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Preserving the Rhetoric of Terror

The three illustration-excerpts discussed below and selected from The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire (1996) and The Raj. India and the British 1600-1947 (1994) offer a double historical meaning—the one implied by the titles and captions, and the one signified by the body language of the people depicted. In P.J. Marshall’s edited volume Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire the use of visual records continues to prompt new interpretative opportunities. For example, R. Cator Woodville’s illustration from 1903 published by the Illustrated London News (c. 1903/5?) showing Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak (1841-1868), meeting with Muda Hassim in 1842 is a good example of the ways in which images could be under-utilized critically.5 As in Joseph Noel Paton’s In Memoriam painting discussed below, the framing of this scene (unattributed and undated), the body language of the people depicted, and the dynamic of their interaction indicate simultaneous strands of tension and danger that could have been explored and identified in greater depth. For instance, the assertiveness of the British man and that of his interpreter are counterbalanced by the imminent punitive authority of the Sultan’s men—note the man with a large sword in the foreground. Another case in point found in the Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire relates to the discussion of the third plague pandemic. Visual records of the plague pandemic in India in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century are extremely rare and so it is important to assess their historical evidence when used as primary sources or illustrations.6 Importantly, most of such visual records are in the form of maps and only occasionally of photographs of hospital beds, communal graves, and areas locked under quarantine; very rarely do they show people infected or dying of plague. At the same time, there is a rich text-based historiography of the plague pandemic ranging from governmental and medical reports to pioneering urban planning policies and private paper archives. These written sources anchor the common narrative about the spread of the plague across South Asia: the horror of pestilence, the prophylactic disciplinary measures, and high toll of fatalities. This long-standing narrative has also informed and shaped the public imagination of the time. As a result, the visual literacy annexed to the text-based historiography of the plague pandemic in South Asia has been inherited by future generations of historians and cultural anthropologists to the extent that images of the plague had been and continue to be invested with historical messages extrinsic to their visual narrative.

A pertinent example of how visual records can sometimes be invested with a particular documentary merit based on traditional understandings of the historic event described is found in the subchapter ‘Heath and Disease’ in Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire. On this occasion, the inherent visual narrative proposed by the image does not match nor does it suggest the rhetoric of trauma and death stated in the caption, which reads ‘Plague precautions in Bombay, 1896. The British authorities tried to counter a major plague epidemic in western India by a rigorous program of disinfecting. Houses were broken into and, as this picture shows, the poorer inhabitants were often roughly treated, eventually provoking much popular resentment’ [emphasis added].7 What the image shows instead is a group of three men and possibly a woman (barely noticeable at the far right edge of the photograph holding a piece of cloth) standing in front of their tents, amid household items. One of the men is holding a fumigating torch aimed at the cloth held by the person (woman) at the edge of the image—this is the only detail suggesting the act of disinfecting the place and of peoples’ possessions. Apart from this simple visual narrative there is no visual indication of these people being dispossessed or ‘roughly treated’, of their ‘houses [tents] being broken in’, or of their widespread ‘resentment’. While all these statements echo correct historic data, in the case of this photograph, they act as imagination implants borrowed from the text-based historiography of the third plague pandemic. Readers are thus primed to acknowledge and accept a particular historic evidence as illustrated in absentia by this image.

A pertinent example of meanings clashing at the confluence of the visual narrative intrinsic to an image and the use of that particular image as an illustration of a historical event is found in Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s commemorative painting In Memoriam, an image often used to illustrate, in fact, to symbolise a particular traumatic series of events that took place during the Indian Mutiny—image also included as a case study in the Atlas of the British Empire.3 In this case, the horror of the 1857 Indian Mutiny as represented for, and imagined by the British public, i.e. British (white) women and children raped and murdered by Indian insurgents, remains in place despite Paton’s subsequent replacement (i.e. painted over) of the Sepoys’ portrait with that of the Highlanders—the last-minute saviours always present in British popular imperial narratives. While the prescribed interpretation of the painting is encouraged by the title, and it subscribes to the generally accepted redemptive conclusion of this traumatic episode, the sense of imminent horror and death is not cancelled by the visual update in male iconography: the risk of being raped and killed by the Sepoys has been ultimately reassigned to the lurking and belligerent-looking Highlanders—as a result, the illustrative merit of Paton’s painting gains a renewed mark of controversy for its shifting, almost satirical take on its historical and figurative accuracy. Of note, however, is Christopher Alan Bayly’s insightful commentary on the British audiences’ demand for a more palatable re-representation of the Mutiny, one befitting Victorian and late imperial sensibilities (Bayly, 1990)—a demand that recalls Felice Beato’s strategy employed when taking the photograph of the aftermath of the attack on Sikanderbagh. The intrinsic visual rhetoric of these images reveals a richer critical perspective on three specific imperial contexts—this proves to be a more rewarding theoretical framework than the simply illustrative one advocated by the captions.

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