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On Visual Rhetoric and British Imperial History

Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes

This chapter explores a few instances in which images documenting popular narratives and key events in the history of the British Empire have been used across various monographs, anthologies, research projects, and pedagogical programmes. It aims to map some of the conventional historical and cultural approaches of visual literacy in relation to text-based discourse. It also attempts to assess recurrent modes of histo-ricizing particular events and thematic strands within British imperial studies by considering some core research questions that allow for the re-contextualization of celebrated as well as lesser-known imperial (and post-imperial) visual records, all media, as primary resources for new perspectives on the history of the British Empire. Case studies discussed within this theoretical framework, in which images traditionally employed as illustrations of particular events in the history of the British Empire are converted into insurgent visual narratives, have been grouped under five themes: ‘Mis-illustrated histories of the British Empire’, ‘Preserving the rhetoric of terror’, ‘Advertising imperial, racial, and gender dynamics, then and now’, ‘Visual framing and reversible social hierarchies’, and ‘Ongoing imperial visual currency’. The chapter concludes with an invitation to further developments in cross-disciplinary visual and history studies and regimes of knowledge that should support enriched perspectives on the history of the British Empire.

Mis-illustrated Histories of the British Empire

Historians often include images in their books, whether monographs or textbooks, based on the illustrative quality of those particular visual records—the implicit narrative merit of the image being usually described succinctly in captions indicative of what the historian knew or assumed to be the historic detail mirrored by the respective image. Details of architecture, landscape, and human presence are used as key markers sanctioning the credibility of an image as a pertinent illustration within the historian’s own narrative about that particular historical event. However, the illustrative quality of certain photographs, for instance, ‘The Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels’ by Felice Beato' is often a source of new and even conflicting interpretations of the event recorded and/or allegedly depicted. A ruined palace, decomposing bodies and dried human skeletons lying in front of it, and four men looking at this landscape do not necessarily certify the photograph taken by Felice Beato in March or April 1858 as a visual evidence of the British soldiers’ retaliatory massacre of Sepoys at Sikanderbagh in November 1857 during India’s First War of Independence—the Indian Mutiny or the Sepoy Revolt as it is usually referred to in history textbooks. In 1989, contributors to C.A. Bayly’s volume Atlas of the British Empire have captioned this photograph with ‘The bodies of Indian rebels, left unburied by the British, litter the courtyard of Sikandra Bagh in Lucknow’.2

Twenty years later, Zahid R. Chaudhary chose for his volume Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India (2012) a different approach when captioning the same image as ‘Felice Beato. The Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels, by the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Regiment. First Attack of Sir Colin Campbell in November 1857, Lucknow, March or April 1858. Copyright British Library Board, Photo 27/(2)’. Besides the immediate difference in spelling the name of the place and in the amount of background information provided by each caption, there are two crucial details evident in the ways in which Beato’s photograph has been used to illustrate rather than document the British attack on Sikanderbagh. First, there is the use of particular words and tone of address. In the 1989 caption, expressions such as ‘Indian rebels’, ‘left unburied’, and ‘litter the courtyard’ invite the reader to construct the narrative of a justified punitive operation, of unbearable stench, and of an implicit dismissal of the Indian soldiers— their bodies‘litter’ the site of the massacre. In the 2012 caption, historical data such as who took the photograph, when and who led the attack on Sikanderbagh, and which institution holds the copy of the image reproduced in the volume allow the reader to imagine a chronological illustration of the stages of the attack, while the photograph itself only testifies to the aftermath of the massacre. Second, whether employing an emotional and almost stirring pitch or a neutral and commentary-free captioning of the image, neither historian allowed the reader to note the central detail recorded by Beato: the re-construction of the massacre. It is well known now that, at the photographer’s request, the bodies of dead Sepoys seen in this image had been fully exhumed and scattered across the ground in order to give the viewers, and the future generations of scholars of South Asian and British imperial history, a clearer sense of historic immediacy.3 As a result, the visual narrative proposed by Beato’s photograph escapes the logic of both captions and, consequently, it does not support the recent historical interpretations of how the British massacred 2,000 Sepoys at Sikanderbagh. Consequently, even when used within a post-colonial discourse, this photograph’s illustrative merit remains anchored in the imperial ideology and artistic traditions endorsing the late-nineteenth-century imperial narratives about the Indian Mutiny.

On other occasions, the illustrative merit of an image can prompt unforeseen interpretations, especially when used by authors undertaking a more abrasive post-colonial reading of imperial history. This is not necessarily because the author had misused the image but because the image itself has a strong, unitary visual narrative—a built-in illustrative quality that cannot necessarily be negotiated outside its denotative function. One such example is found in Niall Ferguson’s Empire (2003), with the caption for one of C. Bauer’s paintings—‘Engine of enslavement: a sugar plantation in the south of Trinidad’4—being a case in point. The painting depicts with cartographic precision a bucolic, quaint landscape, to borrow a term common to imperial travelogues. The violence and cruelty of enslavement invoked by the caption are overwritten by the neatly, well-spaced, airy, and pastoral organization of labour depicted by Bauer. Should the image itself had been used as a primary research source and not as a prop in a hurried post-colonial critique it could have been possible to interpret the same visual details, and the overall storyline of this image, as the keystone of British imperial visual rhetoric: the frequent dismissal of colonial horror by ways of narratorial beautification.

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