Teak and Photography in Colonial Burma

A few days ago the great grandson of Percival Marshall—an employee of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation during the interwar years—made contact with me to share his relavtive’s photographs of working in colonial Burma’s forests. The images document the labour that went into felling trees and transporting them across the country for export. They show each stage of the process, illustrating not only the human labour involved in the process (much of it migratory) but also the role played by elephants, buffalo and the physical environment in making the industry possible.

A girdled tree
A girdled tree (a method of killing the tree)
Felling the tree
Felling the tree
Cutting up the tree
Cutting the tree into logs
Elephants dragging the tree
Elephant dragging a log
Buffalo moving felled trees
Buffalo moving felled logs
A tree on a chute leading to a river
A log on a chute leading to a river
Elephant removing trees from a river
Elephant removing logs from the river
Logs at storing ground
Logs at a storing ground

During the early-twentieth century, and certainly by 1920 when these photographs were taken, the timber industry was dominated by large firms. These companies were financed in Britain and could afford to purchase the large numbers of elephants required to remove logs from the increasingly remote remaining teak forests. At the time of these images, the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation owned over three-thousand elephants. These images show just how vital these massive animal workers were. Buffalo too, although the notes on the back of the photographs indicate that they were employed through Burmese contractors. Topography was also a factor. Rivers were essential for floating the logs to the timber yards located in the coastal towns in the south of the colony, where they could be cut and exported. The photographs offer a record of how colonial commercial interests mobilized nonhuman actors to extract natural resources.

Without further biographical research, it is hard to say for sure why Percival Marshall took these photographs. However, their preservation over the years suggests that they had significance to the photographer as well as to subsequent generations. Perhaps he sought to capture the scale of the work that he was part of for his own records, anticipating nostalgia in retirement. Perhaps they were circulated at the time as a way of sharing his experiences with family located in places distant from Burma’s forests. Either way, the images appear removed from the work itself. They show the work of others. They are not action shots, or framed as if the photographer is in the thick of events. Some are posed, such as that showing Burmese workman with a girdled tree. This gives them a sense of order. They show the environment, animals and local workers as manageable and under control.

The reality of the timber trade was, at times, far messier. Working elephants would escape and attack human settlements. Wild elephants would attack the captive herds. Tigers would attack the buffalo and elephant calves. Anthrax outbreaks led to startling mortality rates. Logs became lodged and clogged up the waterways. Human workers would strike. Both the elephants and their riders could be addicted to opium. And European staff would suffer from disease, alcoholism, fatigue and solitude. Knowing this, we can read Marshall’s photographs as documenting the timber industry at its best. This was how things looked when they were running smoothly.

Many thanks to Ben Squires for bringing my attention to his great grandfather’s fascinating photographs and allowing me to use them. The whole collection can be viewed at http://www.bensquiresphotos.com/Burma and are well worth browsing through.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. patsy says:

    Oh Jonathan, Ive been absolutely blown away with this email and the photos of the logging, circa 1920. My father (Anglo-Burmese) worked for BBTCL and was an Assistant Manager at their mill at Dunnedaw, Rangoon. My parents trekked out of Burma to India in 1942 and then returned after war and finally left Burma 4 days before Independence 1947. All my fathers photos of his time at the logging camps in northern Burma were buried along with my parents possessions when they left Rangoon, prior to the trek. Unfortunately my parents house was taken over by the Japanese and all their possessions were discovered and the trunks filled with water and the rest looted. I am currently writing a book on my parents lives in Burma, the trek out, time in India, back to Burma and then to Australia. I have been trying for 4 years to find a couple of photos that I can use in my book showing the magnificence of the elephants, that my father spoke of so fondly, and have not had any luck. All photos seem to be copy written etc. Would it be possible to put me in contact with Percival Marshall and ask permission to use a couple of the photos. I have sent this email to Burmese friends whose fathers also worked for Bombay Burma Timber Co. Ltd. Once again, I look forward to hearing from you. I look forward to receiving all your newsletter – congratulations on the wonderful work you are doing. Cheers from, Patsy Evans

    1. jonathansaha says:

      Hi Patsy, I have been in touch with Ben Squires (Percival Marshall’s great grandson) who is happy for you to use his photographs. Please drop me an email if you want me to put you in touch directly.

  2. Oliver says:

    Dear Jonathan,
    Lovely to see these pictures. My grandfather also worked with BBTC in Burma and then Siam. I have an album of identical photographs – they were infact taken in 1918 by Morinosuke Tanaka, the famous photographer from Chiang Mai.

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