Sophie Berrebi | 2018 Rita Boland Fellow

Sailor Shirts and Photographs: A Research Diary - Part 4

7. (Photography and Fashion)

I return to the restoration room, this time with the Fashion and Popular culture curator, Daan, with whom I have shared every minute discovery and disappointment since I have arrived at the RCMC, and Roberto, the trainee curator who works with her. This time I ask to see different pictures that I found on the database and which, I am adamant had never appeared before (the mysteries of database research!), and I ask to see them alongside the other pictures filed nearby in an effort to understand classification as well.  In the restoration studio the three of us are faced with a whole collection of images, thin albumen prints like the others, but pasted on thick coloured cardboard in three formats: stereoscopic views, mostly of landscapes on deep yellow and orange card; cartes-de-visite in pink; and yellow “cabinet cards,” which became widely used in Europe after 1870. These pictures that we go through together with great excitement, tell a different story. They show us a wide range of social classes and statuses, degrees of contact with colonials, ways of dressing and posing for the camera. There are ethnographic views of people representing a specific culture or social class, but also many portraits of individuals.

What these images laid out in front of us show is how much this research topic requires one to be interdisciplinary. The knowledge that Daan and Roberto have of textiles produced and worn in West Africa is just as necessary as a background in photography history to understand how these images were made and a knowledge of art history to help figure out what is going on in the images. Just as textile was continuously traveling across continents – Daan and Roberto identify Indian Madras textiles wrapped around the body and worn in combination with European garments – so did photography as a technology and social practice travel across space at high speed from the moment of its invention in 1839. The poses of many sitters are the same as those in European photographs, and they are distinct from some rigid objectifying ethnographic poses that resemble those used in Europe by the police forces and other State institutions[1]. And next to the movement of textiles and there was also a constant move of populations and individuals within and between continents. Professional photographers travelled extensively as well, with painted backdrops serving as mobile studios.

All this means that in turn, an interdisciplinary practice of research is needed to comprehend and analyse these images and practices. An image I come across summarises this concatenation. It is a cabinet photograph of an unnamed man identified only as a “Cabinda interpreter”, standing against the backdrop I have now seen many times. Asserting his presence in the image, and looking pensively in the distance he wears a suit jacket, shirt, cravat and waistcoat with a visible watch chain, and sarong wrap. I find him again the following day at the Bijzondere Collecties library in Amsterdam where I look through Africa Occidental, Album photographico e descriptivo, the first album published by Cunha Moraes in Lisbon in 1885. In the album he sits amidst his family and in the preceding page is a lengthy description that Roberto, who is fluent in Portuguese, translates for me, and which shows the imbrication of economy, colonialism social class, textile and photography:

“All the trading posts have one or more linguists, interpreters or callers of business for the trading posts, who speak fluent Portuguese and wear clothing ‘half as European, half as indigenous’, which means not abandoning the wrapped cloth and not wearing shoes. The photograph shows a linguist of the Zaire area and his family. The payment that the linguists - or intermediaries (‘cambuladores') the name by which they are known as in the South - take is in brandy, farms/estates and pieces of clothing. The person in charge of a trading post always has a good linguist, because the business more or less depends on his role.”
- Cunha Moraes, Africa Occidental, Album photographico e descriptive Lisbon, David Corazzi, 1885, non paginated.
8 (Fred Pepple)

The visit to the restoration room has uncovered something else. In a pile of larger photographs I find an older bearded man surrounded by a woman, young men and children. The beard, the expression on the face, the bowler hat and the coat: this is, I am sure, the austere headman in the photograph of the boat with the fourteen sailors. A barely legible name is scribbled on the back, which Daan deciphers as Fred Pepple. Another identical looking photograph appears soon after in the same pile. This time, the name Fred Pepple is neatly written in below the photo with a place: Brass river.

The Brass River is in Nigeria, miles away from Luanda, and yet the man is dressed in identical clothes, his beard cut exactly the same way as in the picture on the boat, which is labeled (wrongly perhaps?) as Angola. Back home, fragments of Fred Pepple’s identity and life emerge from a handful of books obligingly bookmarked for me by Google Scholar.  Pepple, aka Isacco, aka Isiuku, was one of two men named as regents by the ailing King William Dappa of the Kingdom of Bonny in the Niger delta in 1852. Elevated to the rank of chief, he seemed to have been a wise advisor and skilled negotiator. Later, following accusations of having precipitated the death of the king, an event that spurned a massacre across the kingdom, Isacco flew to Fernando Po where he was baptized as Fred Pepple in 1857, and then to the Brass, one of the so-called ‘oil rivers’ of strategic importance in the commerce of palm oil during this time.[2] The little information I can find suggests that Fred Pepple was as skillful with trade as he was with politics, maneuvering between local clans, the British colonizers and missionaries. I need to understand all this more - the people, the place, the commerce of palm oil - and yet, from what I have, I can speculate. Many Niger delta communities, like The kingdom of Bonny, were structured around the so-called House, “an association for maintaining law and order in society”, also called “War Canoe House” because they could supply in the advent of a conflict, “at least one war canoe manned with thirty men.”[3]

My absence of anthropological knowledge limits my understanding of this history and social structure, but it points out the violence and complexity of the struggle between local chiefdoms in the Niger delta and the “Liverpool oil barons” pillaging palm oil, a key resource in the Industrial Revolution in Europe.[4] But I wonder if Fred Pepple and his fourteen-men crew might be manning a war canoe. As a Christianized and Europeanized chief, Fred Pepple may have been in a complicated position during in the years of the palm oil struggles. I certainly need to read more and follow his trace, but for now, I read this image as a propaganda photograph, staged carefully (with the pristine sailor shirts) in order to show – perhaps to the kingdom he had been forced to flee – a man in exile, with his quiet self-assured posture and entourage, protected by Europeans, maybe as a gesture of defiance or in an attempt to rebuild his reputation. The literature I have found states that he did return to Bonny at the end of his life. While my reading may be wild speculation, at least it opens some doors of interpretation of this evidently staged image and begs for a closer look at the relation between subject, commissioner and photographer through evidence that future historical research could provide.


<--    Part 3          |         Part 5    -->

[1] On this subject see in particular  Allan Sekula, ‘The Body and The Archive’, October. Vol. 39 (Winter 1986), pp. 3-64 and John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, London, Macmillan, 1988.

[2] Sylvanus John Sodienye Cookey, King Jaja of the Niger Delta: His Life and Times, 1821-1891, Lagos, Nok publishers, 1974, 41, 44, G. I. Jones, The Trading States of the Oil Rivers: A Study of Political Development in Eastern Nigeria. International African Institute, Oxford University Press, 1963; G. O. M. Tasie, Christian Missionary Enterprise: In the Niger Delta 1864-1918. I have only briefly delved into these sources.

[3] Joe Ebiegberi Alago, The Small Brave City-state: A History of Nembe-Brass in the Niger Delta, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

[4] Joe Ebiegberi Alagoa, The small brave city-state: a history of Nembe-Brass in the Niger delta. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.


Sophie Berrebi
Rita Bolland Fellow