Heroic views of imperial ferocity

The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination
April 22, 2005

The Indian Mutiny of 1857-59, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, may now be a footnote in a history book, but in its time it was as potent a preoccupation for the British as fear of Islam is now for the Bush Administration.

The pretext for this short-lived spontaneous uprising was the use of pig and cow lard as a lubricant for the new Enfield cartridges that Indian soldiers were expected to bite off prior to loading.

Both Hindus and Muslims regarded this as an insult to their religions.

Although the advance of British power in India from 1750 to the 1840s had met with sporadic resistance in various places, such as Mysore, the 1857 mutiny was the most protracted and extensive manifestation of opposition to insensitive colonial rule. Although it was confined mostly confined to north and central India, it achieved mass Indian support. The British managed to crush it with great ferocity, and the awful memory became a literary staple in many British narratives about colonial India.

This book by Gautam Chakravarty, which was originally a PhD thesis, looks at how the various narratives about the mutiny were affected by the concerns of colonial policy and the changing image of the Empire. Of course, there is already a great body of work on the subject. Indeed, Chakravarty cites a slim volume of stories connected with the mutiny published as early as 1859, and he also quotes the comments of the Wesleyan missionary and poet Edward J. Thompson, father of the historian and peace campaigner E.P. Thompson, who worked in India before the First World War and attacked the tendentious British historiography of the mutiny in his book in 1925. So how does this thesis distinguish itself?

Chakravarty, a reader in English at Delhi University, writes from a postcolonial perspective, The Other Side of the Medal drawing on both historical and literary material.

In addition to histories and novels, he uses first-person accounts and travel writing. His aim is to explore how the insurrection took hold of the popular British imagination, mainly in Britain but to some extent in India, and how that hold shaped perceptions of colonised India.

Obviously, heroic combat, such as Sir Henry Lawrence's death at the siege of Lucknow, fuelled literary tales of honour, patriotism and other such moral ideals. Romanticism fitted easily with the exoticism of India in the 19th century. Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins all joined in writing about British heroics in India; and the genre survived up to 1947, the year of Indian independence.

For local atmosphere, the writers of such fictions sometimes used the letters, diaries and memoirs of British officials, which were vivid, authentic and often partisan. But there were also some British voices of dissent against official ferocity, even in the 19th century. Let us not forget that one of the significant outcomes of the mutiny was the beginning of consultation between the rulers and the ruled, because it had become apparent that the earlier lack of communication with Indian opinion was damaging good governance.

I was particularly interested in the section on mutiny novels depicting love, marriage and domesticity, especially across the racial barrier. These popular books were and still are influential in generating and perpetuating the image of British masculinity in India and elsewhere as one of valour, virility and virtue - the sterling qualities of the Empire builders. Today, we have the commercial success of M. M. Kaye's romantic tosh The Far Pavilions as a musical, while William Dalrymple has a bestseller with the better, but still unconvincing, love story in The White Moghuls between a minor British official, James Kirkpatrick, and a Muslim noblewoman, Khair-un-Nissa. Such is the mystique of India.

This is a good, genuinely interdisciplinary subject for a thesis. But sadly the writing suffers from the dullness that one has come to expect from most postcolonial scholars, with frequent use of unnecessary terms and phrases such as "syntagmata", "interstitial", "diachronic macro-history" or even "synecdochic relation with the architectonic design" - making the prose comprehensible only to the initiated. But the detailed bibliography will be of use, and the book will have an appeal beyond literary scholars among historians and social anthropologists.

Krishna Dutta is the author of Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History .

The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination

Author - Gautam Chakravarty
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 242
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 521 834 8

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