The revolt of 1857 that began with sepoys rising up against the East India Company in Meerut is one of the largest mass uprisings against the British empire in the 19th century.

The revolt, involving soldiers and civilians, began in May 1857 and was finally suppressed in all parts of India only by November 1858. But it shook the foundation of the East India Company’s rule in India and had far-reaching consequences both in England and India.

Though British officials sought to dismiss the conflict merely as a “sepoy mutiny”, the English press and the public were rattled by the revolt.

How did ordinary English people form their impressions of an event that involved people of their nationality in a far-off foreign land?

As it turns out, panorama exhibitions – precursors to modern-day cinema theatre – proved to be the widest reaching, most impactful means of artistic representation of the revolt. Panorama paintings, made within months of an episode during the peak of British imperialism in India, became a means of popular illustrated historical information.

A steel engraving of ‘Blowing up of the Cashmere Gate at Delhi, 14 Sept. 1857’. Credit: Darley and Ridgway, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pamphlets, periodicals, panoramas

Of course, news of the uprising in Meerut, Delhi and other places, especially Lucknow and Kanpur, Bihar Bengal, Jhansi, was covered in detail by newspapers, pamphlets and periodicals.

The general public, however, turned to visual depictions of the revolt. Scenes of the revolt were available as lithographs, wood engravings and photographs. Theatre was another popular means of showing the “adversaries” that the East India Company’s army had to face during the rebellion. However, all these media had a limited audience.

But in 19th-century Europe, America, Canada, Australia, panorama exhibitions were the central means of mass entertainment for a paying public. Patented in 1789 by Irish painter Robert Barker as “la nature à coup d’oeil” (French for “nature at a glance”), the panorama involved viewing platforms from which the audience could see life-sized images painted across the circumference of a circular rotunda. From 1792, these exhibitions came to be known as “panoramas”.

Cross-section of the rotunda in Leicester Square where the panorama of London was exhibited (c.1801). Credit: Robert Mitchell, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Viewers were given a descriptive key to follow the scenes and sequence of the events depicted; the key could be retained as a souvenir. Most panoramas did not survive, but what exists are the descriptive keys, advertisements in periodicals and hand-bills.

On some occasions, a panorama lecturer guided the audience.

The earliest panorama exhibition on an episode from India was the “Storming of Seringapatam in 1799” when East India Company and British forces defeated Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. Created by Robert Kerr Porter, the 2,250-square-foot panorama was exhibited at the Lyceum in London from April 1800 to January 1801, and then several other cities on both sides of the Atlantic.

With this success, many more panoramas on India soon followed showing cities and landscapes like Bombay, Banaras, Calcutta, the Himalayas among others.

An engraving of the "Storming of Seringapatnam", based on the panorama by Robert Kerr Porter. Credit: Giovanni Vendramini, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Panoramas of the 1857 revolt

Among the military battles waged by the British East India Company in India in the 19th century, the revolt of 1857 was one of the most widely viewed.

Robert Burford, one of the most successful panorama proprietors and painters of the time in England, brought to viewers in London a panorama depicting the fight between the British troops and rebels in Delhi, and the siege of Lucknow. The 360-degree panorama was exhibited at The Panorama at Leicester Square, from January 1858 to February 1859 and cost one shilling to view.

The panorama called “The Action Between her Majesty’s Troops and the Sepoys at Delhi” showed key places associated with the revolt such as streets, mosques, the imperial palace and soldiers in action. Another panorama by him was titled the “Siege of Lucknow”.

Burford, Robert, a description of a view of the city of Delhi, with an action between Her Majesty's troops and the revolted Sepoys, on exhibition at the Panorama, Leicester Square, London; Printed by WJ Golbourn, 6, Princes Street, Leicester Square, 1858. Credit: in public domain via Yale Center for British Art.

The Spectator reported on April 17, 1861, of the scenic beauty of Lucknow depicted along with the buildings occupied by the rebels. Both panoramas describe the spot from where the viewer was seeing the panorama. In the case of Delhi, the view was from the South esplanade while in Lucknow the spectator was standing on top of the Residency viewing the city.

Panoramists worked closely with East India Company soldiers and officers who had basic skills in drawings. Most depictions were derived from newspaper reports or were based on first-hand accounts of the witnesses in England. Scenes in these panoramas depicted the massacre of the British by the rebels against the backdrop of the places where the conflict occurred.

Others included depictions of rebel soldiers being punished by being tied to cannon and blown off and East India Company soldiers fighting the rebels valiantly.

These depictions, accompanied by the use of lights and viewing angles, created an illusion of reality, evoking patriotism and even jingoism among viewers. Upon seeing depictions of the massacre, audiences were either enraged at the mutineers or filled with sympathy for their soldiers, probably heightening a sense of nationalism.

In 1858, “Slaughter of Women and Children at Cawnpore – Mutiny Panorama” by Henry Box Brown, an abolitionist and immigrant to England, was displayed at St James Hall. The Illustrated London News described the panorama as “revolting” because of the violence depicted, and even sought its withdrawal.

An engraving of the 1857 revolt in Kanpur. Images and details in the panorama on the revolt in Kanpur had prompted viewers to call for its withdrawal. Credit: Charles Ball, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The depictions and textual descriptions of panoramas reinforced imperial ideology. For instance, the opening sentences of Burford’s panorama of the “Siege of Delhi” left no room for the audience to view the mutiny in any other light than what was described to them as a “conspiracy” against the Empire.

After briefly describing the the history of Delhi, the text says, “...It has of late attained a most unenviable notoriety and painful interest, from having been the centre of a mighty conspiracy to overturn the British Empire in the East, and to exterminate, without any exception, every Christian in India…”

The text goes on to the lament the “diabolical” and “revolting cruelties” of the revolt while justifying the “retribution”: “…and in furtherance of such object, has been the scene of the most fearful crimes and revolting cruelties that the most atrocious and diabolical natures could conceive—the dreadful but just retribution for which, that has been so quickly inflicted on the perpetrators, forms the principal subject of the present Panorama”.

Experts on panorama studies point out that panorama entertainment was rooted in the colonising process itself. The superior position of the viewer from the viewing platform allowed them to identify with the imperialist forces and created a sense of agency among them. It also precluded any possibility of identifying with the subjugated Indians in the image.

An illustration depicting the execution of mutineers. Credit: The Illustrated London News, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The spectacle of panoramas elsewhere

Depictions of the revolt of 1857 were not confined to England but also elsewhere. In the age of colonialism, the emerging middle-class the world over provided an audience for the panorama entertainment industry.

In Australia, several panorama exhibitions were held in Sydney and Melbourne that were advertised and reviewed in the newspapers. On June 15, 1858, Our Lyceum Theatre in Sydney displayed the “Grand Panorama of India” which consisted of 15 tableaux showing Calcutta at night, Delhi at noon, Banaras in the morning and other scenes from India, including the mutiny. The panorama opened with singing of the patriotic song Rule Britannia and ended with the national anthem God Save The King.

Another, called “The Fall of Delhi”, was exhibited from 1858-59 at the Cremorne Gardens in Melbourne. In Canada, “The Great Exhibition of India and the Sepoy Rebellion”, was exhibited at the Temperance Hall in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1858.

Moving pictures

Panoramas relied on the sale of tickets and advertisements in their pamphlets and keys to make money. As the mass entertainment business became competitive, innovations were made to augment the ways of viewing which resulted in moving panoramas.

Unlike the 360-degree fixed panorama paintings, the moving panorama afforded a sense of motion. Installed on giant spools, images were scrolled past the audience, similar to early motion pictures. The moving panorama had a narrator, called “Delineator” or “Professor”, who provided a dramatic narration of the scenery on display.

“The Sepoy Rebellion in India” was an automated moving panorama painted by Messrs Phillips, O’Connor, Knell, Morgan and Co. In 1858, a “Grand Moving panorama of the Indian War” was exhibited at McCowan’s Hotel, Melbourne by William Wackerberth, an English immigrant to Australia.

Dioramas – three-dimensional life-size/ miniature replicas of scenery or events – were another means of popular entertainment, especially for military episodes like the 1857 revolt.

For instance, “Diorama of the Indian Mutiny”, exhibited at St James Hall in May 1858 for 15 days, showcased several scenes from the revolt, some of which were “Sepoys at Peshawar hung and blown from guns”, “the massacre in Kanpur”, “Mutiny at Lahore” and “Evacuation of women and children in Lucknow”.

Another, titled “Diorama of the Siege of the City of Delhi and Grand Historical Diorama of the Indian Mutiny”, was displayed in different cities of the United Kingdom. There are also undated handbills for “Professor Groves’ The Great War in India”.

A poster of a diorama and a zoomed-in snippet of a section on the revolt of 1857 from "Professor Groves' new and magnificent colossal diorama of Turkey and India", Shipley : N. Walker, general printer, Charles Street, Briggate. Credit: in public domain via Yale Center for British Art.

In the United States too, the “Panopticon or Life Moving Mechanical exhibition of the War in India and the Sepoy Rebellion” by DE Beales was exhibited on Christmas Day in 1859 for three days in Raleigh, North Carolina. It featured 80,000 pieces of moving and acting models of men, women, ships, horses, carriages, artillery, cavalry, camels and other animals displayed in front of the backdrop of panorama paintings. It was later also exhibited at Armory Hall in New Orleans and then Cleveland.

British imperialism and the viewer

The depiction of the revolt of 1857 through panoramas, moving-panoramas and dioramas allowed large audiences in different places to view the historical event. The imaginary recreation of the conflict between the rebels and the Company against the backdrop of the actual location, created a hyper-realism that had an enormous visual impact on the minds of the spectators and their imagination of the East India Company’s role in India.

The standard narrative by touring exhibitions of the revolt through cities produced a common experience, imagination and reaction to the revolt in India. These exhibitions created a sense of hyper-nationalism among the audience and justified retaliation by the British troops against the rebels. They also helped provide greater legitimacy among the British citizens to the administrative reorganisation in India by which the power was transferred from the East India Company to the British Crown after the revolt.

Although among the educated there were debates through literary channels on the issue of the cause and consequence of the revolt, for the general public, the panoramic and dioramic exhibition of the rebellion in India was informative, educational, entertaining as well as authentic.

The mass entertainment of the panoramas afforded the British public for a few shillings, a slice of the experience and thrill of fighting rebel soldiers, subjugating the perpetrators of violence against the British and a memory of that agency for a lifetime.

Sonal is an Assistant Professor at the Department of History, Shivaji College, University of Delhi.