Date of Award

January 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Ty M. Reese


Accounts of travel to Sri Lanka published during the period of British conquest (1796 through 1818) reveal a consistent yet problematic tendency: despite ongoing military conflict, visual artists constructed representations of the island as a peaceful and orderly place. The contradiction is heightened when travelers’ uniformly tranquil images of Sri Lanka are juxtaposed with documented acts of destruction to land and property, undertaken by troops during Britain’s first war with the inland kingdom of Kandy, a conflict which eventually led to the island’s complete colonization. The present study reconciles this contradiction through analysis of publications by each of five artists who shared a conception of landscape known as the picturesque, a way of seeing and ordering the natural environment rooted in the art collecting practices of elites.

As the first systematic analysis of picturesque practice and discourse in early nineteenth-century Sri Lanka, this project considers descriptions of the island as a crown colony of Great Britain during the first war with Kandy, a conflict that commenced in 1802 and subsided with the departure of the first British governor, Frederic North, in 1805. Arguing that Frederic North’s commitment to the protection and development of Sri Lanka’s natural resources spurred him to engage in conflict with the Kandyan kingdom, it is demonstrated that he looked to the practices of metropolitan landowners and to the writings of Adam Smith to shape his approach to colonial governance, and that picturesque discourse, in particular, provided a familiar framework within which to envision the conquest and ordering of this Indian Ocean polity, considered strategically important to the larger purposes of the British empire.

Fundamental to an understanding of the cultural milieu from which Frederic North emerged is the body of travel literature produced by artists whose conceptions of the island supported imperial conquest: Reverend James Cordiner, Henry Salt, Samuel Daniell, Maria Graham, and Lieutenant William Lyttleton. Analysis of their interests, assumptions, and concerns enlarge the discussion of colonial war, extending it beyond foreign policy and military strategy to a conversation rooted in intellectual history.