Researching Colonial Burma on the Internet

I recently wrote a blog on my experiences using the National Archive of Myanmar for Exeter University’s Global and Imperial History blog. It got me thinking about how much of my research I now conduct online via digitized archives. So, on this post I’m going to flag up some useful places on the internet for those wanting to do their own research on colonial Burma, but can’t make it to Yangon. I’ve also found that these sites offer some great resources for teaching both the history of Burma, and British imperialism more broadly.

Documents

Interestingly, the National Archive of Myanmar has one solitary document available digitally. It is a file containing some British correspondence about a priceless royal jewel known as the Ngamauk Ruby, apparently stolen by the British army office Colonel Sladen during the annexation of Upper Burma. More documents from the National Archive are available from the Anglo-Burmese Library, albeit behind a pay wall. The Anglo-Burmese Library has also made freely available some documents from companies operating in Burma, military records, and some directories. The website will particularly useful to people researching family history (although the boundaries between family history and professional history is being broken down).

The National Library of Scotland have digitized hundreds of archival records on the medical history of British India. Among them are many reports on medical institutions in Burma. There are the annual reports on Rangoon lunatic asylum from 1878 (as well as reports on the later mental hospitals set up across Burma), for those interested in colonial psychiatry. There are annual reports for the lock hospitals set up to treat prostitutes, for those interested in the regulation of colonial sexualities. Reports on Rangoon general medical school, for those interested in colonial education. In addition to these, there are reports on drug consumption, veterinary care, vaccinations campaigns and hospitals. It is veritable treasure trove of documents, and is getting bigger all the time.

The Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics has an extraordinary repository of colonial reports and publications printed in British India, including hundreds from Burma, on its DSpace archive. Subjects covered run from the colony’s silk industry, through to reports on migration between India and Burma. Going through this collection, you can lose an entire day.

Books

Moving on from official archival documents, there are many travel-writings on Burma published between 1600 and 1900 digitized on the fabulous Southeast Asia Visions website, made available by Cornell University. It was here that I came upon a little book, published in 1909, about a British family’s tour of Burma written from the perspective of a dog. It is a brilliant resource, with books in a number of European languages. It also has a few photograph albums from amateurs, which contain fascinating images such as the one below of a snake charmer.

'Snake Charmer with Russell Viper' from 'Burman Photograph Album' (1897)
‘Snake Charmer with Russell Viper’ from ‘Burman Photograph Album’ (1897)

Many of the books are also available through digital book archives, such as the extremely useful archive.org. I have found a great range of helpful material here, such as the shocking Anna Lombard, and the spooky Hatanee, both of which were published in the early twentieth century. However, its real strength is in books published in the long nineteenth-century. It’s not as easy or straightforward an archive to search, because of its extraordinary size, so it is best to have in mind what you are looking for before you search for it. For natural historical studies during the colonial period, the Biodiversity Heritage Library has a fantastic collection. The Journal of Bombay Natural History Society, in particular, contains regular essays on Burma’s flora and fauna during the colonial period.

Images

What seem to be the most abundant sources on-line and freely available to researchers are colonial-era images. Most of these, that I have come across, are photographs. The British Library’s gigantic photostream on flickr contains a large number of drawings, as well as photographs (including some interesting pictures of convicts), such as the image below depicting the capture of a white elephant.

William Dalton, The White Elephant; or, the Hunters of Ava and the King of the Golden Foot (London: Griffith and Farran, 1888)
William Dalton, The White Elephant; or, the Hunters of Ava and the King of the Golden Foot (London: Griffith and Farran, 1888)

In addition to the images on the British Library flickr account, there are some other interesting collections of colonial-era photographs available on the site. These include the collection of German photographer Philip Klier who was a resident of Rangoon in the early twentieth century, uploaded by the UK National Archives. The National Archives have also made available over one hundred photos of Burma, amongst them this arresting image of Burmese Boxing.

Burmese Boxing
Burmese Boxing

Also on flickr, there are some amateur photographs of Burma from 1906, taken by military officer Harley Newcombe when he was on special plague duty in the country. Another excellent source of photographs and paintings is the Wellcome Trust Image library. It contains some palm leaf scripts acquired during colonial rule, some early nineteenth-century British paintings, and some photographs of colonial plague operations. Ben Squires, the great grandfather of an officer in the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, has made some photographs of the teak industry available online on his website.

Artifacts

The British Museum have put up digital photographs of some of their vast collections, including many items from Burma. These include Buddha figures, weights, Karen, Lushai, Kachin and other ethnic groups’ clothing and handicrafts (loads of Shan smoking-pipes). There are also some images of manuscripts. Here’s one of the figures that they have.

Museum No. As1983,05.7, 'Boy figure (kneeling, with base) made of wood, paint, glass, gilt'. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Museum No. As1983,05.7, ‘Boy figure (kneeling, with base) made of wood, paint, glass, gilt’. © The Trustees of the British Museum

There is also an online exhibition called ‘Buddhas and Birdskins’ displaying objects from colonial Burma that with the AHRC I helped to curate with the Bristol Museum. Many Museums have searchable holdings, often with images attached.

Burmese Manuscripts and Paintings

The British Library has a good few Burmese manuscripts available through its Digitised Manuscripts section of its website. It is also worth reading the entries of British Library’s Asian and African Studies Blog, that offer some context and analysis of some of this collection. In addition, the British Library’s Endangered Archives scheme has a project preserving and digitising Pa O manuscripts from the Shan States, they are also funding a project monastic manuscripts from upper Burmese villages with the Yangon-based Inya Institute that promotes the humanities in Myanmar.

The Oxford Digital Library have made available a stunning collection of watercolour paintings done by a Burmese artist. And the Victoria and Albert Museum have hundreds of digitised photographs of Burmese artifacts, paintings and manuscripts.

Late nineteenth century depiction of elephant training. © V&A Images
Late nineteenth century depiction of elephant training. © V&A Images

More…?

Part of the benefit of a blog post is that you can keep editing it, so if there’s anything I’ve missed please let me know and I’ll add it here! For more there is the very helpful website the Online Burma Library that covers a longer period. Also, the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research has some great primary sources in it.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Kenneth says:

    Great resources! On Facebook, the Maynmar Historical Archive page has a pretty good collection of old photos and images. https://www.facebook.com/tssai13

    1. durairajoo says:

      wealth of information …

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