Plague and (Amateur) Photography in Colonial Burma

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about some official photographs taken of British measures to combat the plague in Burma taken during 1906. These images showed British doctors administering vaccinations and checking patients’ symptoms. What they omitted were the more coercive and invasive aspects of anti-plague measures, such as the dismantling and disinfecting of peoples’ homes. Unfortunately, neither the vaccinations nor the destruction of houses had much effect in combating the epidemic. However, these sanitized photographs, taken for public consumption, were not the only surviving images of the plague measures. Harley Newcombe, previously of the 3rd Gurkha Rifles, was on ‘Special Plague Duty’ during the same year and took his own photographs. In contrast to the official images, his did not show orderly vaccinations, but they did capture the demolition and burning of houses.

Disinfecting a House
Disinfecting a House
Dismantling a House
Dismantling a House
Burning a House
Burning a House

During the final decades of the nineteenth century, breakthroughs in photographic technology and a revolution in the camera market led to a large expansion in the number of novice photographers. Evidently, Harley Newcombe was one such amateur enthusiast. The photographs he took during his time fighting plague in Burma were not as static and framed as the professional pictures that were published in The Graphic. Some of the figures are blurred, and those in shot do not seem to be aware of the photographer. Whilst these photographs were still enabled by his privileged position in relation to the colonized population, I think that they are more open images than the official ones, less determined by the imperatives of representing the imperial mission in a positive light. But they still had an intended audience back in Britain, albeit an audience of one. The collection was inscribed ‘Wishing you many happy returns of the day’ and was probably sent to his fiance Constance Smith. She moved to Burma the following year to join him and they married. The photographs would have provided her with an introduction to Burma and given her a window into the new environment where she would spend her married life. As a result, most of the photographs in the album, understandably, are not of the plague measures but are instead of the scenery, Burmese life, and European establishments.

Market in Pyinmana
A Market in Pyinmana
A Forest Official's Bungalow
A Forest Official’s Bungalow
First Glimpse of Bassein (Pathein)
First Glimpse of Bassein (Pathein)

Photography as a technology could serve a number of overlapping purposes, both imperial and personal. Empire stretched family life across the world, and photographs could help collapse that distance by offering people an opportunity to see the places their absent loved-ones were now residing. In this, amateur photography could provide a personal view. Constance could see Burma through Harley’s eyes; she could see the sites he wanted to share with her. This leaves me with the question of why he photographed the plague measures. Perhaps he wanted to show her what his job entailed and reassure her of the efficacy of the fight against plague. Or perhaps it was intended as a reminder of the adversity of their new home. A warning that Burma was not only blessed with the bucolic picturesque but was also blighted with the bubonic plague. Either way, her move to Burma would have been preempted and to some extent framed by these photographs.

I would like to thank Paul Knox and Jane Knox, Harley Newcombe’s grandchildren, who very kindly shared these photographs with me and provided me with further insights into his life in Burma. The full set of photographs can be viewed on flickr, thanks to Paul. More on the family’s history, and Harley Newcombe’s career, can be found at Jane’s family history website.

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