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The Indian mutiny and the British imagination

Gautam Chakravarty

Chakravarty, Gautam;

The Indian mutiny and the British imagination

Cambridge University Press, 2005, 242 pages  [gbook]

ISBN 0521832748, 9780521832748

topics: |  history | british-india | 1857

Explores the British narrative on the mutiny, with on one hand the elite literature - parliament debates, leading newspapers and magazines, as well as the histories - serious texts meant for informed readers, and on the other hand the large body of popular fiction - the vulgate literature - that informed the newly literate masses. Both operated according to a "dominant interpretation", a discernible pattern that without "explicit censorship or any conscious plot to deceive", presented a series of plots, redactions and myths that underlie the colonial enterprise.

Also of note is how documents violating this dominant interpretation were ignored. For example, Edward Leckey used close textual analysis to reveal how many "putatively ‘eye-witness accounts’ were riddled with contradictions, half-truths and untruths. (Fictions Connected with the Indian Mutiny, 1859). But "Leckey's scepticism was largely ignored ... and it is a forgotten and obscure volume; a penalty, perhaps, for transgressing" the dominant interpretation. 181

The mutiny itself served to bring India into focus, since until then India had remained on the sidelines of mainstream British consciousness. The mutiny brought India into focus, and sharply:

    the reception of the news of the rebellion in Britain,
    and the almost immediate manufacture of a language
    combining patriotic fervour with xenophobia,
    enthusiastically circulated by a burgeoning press and
    other popular media, anticipates middle- and
    working-class jingoism and warmongering of later, high
    imperial, decades. 25

Together these two strands of the narrative served to justify colonialism -
that the British military expansion was a glorious and heroic act, a
civilizing mission.

the earliest histories came out as early  June 1857:
     The early histories exemplify the ways in which
     historiography worked in tandem with the
     administrative needs of the colonial state during
     periods of crisis, producing narratives, explaining
     events and enlisting opinion.

[Also traces the debate that sought to label the events as a "military mutiny"
and not a "popular rebellion": ]

Charles Raikes, a judge at the Agra court before the outbreak, clarified
in 1858 (though not without considerable terminological embarrassment)
that popular ‘disaffection’ was only a corollary of a mutiny:

	I attribute the existing disturbances in India to a mutiny in the
	Bengal army, and to that cause alone; I mean that the exciting and
	immediate cause of the revolution is to be found in the mutiny. That
	we have in many parts of the country drifted from mutiny into
	rebellion, is all too true; but I repeat my assertion, that we have
	to deal now with a revolt caused by a mutiny, not with a mutiny
	growing out of a national discontent. claim that the rebellion was more than a military event
was an explanatory move adducing reasons other than the professional
grievances of the soldiers (and their cause, mismanagement of the army),
and leading to criticism of administrative and revenue policies and of inadequate
knowledge of Indian society, as well as to culturalist accusations
of native ingratitude, fanaticism, irrationality and, sometimes, to a hesitant
admission that the uprising may have possessed a nationalist content.

Atrocities against British womanhood

Charles Ball wrote among the earliest books on the mutiny,
History of the indian mutiny (c . 1859), and sets out the emphasis on
British women being absused by Indians, underlining the hysterical tone
to be adopted by much of the later literature.

In his description of the carnage at Kanpur, Ball sets out to verbalise some
of the ‘indescribable barbarities’ [against women]:

	There lay the hapless mother and the innocent babe; young wife and
	the aged matron; girlhood in its teens, and infancy in its
	helplessness – all – all had fallen beneath the dishonoured tulwars
	of the Mahratta destroyer, and his fierce and cowardly accomplices in
	crime. (vol. i, p.377)

Again, re: another massacre on 6 June:

	Infants . . . actually torn from their mother's arms, and their
	little limbs chopped off with tulwars yet reeking of their father's
	blood; while the shrieking mother was forcibly compelled to hear the
	cries of her tortured child, and to behold, through scalding tears of
	agony, the death-writhings of the slaughtered innocent. v.ii [p.37]

the narrator of a later Mutiny novel, In the Heart of the Storm, described
the popular reaction in Britain and in Anglo-India: ‘[A] sort of madness
seized upon the people, to whom the knowledge of Christian women and children
of their own race . . . slaughtered and tortured by that inferior and subject
heathen race they had been accustomed to hold cheaply, was a horror beyond
endurance.’ p.38

Recent studies on the discursive figuration of the rebellion have fruitfully
argued how popular images of European ‘matrons’, ‘young wives’ and ‘girlhood’
exposed, helpless and at the mercy of the dark-skinned male rebels
yields a scene of crime, showing up ‘English women as innocent victims and
Indian men as sadistic sex criminals’, where the rebellion becomes ‘above all
else . . . a crime against women’; a figuration of torture and sexual violation
in the early accounts that, turning upon the revival of chivalry in Victorian
England, propels the urge for revenge and reconquest, while obscuring the
political content of the rebellion and the history that it embodied. Enduring
the wrongs done to them with a dignified calm, the suffering women
evoked ‘a classical and biblical tradition’, and provided ‘the British with
their charged plots of martyrdom [and] heroism’, profitably recycled in
the popular imagination throughout the period of formal imperialism, and
underscoring the braiding of gender and race in the rhetorical flourishes
of empire building.

[Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire: Figure of the Woman in the Colonial Text
  (Minneapolis, 1993), 67, 65–6;
Nancy Paxton, ‘Mobilizing Chivalry: Rape in British Indian Novels about the
  Indian Uprising of 1857’, Victorian Studies, 36 (Fall 1992), 5–30.]

from Paxton, 1992:

    In British colonial discourse about India, the story of English women
    raped by Indian men ... emerged at a particular crisis point in the
    British rule of India and performed specific ideological work. This
    familiar version of the colonial Indian rape narrative became popular
    only after the Indian Uprising of 1857 when dozens of British and
    Anglo-Indian novelists began to write and rewrite narratives about the
    Mutiny which hinged on the rape of English women by Indian men. ... this
    version of the colonial rape narrative ... naturalized British
    colonizers' dominance by asserting the lawlessness of Indian men and, at
    the same time, shored up traditional gender roles by assigning to British
    women the role of victim, countering British feminist demands for women's
    greater political and social equality. In short, texts which focus on the
    rape of English women by Indian men were used to mobilize literary
    traditions about chivalry in service to the Raj

Paxton, however, hints at earlier rapes of Indian women by colonizers:

Edmund Burke was the first, indisputably the most eloquent, and, as Sara Suleri
reminds us, "certainly the most widely read member of Parliament to debate
the question of India" in the last three decades of the eighteenth century,
when the foundations for the British Empire in India were laid (26).

Burke was also the first British statesman to exploit the rhetorical power of
the metaphor of rape to criticize the policies of the East India Company. For
example, in "A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly" he declared that
1767 marked the year when:

     administration discovered, that the East India Company were guardians to
     a very handsome and rich lady in Hindostan. Accordingly, they set
     parliament in motion: and parliament ... directly became a suitor, and
     took the lady into its tender, fond, grasping arms, pretending all the
     while that it meant nothing but what was fair and honourable; that no
     rape or violence was intended; that its sole aim was to rescue her and
     her fortune out of the pilfering hands of a set of rapacious stewards,
     who had let her estate run to waste, and had committed various

By 1787, Burke had succeeded in convincing his colleagues in the Commons to
initiate proceedings to remove Warren Hastings, ex-Governor-General of India,
from the seat he then occupied in the House of Lords. In his opening
statements at Hastings's trial, Burke insisted that rape was more than a
metaphor, that it literally characterized the sexual violence that Hastings
countenanced and personally practiced during his rise and rule as
Governor-General (1774-85). Burke charged that Hastings not only designed
policies that destroyed "the honour of the whole female race" of India, but
that he had personally "undone women of the first rank," noting especially
his humiliation of the Princesses of Oude in 1772-73. Burke vividly
catalogued Hastings's barbaric treatment of Indian women: "Virgins
. .. publicly were violated by the lowest and wickedest of the human race"
and "wives were torn from the arms of their husbands, and suffered the same
flagitious wrongs... "

Alignment of British Rule with Mughals

There was also an alignment with the Muslim invaders.

As John William Kaye, later the author of a history of the rebellion,
remarked in his Administration of the East India Company, ‘The rulers whom
we supplanted were, like ourselves, aliens and usurpers.’

opens with a detailed discussion (p.1-32) of Robert Montgomery Martin's
The Indian Empire with a Full Account of the Mutiny (?1859), which opens
with a long discursion on India's past:

The cavalcade of invasions, Macedonian, Islamic west and central Asian,
and finally Christian–European, establishes the vulnerability of the land,
its habitual prostration, and provides historical precedents obliquely
justifying the foundation and guaranteeing the future of the ‘Anglo-Indian
Empire’. ...

[in contemporary opinion] Dalhousie's annexation of several Indian states,
especially Awadh (in February 1856), and the generally
liberal-interventionist bias of his administration, were among the most
likely causes of the rebellion. While this explanation stems from a
complex of political ideas that will be examined in the following chapter,
the final eight years preceding 1857 are the crucial springboard
in Martin's narrative, for the events of those years nearly led to the
undoing of an empire whose possibility, reality and indeed moral
viability, given Indian readiness to be conquered and colonised, is
authorised by a long arc of two thousand years.

Having dismissed elements of Hindu mythology and customary practices as
indices of an inferior culture, Martin turns to praise the Hindu past when he
compares it with India under Muslim rule, claiming that an
	extensive study of Indian records leads to the conclusion that the
	decay of Hindoostan dates from the period of Muhammedan incursion and
	conquest ... [Muslim] tyranny and sensuality pauperised and
	demoralised all whom they subjected to their sway.
and under Muslim rule the condition of the Hindus and of India was ‘not
dissimilar to the destruction and demoralisation of the Greeks, and the
desolation of the fair region of Asia Minor by the Turks’.

Vulgate Fiction

    The literary yield of the rebellion surpasses in volume the literary
    representation of the other conflicts during the long 19th c. of
    expansion.  ... 70-odd novels appeared, starting from 1857 itself, and
    continuing into the modern era.

Definitely one of the more important texts of postcolonial historiography.
The main point is to highlight how the fiction appearing as novels and
magazine stories, and participated in equally by men and women and
particularly children - of all political hues - led to a vast literature
that portrayed the nobility (and necessity) of British expansionism in the
19th c.

Despite the occasional intrusion of the occasional leftist remark (e.g. a
dig at american mall-imperialism p. 2), the book vigorously underscores the
subtext of these fictional narratives and shows how they justified the
causes of military conflict deployed to protect monopolistic commercial
interests across far-flung regions of the globe in the 19th c.  Though
there were voices of dissent (e.g. John Hobson's Psychology of Jingoism,
1902), the flood of pro-colonial literature easily drowned them out.

What is interesting for me as an Indian is how colonial stories such as the
Moonstone, some of the Biggles tales set in India, or Tintin's adventures
in the Cigars of the Phraraoh or the Blue Lotus or Sherlock Holmes'
Hound of Baskervilles and the Valley of fear or Father Brown's
Oracle of the dog - not to mention history "textbooks" such as the "March
of time" - reflects the feeling of the British "civilizing mission"...
These stories and their underlying mythology is that of the european
Enlightenment period, which viewed the orient as a synonym for decadence,
and as in James Mill's History of British India, the bible for colonial
officers - negated any advances attributed to these civilizations, and
attacked those such as Wilson Jones who were arguing for the
contributions of these civilizations.

Unsurprisingly, many of us "educated" Indians grew up with our thinking
coloured by the subtexts of such narratives - without being aware of it.
Perhaps a majority of us Indians largely agree that Indians were in
darkness until we were educated by the British, and that Indians have
contributed little to world history.

Despite some incursions into Said's Orientalism and more relevantly, his
Culture and Imperialism, for me, such home truths drive in more easily
from this spread of the vulgar literature, rather than from reading a
Forster (see Nicholas Dirks' in the Post-Colonial Studies reader)
or a Joseph Conrad (see this searing article by Achebe) or even in
modern times, the "postimperial" Paul Scott.


Militarily, the nineteenth century was perhaps the busiest period in British
history, laying the basic groundwork for the geo-political configurations
which some have called the ‘world-system’, and for the legal and
constitutional bases of sovereignty and intervention. The need to open
markets, protect commercial interests, enforce tariffs, contain European and
coerce extra-European powers continuously provided reasons for armed
conflict. These recurring motives make it possible to reduce the many
military engagements of nineteenth-century Britain into one Long War;
[the next Long War – from the Berlin Conference of 1884 to the end
of the Cold War]...

But it would be impossible for a nation to engage in warfare for a century
without a public culture that sanctioned war as the legitimate arm of state
and commercial policy, and that viewed expansion as the expression of an
inevitable national and racial urge with very real material dividends....
exponents ranged from liberals, conservatives, imperial federationists,
free traders, evangelicals, the gentlemanly muscular Christians of Rugby–
Oxford, the National Volunteer League, social Darwinists, Victorian race
theorists, the Society for Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and even
popular periodicals like the Boys’ Own Paper.

Novels considered

1857-1868 [4]

* Charles Dickens and Willie Collins : short novel appeared in _Household
       Words_, xmas 1857 - allegory of the rebellion, set in C. America
* Edward Money 1859: The Wife and the Ward: or, a Life's Error
		: confined to Anglo-Indian life
* H.P. Malet: Lost Links in the Indian Mutiny (1867)
* James Grant: First Love and Last Love (1868): Mughal Delhi, rebel world as

1870s: [4]

Phillip Meadows Taylor : Seeta (1872)
    : love and marriage between brit civil servant and the brahmin widow, Seeta
George Chesney : The Dilemma (1876) - based on siege of Lucknow Residency
Robert A. Sterndale: The Afghan Knife (1879)- presents Islamic
    dissatisfaction (in late 19th c Syed Ahmad Khan etc) as the prime mover
    of the rebellion, and suggests an involvement of Czarist Russia (part of
    great game)

1880s: [3]

Katherine C. M. Phipps: Douglas Achdale (1885): siege of Lucknow
D.M. Thomas: The touchstone of Peril (1887) : fictional town of Hajipur:
      rebels red by dispossesed Muslim gentry siege a party of Europeans
1890s: [19] - many aimed at juvenile readership, character-building, military
     exploits, espionage etc.
   G. A. Henty: Rujjuh the Juggler (1893)
   Flora Annie Steel : On the face of the waters (1896)
   H.C. Irwin : A man of honour (1896)
A.F.P. Harcourt : Jenetha's venture (1899)

1900s: [8]

juvenile fiction:
   FS Brereton: A hero of Lucknow 1905
   Frederick P. Gibson: Disputed VC (1909)
   Louis Tracy: The Red Year 1907 [Tracy had started the tabloid Sun in 1894]

1910s: [6]

C. E. Pearce: Red revenge (c. 1911)
Patricia Wentworth: The Devil's Wind (1912)
Talbott Mundy (Sylvia Anne Matheson): Rung Ho! A novel of India (1914)

1914-1947 [2]

J.C. Wood: When Nicholson kept the border (1922)
C.L. Reid : Masque of the Mutiny
	Gandhi-like "Mahatma" is chief ideologue of rebellion.


John Masters: The nightrunners of Bengal (1955)
J. G. Farrell : The Siege of Krishnapur 1973 [booker prize]
Norman Pattington : And red flows the ganges 1972
George Macdonald Fraser :  Flashman in the great game (1975)
Andrew Ward : Blood-Seed (1985) [Ward has also written "Our bones are
       scattered", a history of the mutiny at kanpur]

[Among the books not mentioned,
1. Thomas Prichard:  "The Mutinies in Rajpootana: Being a Personal Narrative
	of the Mutiny at Nusseerabad" (before 1923).
2. H. T. Tucker, 1857: A glance at the past and the future in connection with
	the Indian revolt gbook

	Lt-Col. Henry Tod Tucker served as Adjutant-General to the East India
	Army c. 1854.  Excerpts:

		At a time when the eyes of all men are open to the glaring
		errrors and imperfections in our Indian system of government
 		which has resulted in such a revolt and mutiny as cannot be
 		paralleled in history [...] I feel impelled [...] to reproduce
 		a few extracts from the cautions and warnings which, in 1852,
 		when all was peaceful and queit, I ventured, at the cost of
 		grave imputations of being an alarmist, to publish in an
 		address to the proprietors of East India stock.
						[ch. 1 opening lines]

		[from the speech by Tucker]
		We have been so successful that there is danger of our becoming
		too secure... the tens of thousands which compose our armie in
		the East, are simple mercenaries, opposed to us as much in
		faith, nation, and feeling, as in colour.  We should be
		sedulously careful therefore, to maintain a just equipose, for
		our real strength does not consist in overwhelming bodies of
		mercenaries - but in the numbers, the valour, and the
		discipline of our fellow-countrymen.  p.5

		[in the address, he goes on to
		a) critique the Indian Civil Service of having "become
		too exclusive... it is almost impossible for the sentiments and
		opinions of an outsider to penetrate within the structure of
		its clique-like reserve." (p. 7)
		b) decry the needs for greater native education since
		"education generally diffused will necessarily produce new
		desires and suggest new objects of ambition... the apparent
		apathy of the Hindu will give place by degrees to feelings of
		patriotism" (p.8)

		also rails against salary increases to the sepoys, and
		promotions based on assessment of "good conduct" (p.10-12).]


Women abducted / rescued at Cawnpore

Margaret Frances Wheeler (who appears as Ulrica Wheeler in some accounts),
the daughter of General Wheeler and his Eurasian wife, was either abducted
or rescued by a sawar from the Satichaura Ghat. She married the man and
lived in Kanpur under a different name until her death in 1907, even as her
disappearance fuelled the circulation of another legend of honour and
martyrdom.  Amelia Bennett was other woman who survived the Satichaura Ghat
The daughter of a Kanpur clerk, Bennett was abducted during
the massacre when she was eighteen and her account appeared under the
title, ‘Ten Months Captivity after the Massacre at Cawnpore’ in the
magazine Nineteenth Century (June + July 1913).

    On the other hand, memoirs written some time after the rebellion often
    expect corroboration or seek more information from historiography, as
    with Amelia Bennett who, writing in 1913 of her experience at Kanpur in
    May 1857, pauses to observe of the Nana Sahib: ‘what a record of
    sensuality, ferocity, cunning, treachery, and inhumanity did his
    subsequent acts unfold, as handed down to us by history’. p.127


		   [I excerpt some of the less common terms or usage]

baboo/babu: a Hindu gentleman; but a disparaging Anglo-Indian term
	    for English-educated Indians, especially Bengali clerks
banjara: a nomadic tribe of artisans, peddlers and performers
bahadur: lit., brave
bhang: a variety of cannabis
bibi: Persian-Urdu term for lady; but Anglo-Indian argot for the Indian
	wife or mistress of a British male in India
Camdeo or, Kamadeva: the god of love in Hindu mythology
Company Bahadur: popular Indian name for the East India Company
Delhi Ridge: a wooded spur north of the city wall; the British were
	     camped on the Ridge during the siege of Delhi
diwani: here, the post of minister, or steward; but also, council chamber
	and reception hall; also, the collected works of a poet
durbar: the royal or imperial court
Futtehghur: the British spelling for Fatehgarh
gosain: a Hindu mendicant order; also a Brahmin sub-caste
griffin: the Anglo-Indian argot for a newly arrived British subaltern in
haveli: an Indian-style house, usually single-storeyed with rooms
	arranged around a central courtyard
Hindostanis/Hindustanis: the people of Hindustan, including Hindus
	and Muslims
jehad/jihad: the religious duty to defend and proselytise Islam
Jahanpanah: lit., ‘shelter of the world’: a honorific for the Mughal Emperor
khansaman: lit., the keeper of stores: chief steward or butler
khidmatgar: a waiter; male domestic servant under the khansaman (q.v.)
khufia: of or pertaining to secret or criminal intelligence; an intelligence
	agent or police informer
mujahid: an Islamic religious warrior
munshi: a clerk or administrative officer
nabob: the Anglo-Indian argot for an East India Company clerk, official
	or private trader who had made a fortune in India
nawab: the pl. of Naib or deputy; the title of provincial governors in the
	late Mughal administration, though under British rule it came
	sometimes to mean independent rulers
newab wazir/nawab wazir: the governor and minister of finance, or
	principal minister
peshwa/peishwa: the chief minister of the Maratha kingdom; later the
	ruler of an independent Maratha state.
pindari: the roving bands of plunderers in central and western India in the
	late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The pindaris were
	unemployed soldiers and mercenaries hired by Indian states against
	each other.
Resident: the British agent stationed in an Indian court, and the
	instrument of ‘indirect rule’
sadar adalat: the chief civil court of a province or presidency
	sarai: inn
sawar/sowar: a cavalryman
sharif: pl. of ashraf or the Mughal service class; the culture of this class
swadeshi: lit., produced in one's own country; a nationalist agitation that
	began in 1905, calling for the boycott of British imports to India
	subah: a province; political or administrative subdivision of the
	Mughal empire
subedar: sergeant major, or the senior most Indian officer in the army;
	also the governor of a subah in the Mughal administration
talukdar: a superior zamindar with proprietary rights in land who
	collected rent on behalf of the government from other landlords;
	after the rebellion, the talukdars of Awadh were given proprietary
	rights over the land whose rent they had earlier collected
wahabi: a follower of Abu Wahab, the eighteenth-century Arab reformer
zenana: the women's quarter in a Muslim household

the imagination that seized on the rebellion of 1857–9 was the vulgate of
late-nineteenth century British expansionism.
[vulgate:  Rendered common; vulgarized; as in the trasnslated Bible, (or parts)]

the articulation of the historical with the fictional plot yields a series of
redactions of the former. 134
[redaction (OED): the working or drafting of source material into a distinct,
	esp. written, form.]

With Sword and Pen [H.C. Irwin, 1904] relies on and closely follows
Edwards's Personal Adventures.  But the experience of flight, fear and
humiliation undergoes a secondary revision so that the novel retains the
topoi while draining their distinctive experiential character. 135
[topos (OED): A traditional motif or theme (in a literary composition); a
    rhetorical commonplace, a literary convention or formula. ]

--- blurb
... shows how narratives of the rebellion were inflected by the concerns of
colonial policy and by the demands of imperial self-image. He goes on to
discuss the wider context of British involvement in India from 1765 to the
1940s, and engages with constitutional debates, administrative measures and
the early nineteenth-century Anglo-Indian novel.

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This article last updated on : 2014 Jul 04