1859: Prize Agents extracting Treasure

Commented by: Felicity Bodenstein

Material description

« Prize Agents extracting Treasure » is the 23rd folio plate in a series of 26 coloured lithograph prints that make up George Francklin Atkinson’s The Campaign in India 1857-58. From drawings made during the eventful period of the great mutiny, by G.F. Atkinson illustrating the military operations before Delhi, and its neighbourhood, 1859, London by Day & Son. E. Walker, signed on the bottom, made this particular lithograph after Atkinson’s drawings dated September 1857.

Short Summary

Atkinson’s drawings documented important episodes and actors of the 1857 “Indian Mutiny” that culminated with the capture of Delhi, a key turning point that lead to a particularly spectacular episode of individual and unofficial looting. As an image authored by a member of the victorious side of the conflict and published in an official capacity as a kind of military record in its own right, it is an unusually graphic and direct demonstration of the violence that often accompanied the seizure of goods in times of conflict. One might well ask whether this representation isn’t also referencing elements of the criticism that the activities surrounding prize taking had begun to raise in the middle of the Nineteenth century.


This dramatic scene takes place as though on a small stage in the crowded space of what appears to be the ground floor house or even an underground storage room. Two men dressed in white with red sashes and headdresses, possibly merchants, are being held back. One of them is cowering at gunpoint whilst the other seems to be gesturing his unwillingness to bear witness as four soldiers and three so-called prize agents dig into the clay soil floor to uncover numerous bags of undetermined “treasures”. The bulging eyes and surrendering gesture of the man being held at gunpoint gives the whole scene a somewhat grotesque tone that is reinforced by the mildly amused gaze of the soldiers in the background. Obviously, given the many carefully bound bags, this was a hoard that had been well hidden, probably in apprehension of just such an event as the one taking place. The capture of Delhi in September 1857 was direct consequence and a key turning point in what Atkinson as well as most British sources of the time, referred to as the “Indian Mutiny”, a designation that competes with other names, include the Great Rebellion or the Indian Insurrection or the Revolt of 1857 (Taylor 1996, 7).

There is a certain intimacy or proximity with the events presented in most of Atkinson’s images, providing the viewer with an up close experience. Atkinson was a keen observer of social life and in the midst of the conflict he also illustrated daily scenes not pertaining to any particular event but more generally to typical situations, such as soldiers washing in the tent, or resting at a camp scene. Many of his images (including this one) provide representations of social relations of subservience but also of collaboration between the different socio-cultural groups, reminding us of those illustrated in the book he published shortly before the mutiny entitled Curry & Rice on Forty Plates, Or, The Ingredients of Social Life at „our Station“ in India (1856). Staying with the terminology of the volume holding this plate, the 1857 “Indian Mutiny” was lead by the “Mutinous Sepoys” (as can be seen in plate 22). These were Hindu sepoys, indigenous or native soldiers, recruited principally from the highest ranks of society, the cast of the Brahmin and Raijput, for the Bengal regiment of the East India Company’s army. Though they had at first themselves acted as commanding officers in what was initially a largely indigenous armed force, in the course of the years coming up to the event of 1857, they had been progressively placed under the direction of younger, less experienced British officers. Atkinson was himself a member of the Bengal regiment and as such he found himself at the front line of the mutiny from the beginning. As an engineer he also had the drawing skills to depict his experience in a format that became a kind of visual report of the events published by the official lithographers of her Majesty the Queen Victoria, Day & Son. “The Storming of Delhi” is represented in plate 21 as a scene of complete chaos, dust and smoke in the narrow streets of the old city with battles being lead in the street on balconies and on the roofs of the houses. But mainly he provides different group portraits of those actors that played an important role in the war, including the rebel sepoys (plate 22), injured and recovering British soldiers, or those working the gun batteries along the walls of Delhi (called Sappers, plate 18). In plate 20 he depicts those fractions of the East India Company’s Madras and Bombay Armies that did not rebel including, Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims and Gurkhas sepoys and these also make up the group of four armed soldiers present here alongside the British prize agents themselves.

His representation of the “prize agents” is again an image of a general situation, rather than a particular event involving particular persons or objects. Atkinson provides an openly negative representation of these figures. This is perhaps due to the fact that prize agents such as the central figure shown here, threatening the owner or guardian of this space with a pistol and presumably of British origin, were actually quite a controversial group in 1857 and accused by many amongst the officers of not equitably distributing the prizes or loot that they collected. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones has remarked on the lack of attention in most general historical accounts of these events given to the role of prize agents in the 1857 events. This is perhaps due to the fact that there was much debate, both in India and in Britain about the procedure of prize taking; giving this activity an ambiguous status caught between official practice and unbridled forms of “looting”.

It is interesting to note here that the verb “to loot” actually derives from the Hindustani word lut, which in turn originates from the Sanskrit lotra (Llewellyn-Jones 2007, 129) meaning to steal or to plunder. It integrated the English language at the end of the Eighteenth century in direct relation to Company wars against Indian rulers. The word loot was thus initially used from the perspective of those who were dispossessed in the context of imperialistic actions (Davis, 1994, 293). This initial context of its usage has been overridden but a judgemental significance related to a renewed slippage of use to the more common meaning in use today “to steal”; in fact loot, as Davis points out, is generally associated with the idea of the “illicit seizure of valued objects by individuals who take advantage of the chaotic conditions surrounding war”. But in the Nineteenth century and by extension from the Indian context it was in fact intimately related to moments of “official pillage”, as many prize agents gather official “prize”, other military men kept the gathered goods and treasures for themselves as “loot”. Though different in theory, in reality these were related practices, especially as prize agents were often accompanied by those who had gathered experience through their own looting (Llewellyn-Jones 2007, 139) – often providing them with knowledge of hiding places such as the one discovered in this image. So in the debates around prize taking the term comes into play as part of a discourse questioning this practice and its excesses, of which the incidents that took place in Delhi in 1857 were a strong example. Prize agents as defined by Llewellyn were “licensed looters, whose job it was to raid houses and properties after the capture of a city and seize anything of value”. The money raised by this activity was then to be distributed to the members of the concerned regiments in relation to their rank and involvement in the conflict. Before the raid on Delhi that began on the 14th of September, 1857, strict orders had been given as to how the prize was to be taken but excesses were generally feared and considered probable as the British press reported on the brutality of native troupes in particular.

This image may perhaps be interpreted as illustrative of, at the very least, a certain critical attitude to a practice that was problematic even from the perspective of those who participated in the conflict on the British side. In fact the work of the prize agents was suspended in November 1857 after reports of abuse. As to what might have been in the bags dug up by the prize agents here in this generic treasure stash, one can most easily imagine coins and jewellery but of course all kinds of objects of value were taken from the private and public, sacred and commercial spaces of the city, including manuscripts and decorative artefacts of all kinds.

Bibliography and sources: 

The entire set of lithographs can be viewed online at the National Army Museum website:


Atkinson, George Francklin. 1856. Curry & Rice on Forty Plates, Or, The Ingredients of Social Life at « Our Station » in India. London: Day & Coy. https://archive.org/details/curryriceonforty00atkiuoft.

———. 1859. The Campaign in India 1857-58. From Drawings Made during the Eventful Period of the Great Mutiny, by G.F. Atkinson Illustrating the Military Operations before Delhi, and Its Neighbourhood. With Descriptive Letter-Press. Day & Son: London.

Davis, Richard H. 1994. « Three styles in looting India ». History and Anthropology 6 (4): 293‑317. https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.1994.9960832.

Llewellyn-Jones, Rosie. 2007. The Great Uprising in India, 1857-58: Untold Stories, Indian and British. Boydell & Brewer.

Taylor, P. J. O. 1996. A Companion to the « Indian Mutiny » of 1857. Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/api/volumes/oclc/34752320.html.

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Cite this article as:
1859: Prize Agents extracting Treasure, commented by 
Felicity Bodenstein, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1859-prize-agents-extracting-treasure, published 16/05/2018.