The British in Ceylon: The Camera as Power

In 2011 Godfrey and Amar Gunatilleke sponsored the presentation of a pictorial history entitled Potency. Power & People in Groups, (Colombo, Marga Institute, 2011, ISBN 978-955-582 129-2.

Kotahena Riots 1883

This work was, albeit partially, the presentation of items gathered by Ismeth Raheem and myself for inclusion in the coffee-table book that appeared in the year 200o as Images of British Ceylon (Singapore, Times Edition) — items within segments that were excluded because of financial constraints. Such constraints also meant that the pictures in this booklet were not produced in coffee-table quality. The emphasis was on the interpretations attached to the photographs read in context.  While the booklet is still available at relatively low cost, the opportunity is taken here to widen the readership via the reproduction of sections — itself a project inspired by Anura Hettiarachchi’s translation of the work into Sinhala.[a]

Defying the Planter Raj – Bracegirdle with LSSP leaders in 1937

Michael Roberts:  Preamble: Accumulating Knowledge, Photographs and Power

European expansion involved the charting of the world not only through the evolving technology of cartography, but also through the documentation of diverse native peoples as well as the fauna and flora across a variety of lands. Joseph Banks as handmaiden of Captain Cook during his Pacific Australian voyages serves as a metaphor for this connection. The skills demonstrated by painters and etching artists such as the Daniell brothers and James Nicholl were also instruments in this exercise.

The photographers were heirs to this process. In documenting the emergence and consolidation of photography in British Ceylon, therefore, Ismeth Raheem’s Images of British Ceylon (Singapore: Times Editions, 2000, ISBN 9812047786) helps contextualize the manner in which the technology of visual illustration serviced power. The camera literally captured what, in the language of that day, was depicted as “native types” (Figures 1, 2, 3 and Images, 1999: 45, 47).

In this reading the camera was – and is – a form of domination entailing the subordination of those framed within its lens. The most obvious manifestation of this dimension is witnessed in the countless pictures of totally nude or topless Rodiya women[1] with luscious breasts. Here, domination has a masculine edge.

Such an interpretation requires qualification. For one, the emerging middle class Ceylonese gentlemen of the nineteenth century participated in this enterprise: in the striking caricatures of J. L. K. Van Dort, the paintings of Hippolyte Sylvaf (Figure 3) and the camera work of William Andree Snr and Jnr we have imprints of the artistry behind such work For another, “the planter,” “British officer” and “British bugler” are among the figures caught thus by the camerawork of the Skeens and Scowens of the colonial world. Thirdly, many of the indigenous people presented themselves for display in full regalia, dressed to the nines and in preen. The “Moorman” depicted by Skeen, in fact, has a cocky smile as he teases the camera with pretended deafness (Figure 2a), while the “Madras Merchant” (Figure 2b) has a cheekiness that does not suggest subordination.

To assume, or stress, the domination of the cameraperson and the subordination of those framed by the picture bespeaks a particular perspective: that of the individuated personhood of the Western world spawned after the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. This emphasis has since spread and taken root among other peoples, not least the intellectuals of the former colonies.

However, the conquest of the Rest by the West is not complete. Though I am a Westernised person, the privacy laws that prevail in Australia and prevent receptionists from divulging the telephone numbers of friends at institutions render me furious. In similar fashion I do not object to any stranger taking my picture without asking leave. Likewise, within Asia it has been my experience that most strangers have been quite pleased when I took pictures of them.

But I do know the etiquette on this score in other lands. Once, as we drove along a country road when holidaying in Jamaica, I spotted a bearded Jamaican gentleman riding a mule laden with panniers. This was, to my eye, truly local character within local landscape. I stopped the car and prepared to take a picturesque shot, but had the courtesy of seeking his permission with a gesture of my head. He refused: indeed, he signaled “nay” in great anger. So, I stayed my hand. But the memory remains. Indeed, the scene is still etched indelibly within my mind. So does a conclusion profound: I would hate to be like that — at war with others, proceeding in the world armed for defense.

Pictures and etchings, then, are not innocent. But they also capture bygone times and life-ways lost. It is this antiquarian fascination that drove the British Council in Sri Lanka to organise an exhibition of photographs in the late 1990s, subsequently captured in the book Regeneration (2000). In this work they were assisted by the expertise of John Falconer and Ismeth Raheem. Likewise, Palinda de Silva has recently made a stock of pictures available to all and sundry within a coffee-table book as well as his magnificent web site (

Raheem in the meantime had brought out Images of British Ceylon (2000) with some assistance from this author[2] and underpinned the illustrative side with a detailed history of the photographic industry in the island. This large tome is designed as a companion volume to People Inbetween. The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s (Ratmalana: Sarvodaya, 1989, ISBN 955-959-599-013-1), a work in which my hand was predominant. Therefore, I speak here as a partisan figure.

While shaped as an aesthetic product, Images of British Ceylon is also a book about power, the power of the camera. The camera’s frozen stills have a materiality that renders them tangible. The camera’s products can also be, as we are only too aware, either crude or pleasing – a difference that betrays the human hand behind the tangible compositions, a hand that guides the choice of subject and the angle of vision. Such frozen images, moreover, can be read differently by different audiences. In your eyes, too, lies interpretative power.

As such, photographic images have the capacity to stimulate myriad interpretations. Let us take a typical nineteenth-century picture displaying a British sportsman with his hunting trophies on display (Figure 5). To an ardent conservationist today, this image would reveal humankind’s ability to denude the environment, the power to kill and the ability to reduce the animal species on the earth’s surface drastically. To interpret the photograph in this manner, of course, would be to read the past wholly in the light of the present. The ideology of conservation was hardly high profile in the nineteenth century.

My leanings are towards interpreting the past inscribed in images (or, for that matter, documents) in the light of the past surrounding each such picture or text. Insofar as we are moulded by our subjective present, this means that interpretations are a mix of present perspectives and past contexts discerned through study.

Speaking minimally, two nineteenth century individuals were involved within the illustrations of hunter in Figures 4 and 5. There was the British resident in Sri Lanka who indulged in hunting as a hobby and displayed his prowess to peers who chose to visit his home. Secondly, there was the cameraman, who saw in this display a worthy photographic shot.

To both, in surmise, one could suggest that the artefacts spelt “achievement” and “success” – the bourgeois philosophy of the modern era. More specifically, the visual display on wall and on camera marked out an unerring eye and resoluteness of character. In other words, they highlighted manliness (note Figure 4). Manliness, as we know, was nourished and inculcated in the all-male British public schools from the nineteenth century onwards. An array of games was invented and utilised as part of this process (People Inbetween, 1989: 103, 121-22). The British colonies provided one of the stages where these ‘virtues’ were then played out and re-worked. Note the specificities of context: encountering Sri Lankan men who wore sarongs and had their hair long, many manly British invariably visualised the “native” as “effeminate” and “weakling,”[3] This was but one ingredient in the promotion of racial arrogance in the context of colonial power.

Any picture of a hunter and his animal trophies displays yet more: the capture of the exotic, the taming of the wild. This was yet another dimension of the Imperial Quest. It is a dimension revealed in several of the photographs in Images of British Ceylon and in those collected by the Skeens (William and S. Slinn), Charles Scowen and others in the nineteenth century. The visual image is that of a powerful force, the British Raj or Pax Britannica. One witnesses Britain’s capacity to tame inhospitable terrain through its bridges, its roads, its telecommunications and its rail network (Images, 1999: 88-92). The communication network was both an instrument of control and a facilitator of commodity exchange (including labour as commodity). The commodity form, in its turn, was a power in its own right – as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels have shown. Thus, pictures of coffee and tea plantations and the accoutrements associated with them (e.g. bungalows, planters’ clubs, races, gymkhanas) can be read as a display of power.

These powers were both consciously and unintentionally supported by the ideological work done in the churches, schools and law courts. All these institutions were part of the institutional framework of British rule, seconding the work of the administrative machinery that transformed the local scene by gradually — albeit incompletely, one should note[4]diffusing bureaucratic rational norms among the ruled. Governance in this style is expensive, however, so the British retained the older forms of native administration in modified form. The “native headmen,” therefore, were an important part of the indigenous order. They invariably feature in collections of photographs as part of native exotica (Images, 1999: 45, 47, 54).

The quaintness of “native headmen” should not hide the degree to which they were a significant aspect of the machinery of British power. In this sense they had been incorporated into the Raj as a collaborating element. Figure 6 displaying Governor Arthur Gordon (1883-90) with members of the Kandyan Sinhalese aristocracy — the top layer of native headmen in the interior districts – depicts this dimension of patronage and compliance. That image comes from the late nineteenth century. A few decades later, when educated Ceylonese had begun to demand a modicum of constitutional power through changes in the consultative Legislative Council, another Governor, Henry Blake (1903-07), followed the ideas pursued in neighbouring India and introduced the pageant called “the durbar” into the local scene: so we see photographs of Blake and regalia-laden Kandyan chiefs posing (Raheem, Images, 2000: 54) for the benefit of those attracted to exotica.

Governor Gordon with an assemblage of Kandyan chiefs & headmen

  An Elephant carrying an icon 

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[a] Anura Hettiarachchi was one of the friends who helped translate Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s- 1815 (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2004) into Sinhala. His translation of Potency has yet to appear in print.

[1] The Rodiya are the untouchables of Sri Lanka. Though there are few Rodiya villages in the island, as a concept the term is widely implanted in the understandings of Sinhala-speaking peoples. See Palinda de Silva’s Items 207-09 in the “People” section for examples of the displays of naked Rodiya women “captured” by British photographers.

[2] Because the book was financed by the Tobacco Company my name could not be part of the authorship because strict University of Adelaide policies on this subject.

[3] During background work on my dissertation (Roberts 1965) I came across such thoughts in the descriptive works of the nineteenth-century British visitors to the island, but have not kept notes.

[4] Thus capitalist objectives of investment and land improvement were not always pursued. Rather, even those with capital pursued the principle of “land-to-rule,” that is, they accumulated paddy land in order to secure tenants who became available for displays of status or use as muscle. See Roberts 1975 and Obeyesekere 1967: chap. 9.


Boyle, Richard 2011 “Images …. reviewed,”

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1967 Land Tenure in Village Ceylon, Cambridge University Press,

Raheem, Ismeth & Percy Colin-Thome 2000 Images of British Ceylon. Nineteenth Century Photography of Sri Lanka, Singapore, Times Editions. ISBN 981204 778 6

Roberts, Michael 1965  Some Aspects of Economic and Social Policy in Ceylon, 1840-1871, D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford University.

Previous Displays of POTENCY in Brief

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