ICON_PLACEHOLDEREstimated reading time: 15 minutes
The Hubris of Rome
In Calcutta a statue was erected to Lord Bentinck, Governor-General of India. Its inscription bears citing at length as it is testament to the moral zeitgeist with which the British believed their empire to be infused:
[To]William Cavendish Bentinck,who during seven years ruled India with eminent prudence, integrity, and benevolence;who, placed at the head of a great Empire, never laid aside the simplicity and moderation of a private citizen;who infused into Oriental despotism the spirit of British freedom; who never forgot that the end of Government is the happiness of the governed;who abolished cruel rites;who effaced humiliating distinctions;who gave liberty to the expression of public opinion;whose constant study it was to elevate the intellectual and moral character of the nation committed to his charge,[This Monument]Was erected by men who, differing in race, in manners, in language, and in religion, cherish with equal veneration and gratitude the memory of his wise, reforming, and paternal administration.
‘Veneration and gratitude.’ the rulers of empire believed, was owed to a new and truly British form of patriotism; the championing of liberty at home and creation of a maritime, commercial empire overseas. Viscount Bolingbroke spoke for this new breed of patriot:
The Empire of the Seas is ours; we have been many Ages in Possession of it; we have had many Sea-Fights, at a vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure to preserve it and preserve it we still must, at all Risks and Events if we have a Mind to preserve ourselves.
The rulers of this new Empire would not succumb to the hubris of Rome, where addiction to territorial gain had resulted in despotism at the center of over-extended frontiers. Comparisons between the British and Roman Empires would have been fresh in minds with the publication, between 1776 & 1788, of Gibbon’s Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon wrote of the Roman Empire that it:
comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind… The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury… Inclined to peace by his temper and situation, it was easy for [Augustus] to discover that Rome, in her present exalted situation, had much less to hope than to fear from the chance of arms; and that, in the prosecution of remote wars, the undertaking became every day more difficult, the event more doubtful, and the possession more precarious, and less beneficial.
Their liberty would be founded on religious freedom, or as they would define it freedom from the ‘slavery’ of Roman Catholicism (sentiment which perhaps struck a sour note with Arne, the Catholic composer of ‘Rule, Britannia’); no taxation without the consent of parliament; habeas corpus and regular elections with ever increasing suffrage. Above all liberty to the British meant the guarantee of the rights enshrined in Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and for the nation builders of the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries, their most recent and therefore most hallowed 1689 Bill of Rights. These liberties were to be exported over the waters to create an ‘empire of liberty.’ The builders of this mercantile blue-water empire were to immunize their endeavors by preferring business opportunities over territorial conquest; commercial and military ventures should be mutually exclusive.
By the end of the eighteenth century this idyllic vision of an empire of farmers & traders, inhabiting lightly garrisoned outposts, sending the fruits of their labor back to ‘Old Blighty’ had transformed into a military empire with nearly a million slaves in the Caribbean; the 50 million inhabitants of the sub-continent had transitioned from suppliers and consumers into subjects of the Raj:
Stupendous fortunes had been made, not by making men free but by making them servile; not by probity but by corruption; not by a benign and responsible diffusion of that wealth to the natives but by the most shameless coercion and extortion.
The Wrong Empire
‘So just how had Britain ended up with the wrong empire?’From its beginning the British Empire founded its success on addiction. A smoke, a cup of tea, a sweet treat, and later, a pipe of opium. To foster this addiction it was necessary to turn what at first had been exotic delicacies into daily needs. In search of these products, and the wealth which flowed from them, the most successful company in the British Empire was established. Granted its charter by Queen Elizabeth I, the Honorable East India Company would amass sales which amounted to almost one fifth of Britain’s annual imports. Profitability was increased, and secured, as the Company carved out an ‘empire within an empire.’ annexing territory to ensure the smooth running of business. Sir John Kaye noted that when local rulers were ‘deprived of their rights and revenues, they were held to be not territorial, but titular sovereigns.’ What this ‘sovereignty was to be, without territorial rights or territorial revenues, it is not easy to see.’
Diminution of authority was to be the fate of the King of Oudh in 1856, when the Company set its sights on his lands to become ‘a component part of the empire.’ The King would not yield, forcing the company into a more aggressive stance; annexing Oudh and declaring it part of British India. Acts such as this provided the first vital ingredient for the dish of vengeance that Indians would serve to the British in 1857. A native ruling class dispossessed of their power & prestige. Over three quarters of all sepoys involved in the mutiny were recruited from Oudh. While not the only cause of the mutiny, it helps to illustrate the links between British hubris toward Indian magnates and the populations they once ruled.
Edmund Burke, who had largely written the regulatory act which was designed to contain and reverse the personal empires within empire, created under the spurious pretext of securing liberty and fair trade in the far flung corners of the globe, raged that the English had not compensated for the power they held by supplying good works:
Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything better than the ourang-utang or the tiger.
To correct these errors it was not necessary to examine the propositions of liberty. Instead the right men and the right measures needed to be found. Such men and measures would be found in the person of Thomas Clarkson, one of the leading anti-slavery campaigners of his day, who traversed the land in an attempt to extirpate ‘this evil.’ But this blight on the vine of liberty would not be easily dispelled and its abolition proved to be ‘more than ordinarily great’ for the ‘evil in question began in avarice:’
For these reasons the Slave-trade may be considered, like the fabulous hydra, to have had a hundreds heads, every one of which it was necessary to cut off before it could be subdued.
But subdued it was; slavery being abolished in British colonies in 1833. Yet such reforms also brought with them proselytizing zeal. Britons hoped oriental eyes would open to the indisputable wisdom of Europe (which is to say Britain), laying aside their disgusting practices; perhaps even abandoning their gods and accept the promise of Christ. As William Wilberforce wrote: ‘Our religion is sublime, pure and beneficent. Theirs is mean, licentious and cruel.’ If native inhabitants of distant lands would not willingly lay aside their rites & customs, officials showed a capacity to resort to more direct methods.
Seeds of Rebellion
In 1829, after researching Hindu sacred text on the matter, Bentinck outlawed the custom of satí because he found it to have no sound theological basis (Bentinck’s belief was supported by native reformers like Dwarakanath Tagore and Ram Mohun Roy who ‘strove to convince their countrymen that satí was not enjoined by the code of Manu, and that it was even opposed to the gentle and benign nature of their original faith.’).
The term suttee or satí is strictly applicable to the person, not the rite; meaning ‘a pure and virtuous woman,’ and designates the wife who completes a life of uninterrupted conjugal devotedness by the act of Saha-gamana, accompanying her husband’s corpse. It has come in common usage to denote the act.
Although the practice was not wide spread and even abhorred by some Indians, it still represented the first direct attack on traditional belief. Such direct attacks engendered fears in the native population. Ram Mohun Roy, although an advocate of the abolition of satí, believed that the removal of the superstitions and corruptions which had been engrafted on the Hindu religion should be accomplished quietly and unobservedly. Ram Mohan Roy feared that the British reforms would not stop at curtailing the more egregious beliefs and customs of Hinduism:
While the English were contending for power they deemed it politic to allow universal toleration and to respect our religion, but having obtained the supremacy their first act is a violation of their profession, and the next will probably be, like the Muhammadan conquerors, to force upon us their own religion.
Fear that British administration stood for the introduction of Christianity created an environment that instigators of the 1857 mutiny would exploit to devastating results. The coming mutiny now had a disaffected ruling class and a population fearful that their religion, and their souls, were in peril.
Nemesis walked alongside the British in India, seeming at times like an old friend. In the bazaars and cantonments future foes greeted each other as though they were family. They lived, as Cicero wrote, in the most illusionary tense of all, the present; like small children not knowing from whence they came nor wither they go. As with old friends, relations between the British and Indians, which had once been worked on with vigor and care, fell by the wayside. People and institutions took each other for granted. Respect, even deference, was replaced with an attitude which shouted ‘go to hell – don’t bother me!’ The men-on-the-spot did little to allay concerns or revert attitudes to the more conciliatory tones which had marked the Company’s first endeavors in India; succumbing to the pressures of an Evangelical lobby that gained increasing momentum.
To remove the financial obstacles to conversion, the Company amended the law which had previously forfeited the inheritance of any Hindu who renounced their faith. Hindus declared that such acts afforded:
Strong cause and suspicion that such an innovation is only a prelude to others, that the security in person, property and religion, hitherto ensured to the native subjects, is in danger of being taken from them.
By the late 1850’s Anglo-Indian relations resembled a piñata. The Company had transitioned from trading partner to Imperial ruler. Maharajas, Badshahs, Nawabs & Wālis had been dispossessed of their authority and taxes, forcing from work hundreds of thousands of their dependants. Missionaries were traveling the highways and byways in search of new converts, striking at the heart & soul of India; yet British possessions in India seemed secure. Despite what had happened the native levies remained predominately loyal, ensuring the security of British rule; so long as they followed their British counterparts and held the thin red line. They would following their British counterparts, right up to the matter of equipment.
‘The English who conquered Persia and defeated the Czar of Russia have been overthrown in India by a simple cartridge,’ whooped the octogenarian King of Dehli at the height of the 1857 Mutiny; more specifically it was the grease rather than the cartridge, though the later would also become a source of controversy. The storm began to brew in January 1857 when detachments from the Bengal native infantry were sent to Dum-Dum, near Calcutta, for training on the handling & care of their new rifles.
The controversy centered around the belief that the grease used in the production of the cartridges was of a material that would be offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. Discontent among sepoys was nothing new, but when combined with the distribution of chapattis the situation takes on the look of an omen.
Income & prestige was always an issue which caused dissatisfaction. The pay of sepoys fell by almost 50 per cent in real terms during the first half of the nineteenth century. Even the most senior Indian officer was subordinate to a junior European officer, nor could he give orders to a European NCO. Conditions of service and promotional opportunities were also constant areas of contention. These issues resulted in several smaller mutinies in years preceding 1857.
A stranger would enter a village and seek out the chowkidar (watchman) and present him with four chapattis. The chowkidar would then be instructed to bake four more and then deliver them to a neighboring village. While the British attached no importance to the act, Indians interpreted these phenomena as a sign that the Company would end all distinctions of caste and religion with everyone sharing a common diet.
These events showed the extent to which the Raj had lost credibility with its subjects and defenders; sepoys and the native population were prepared to believe the worst about their officers and Company administration. Increasing numbers of European women traveling to India, the enlargement of Christian missions and an officer class which was loosing touch with its native troops, pushed tensions to breaking point. Sadly British officers made the fatal decision of retreating behind a barrier of prejudices which weakened their position. ‘How can you expect devotion on the field when you are a stranger to your men in cantonment?’
The memsahib ousted the native concubine as bedmate and mistress of the household… Bachelor officers and civil servants ran the risk of social disapproval and isolation if they openly lived with Indian woman.’ A state of affairs which further alienated the British rulers from their native subjects.
Divisions between native troops and British commanders became increasingly strained as the authorities began breaking up regiments which showed signs of sullenness and intractability. The hope was that their fate would harden the discipline of their comrades. The psychological effect proved to work in reverse, pushing sepoys, already hosts to terrifying phantoms, into making the first move; lest they be the target of British musketry and grape shot.
As pockets of resistance to British discipline spread, authorities increased the crack downs. News of this action traveled like wildfire, often ‘maliciously propagated by active emissaries of evil’ who attempted to suborn troops. Into this military friction the civilian population was soon drawn, though ‘the love of liberty had far less prompted this outbreak than a lust for plunder.’ Tax assessment was heavy, grain shortages were pushing up food prices and impoverished villagers were eager to take advantage of the situation in an attempt to relieve their poverty. The state of affairs now spiraled out of control as insurrection became a civil war.
Caught off balance, with its military resources stretched to breaking, the British rejoinder was slow. Operations were holding exercises designed to protect what they could while more men and equipment was marshaled. Public sentiment played a vital role in this regard, but it to would take time to mobilize.
Before the mutiny, opinion in Britain was both ignorant and indifferent. Subjects covering Indian languages, literature, cosmology and philosophy were unpopular with British publishers and readers, with the concomitant effect of keeping a majority of the population in a state of unawareness as to the habits, manners and lives of the peoples of the subcontinent
Indifference to the happenings in India vanished in the Summer of 1857 as editors printed the most harrowing details of the insurrection which gripped the subcontinent. By the Autumn rage abounded in the columns of the British press as news of the wholesale defection of sepoys and the massacres of women and children at Meerut, Delhi, Jhansi and Cawnpore poured into the living rooms of the British Empire. The mood was captured by Charles Dickens who wrote:
I wish I were commander-in-chief in India. I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested.
‘The lion hearts of our soldiers yearned for revenge upon these blood-thirsty villains’ and the British public demanded payment in blood from the native ‘villains’ and retribution on a Government, more specifically the Company, which it felt had caused the disaffection of the native peoples and mutiny of the sepoy troops. The Tory opposition, led by Disraeli, launched an attack on the government’s policy which it claimed had abandoned principles and beckoned in the disaster:
In olden days, and for a considerable time – indeed, until, I would say the last ten years – the principle of our government of India, if I may venture to describe it in a sentence, was to respect Nationality.
In the abandonment of this principle the Company had forfeited its right to rule India, or so Disraeli argued. Its place should be taken by the Queen whose government would publicly pledge to safeguard property and uphold native traditions. In short the ‘empire of liberty’ would return under the aegis’ of the British government and the religious zeal of the Company whose centralizing policies had stripped the Indians of their inheritance would be abolished. The new order would minister to its peoples with greater sensitivity, promising that all its subjects would be treated equally, their rights would be upheld and their religions respected.
Myth of the Mutiny
From this proclamation sprang a two headed mythology of the mutiny. Indian nationalists grasped the straw of widespread rejection of the Raj, transforming it into an affirmation of a national will. The British saw the events as a moral struggle between good and evil sustained by the courage of the Christian faith. For them it was a dire warning that if British rule should end in India, millions of people would be abandoned ‘to the most cruel of fates – the anarchy, the rapine, and the bloodshed of their contending chiefs and tyrants.’
This later British memory also carried with it the specter of racism. Prevailing British opinion now saw a native population which had turned against its saviors. Through revolt they had not just rebuffed a corrupt government, they were rejecting everything that Victorian morality cherished. But the work of civilizing had to go on; the manner of which assumed two alternatives. The first was for the British to rule their Indian subjects as their natural superiors. The second was to prepare the population for self governance, once they had been tutored in how a country ought to be run. Any excesses which had been perpetrated in subduing the mutiny were necessary, or so the British believed, to prevent the nation of India from sliding into the mire of barbarism and chaos.
Such a patronizing general consensus ignored the key lesson of the mutiny; that a people who had ruled a continent for over three thousand years would not subject itself to permanent degradation.
Return visit of the Viceroy to the Maharaja of Cashmere by William Simpson (1823-1899) is licensed under Public Domain.
Image description: Viceroy, Lord Canning, meets the ruler of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ranbir Singh, 9 March 1860. Kashmir, like Hyderabad, Mysore, and the states of the Rajputana, supported the British during the Rebellion of 1857