Skip to main content

Photograph collection of John Abercromby Alexander

Reference Code: GBR/0115/RCS/Y303E

Scope and Contents

A collection of prints, particularly important for its record of products. The subject headings are as follows:

1-24 Tea
25-28 Coffee
29-38 Cocoa
39-44 Cinnamon
45-47 Cinchona
48-56 Plumbago
57-61 Coconut
62-81 Plants in Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (P.B.G.)
82-115 Miscellaneous agricultural and social scenes on tea estates
116-132 Views in Ceylon (mainly botanical specimens by Alexander), 1880s
133-184 Botanical specimens from P.B.G. by H.F. Macmillan
185-227 Views on Agricultural Experimental Stations at Mambone, Chirenda, Ihambene (Portuguese East Africa), circa 1905
228-269 Miscellaneous views in England, Scotland and Madeira
270-293 Miscellaneous, supplementing above categories

The following are brief notes on the main products covered in these photographs.
Cinchona: first used in treatment of malaria 1638, introduced into India, Java and Ceylon in 1861, Ceylon Government having established nurseries for it at Hakgala; with plants issued free or at nominal cost, first commercial cultivation in 1870. 500 acres by 1872 and 64,000 acres by 1883. Export of bark at maximum (1887) 16,000,000 lb - leading to a drop in the price through overproduction. Largely disappeared from the export list.
Cinnamon: Native of Ceylon and and S. India; first systematically cultivated c.1770 by Dutch. Previously got from wild trees. Most coveted of spices and sold for huge prices. The search for cinnamon was the chief incentive of the Portuguese in discovering a route round the Cape in 1505. Dutch made it a State monopoly which was continued until 1833. In 1948 some 35,000 acres existed.
Cocoa: Introduced into Ceylon c.1819, but systematic cultivation was not attempted until 1878 when first export of 10 cwt (hundredweight) was recorded.
Tea: Commercial cultivation in Ceylon was from 1867, although introduced into the Botanical Gardens as 'Assam Tea' in 1839 and 'China Tea' in 1824.
Coffee: Introduced in England in 1652 and brought to Ceylon in 1690; commercial cultivation was from 1825. Over 1 million hundredweights exported in 1874, but practically wiped out by coffee leaf disease (Hemeliea vastatrix) and its place taken by tea.
Plumbago: graphite. John Knox mentions it in 1681. First recorded as an export in 1829. Indigenous industry.

Hugh Fraser Macmillan (b. 1869) was curator of the P.B.G. from 1895-1925 and author of numerous works on tropical agriculture.

W.L.H. Skeen and Co.
The connection of the Skeen family with Ceylon appears to have started with the appointment of William Skeen as the Colony's first Government printer in 1849. William Skeen purchased the photographs of J. Parting in 1860 and by the following year was trading under the name of 'S. Slinn and Co.'. This commercial name is explained by the brief stay in Ceylon of S. Slinn Skeen who arrived in Colombo on September 3 1860 and departed again for England on November 10 1861. His precise relationship to William Skeen has not been ascertained. William Louis Henry Skeen, who was to manage the firm until his death in 1903, was a son of W.S. and returned to Ceylon after a period of study at the London School of Photography in 1862-3. For the rest of the decade he worked in partnership with John Edward Wilshaw, who had originally worked with S.S. Skeen. In 1878 F.A.E. Skeen joined the firm and, after helping his brother for some nine years, opened a branch in Rangoon in partnership with H.W. Watts. This business flourished until around 1908, although F. Skeen had returned to Ceylon in 1903 on the death of his brother. The firm, now named F. Skeen and Co., appears to have survived until the 1920s, although Skeen himself had died or left the island by the beginning of the First World War.

Titles and captions have been recorded as found and may contain offensive, inappropriate or outdated terms. They have been retained to reflect the context of the collection's creation.


  • Creation: 1880 - 1922


Conditions Governing Access

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (

Biographical / Historical

John Abercromby Alexander (b. 1854) was appointed Acting Forester in Ceylon’s North-Central Province in 1886. He may have been resident in Ceylon earlier, possibly engaged in a planting enterprise. Alexander served as Forester, North-Central Province, 1887-88 and then as Assistant Conservator of Forests, Central and Southern Provinces, from 1889 until 1893, when he left the forestry department. He appears to have remained on the island until around 1896. He joined the Royal Colonial Institute in 1892. Abercromby lived at Venture Estates, Kalthuritty, Travancore, India, 1896-1898, and in Bedford, England, 1898-1901. By 1905 he was working for the Department of Agriculture of the Companhia de Mocambique at Beira, but how long he remained in Portuguese East Africa is unknown. He was the author of 'Notes on flora of coasts and islands of Portuguese E.A.' in 'Transactions and proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh', 1906.


2 archive box(es) (293 images in 2 boxes)

Language of Materials


Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

Good condition, unless noted otherwise.

Existence and Location of Copies

This collection is available on microfiche: South Asia, fiche number 90-95.


The most notable of Macmillan's published works is: Macmillan, Hugh Fraser (1935), 'Tropical gardening and planting', London: Macmillan and Co. For a more detailed history of W.L.H. Skeen and Co. see: Falconer, John (1981), 'The Photographic Collector', v. 2, no. 2, pp. 39-54.


This item level description was entered by NE and MJC using information from the original typescript catalogue.

Date information

DateText: The dates are approximate..

Includes index.
2004-07-15 11:42:10+00:00
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom