book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Eighteen fifty-seven

Surendra Nath Sen

Sen, Surendra Nath;

Eighteen fifty-seven

Publications Division, 1957, 466 pages

topics: |  india | history | 1857 | british-raj

Is there a single truth behind the events of 1857?

of the many volumes of history written about the conflict of 1857, the overwhelming number is by britishers. the colonials of the time felt a strong sense of moral indignation, which led to images of the black native villains butchering the men (and even women) of the master race. many of the more popular british histories, written by men of high literary skill, are often biased in trying to show it primarily as a mutiny by some misguided sepoys.

many victorian authors take the evidence rather lightly and their moral indignation very heavily. surprisingly, some of this moral indignation survives even today, in texts such as andrew ward's our bones are scattered (1996), on the mutiny at kanpur.

on the other hands, indian historiography has also had its biases, with some like Savarkar pulling facts out of thin air.

in recent years, a group of serious subaltern historians have pioneered a new view. their arguments view the period history from the point of view of the peasant, whose voice is generally lost in the volume of documentation left by the ruling race. a related argument is that the cause for this outrage may have been that the ruling races were accustomed to a style of life in which they were the army and the courts - i.e. - the british held the monopoly for inflicting violence to the others. hence violence by an inferior native race became highly emotional charged, and engendered the enormous volume of literature in Britain.

however, somewhat before the subalterns, there have been some balanced histories written. of these, surendranath sen's work stands out, in the objectivity and directness of presentation. it provides a more readable alternative to the colonial vituperation to be found in many British texts, some of them even now popular in India. Certainly the recent accounts provide a greater balance.

a matter of names

one of the problems faced by any historian writing about the uprising 1857 is what name to call it by. sen has shown his wisdom by avoiding completely politically loaded terms such as "mutiny", or "war of independence". he merely calls his book "eighteen fifty-seven".

in any event, most reconstructions and most of the evidence is based on the the extensive (British) records.

unfortunately this book, though broadly praised by many historians (though largely ignored in the west) remains out of print, as is the sad fate of many books published by the government.

british historiography

the british mainstream narrative tends to view the rebellion as a mutiny by the sepoys of the east india company, caused by a rumour about animal fat in a cartridge, and possibly other grievances and other ill-understood rumours. the colonial anger at the violation of their privileged status - the established norm - results in moral rage. this arises from a violation of expectations, and may be compared to the visceral anger one feels when after a natural emergency, the shopkeeper charges ten times the normal price for a cup of tea; he has a limited supply (since roads are blocked) and many more customers than he can possibly serve. this is a price at which seller and buyer agree to exchange a good. yet one feels moral indignation.

thus, most british histories view the indian violence as unpardonable, and take a severe view of Indian excesses, often justifying the brutal british reprisals as legitimized by their anger. at the same time, we must remember that a few thousand Englishmen died in 1857, whereas the death toll for Indians, computed based on population records and emptied villages and letters returned to the Dead Letter Office may be about ten million in the Awadh (Lucknow/Kanpur) region alone.

the argument made by rudrangshu mukherjee in Spectre of violence) is that the "established norm" itself was disbalanced - it conferred a "monopoly on violence" to the English tribe, disenfranchising the natives. The violation of this monopoly in 1857 was the source of this moral anger, but the starting point itself was not balanced.

one of the saner voices in the british writing about the mutiny is the historian john kaye, whose record provides the first source for any opinion to be formed about the mutiny. Kaye observed in his official history, written two decades after the events in the 1880s:

	an englishman is almost suffocated with indignation when he reads
	that mrs. chambers or miss jennings was hacked to death by a
	dusky ruffian; but in native histories... it may be recorded
	against our people, that mothers and wives and children, with
	less familiar names, fell miserable victims to the first swoop of
	english vengeance.  it may be, too, that the plea of
	provocation, which invests the most sanguinary acts of the white
	man in this deadly struggle is not wholly to be rejected when
	urged in extenuation of the worst deeds of those who have never
	known christian teaching.

the time for these native histories have come, and i believe that while
some of their arguments may be debatable, on the whole they have achieved
a greater balance in this narrative, for example by shifting the focus
of the debate from the generals and their wives to the peasants and
their aspirations.

Modern Indian historiography

Starting with the work of S.B. Chaudhuri in the 1930s, a number of texts by
Indian historians have taken a broader view, suggesting that participation
may have involved more than a group of disgruntled sepoys, with support
from a wide section of the population, including a number of local kings
and zamindars.  In particular, the role of the north Indian villager
(peasant class), from whom the sepoy was drawn, has been widely analyzed
in the subaltern histories, and has emerged as a mainstream view over
the last three decades.  See e.g. Eric Stokes and C.A. Bayly,
The peasant armed: the Indian revolt of 1857 (1986) - largely a response to
the thesis of S.B. Chaudhuri and subsequent subaltern authors.  While not
quite a war of independence, it was clearly much more than a military

In 1956, on the eve of the centenary of the rebellion, Maulana Abdul Kalam
Azad, himself a respected scholar, and then the Minister for Education in
India's second Lok Sabha, commissioned historian S.N. Sen to write a
history of 1857, removing the prejudices of British historiography.  The
resulting text is well-balanced, and gives a very broad analysis of the
causes behind the event.

Subsequent texts, such as Ranajit Guha's British Imagination and Rudrangshu
Mukherjee's Awadh in Revolt, build on this post-colonial view with
additional material emphasizing the broad discontent with the Company rule,
and the many strands of causes that led to that great upheaval.

An Indian Minister supporting criticism

As an interesting aside on the change in the political situation in India, we
note an anecdote from Tapan Raychauduri's The world in our time (2011).  

As an young historian on the staff of the National Archives, Raychaudhuri
decries the nepotism and corruption in the post-colonial Indian bureaucracy.
However, the ministers themselves were men of stature, and he cites Education
minister Maulana Azad in particular for his mangnanimous acceptance of

It turns out that a review of this volume in the official journal of the
National Archives was severely critical of Azad's introduction (which is a
bit overbearing at places), but Azad unstintingly had Raychaudhuri publish it
without any alteration. 

Such a situation is almost unthinkable among today's ministers, who mostly
lack the self-esteem of an Azad or a Nehru. 

Events at Kanpur

However, the gulf with the british position is hard to close.  This is
particularly true about the events at Kanpur, which were particularly
poignant for the British at the time, and are being brought up in more
than a hundred mutiny novels - including one from 2010.

Yet  a number of authors have pointed out that the only reliable
first-person narrative of the events - from Lt. Mowbray Thomson, clearly
states that it was the tense Britishers who suddenly started firing when
the boatmen suddenly jumped into the water.   Sen below, and also others
(e.g. see Spectre of violence) have argued that
in a tense situation where the two sides were firing at each other till
yesterday, such a sudden firing would definitely bring a hostile
response.  And given that the shores were laden with sepoys, and that the
British were sitting targets with their boats stuck in the mud, it is not
very hard to see how the entire British contingent would get wiped out.

Yet, the mainstream history continues to maintain that the events were a
conspiracy  by Nana.  Indeed, it is evident that had Nana intended
treachery, why would he have spent so much money and labour purchasing
the boats and fixing them up overnight - the murder could have been done
just as efficaciously on land.  Also, Mowbray clearly states that the
sepoys who met him and helped him bring his belongings to the river were
far from hostile, and certainly they had no inkling of a conspiracy.

It is a situation where a dubious fact of history, just because it has
been repeated so often, continues its hold on the imagination.

The following is an excerpt of how Sen views the events at Kanpur.

Excerpt: The Kanpur "massacre"

[background: after twenty days of fighting, the small british
contingent in "wheeler's entrenchment" at kanpur (near the present-day
memorial church) are offered terms of surrender,

	each man being permitted to leave with his arms and sixty rounds
	of ammunition. Conveyance should be provided for the wounded, the
	women and the children, and boats should be kept ready at the
	ghat with food supply.

on 26th June evening, a british team inspects the sati chaura ghat and
finds about forty country boats "moored and apparently ready for
departure, some of them roofed, and others undergoing that process."  a
team of workers work through the night on this flotilla of boats, while
others arrange land transport to the river. ]

27 June 1857. Morning

On the morning of the 27th sixteen elephants and seventy to eighty palanquins
came to convey the fugitives to the boats. But all of them could not be
accommodated, and Captain Moore, who was supervising the operations, had to
come for a second time. "The women and children were put on the elephants,
and into bullock carts; the able-bodied walked down indiscriminately, after
the advance had gone."

[many britishers have misgivings about the pact, there is a lot of suspicion.
some sepoys came to the entrenchment, "inquiring after their old
officers whom they had missed," says Mowbray Thomson, "and they appeared much
distressed at hearing of their death."

	I inquired of another sepoy of the 53d, 'Are we to go to
	Allahabad without molestation?' He affirmed that such was his
	firm belief; and I do not suppose that the contemplated massacre
	had been divulged beyond the councils of its brutal projectors.

The rear was brought up by Major Vibart, who was the last officer in the
intrenchment. Some of the rebels who had served in this officer's regiment
insisted on carrying out the property which belonged to him. They loaded a
bullock cart with boxes, and escorted the Major's wife and family down to
the boats, with the most profuse demonstrations of respect."

By 9 o'clock the last boat had received her complement. If anything had
happened on the way Mowbray Thomson and Delafosse were unaware of it.

First shots fired from the boats

[The monsoons are yet to come.  The water is shallow, and it's hard to
launch the boats.  tension is mounting. ]

The river was low, the boats had no gangway, and the passengers, men, women
and children, had to wade through the water. What followed, let Mowbray
Thomson relate. No one was likely to know the whole truth, for no one could
possibly have witnessed everything. There was a huge crowd on the river
banks that morning, and thousands of spectators had gathered to see their
former rulers leave. But there were no more reliable witnesses than Mowbray
Thomson and Delafosse, two of the four survivors, who escaped the massacre
and lived to record their unhappy experience. They were both of them
trained observers, but while Delafosse's account is very brief, Mowbray
Thomson's narrative is more detailed. Neither of them had complete
confidence in Nana and his  counsellors.  p.146

Thomson writes:
	As soon as Major Vibart had stepped into his boat, 'Off' was the
	word; but at a signal from the shore, the native boatmen, who
	numbered eight and a coxswain to each boat, all jumped over and waded
	to the shore. We fired into them immediately, but the majority of
	them escaped, and are now plying their old trade in the neighbourhood
	of Cawnpore. Before they quitted us, these men had contrived to
	secrete burning charcoal in the thatch of most of the

	Simultaneously with the departure of the boatmen, the identical
	troopers who had escorted Major Vibart to the ghaut opened upon
	us with their carbines. As well as the confusion, caused by the
	burning of the boats, would allow, we returned the fire of these
	horsemen, who were about fifteen or sixteen in number, but they
	retired immediately after the volley they had given us.

[Note that firing by the sepoys is mentioned only after the British
start firing at the boatmen.]

Only one boat escapes

Then followed pandemonium. Most of the boats could not be moved, though the
passengers jumped into the water and tried to push them afloat. Fire was
opened from ambushed guns and the thatched roofs of the boats were in
flames. Women and children crouched behind the boats and "stood up to their
chins in the river" to avoid the thickly falling bullets. Vibart's boat,
however, drifted into deep waters with its thatched covering
unburnt. Mowbray Thomson swam to this boat and was pulled in. A second boat
also got away from the ghat but a round shot below the water mark sent it
down. The survivors were rescued and taken in Vibart's boat. With the help
of spars and pieces of wood the passengers tried their utmost to move the
boat out of the danger zone, but grape and round shot fell all
around. About mid-day the fugitives got out of range of the big guns but
they were followed by musket fire the rest of the day. At night burning
arrows were shot and a fire boat was sent down stream with a view to
setting fire to the boat.

They had a brief respite in the morning, but they learnt from some villagers,
who were bathing in the river, that Babu Ram-baksh, a powerful zamindar, was
waiting at Nazafgarh ready to intercept them. At about 2 o'clock they reached
the dreaded place, and, as ill luck would have it, the boat ran aground and
offered a fixed target for the musketeers on the banks. A gun was later
brought, but a lucky shower put it out of action. At sunset a boat-load of
armed men came from Kanpur but their boat also got stuck on a sand bank.
The fugitives anticipated their attack and completely routed them.  The
boat ran aground for a second time; though a strong hurricane released it
soon afterwards.

By this time their number was reduced to seven. Two of them were shot while
swimming and a third got to a sand-bank where he was knocked on the
head. The pursuers at last gave up the chase. After three hours of swimming
the survivors decided to take some rest. They sat by the shore, with water
up to the neck, when they were hailed by friendly voices from the bank.
At first they could not believe in their good luck, but when they were
convinced that they were safe at last, they found that they had lost all
their energy so long sustained by fear of life and had to be helped out of
the shallow water. Thomson was clad in a shirt only, Delafosse had a sheet
about his loins, Sullivan and Murphy had no clothing of any kind. Their
host was Digvijaya Singh of Murar Mau, a zamindar of Oudh, whose residence
they reached in the evening of the 29th June.

Delafosse's brief account differs in some detail from that of Mowbray
	We got down to the river and into the boats, without being molested
	in the least; but no sooner were we in the boats and had laid down
	our muskets, and taken off our coats, in order to work easier at the
	boats than the cavalry gave the order to fire two guns that had been
	hidden; they were run out and opened fire on us immediately, whilst
	sepoys came from all directions, and kept up a heavy fire. The men
	jumped out of the boats, and instead of trying to get the boats loose
	from their moorings rushed to the first boat they saw loose; only
	three boats got safe over to the opposite side of the river, but were
	met there by two field pieces guarded by numbers of cavalry and
	infantry. Before the boats had gone a mile down the stream half of
	our small party were either killed or wounded, and two of our boats
	had been swamped.

the only extant sketch of nana sahib, as reproduced by Sen (p.178).  a
statue from the nana rao park in bithoor, clearly based on this image.

Sen's analysis

Thomson and Delafosse had obviously boarded two different boats. Their
accounts make it clear that if any outrage had been committed on the way,
they were unaware of it. Mowbray Thomson positively states that the sepoys
were quite courteous before the embarkation was completed, and as he says,
nothing happened until Major Vibart, the last man to leave the camp, had
boarded his boat.

It can be assumed that the story of Colonel Ewart being killed in the rear
of the column and General Wheeler being beheaded as he was getting out of
his palanquin does not rest on any substantial evidence. Ewart would have
been missed at the ghat and Wheeler did not ride a palanquin, but walked
with his wife and daughter all the way to the river.

It is not clear who fired the first shot, men from Mowbray Thomson's
boat or the horsemen on the banks. For, he is definite that when the
boatmen deserted they were immediately fired on, and simultaneously the
horsemen, who had accompanied Major Vibart, fired a volley. [p. 147-149)

[Note also that by Delafosse's account, the boatmen did not leave the boat
all at once...]

Other arguments against a conspiracy theory

The boats were collected and fitted on very short notice. They did not belong
to the boatmen, but to banias of Maheshwari and Agarwal section. The
proprietors were duly compensated for their loss.  On the evening of the 26th
when the Committee of Inspection went to see them, many of the boats still
lacked their bamboo platforms and roofs of straw. But thousands of labourers
worked all night to remove these deficiencies.

If Nana meditated treachery from the first, one wonders why so much money
and labour were wasted on the boats, for once out of the entrenchment, the
English would be as helpless in the midst of a hostile crowd on land, as
they were on the river. They had their arms, and it could not be expected
that they would let their women and children be slaughtered without a
desperate fight.

[read together with other pieces of evidence, such as the impression
that thomson clearly conveys that the sepoys themselves did not seem
to be aware of any conspiracy, we may infer that the episode at sati
chaura ghat was an unintended offshoot, possibly of some nervous
british officers starting to fire first. ]

Review: Daniel Thorner 1958

The rising of 1857 provided the most dramatic moment of the entire period of
British rule in India. Prior to 1947, analysis of the revolt of 1857 was so
bound up with imperial or anti-imperial sentiment as to discourage cool
historical appraisal.

Standard British sources focussed on the Army, and referred to the affair as
a "mutiny" or "sepoy rebellion." By contrast, the most extreme nationalist
treatment, that of Savarkar published in 1909, bore the title The Indian
War of Independence. The single decade since 1947 has been too brief to
permit thorough reworking of the available materials. It will, in fact, be
a long time before anything like a definitive history of the events of 1857
can be undertaken.

Meanwhile, Dr. S. N. Sen's book, Eighteen Fifty-Seven, affords a convenient
and useful account of the rising as a whole.
Greatest general interest attaches to the final chapter in which Dr. Sen
reviews the evidence relevant to a decision on the basic character of the
1857 movement.  Was it a spontaneous outburst of sepoy discontent, he asks,
or a premeditated revolt?  Was it a mutiny limited to the army or did it
command the support of the people at large?  Was it a religious war against
Christians?  What were the aims of the leaders of the revolt?

The movement of 1857, he concludes, was not pre-planned. It had its origin
among the soldiers and took at first the form of a military mutiny. Almost
immediately, however,
	the Mutiny became a revolt and assumed a political character when the
	mutineers of Meerut placed themselves under the King of Delhi
	[Bahadur Shah, a lineal descendant of the great Mughal Emperors] and
	a section of the landed aristocracy and civil population declared in
	his favour.  What began as a fight for religion ended as a war of
	independence for there is not the slightest doubt that the rebels
	wanted to get rid of the alien government and restore the old order
	of which the King of Delhi was the rightful representative.

In Oudh (the area centered on Lucknow and forming the heart of the
present-day State of Uttar Pradesh), Dr. Sen judges, the revolt "assumed a
national dimension." He warns that the term "national" must be used with care
"for the concept of Indian nationality was yet in embryo." Nevertheless,
"the people of India felt they had something in common as against the
Englishmen." Apart from Oudh and the Shahabad District of Bihar, Dr. Sen
finds "no evidence of that general sympathy which would invest the mutiny
with the dignity of a national war." He points out that the rebellion aroused
only a brief sporadic response from Bombay, drew little support from the
Punjab, and left the great presidencies of Madras and Bengal virtually

In social content, Dr. Sen characterizes the rising as backward. The British,
he writes, had taken some steps to improve the status of women, to promote
the equality of all men in the eye of the law, and to improve the lot of the
peasants. "The Mutiny leaders would have set the clock back, they would have
done away with the new reforms, with the new order, and gone back to the good
old days when a commoner could not expect equal justice with the noble, when
the tenants were at the mercy of the talukdars [great landholders], and
when theft was punished with mutilation. In short, they wanted a

Thus, in Dr. Sen's view, the rebellion of 1857 must be understood as much
more than a mere military mutiny. It derived its strength from widespread
disaffection among the civil population and amounted in certain districts to
a "national" uprising. Its overall direction, however, was retrograde, since
the indigenous regime it attempted to reinstate would have been more
oppressive than the British rule.

Review: Bimla Prasad Mukerji

			Economic and Political Weekly, July 1957

[Regarding 1857] there has always been scope for difference of opinion
regarding its causes, nature, extent and basis, and finally the
elements from which its participants came.

Official British opinion was that the outbreak of 1857 had merely been a
revolt of the Sepoys, infuriated because of the outrage of their religious
beliefs (grease cartridge), joined in by the discontented feudal elements
and the 'goondah sections' of the civil population.

All historians have to start from the same premises while working on the
subject namely contemporary documents and records. The volume of such
contemporary evidence la simply stupendous. Coming as these do. mostly from
the quarters of British officials and agents, these papers have brought to
light only a partial picture of the happenings of 1857.  And for this very
reason, they have to be very carefully studied and used.  Both Drs Sen and
Majumdar have admirably succeeded in exploiting this material for
establishing their cases.  Dr Majumdar has begun with a brief but
comprehensive review of the gradual expansion and consolidation of British
power in India throughout the course of a century (1757- 1857) and the
effects it produced on the sepoy mutiny of 1857.

Upto this point, he and Dr Sen are in agreement.  Where they differ is on
the interpretation of the actions of the discontented chiefs and of the
sepoys who revolted in town after town, district after district.  While Dr
Majumdar presents a most illuminating study of the so called leaders of the
sepoy mutiny, their characters, their relations with the British and their
ultimately joining the ranks of the mutineers, Dr Sen deals very adequately
and scientifically, with the risings in various parts of India, and the
different forms they assumed.

According to Dr Majumdar, though there was no love lost between the British
Government in India and the various local chiefs, the native numbers were
almost invariably passive onlookers and in many cases, openly against the
movement.  Those natives who ultimately joined the revolt were forced by the
actions of private englishmen or the government, and often by the threats of
mutineering sepoys.  He shows how even then, jealousy and mutual suspicion
among rival chiefs, feudal interests and communal feelings hampered a union
of the 'rebel' forces.  He examines the character of the sepoy risings and the
disturbance among the civil population and finds that these were largely
excited by religious sentiments, fanned by miscreants and goondas.  In short,
he reaches almost the identical conclusion, though from different premises,
already advanced by official British historians.

Not Pre-planned

Dr Sen, on the other hand, accepts that the rising of 1857 assumed a national
character at least at certain places. He rightly points out that diverse
factors operated in the growth of this feeling of national unity, such as
feudal loyalty, religious feeling etc. But in many cases, this national
movement assumed a very low character, disfigured by communal riots,
unnecessary cruelties and excesses.  The native chiefs were led by motives of
personal gain not by the nationalistic and democratic ideals of 19th century
liberal Europe and the sepoys and their peasant associates often betrayed a
medieval spirit in their demands on the British government.  Both historians
are thus far agreed that the revolt was not preplanned or concerted.

It is really unfortunate that such eminent historians as Dr Sen or Dr
Majumdar would totally ignore the lot of the common man, the peasant, under
the first hundred years of British rule. They could have profitably
discussed whether or not British imperialism in India meant real economic
servitude for the masses; why such a large number of sepoys of peasant and
artisan extraction revolted and fought, so desperately against British
forces; why in Oudh and its surroundings, the mutiny received such a mass
support: why in Bengal there was a sympathetic peasant rising within a
couple of years from 1857; whether or not the common people and the feudal
chiefs had initially combined with the sub-conscious aim of throwing off
the yoke of foreign' rule; whether or not the revolt of 1857 exposed some
vulnerable points in the British armour for the first time, thereby
initiating a phased struggle for national independence that reached its
culmination exactly ninety years later. These questions remain unanswered
in either book.

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This review by Amit Mukerjee was last updated on : 2015 Oct 29