Free Full-Text eBooks on British Ceylon

Benita Stambler, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, USA,

Computers have changed our world and our lives in so many ways.  One improvement is the information explosion, putting huge amounts of information at our fingertips – literally.  Search engines such as Google have managed to structure that information so we can quickly and easily find what we need.  In many cases, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. Google has created another service that provides even more information.  The company has digitized books from libraries around the world and put them online.  Some of these books can only be searched, while others that are beyond their copyright period are fully available as downloadable files, allowing you to read them or print them at your leisure.

This is particularly useful for books that are either out-of-print or expensive and difficult to locate.  Such is the case for books on the colonial period in Ceylon.  In my research on colonial-era Ceylonese photographs, I have come across several books that contain the photographs I’m interested in, those taken between 1850 and 1915.  The texts of the books may be considered quaint or offensive in their colonialist attitudes, but the photographs remain an incontrovertible testament to the historical Ceylon. 

Some, such as the books written by Henry Cave, provide unique photographs taken by the author of the country’s landscapes.  Others include photographs taken by Skeen & Co. and other commercial photographers used for multiple purposes, then and now.

Here are a few of my favorites:

The Ruined Cities of Ceylon by Henry W. Cave, 1904 edition, containing photos taken in 1896:
This is an account of Cave’s journey to ancient sites in Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, etc., with 65 photographs taken by the author.  Henry Cave was also the author of Golden Tips: A Description of Ceylon and its Great Tea Industry and several other descriptive books of the period, available in free online versions.

Ceylon in the “Jubilee Year” by John Ferguson, 1887, containing 42 illustrations, mostly photographs taken by W.L.H. Skeen & Co. and Scowen & Co.; includes some engravings as well.
Ferguson was a newspaper proprietor and editor in Ceylon involved in many civic activities, and this version of his handbook provides a full account of colonial Ceylon, including chapters on its history, agriculture, economics, politics, government, and social life.

A Guide to Colombo by George J.A. Skeen, 1906 edition, about 60 photographs.
George Skeen’s book is a travel guide to Colombo and its environs, including maps and advertisements from local businesses.  The book gives a good sense of the city during this time, and it’s interesting to read his descriptions of important sights.  Skeen divides the city into the harbour and fort areas, northern, central and southern drives, and a bicycle route.

The technical instructions: Click on the links above, and make sure that the words “ebook – free” appear on the left portion of the screen.  On the right side of the page, click on the triangle next to the small cogged wheel in the box, and when the pull-down menu appears, click on either “download epub” or “download pdf.”  (To download a pdf file, you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer.  See  Another page will appear, with wiggly letters in a box.  Type those letters into the empty box below, and click the “submit” button.  A download box will ask if you wish to open or save.  I usually save first, and then open afterwards.  And there it is!

There are other old books on Ceylon that have been digitized, with and without photographs.  It’s possible to search for them by using the Google e-books site,, and putting “Ceylon” in the box as a search term.  Of course, there are more than ten million books listed, so it’s important to add additional search terms to narrow your request, and direct the search toward your specific needs.  Use the “Free Google eBooks” link on the side of the page to ensure you’re directed to only full-text online books.  Still, more than three million books are listed searching for “Ceylon.”  A more direct approach to finding complete e-books on Ceylon is to use the advanced search site,  Here, you can specify author, years of publication, and full-text only versions.

Other projects that digitize old books are also available online, though Google may be the most user-friendly.  These sites include Project Gutenberg,, with such books as James Emerson Tennent’s Ceylon: An Account of the Island: Physical, Historical, and Topographical with Notices of Its Natural History, Antiquities and Productions (1860).  The Open Library is another source of free ebooks, at  (Be sure to check the “Show only eBooks” box just under the search field.)  This site provides such books as Every Day Life on a Cocoa Estate by Mary E. Steuart (1905).

These books provide a record of various aspects of Ceylon, from snakes to poetry to first-person accounts, so concentrate on your favorite subjects, or explore some new interests.  Happy reading!


Filed under cultural transmission, heritage, historical interpretation, sri lankan society, world events & processes

18 responses to “Free Full-Text eBooks on British Ceylon

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