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Cultural Critique 59 (2005) 63-119

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Phantasmagoric Aesthetics:

Colonial Violence And The Management Of Perception

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Figure 1
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. Felice Beato, March or April 1858. The Alkazi Collection of Photography.

You are looking at a photograph from the Sepoy revolt of 1857-58 (Figure 1). The massive building confronting us and extending off-frame to the left is still imposing in its ruin, and it takes a blink of the eye to discern the litter of shattered skulls, decomposing bodies, and [End Page 63] skeletons—only one complete—that extends into the space where a camera and, now, we stand. The faces of the remaining native onlookers are virtually indistinguishable, the focus of their gaze ultimately indiscernible, but some appear to stare directly back at the lens of camera and eye; only the horse, its face turned away from us, has moved. This photograph shows, according to its most common archival caption, "The Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels," situated in Lucknow, not long after the revolt. In Figure 2, we see another image taken by the same camera, captioned in one collection "The Ruins of Sammy House Surrounded by Scattered Bones of Sepoys Killed in Action."1 Again, the eye adjusts to see the traces of material and human destruction that survived the suppression of the Sepoy revolt. The massacres were milestones in the British victory. To "see" the full extent and implications of this imaged event, including its forehistory, we need to turn, as we tend to do, from the visual to the written, but only in order to return to the photographs in a new light, that is, to discern the nature of the in/visibility of violence laid out before us.

A "Glorious Sight"

At the start of the revolt, Karl Marx, in his London exile, interrupted work on The Grundrisse to write for the New-York Daily Tribune on September 4, 1857:

The outrages committed by the revolted Sepoys in India [are] only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England's own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-seated rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution; and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.
(Marx and Engels, 94)

Marx refers here to the revolt (or "mutiny," as British were pleased to call it) that had started that May in Meerut. Its overdetermined causes included the discontent of some Indian landowners at losing estates to the British under the policies of the Governor-General, [End Page 64] Lord Dalhousie, the extreme exploitation of peasants through taxation and land "reforms," and the unequal treatment and abuse of Sepoys (Indian recruits in the British Army) by British officers and enlisted men. One particular incident consistently cited in nineteenth-century sources as the spark for the hostilities was the issuing of the new, faster-firing Enfield .303 rifle to all Sepoy regiments. Fakirs and sadhus apparently spread the rumor, in the course of their nomadic wanderings, that the new cartridges were greased with the fat of pigs and cows, thus defiling Hindu and Muslim Sepoy alike (Hilton, 20). Refusing to use the new cartridges, the Sepoys took up the older discarded arms and aimed them at their British superiors. The major centers of resistance quickly spread throughout the north, from Bengal to Haryana, with Meerut, Cawnpore, Delhi, and Lucknow being the regional centers of the most sustained battles, initially won by the insurgents (see Pal et al., 79).

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Figure 2
The Ruins of Sammy House Surrounded by Scattered Bones of Sepoys Killed in Action. Felice...


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pp. 63-119
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