In Conversation with Antonia Laurence Allen

Image courtesy Susan Torkington

The photograph of the pearl fishery marine biology laboratory captured in 1902 by James Hornell, the marine biologist who had conducted research on the pearl oysters in that very space, was situated in Galle Fort. From a macro perspective, the laboratory highlights the largely undiscerned history of marine economy in 20th century Sri Lanka encompassing not only the science of pearl oyster ecology, but also the breadth of lifestyle and culture within 20th century South Asia that was molded around coastal living, particularly that of the Galle Fort. In Conversation with Antonia Laurence Allen, the Regional Curator for Edinburgh and East Scotland at the National Trust for Scotland we explore the significance of photography such as Hornell’s to the conservation of heritage in spaces like the Galle Fort, and the simultaneous colonial underpinnings involved in the photographic collection of an officer to the British Empire.

Q | What is the significance of James Hornell’s photograph in shedding light about Galle Fort?

A | James Hornell’s photograph is significant because it is not widely remembered that a Pearl Fishery Marine Biology Laboratory was set up in Galle Fort in the early 20th century. The scientists were trying to understand why the pearl fishery beds were declining in the Gulf of Mannar and trying to establish another bed in Galle, while studying the life cycle of the pearl. Having photographic evidence of the work is really helpful for Galle Fort’s history and the wider cultural history of Sri Lanka.

This is a documentation of a temporary building that fundamentally changed the way people understood the life- cycle of the pearl oysters and why the pearl beds were diminishing in the Gulf of Mannar. It was the marine biologists here, particularly Herdman and James Hornell who discovered how sensitive the pearl oyster was to environmental and material changes in the ocean, and they learnt this fact by cutting up the pearl oysters in this laboratory. This photograph is in fact, one on a whole host of photos designed to be documentary evidence of their process. When I spoke to a representative of the Galle Fort Heritage Foundation, he did not recognize the photograph and did not believe that the building had been in Galle. I think this was because it was a rudimentary building. I reiterated that this was a temporary structure, and I think he then understood how significant the photograph was in capturing and memorializing the study and space. It is a particularly strong case for the camera’s ability to recognize, and remember temporary events that might otherwise be forgotten.”

Q | You mentioned that the camera can recognise, and remember temporary events that might otherwise be forgotten. In your opinion, what is the significance of photography to the conservation of the historicity and heritage of sites like the Galle Fort?

A | The camera has always been used to preserve ruins – or that which people feel is in danger of being lost, it was one of the uses of the camera Fox Talbot noted in his seminal ‘Pencil of Nature’. In Scotland, this is coupled with a romantic tourism that emerged in the 19th century, where ruined castles and churches represented some imagined past and the loss of this to an industrial modernism was being mourned. Couple this with Roland Barthes’ infamous notion that a photograph instantly captures that which has gone – or has died – photographs of ruins become quite poignant and poetic. I would say that Scottish photographers ventured into the colonial world with the camera as though it were a lantern – shining light in dark corners to find revealing ways of life that might help provide a re-settling of what ‘civilised’ life looks like. This is where the fashion for photographing traditional customs in countries like Sri Lanka emerges – in the Western European desire to return to an idyll they imagined existed at some point in the past. Ruins represent the past in a way that fills us with nostalgia because we can quite literally fill the gaps with our imagination. And, while knowledge provides us with facts and can bring a group together to support the conservation and preservation of a historic site, imagination can take us beyond what might be possible – and has the power to bind large swathes of people.

Q | James’ cousin, Edward Hornell was in your words ‘an unwitting documentary photographer’. In his time in Sri Lanka from 1900-1906, can you share details about photographs he had taken of his surroundings?

A | Photographs are simultaneously a collectable object and a tool for recording and presenting the past, which means an image that captures a tourist on holiday or a working group studying the life cycle of a pearl, also preserves a moment in time that includes the surroundings, and therefore context, of the tourist or marine biology work. This is complicated by the fact that intent and use of photographs might be different. The intent of James Hornell’s images was to record the work he was doing in Ceylon - to understand how the pearl grows in the oyster and the bicuspid survives in the marine environment. This makes him a documentary photographer, in the most literal sense. However, in his collection are also images of his servant at Galle, his climb up Sigiriya and visit to Polonnaruwa. He was using the camera for personal use too, to memorialise his experience traveling through the country. Then we must consider how we use these photographs – and we do use them as documentary evidence. All James’ (and Edward’s) photographs can now be seen as documents of a past moment – I have used one of James’ photographs of Sigiriya, for example, to emphasize the enormous progress archaeologists have made over the 20th century to uncover and understand the complex built on this ancient rock. And I use Edward’s photographs as evidence of his artistic practice.

Q | James Hornell has been described in previous studies as a colonial zoologist, seafaring ethnographer and the chief colonial officer charged with investigating the pearl fisheries.Could you shed light on the larger role James Hornel played in service to the British Empire, and the role his camera played as a ‘colonial tool’?

A | In 1901 Professor W. A. Herdman was asked by the Governor to find out why the pearl beds in Sri Lanka were in decline and to make some recommendations for improving productivity. Thus Herdman and his team duly undertook what became one of the largest marine surveys in the Indian Ocean. The Royal Society of London published the results in five volumes between 1904 to 1906. Twenty marine biologists, including James Hornell (1865-1949; E.A. Hornell’s cousin) were involved in the research. James Hornell spent a decade studying the marine environment and the life cycle of the pearl. In 1907, he resigned the post and was invited to organize the pearl fisheries of Madras. Hornell retired in 1924, at which time he focused on his other passion for studying marine craft. Throughout his working life he had gathered photographs of fishing boats, including those involved in the pearl fisheries in Sri Lanka – from catamarans to canoes, single bottom Outrigger canoes and balance board canoes. He continued this work and his travels included coastal areas of Japan, Sierra Leone, Palestine, Malta, Seychelles, Myanmar and Mauritius. During the 1930s he started to publish articles on water craft in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, down the Ganges and the Nile, and these papers were illustrated with his photography.

I think his camera was certainly a colonial tool – the photographs were designed to be used as evidence of work completed and studies achieved. Although some colonisers may have used the photographs in upper class drawing rooms to bluster about their exploits around the world – James Hornell seemed to have used photography to further the scientific understanding of marine life. He was trained to gather academic evidence, except perhaps in the occasional image that captures a servant or a trip to an ancient archaeological site like Sigiriya.

Q | In James Hornell’s research of pearl fisheries surrounding the Gulf of Mannar, he examined the culture of local diving, harvesting and selling of pearl oysters in South Asia during the early 20th century heavily. In those studies, did you find that the Galle Fort held significance for the study of pearl oysters?

A | Hornell had access and recorded all aspects of diving, harvesting and selling of oysters – the photo collections of James (in Cambridge) and of his cousin (in Kirkcudbright) provide evidence of this. The small laboratory at Galle was extremely effective and served as a base for researching the life-history of the pearl oyster and there was a hope it would be the nucleus of a permanent biological station in the island, which unfortunately did not happen. Galle had seemed to the marine group to be the most suitable point on the coast of Sri Lanka for the establishment of a Marine Laboratory to observe living oysters, because of its fringing coral reef with shallow lagoons and hard sea beds, where they had foundsome pearl oysters doing well. So it was less to do with it being a major sea port, and more to do with the marine environment which might have harboured the right conditions to develop a new pearl fishery.

Antonia Laurence Allen is the Regional Curator for Edinburgh and East Scotland at the National Trust for Scotland. She has an M.A. in art history, criticism, and conservation from the University of British Columbia, as well as a Ph.D. in photography history from the University of St. Andrews. Antonia has over 20 years of experience in art education, interpretation, and curatorial work across the United States, Canada, and Scotland.

24th February, 2024 Visual Art | Paintings