Imperial Spectacles, Imperial Publics: Panoramas in and of Calcutta

Article excerpt

While tracing shipments of books from England to Calcutta in early 19th-century newspaper notices, I came across an advertisement for "The Panorama of Dover" on the front page of The Calcutta Morning Post for January 24, 1812 (fig. 1). The panorama, I realized, could be considered among other particularly charged spectacles within the early British Empire in India. (1) I knew about panoramas, but I didn't know that when some of them closed in London, the canvasses were rolled up and shipped to Calcutta, where in the second decade of the 19th century panoramas were frequently advertised on the front pages of newspapers and exhibited for mixed audiences of Britons, other Europeans, and elite Bengalis (see fig. 2). (2) Because I've become interested in the ways that practices, objects, and metaphors of vision function in imperial discourse, I immediately wanted to know what panoramas in London of India and panoramas in Calcutta of Britain could reveal about how audiences viewed the empire from these two very different vantages. Unfortunately, there is much less evidence about panoramas in Calcutta than about those in London, and my argument about the former is really a conjectural one, based on newspaper advertisements. My provisional thesis is that these two kinds of panoramas tell different sides of the same story, as the mercantile empire of the 18th century gave way to the still commercial but now colonial empire of the 19th. (3) This transition involved a struggle between Britons in London and Britons and Indians in Calcutta over what could be called home rule, an argument informed by a public-sphere ideology according to which government is responsible to the public and public opinion in turn authorizes government. Panoramas in London of India and in Calcutta of Britain played a role in reflecting and therefore consolidating these respective publics, the different definitions of which corresponded to distinct visions of British authority over India.


The formation of the "Indian public" in the early 19th century was facilitated by an intense debate over the freedom of the press fueled by the suspension of censorship in Bengal in 1818, after which a window of print production opened and would remain open until the Press Ordinance of 1823. In April 1818, an "East Indian" (i.e. of mixed race) named Jacob Heatley, proprietor and editor of The Calcutta Morning Post, fell afoul of the Acting Chief Secretary to Government, W. B. Bayley. When Heatley refused to comply with Bayley's order to expunge objectionable passages he intended to print, Bayley realized that the threatened penalty of deportation to England could not apply to an East Indian such as Heatley, and that the office of the Censor was therefore without recourse in this instance. Furthermore, the precedent would mean that the office would thereafter be toothless in any situation involving publications by East Indians or Indians (Ahmed 56). Censorship was accordingly discontinued in August 1818. General rules were substituted in its place, but the window had been opened for new oppositionist papers and the attendant images of the public which they would fashion and promote. With censorship lifted, a series of English-language and vernacular newspapers sprung up, including James Silk Buckingham's radical Calcutta Journal (1818-23) and four vernacular papers: the Jam-i-Jahan Numa (1822), which appeared first in Urdu and then quickly switched over to Persian; the Persian Mirat-ul-Akhbar (1822); and the two opposed Bengali papers, the liberal Sambad Kaumudi (1821), edited by Rammohun Roy, and the orthodox Samachar Chandrika (1822). (4)

When Buckingham, Rammohun, and later Henry Derozio and his circle entered this arena, they were working against a powerful metropolitan imagining of Calcutta which could be thought of as the "little London" fantasy. As James Atkinson writes in "The City of Palaces" (1824), the poem which cemented the city's imperial title:

Yes, thou'rt a little London in Bengal,
A microcosm; loose, and yet compact;
A snug epitome, a capital
Concentring every folly; brief, abstract,
The essence of all worldliness, in fact
A wonder, formed like island on the main
Amidst a sea of pagans, to exact
Allegiance from their millions, not in vain,
For intellect hath power, to bind as with a chain. … 


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