This striking watercolour illustrates a meeting between Captain John Butler, who had been based in India since 1861, and a group of Naga tribesmen in 1875. The image is one of peaceful and cooperative interaction, which in fact was far from the truth, as it was painted during a time when the relationship between the two groups had become particularly difficult. Shortly after this picture was completed, Captain Butler was murdered by the Naga people.
Butler had been working in the Naga Hills, which lie on the border of India and Burma (Myanmar), exploring the region and recording its geographical layout and investigating its native inhabitants. The party can be seen in the present watercolour sketching, photographing and interacting with a small group of Nagas. The abundance of detail in the watercolour suggests that it may have been executed as a record of information about this particular group of people.
The name 'Naga', as Butler himself explained, is a generic term that encompasses a number of the tribes living in the forested Naga Hills, first encountered by a team from the British army in 1831-2. Butler spent many years in India studying the characteristics and traditions of the Naga people, and even tried to decipher their complex language.
The relationship between the two cultures was never as easy as suggested in the present watercolour. In 1867 Butler wrote that 'the political history of our relations with this tribe has been one long, sickening story of open insults and defiance, bold outrages, and cold-blooded murder on one side, and long-suffering forbearance, forgiveness, concession, and unlooked-for favours on the other' (J. Butler, 'Rough Notes on the Angnami Nagas and their Language', Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1875, pp. 311-2).
The artist of the picture, R. G. Woodthorpe (1844-1898) whose monogram, can be found in the lower right of the watercolour, learnt his skill as a young Lieutenant in the Engineers, then joined the Topographical Survey Department in 1871, subsequently joining Butler's survey party. The figure at the far right of the shown sketching is probably a self-portrait.
See G. H. R. Tillotson 'Murder in the Naga Hills' South Asian Studies, London, 1990, vol. 6, pp. 135-142, for further information about the event recorded in this watercolour.