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Posts tagged ‘Ceylon’

22. Remora

By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)

Before the 1920s, visual renderings of the seafloor largely relied on drawings and engravings. This was true even in places where bodies routinely inhabited the underwater, such as the pearl fisheries of Ceylon. Here, photography did play a role: on the shore and on the decks of colonial steamers, British administrators and elite local and European visitors used photography as a tool of art, surveillance, documentation and science.

In the early twentieth century, Ceylon was a laboratory for the biology of the tropical seas. This photograph here, for instance, was made over the course of a of a Royal Society sponsored investigation into the conditions of the fisheries. In one trawl-netting exercise to deduce which fish fed on pearl-bearing oysters, a suckerfish or remora was brought up. The diver in the photograph is unnamed, and the composition is staged, with the fish placed deliberately on the man’s back to attest to its suction-generating maw. The image is a testament to both direct and indirect violence wrought under colonialism on environments and bodies. But it also invokes a space between the sea and land: a fish out of water, a body that was often submerged within it; a place within photography’s reach which gestured also at spaces that—at this point in time—still lay beyond it.

Image credits: Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar (London, 1903), vol. I, 65.

19. James Steuart’s box of oysters at the Museum of Natural History (1868)

By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)

The historians’ job is akin to the detectives’: we ferret out clues, evaluate evidence and make deductions. But what do we do when trails run cold? My doctoral research is on the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar. Sometime between 1820 and 1830, the painter Hippolyte Silvaf made twelve water-colours of the fishery in Ceylon. As sources, these paintings would have offered incredible visual insights into the industry long before the advent of photography. Unfortunately, in 1989, all the paintings were stolen from the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) where they had been held since 1908. No one has been able to track them down since. But perhaps we needed to broaden our search.

On 25 May 1868, Captain James Steuart donated a box of 11 oyster specimens to the British Museum. Although the box is rarely consulted by historians, mounted on the inside lid of the box is a painting of the fishery titled ‘Boats returning from the Ceylon Pearl Banks in March’. * Although it is unsigned, we can compare it with Silvaf’s oeuvre and with the description of his paintings recorded by RCS librarians to deduce that this is a copy of one of the lost paintings, ‘Scene at Silawatorre: boats returning from the Pearl Banks’. The box of specimens, which, bound up with colonial practices of collection and documentation, has ensured that at least one of these remarkable paintings survives today!

*My thanks to Tom White at the Museum of Natural History and Rachel Rowe at the Royal Commonwealth Society for their help putting the pieces together.

Image: Edwin William Streeter, ‘Auction of Pearl Oysters in Ceylon’ from Pearls and Pearling Life (London: George Bell and Sons, 1886). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.