The unease of forced meetings

Strangers in the Land - The Indian Mutiny 1857

August 1, 2003

Empires, according to scholars such as Niall Ferguson and neo-conservative advisers of the Bush administration, are back in fashion. Even imperialism, which acquired an increasingly negative connotation through the 20th century, is acceptable today. The role of the US and its junior allies around the globe is now open for debate. Since Ferguson urges the US publicly to declare that it is an imperialist power that should learn lessons from the history of the British empire, we are encouraged to review and relearn that history. A good number of works on the British empire, including Ferguson's Empire, which accompanied a television series, are appearing.

These books, by Saul David and Roderick Cavaliero, do not offer lessons to US policy-makers of the neo-conservative persuasion. They are explorations of the British empire in India and offer solid generalisations about the estrangements of the conquerors and the conquered that are suggestive for the new occupiers of Afghanistan and Iraq.

David deals in detail with the 1857 mutiny and Cavaliero covers the whole sweep of the British Raj in India. Although the first is a revised doctoral dissertation, it reads well and is an absorbing treatment of these events.

Cavaliero's history is dense, copiously detailed and skilfully written.

Both authors eschew jargon and abstract theories, and touch on their more general themes rather briefly. They seem to announce that the particulars are what counts.

But beyond the particulars, Cavaliero has a theme: the British were and remained strangers in India, though they ruled most of the subcontinent for two centuries. His focus is much more on the British than on the Indians, but he makes clear that through the first decades of East India Company rule, although increasingly regulated by parliament, India was an investment. This investment had to pay dividends and he attributes much of British expansion to the necessity for more taxable territories to pay these promised dividends.

There have been, and continue to be, general histories of the British Raj in India and each differs in emphasis. What is most enjoyable about Cavaliero's treatment is the skill with which he moves from topic to topic and the insightful vignettes of British rulers and cultural figures. Among those sketched are Meadows Taylor (official and novel writer about the Thugs), Henry Yule (compiler of the wonderful Hobson-Jobson ), Richard Burton (translator of the Kama Sutra ), Henry and John Lawrence (officials c. 1857), Winston Churchill (young army member in the late 19th century who never learnt much about India), Frank Brayne (rural developer), Edwin Lutyens (architect of New Delhi) and the aristocratic cricketer Ranjitsinhji.

Cavaliero does bring up his general theme of estrangement from time to time and is tuned in to British racism throughout the Raj. Though this is not a new idea, it is well documented and argued here. While the book is written for a general audience, I suspect that its vocabulary and classical references demand a well-educated reader.

Cavaliero's treatment of the Raj relies on other secondary works and published sources; David's investigation of the 1857 mutiny is based on a thorough reading of source materials. It is a valuable synthesis of what we know about this event. However, it demonstrates that we know much more about the experience of the British in the mutiny and its suppression than we do about the rebels. Nothing demonstrates the estrangement more bluntly than what we have to say about Indian motivations and actions: we are simply not sure why they did what they did.

David makes a solid contribution to contemporary scholarship on the Bengal army. He explains the caste recruitment patterns before and after the mutiny, and the grievances that Indians in the army had that might have led them to rebel. Like Cavaliero, David is good at short biographical sketches of protagonists, again mostly British, and his smooth writing and the dramatic tale he has to tell make this an engaging book for the general reader.

David's approach is generally that of narration of major events, building in crucial developments such as patterns of army recruitment as well as his brief biographies. He starts with the tale and ends with its dénouement, tacking on a brief account of the consequences. What is missing is a discussion of whether this was indeed a mutiny in the Bengal army and little else. He deals with the grievances of the some of the smaller princes such as Nana Sahib and the rani of Jhansi, but this is not sufficient. For many Indians instructed by V. D. Savarkar's The Indian War of Independence of 1857 , this event was a great national uprising signaling the beginning of Indian national resistance to British rule. David certainly views this as wildly inflated if not totally inaccurate. But he never explores the historiographical issue, which should be addressed even for the general reader. The problem may be that the general reader in this case is British. Indian concerns and sensibilities are not considered.

Henry Lawrence and John Nicholson may be great heroes in the British pantheon of imperial deities, but for many Indians they were determined imperialists who needed to be killed and ousted as Indians developed their own sense of national identity. David does tell us about the revenge taken by the British for the appalling murder of British prisoners and civilians, but the details about these ruthless acts are few.

Given that this work is being touted as a definitive history of the mutiny, I am surprised not to find reference to E. J. Thompson's famous little book, The Other Side of the Medal, which in the 1920s tried to explain to the British why Indians were so alienated from their rulers after the mutiny. What Thompson argued was that the killings of innocent and not-so-innocent Indians as retribution was accepted by the British as just and viewed by the Indians as wanton and unjust.

The differing views of what happened taken by the rulers and the ruled are also related to the problem of the skewed sources mentioned above. The British wrote in history and memoir about their trials and sufferings as well as about their heroism and the fierce loyalty of all Europeans to one another and of some Indians to them. What they referred to as "the British spirit" was tested and not found wanting. They were, they wrote, facing "such an awful enemy". What a reader who is neither British nor Indian finds are these mostly noble, sometimes skilful, sometimes inept Europeans facing sinister agitators and the rabble and soldiers they are able to rouse.

Although it is difficult to overcome this profusion of British sources and scantiness of Indian ones, some Indian historians of the Subaltern Studies group including its founder, Ranajit Guha, and one of its members, Gautam Bhadra, have tried to redress the balance in an excellent article "Four rebels of 1857" (published in Selected Subaltern Studies, 1988). David is aware of these efforts but his method of narrative history and his identification with the British side propel him to present a history that sometimes seems one-sided: all the positive virtues on one side and all the negative ones on the other.

In his nuanced exploration of the grievances of Indians in the Bengal army, David shows how these were important causes of what followed. But on the other part of the story - how the events of 1857 and 1858 contributed to even greater alienation between rulers and ruled - he is weak. Perhaps the specific events are what count to him, but for one who wants to place this earth-shaking event in context and understand why it is important, he should have gone much deeper into its consequences for British-Indian history. Beyond changes in the patterns of army recruitment and the termination of the East India Company, followed by direct rule by parliament and the Crown, this was an event that both the rulers and the ruled looked back to for generations, particularly when a new rumble was heard, whether it was Tilak or Gandhi or the Quit India Movement or the Indian National Army trials.

These two works meet in the narration of the events of 1857 and in their understanding of the alienation of the rulers and ruled. David's work is a major British synthesis of materials on 1857 but he is not greatly interested in drawing out lessons. Cavaliero, though not a professional historian, does focus on the problem of estrangement. It is not easy to be a conqueror, nor pleasant to be conquered. There is a distance that is almost unbridgeable and spanning it depends greatly on the efforts of the conqueror to learn the ways and languages of the ruled and to give the ruled a say in their own reconstruction. This was true in Bengal or Oudh in the 19th century and in Iraq today. But there are always unexpected consequences. These books teach us something of what these were in India. Those in Iraq are still being worked out.

Leonard A. Gordon is emeritus professor of history, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, US.

Strangers in the Land: The Rise and Decline of the British Indian Empire

Author - Roderick Cavaliero
ISBN - 1 86064 797 9
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £25.00
Pages - 280

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs