The Gwillim Project Receives Major SSHRC Funding

The 2019 results are in! The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) has poured research funding into a new Partnership Development Grant based out of the McGill Library’s Blacker Wood Collection. The Gwillim Project centres around the life and world of two sisters in early 19th century Madras (now Chennai), Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds.

Their letters home and their beautiful drawings provide an immersion into South Asian history under the ‘Company Raj,’ (1801-1808). Their letters also challenge assumptions about women’s work, interests and social position in both England and India at the time. Their letters and drawings provide insight into the landscape, climate and ecology of the Coromandel coast, documenting birds, animals, fish, insects, flowers, trees, as well as the lives of the human inhabitants. Readers today can reconstruct a remarkably granular snapshot of a world long past.

The two sisters also left a visual record of the landscape and inhabitants of Madras and environs through their paintings. Their original watercolours are now part of the Blacker Wood Natural history Collection at McGill and in the South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection Trust (SADACC) in Norwich, UK.

Led by Dr. Victoria Dickenson, Adjunct Professor at McGill University Library, the McGill team members include Blacker Wood librarian Lauren Williams, Dr. Gwyn Campbell, Canada Research Chair in Indian Ocean World History and founder of the Indian Ocean World Centre, Dr. Jonathan Crago, Editor-in-Chief of McGill Queen’s University Press, and Dr. Anna Winterbottom, an associate at the IOWC. Over the next three years, this project will bring together an international collaboration of researchers from diverse fields – art history, ornithology, libraries, museums, costume, food history, and more. Alongside McGill, the main partners include the South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection Trust in England, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, and the Centre for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex.

SSHRC is supporting the research, publications, and engaging physical and virtual exhibitions that are sure to come from this multidisciplinary project. Scholars, students, and museologists around the world will join in the study of the larger world of southern India under the ‘Company Raj.’ The Research network will be hosting a  public symposium in spring 2020. There will also be an international conference in 2021 that will look at climate change and the evidence from personal memoir.


Further reading:

SSHRC announcement

SSHRC Award Recipients


Core Research Team:

  • Applicant/PI: Dr Victoria Dickenson, Adjunct Professor, McGill University Library and Collections.
  • Co-Applicant: Dr Gwyn Campbell, Canada Research Chair in Indian Ocean World History, McGill University and the founding Director of the Indian Ocean World Centre (IOWC) at McGill.
  • Collaborator: Dr Vinita Damodaran, Professor of South Asian History, University of Sussex and Director, Centre for World Environmental History.
  • Co-applicant: Lauren Williams, Blacker Wood Collection (BWC) Librarian, McGill University Library.
  • Research Associate: Dr Anna Winterbottom, Associate in the Indian Ocean World Centre (IOWC) at McGill.
  • Collaborator: Dr Ben Cartwright, Collection Curator, The SADACC Trust, UK.
  • Partner: Jonathan Crago, Editor-in-Chief, McGill Queens University Press.
  • Collaborator: Dr Ulrike Al-Khamis, Director/ Collections and Public Programs, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto.

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