Skip to navigationSkip to content
TIME CAPSULE

Incredible images of colonial India have been digitised for the first time

By Maria Thomas

In 1868, the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) was established in London to promote knowledge about the British empire’s colonies abroad. Many of its members were civil servants, doctors, soldiers, and even missionaries who worked in India. Over the years, they donated to its library their diaries, letters, and artifacts, which revealed much about what it was like to live on the other side of the world.

This collection also accumulated hundreds of photographs of India, dating back to the mid-1850s. These images were acquired by the University of Cambridge when it purchased the RCS’s library in 1993. In recent years, the Cambridge University Library began digitising some of these historic images, making them available online for everyone to see.

From landscapes and wildlife to architecture and industry to the diverse people and religions of India, the carefully preserved photographs bring to life a key period in the country’s modern history, captured by professional and amateur British and Indian photographers. The most recent collections include photographs of the early railways, taken by a British engineer who worked on them, and a delightful series centred on an Agri-Horticultural School in Aurangabad where Indians studied botany and agriculture.

With digitisation, anyone anywhere in the world can view, zoom into, and analyse these otherwise inaccessible and rare photographs. 

“We digitise photographs to make them freely available for academic research and teaching, reaching a larger audience than would be able to view them in person in the Cambridge University Library,” John Cardwell, project archivist at the Royal Commonwealth Society Collections, told Quartz in an email. The library, he said, also hopes to reach non-academic audiences who are interested in the history of their communities.   

At the library, archivists meticulously clean and repair any damaged photo albums and store them in acid-free archival boxes, while loose photographs are placed inside protective plastic sleeves. The entire collection has to be kept in rooms where the temperature and humidity are strictly controlled so that they can be preserved for years. Digitising is another expensive, time-consuming process, one entirely dependent on fund-raising, Cardwell says.

But the end results are worth it. Here’s a selection of such recently digitised images:

Hawkes collection of Indian Railway Photographs 

This album of 84 images, taken between 1868 and 1894, contains albumen prints by a number of people, including one FA Hawkes, an engineer who worked on the North Bengal State Railways between 1871 and 1879. The photos show various bridges, viaducts, and railway stations, besides scenes of life in Darjeeling, and portraits of British engineers.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
Haldibari Station, NBSR, from the Hawkes collection of Indian Railway photographs.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
River Station, Sara, NBSR.

Cuthbert Christy Album of India 1899-1901 

Cuthbert Christy was a medical officer and zoologist who worked for the Indian Medical Service between 1899 and 1901. In this time, he documented his travels across the region, taking photographs of scenes in Agra, Shimla, Srinagar, Surat, Punjab, and Bombay (now Mumbai). Now, 114 of his images are available online, along with two diaries he kept during the period.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
The Maharajah’s palace in Srinagar from the Cuthbert Christy Album of India 1899-1901.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
Photos of the Dal Canal.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
A sample of the 33 miles of road from Baramula to Srinagar, the city of the sun & capital of Kashmir.

Views in Bombay

This collection contains 16 images of colonial-era Bombay, taken in the 1890s by the iconic Indian photographer Raja Deen Dayal as well as photographers from the famous studio Bourne and Shepherd, among others.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
Yacht club, Apollo Bunder and Harbour from the Views in Bombay collection.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
Rampart Row, Bombay.

Agri-Horticultural School, Aurangabad, Deccan 1908

The 18 images in this collection, taken by a photographer named KB Phadye, suffered from flood damage in 1980. But in their digital forms, they still clearly reveal the fascinating world of a colonial-era agri-horticultural school, where boys learned floriculture, cared for plants in a nursery, and even had access to a vineyard.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
Teachers at the agrihorticultural school from the Agri-Horticultural School collection, Aurangabad, Deccan, 1908.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
Studying germicides
Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
Students at the agrihorticultural school.