The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay
A two-volume photographic album of albumen prints by William Johnson and William Henderson, it details the appearance, costumes and lifestyles of the ethnic groups that constituted the population of colonial Bombay (now Mumbai). The volumes, titled The Oriental Races And Tribes, Residents And Visitors Of Bombay: A Series Of Photographs With Letter-press Descriptions, were published in London in 1863 and 1866, respectively. They are considered the first published ethnographic study of Indian people to use photographs.
Whilst the focus of the albums were the people of Bombay (now Mumbai), the scope extended to surrounding regions — the first volume covers the regions of Gujarat, Kutch and Kathiawar, while the second encompasses the erstwhile Maratha region — to create an illustrative document of the local, immigrant and itinerant populations in and around the city. Introducing both volumes is an outline of the broad ethnographic composition of the country, the classifications and denominations used to map it and characterisations of communities including Parsis, Mohemmadans and Malays, likely to be found in Bombay. Prefacing each set of photos is a detailed description provided by scholars and British officials. Most of the images, composed in the style used in ethnographic studies, are of groups of figures attired in their traditional costumes, with captions detailing their caste, sect, race or other ethnic and cultural markers.
Unlike comparable works such as The People of India (1868–75), the album focuses primarily on Bombay, which – to Johnson and Henderson – had come to assume an ethnic profile that seemed like a microcosm of South Asia. The city had not only become a major trading hub under British rule, attracting migrant workers and merchants from other parts of India, it had also become a gateway to the western coast of India for much of the historical Indian Ocean trade from West Asia and Eastern Africa. This strategic trading port therefore grew in cultural and commercial value, earning a reputation for being diverse and cosmopolitan. The album produced, therefore, served both as an ethnographic survey of the key regions of its colony and as a reminder of the authority and perceived civilisational superiority of the Crown, meant in part to quell the unease caused by the Indian Mutiny (1857–59).
A majority of the images, produced as calotypes rather than the then-more-popular daguerreotypes, were taken by Johnson and Henderson and date back to the 1850s, during the early decades of photography’s invention in Europe. Several of these had previously appeared in the Indian Amateurs Photographic Album (IAPA), a monthly publication by the Photographic Society of Bombay. A small number of photos were taken by other professional photographers, such as Narayan Daji, brother of the reputed scholar Bhau Daji Lad – both of whom were also members of the Bombay Photographic Society – as well as by other society members, scholars and some amateurs. Images taken from the IAPA that had no distinctive backdrops were incorporated into the album using a process known as combination printing. In such instances, the portrait negatives were superimposed on landscape negatives that were carefully painted over to prevent overlap to produce images that showed the ethnic communities in their seemingly-original locales.
The publishers had initially planned to publish three volumes of the book, with the third meant to cover miscellaneous groups of people not covered by the first two, but this was never published, for reasons presently unknown. At its time of publishing, the album was an important photographic record and administrative document of the Empire’s key territories in the subcontinent. It now serves as testimony to the thoroughgoing efforts of the British crown to enlist text and image in carrying out and consolidating its imperial mission. Copies of both volumes are, at the time of writing, maintained in the British Library, London, UK.
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