiatic cunning and an intense Puckish humour and delight, and seldom failing to get his way. After retirement he did some journalism, and during the War some valuable Secret Service work. Always, too, he was hard at work helping people of all classes, doing something for somebody; and his services to the Union Club, of which he was recently made an honorary member, will not easily be forgotten. Latterly he was much cut off from his activities and friends by increasing infirmity, but was able just to get about till a few weeks ago.
[Sources: Times (London), 22 February 1935; Burke’s Peerage; Government of India, Home Department, Port Blair Proceedings, 1879-1900; Administration Reports for Andaman and Nicobar Islands; Royal Indian Marine service lists, IOR/L/MIL/16/2 f. 167]
Mrs Talbot Clifton records an assessment of Portman’s character in the words of one of his former charges, Luke:
He had lived for many years with a former Chief Commissioner [sic] named Portman, and had learnt the Christian theology, the English language, Hindustani and the sciences of photography and piloting. He told me he had not liked his time in the settlement - ‘no fun, and always sickness’, he said - yet Portman had made pets of the Andamanese, and given them bicycles and champagne, relieved by occasional beatings.[28]
During his period in the Andamans, a number of the natives were lodged with Portman:
The Andaman Home at Mr Portman’s House. - At the close of the year the home contained 66 people from all parts of the island, of whom the majority are children from seven to ten years of age. There are six married couples...The expenses of their food is borne by the home funds, but all other expenses, such as costly tonics and medicines, luxuries, and presents of all kinds, are defrayed by Mr Portman...Mr Portman has supplied the boys at this home with three bicycles, to which they took a great fancy when in Calcutta. They learnt to ride in a few days, and now are constantly out on them.[29]
Early in this year, in February, Portman took a party of thirteen Andamanese to Calcutta. While they were there,
they were received by His Excellency the Viceroy in the garden of Government House, and were given a quantity of presents. They were shown the principal shops, the proprietors of which were most kind in showing objects of interest, etc., Woodyear’s Circus which they highly appreciated, the Museum, Zoological Gardens, and the city of Calcutta generally. Although the weather was exceptionally cold and inclement, they did not suffer in health in any way, and seem to have much enjoyed their visit.[30]
In March 1893 ‘M. Lapisque, a French savant’ [31] visited the Andamans in the French yacht Semiramis to study the Andamanese:
Advantage was taken of this to pay a visit to the Little Andamans, Mr Man and Mr Portman being asked to take this visitor with them in the Ross. They arrived in Bumila Creek on the 25th March...As M. Lapisque wished to see all he could of these people, it was decided not to go round the island to look for them and thus, perhaps, miss them altogether, but to wait in Bumila Creek for them to come to yacht. This they did, and the party remained there till the 28th, enabling M. Lapisque to take photographs, measurements and other scientific observations.[32]

  1. Λ Burke’s Peerage
  2. Λ Royal Indian Marine Service Lists, IOR/L/MIL/16/2 f. 167. 
  3. Λ Report on the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands...for 1899-1900, p. 33. 
  4. Λ Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-1897), Keeper of Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography, British Museum. 
  5. Λ Report on the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands...for 1893-94, pp. 115-116. 
  6. Λ Government of India proceedings, Home Department, Port Blair, part ‘B’ tabular statements, May 1890, IOR/P/3658). 
  7. Λ Government of India proceedings, Home Department, Port Blair, October 1890, IOR/P/3658. 
  8. Λ ibid, letter dated 30 August 1890. 
  9. Λ Report on the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands...for 1892-93, p. 129. 
  10. Λ idem. 
  11. Λ idem. 
  12. Λ Report on the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands...for 1894-95, p. 116. 
  13. Λ ibid, p.p. 116-117. 
  14. Λ Report on the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands...for 1895-96, p. 134. 
  15. Λ Report on the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands...for 1897-97, p. 171. 
  16. Λ Report on the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands...for 1899-1900, p. 157. 
  17. Λ Government of India proceedings, Home Department, Port Blair, December 1892, IOR/P/4114). 
  18. Λ idem. 
  19. Λ idem. 
  20. Λ idem. 
  21. Λ idem. 
  22. Λ idem. 
  23. Λ idem. 
  24. Λ idem. 
  25. Λ Journal of the Photographic Society of India, vol 5, no. 9, September 1892 (Calcutta, 1892), pp. 151-54. 
  26. Λ Journal of the Photographic Society of India, vol. 5, no. 10, October 1892 (Calcutta, 1892), pp. 166-68. 
  27. Λ Journal of the Photographic Society of India, vol. 5, no. 11, November 1892 (Calcutta, 1892), pp. 190-93. 
  28. Λ Mrs Talbot Clifton, Pilgrims to the isles of penance. Orchid gathering in the east (London, 1911), pp. 149-50. 
  29. Λ Report on the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands...for 1892-93, p. 124. 
  30. Λ ibid, p. 127. 
  31. Λ Louis Lapicque, (b. 1866), Head of the Physiological Laboratory at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, who in 1892 had been sent to the east on an official mission by the Ministry of Public Instruction, an expedition whose object was ‘relever dans une aire aussi étendue que possible les traces d’une race d’hommes aujourd’hui presque disparue, mais qui semble avoir primitivement peuplé toute la partie méridionale de l’Asia et de l’archipel malais’. 
  32. Λ idem. 

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