I was looking through the British Library’s online gallery of images from its Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections when I came across some amazing pictures of Burma in the late nineteenth century. They were taken by a man by the name of Willoughby Wallace Hooper.

According to the information on the British Library web site, Hooper produced a series of photographs “documenting the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885-86), published in 1887 under the title ‘Burmah: a series of one hundred photographs illustrating incidents connected with the British Expeditionary Force to that country, from the embarkation at Madras, 1st Nov, 1885, to the capture of King Theebaw, with many views of Mandalay and surrounding country, native life and industries’. The series was issued as an album in two editions (one with albumen prints, one with autotypes) and as a set of lantern slides. Hooper took the images while serving as Provost Marshal with the British Expeditionary Force, which entered Mandalay, the Burmese royal capital, on 28 November 1885.” (see here)

cheroots

Some of the images are wonderful, such as this one of a roadside vendor.

roadside vendor

And of monks receiving alms.

monks

Hooper also documented the ethnic diversity of Burma, with images of Chinese merchants. . .

chinese merchants

. . . Manipuris. . .

Manipuris

. . . a group of Shan men. . .

shan men

. . . and a couple of Kachin men.

kachin men

The British Library site also notes that “The series is also notable for the political scandal which arose following allegations by a journalist that Hooper had acted sadistically in the process of photographing the execution by firing squad of Burmese rebels. The subsequent court of inquiry concluded that he had behaved in a ‘callous and indecorous’ way and the affair raised issues of the ethical role of the photographer in documenting human suffering and the conduct of the British military during a colonial war.”

“Rebels” at that time were referred to by the British as “dacoits,” and in the images that the British Library has digitized we can find a picture that Hooper took of a “gang of dacoits” that were being deported on a ship. . .

gang of dacoits

. . . and one of “captured dacoits.”

captured dacoits

The controversial photograph of Burmese rebels about to be executed, however, apparently was not included in this collection.

According to the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, “Hooper’s attempt to achieve photographs of the execution by synchronizing his shutter release to the order to fire caused several delays just as the firing squad was on the point of firing. Witnesses felt this added unnecessarily to the emotional anguish of the condemned and he was reprimanded for inhumane treatment and suffered a temporary reduction in pay grade.” (pg. 714)

cheroot shop

These images are thus, like history itself, both beautiful and painful. It’s wonderful to see the world of late-nineteenth-century Burma so vividly portrayed, but it is sad to know that these images were also ultimately part of that world’s violent destruction.