A Rare Peek Into the 1857 Revolt, One of the First Wars to Be Caught on Camera in the World

The Alkazi Collection of Photography: The Uprising of 1857, edited by London-based historian Rosie Llewellyn Jones, examines the infamous revolt, which was among the first fully photographed wars in the history of India.

Felice Beato took this photograph of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi in 1858. Courtesy: Alkazi Collection of Photography

The East India Company arrived in India in the 17th century, and by the 19th century had appropriated the entire sub-continent “through treaties, trade, through war, and latterly, as in the case of Awadh, through annexation”.

The book, The Alkazi Collection of Photography: The Uprising of 1857, edited by London-based historian Rosie Llewellyn Jones, examines the infamous “sepoy revolt”, which was the second war – after the Crimean war – to be fully photographed anywhere in the world. It examines the upheaval from multiple perspectives.

In an interview conducted via email, the historian talks about the fascinating images:

Great book and great images, but why did you choose to work with the Alkazi collection of photographs alone? The book, titled 1857: A Pictorial Presentation published by the Indian government in 1957 to mark the centenary of the Uprising has a wider range of images culled from diverse sources. There are paintings of the Rani of Jhansi in the battlefield and of the arrest of Bahadur Shah Zafar and of the death of his sons. Of course, the 1957 book was poorly produced…

I was commissioned by Ebrahim Alkazi to edit the book, the last in a series showcasing various aspects of his large collection (over 90,000 images). Previous books have included the work of Raja Deen Dayal, the Delhi Coronation Durbars, and my earlier book Lucknow, City of Illusion.

How far did the lithographs and British accounts circulated in the UK deviate from the truth? To what extent were the Indians portrayed as villains and the British as knights in shining armour? Who were the consumers?

Many of the lithographs published in Britain, particularly those in the Illustrated London News, a weekly magazine, were accurate because they were engraved from photographs. It wasn’t possible at the time to print magazines with photographs, so they were copied by lithographers.

But two books published in England in 1858 used a mixture of lithographed photographs and some wildly imaginative sketches, in particular of the Cawnpore (now Kanpur)massacres, which have often been reproduced as genuine pictures of what actually happened. Of course no-one was sitting on the bank of the Ganges with a sketchbook, but these pictures seeped into the British subconscious. Indians were not shown as particularly villainous, but as well-armed men killing British men and women.

‘Capture of a Gun at Banda’ from the book The History of the Indian Mutiny by Charles Ball, 1857. Credit: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

The London Printing and Publishing Company Limited ‘Capture of a Gun at Banda’ from the book The History of the Indian Mutiny by Charles Ball, 1857. Credit: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

Were the illustrations and photographs of the uprising more popular in the UK than the accounts? If so, why?

Photographs of the uprising were exhibited in London in 1858 to a limited audience and later published in expensive albums. The lithographs had more popular appeal. The literacy rate among British men was about 60% in the 1850s, less among women, so pictures did have a greater appeal than the written word among the lower classes.

There were only 100,000 Britishers, against a population of 250 million in the mid-1850s. What percentage of Indians collaborated with the British to quell the uprising? How deep were the divisions of caste, religion and class among Indians?

Obviously if the majority of Indians had opposed the British, then the East India Company would have been finished immediately. The fact that they didn’t means that a greater proportion of Indians were prepared to tolerate, and in some cases to welcome, British rule. Baniyas in particular supported the British because they had provided stable conditions for trade. The Bombay and Madras Presidency armies did not mutiny because the army provided them with a decent profession and a pension when they retired. Divisions among Indians were deep, not so much religious, as tribal, particularly in the villages. The sepoys who rebelled had no overall plan or concerted leadership – if they had marched on Kolkata (Calcutta then) and stormed Government House, the seat of British power, they would have won. But they didn’t.

More than the destruction of Indian monuments, John Robertson Turnbull’s asymmetric drawing of the majestic Diwani-Khas turned into an officers’ mess represents a greater symbolic desecration of all that Indians uphold as sacred. Do you feel the same way?

Yes, it’s a pretty shocking picture, and so is the looting of the Qaisarbagh palace in Lucknow when the British and Gurkhas recaptured the city.

How did Felice Beato “dramatise” his famous photographs of the aftermath of the uprising?

A lot of research has gone into this particular image. We know the corpses weren’t there in November 1857 because they had been cleared away after the fighting in Sikanderbagh. But then they reappear in March 1858 when Beato photographs them. I think they were simply walled up in a room in Sikanderbagh during the winter and Beato had them brought out for his photographs, before they were finally buried in a trench in front of the Sikanderbagh gateway. We know Beato later had corpses ‘arranged’ for some of his Chinese photographs.

Felice Beato's ‘Mosque Picket’ [Chauburja Mosque], Delhi from the album Mutiny Sites and Europe. Credit: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

Felice Beato’s ‘Mosque Picket’ [Chauburja Mosque], Delhi from the album Mutiny Sites and Europe. Credit: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

Was the Lucknow photographer Ahmed Ali Khan the sole Indian photographer working from that city? Please tell us about him and the photographs he took.No, there was at least one more photographer there – Mushkoor-ud-daula, working with his brother Asghar Jan. But Ahmed Ali Khan is special – we have so few of his photographs. Two boxes of his glass negatives were stolen from his house by a British officer in March 1858 and taken home to Scotland. They have never been traced.

Ahmad Ali Khan's ‘Lucknow before the Mutiny – Looking from the Chattar Manzil towards the Qaisarbagh’ from The Agra Circle Album. Credit: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

Ahmad Ali Khan’s ‘Lucknow before the Mutiny – Looking from the Chattar Manzil towards the Qaisarbagh’ from The Agra Circle Album. Credit: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

Have all the archival material and images in various repositories been researched yet?

No chance! Material is turning up all the time, a lot of it still in private hands in Britain. Very little in India though.

Calcutta was the capital of India then and one of the triggers of the upheaval was the execution of Mangal Pandey in Barrackpore. How did Calcutta remain unscathed?

Mangal Pandey was tried by a jury consisting mainly of Indian officers who found him guilty and hanged him. It was done quickly and there were no repercussions in Calcutta – it was considered an army, not a civilian matter.

Did peasants and Dalits join the uprising?

The term Dalit wasn’t known then, but certainly all kinds of people supported the soldiers fighting the British. Some had old scores to settle over land rights, and in some cases, villagers fought their neighbours, instead of joining together and fighting the British.

Did much of the precious booty from pillaged cities find its way to the museums of the UK?

Not a huge amount. The British and Gurkha looters generally preferred cash, so they sold their loot. Certainly in Britain it was said that a number of retired officers were able to pay off their mortgages with cash that they got from selling stolen booty.

How many professional and amateur photographers recorded the aftermath of the uprising in India?

The only ‘professional’ photographer was Felice Beato, but there were a number of amateurs, including Dr Tressider of Cawnpore. A number of Europeans and Indians took up photography as a hobby, not a profession.

Who were the bearded Highlanders who struck the fear of god after British women and children were butchered in Kanpur?

They are called the Black Watch, a Highland Regiment, and they were photographed by Dr Tressider in Cawnpore. Pretty scary, aren’t they?

‘Black Watch’ from the Tresidder Album. Credit: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

John Nicholas Tresidder’s ‘Black Watch’ from the Tresidder Album. Credit: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

Was it the first occasion on which a Times (London) correspondent was sent from London to cover India?

Yes, I think it is. William Russell had already covered the Crimean War, as one of the first war correspondents, so it made sense to send him to India.

Why is so little seen of the paintings of Egron Lundgren who was sent to India by Queen Victoria to document the Uprising?

Most of Lundgren’s paintings have been dispersed – in England to the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, the British Library, London, the V&A Museum London, the Royal Academy, Copenhagen, and other museums in Sweden. He is a master artist and it is high time someone did a major exhibition on him.

What role did maps play in helping the British plan their strategies against the Indians up in arms?

Obviously a huge part. The East India Company was very keen on mapping and surveying, for the simple reason that they needed to know where they were going, particularly on military expeditions. Susan Gole, the best-known authority on Indian maps, has written an excellent chapter with many previously unknown, but very relevant maps, particularly of Cawnpore and Lucknow.

How did the British whitewash the savage retribution that followed the upheaval?

They didn’t. Retribution was considered quite just in the face of the Indian uprising. It was Queen Victoria who called a stop to the killings in her Proclamation of November 1858, which marks the formal end of the uprising. She proclaimed that only Indians who were known to have murdered Britons would be punished. The rest were pardoned, the East India Company was abolished, and the British government in India then pursued a much more liberal agenda for the next 90 years until Independence.

Soumitra Das, a Kolkata-based journalist, writes on culture and the city’s built heritage.

The Wire India
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