Secret Signals in Lotus Flowers

Maya Jasanoff

  • The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination by Gautam Chakravarty
    Cambridge, 242 pp, £45.00, January 2005, ISBN 0 521 83274 8

Tucked away in the lanes of Old Delhi, not far from the Red Fort of the Mughal emperors, sits the little visited Anglican church of St James, consecrated in 1836. With its Renaissance-style dome and campanile, and painted a cheerful lemon, this church would not look out of place in Italy. In Delhi it is an oddity, as was its founder, the swashbuckling military adventurer James Skinner, who built it ‘in fulfilment of a vow made while lying wounded on the field of battle’. (Skinner’s equally remarkable contemporary Begum Samru – a Kashmiri dancing-girl turned army commander – built a Catholic church in similar style at Sardhana, with two Wren-like spires flanking the dome.) Skinner did not come seamlessly to Christian piety: half-Scot and half-Rajput, he never visited Europe, began his career in the service of the Marathas, and sired numerous part-Indian children by (it was said) 16 wives and mistresses. In a small yard outside the church, members of his multi-ethnic clan lie buried. Some of their tombs have crosses on top and epitaphs on the side in Persian – memorials to a period in Anglo-Indian history when European and Eastern cultures comfortably converged.

Finding your way to St James’s Church takes a bit of ingenuity, at least on the part of your auto-rickshaw-wallah, because this is not a place familiar to the average Delhi-ite. Perhaps historical memory has a hand in this. For it was near here, in the spring of 1857, that some of the first and fiercest episodes in the Indian Mutiny played themselves out. On 11 May, rebelling sepoys of the Bengal Army crossed the River Jumna and called on the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah to serve as their protector. Next, they turned their attention to the British civilians who clustered in the area around the church, slaughtering the firingis in their midst. Inside the church, the memory of those violent days vividly endures. Victorian plaques pay tribute to the military and civilian casualties: to three members of the Corbett family, ‘who were murdered During the Massacre of the Christians in Delhi’; to Thomas Collins and no fewer than 23 members of his extended family, ‘all barbarously murdered at Delhi on or about the 11th of May 1857’; to Dr Chimmun Lall, a ‘native Christian and a Worshipper in this Church’, who ‘fell a martyr to his faith on the day of the massacre of Christians in Delhi’. It is no small irony that here, where the mixed-blooded Skinners lie at rest, the blood of Indians and Britons would be copiously spilled in vicious partisan conflict.

Throughout the winter months of 1857 there had been rumours of something afoot in northern India: talk of conspiracies passed by chapati, of secret signals encoded in lotus flowers. Nor was it lost on some (Muslim millenarian preachers among them) that 1857 marked the centenary of the Battle of Plassey, when Robert Clive asserted East India Company ascendancy in Bengal. In the event, it was gun cartridges that set the mutiny off: they were greased, the sepoys believed, with a blend of cow and pig fat, which would defile both Hindus and Muslims when they bit the ends of the cartridges to load them. On 10 May, the sepoys of Meerut revolted and shot their British officers; other mutinies quickly followed across the Bengal army camps of north and central India. Thanks in part to newly laid telegraph lines, the company was able to prevent mutiny from spreading in the Punjab and elsewhere; the Madras and Bombay armies also remained ‘loyal’. But it was not able to prevent the mutineers from marching victoriously to Delhi and reviving Mughal authority, or from attacking and besieging British communities, notably in the Awadh cities of Lucknow and Kanpur.

This was not an organised ‘national’ rebellion; but the Indian Mutiny, as the uprisings collectively became known in Britain, represented the most serious, sustained armed threat posed by Indians against their British rulers. Episodes of violence and Indian ‘barbarism’ branded themselves on the British imagination. One of these was the massacre at Kanpur, where the Maratha king Nana Sahib turned against a corps of about a thousand Europeans, laying siege to their cramped entrenchments. After a punishing fortnight under fire, and some 250 deaths, the British surrendered with a promise of safe passage to Allahabad. But as they pushed off into the river towards their haven, they were attacked by Nana Sahib’s men. Most were killed on the spot; 125 women and children were taken captive, only to die of fever or be slaughtered in a final purge soon after. Another focal point of British panic was Lucknow, where 7000 Europeans and loyal Indians holed up inside the Residency to endure a punishing summer under siege, in conditions of unremitting squalor and danger. In September 1857, General Sir Henry Havelock ‘relieved’ the city only to find himself effectively trapped inside it; in March 1858, hundreds of casualties later, Lucknow was finally liberated by British troops. It was not until 1859 that the mutiny was fully put down, and British rule restored and strengthened. Reprisals – then, as throughout the fighting – were savage.

The Indian Mutiny was about more than the gun cartridges, of course. But what exactly it was about would be debated for generations to come. Was this a purely military uprising that got out of hand, a failure of adequate discipline and intelligence? Was it the consequence of administrative mismanagement by the East India Company? Was it, as the early 20th-century nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar would insist, the first ‘Indian war of independence’? Was it a race war, or a war of religion? (Even what to call it remains a matter of considerable dispute: ‘rebellion’, ‘revolt’ or ‘uprising’ are often preferred to ‘mutiny’.) Competing portrayals in British writing are the subject of Gautam Chakravarty’s concise monograph, a study of the seventy or so novels about the mutiny published before 1914.

Chakravarty is at least as much concerned with contemporary historiography as he is with popular literature, so mutiny novels do not make a serious appearance until nearly halfway through the book. His overarching argument is that these novels absorbed and reworked historiography, first-hand accounts and contemporary policy debates. From the outset, British writers infused the mutiny with ideological and emotive significance. East India Company administrators made a point of stressing its military origins, pointing the finger at the army. Officers, in turn, sought to blame administrators for enacting policies that led to wider discontent, such as the unpopular annexation of Awadh in 1856. Many British commentators condemned the company, continuing a long tradition of Whig criticism; while the Muslim reformer Syed Ahmad Khan, in his 1858 Causes of the Indian Revolt, attributed the rebellion to the company’s unwillingness to incorporate Indian voices in its legislative council.

Apportioning blame for what had happened was one thing. Describing what happened was another. (It proved to be a lengthy and difficult business for the military historian John Kaye, who died in 1876 before completing his still standard History of the Sepoy War in India: in three volumes he had taken the narrative only to the end of 1857. More recently, Andrew Ward’s moving account of the mutiny at Kanpur weighs in at nearly 700 pages; volumes by Christopher Hibbert and Saul David hover around 500.) Seen from certain perspectives, what had happened was a complete collapse of British security, authority and intelligence. The first real mutiny novel, Edward Money’s The Wife and the Ward (1859), captured this frank, demoralising view by ending with the massacre of Kanpur, and the death of all the protagonists. Unsurprisingly, later novels would conclude on a brighter, triumphant note, making Kanpur less like the charge of the Light Brigade and more like the Alamo – a martyrdom gilded and redeemed by the victories that followed it.

The apogee of mutiny fiction came at the turn of the century, which should not startle anybody familiar with the jingoistic fervour of the ‘new imperialism’. As one might expect, novels from this period tended to be emphatically heroic, and featured muscular, Anglo-Saxon, Christian soldiers of the sort championed by Cecil Rhodes and Robert Baden-Powell. Thus the prolific G.A. Henty, who churned out more than a hundred boys’ adventures in a range of imperial settings, turned to the mutiny with In Times of Peril. His fellow adventure novelist Hume Nisbet’s hero Sammy Tompkins disguises himself as an Indian to spy on the sepoys at Meerut, and goes on to slaughter several of them (in Nisbet’s words) ‘as callously as if he had been a professional murderer’.

Sammy was not alone: several novels feature the plot device of Britons ‘going native’ to elude capture, or to infiltrate the ranks of the mutineers. Jim Douglas, the hero of Flora Annie Steel’s On the Face of the Waters (1896), stays in the heart of occupied Delhi in the guise of an Afghan horse-trader. The leading man of A.F.P. Harcourt’s Jenetha’s Venture (1899), Roland Ashby, ‘was a perfect linguist and could easily pass as a native of the country’. Women also take part in these cross-cultural charades. Kate Elston, Steel’s heroine, sets up house with Douglas in Delhi, pretending to be his Muslim wife, while Harcourt’s Jenetha Wentworth boldly takes off after her idol Ashby and, disguised as an old Indian woman, penetrates the Red Fort, where she becomes an invaluable British spy.

Such fictionalised accounts of Britons in Indian disguise rested on two strong historical precedents. As Chakravarty points out, first-person accounts of the mutiny often featured ‘frightened, fumbling attempts at “going native”’ as the path to escape and survival. (Or, in the case of mixed-blood Anglo-Indians, assertions of their Indian origins: one of James Skinner’s daughters, Elizabeth Wagentreiber, frequently invoked her father’s name and her part-Indian lineage as she shepherded her family out of rebel-held Delhi.) Disguise as a survival tactic figures less in the novels, however, than disguise as a strategy, and this also had roots in historical fact. Decades before Kipling sent his Indianised Irish urchin Kim into the Himalayas on the trail of Russian agents, East India Company operatives had disguised themselves, often as Muslim horse-dealers, in order to penetrate the lands beyond the North-West Frontier. From the 1860s, the surveyor Thomas Montgomerie began to map Tibet by training his Indian aides to dress up as Buddhist pilgrims, counting paces with their rosary beads. When Jim Douglas carries Kate safely out of Delhi only to charge back into the mêlée, saying ‘I am off to the palace to see what has really happened; information’s everything,’ he is indulging in more than plot-lengthening theatrics. He is acting out, in a different context, exactly the sort of dramatic espionage that made (and continues to make) stories of the Great Game so popular. One of Chakravarty’s most intriguing suggestions is that these mutiny novels of the 1890s are in some sense Great Game novels – which suddenly stops Kim looking unique.

You can almost hear the ‘culturally cross-dressed spy-hero’ crying out to postcolonial theorists for analysis. To assess these characters Chakravarty invokes Homi Bhabha’s influential essay ‘Of Mimicry and Man’, on the ways that colonised subjects emulated or adopted the culture of their colonisers. But where Bhabha’s mimic men challenge imperial authority by making a mockery of it, Chakravarty argues that these Britons in disguise work to bolster imperial power, to play out a ‘fantasy of mastery and colonial knowledge’. Getting inside the skin of the Indians is the ultimate statement of dominance: knowing them better than they do themselves.

Stressing the ‘anxieties’ of empire, as many scholars have done, can sometimes feel dissatisfying – not least because ‘anxiety’ seems too imprecise and feeble a term for describing the range of ways in which Britons responded to, or participated in, their nation’s overseas enterprises. Nevertheless, it is a little disappointing that Chakravarty essentially stops at reading these fictions as confirmations of high imperial stereotype. The strength of this book lies in the way it consistently relates literature to history and vice versa, and here it would be worth examining the link more closely.

By the 1890s the mutiny was comfortably a thing of the past, sanitised by time, victory and imperial consolidation. But the prospect of unsettling protest within India was not a thing of the past, particularly following the misbegotten partition of Bengal in 1905. On India’s frontiers, competition with Russia reached its most intense at exactly this time. Beyond India, the British Empire faced other serious challenges; and though Chakravarty correctly emphasises the centrality of war to Victorian Britain, the greatest of these wars, the Boer War, barely gets a look-in. Last but not least, there was the fact that the successful expansion of empire brought about increased reliance on the Indian Army, which was needed to hold down key possessions from Singapore to Egypt. Just how critical the sepoy army remained – and how cautious British commanders needed to be in deploying it – would be underscored during the First World War, when woefully ill-equipped sepoys came close to mutiny on the Western Front, and Indian forces in Mesopotamia, some of them Muslim, had to be persuaded to fight against fellow Muslims, in the wake of the Ottoman sultan and caliph’s declaration of jihad. Surely it is significant that British writers and readers revived stories of the mutiny at a time when the Indian Army was more vital than ever.

It is worth underscoring that these fantasies of penetration, assimilation and espionage corresponded to a period when Britons in India were far less tolerant of cross-cultural mixing than they had been before 1857. If anything worked to erode the cosmopolitan world of James Skinner (and his intermarried parents), it was the mutiny. One symptom of the increasing certitude that European and Indian communities must remain firmly separate was the British obsession with tales of the rape and murder of European women and children. Though Chakravarty can hardly be faulted for concentrating on literature, his specialism, it is a pity that visual representations rate at best passing mention. (Were these novels illustrated?) For instance, at much the same time that Charles Ball, in one of the first mutiny histories, luridly retailed reports of the ‘indescribable barbarities’ inflicted on British families (‘infants . . . torn from their mothers’ arms, and their little limbs chopped off’), visitors to the 1858 Royal Academy exhibition were shocked by Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s painting In Memoriam, which depicted British women, children and an Indian ayah cowering in a cellar as sepoys loomed at the door. So alarmed were viewers, indeed, that Paton was pressured into painting kilts onto the sepoys and transforming them into rescuing Highlanders. The mid-Victorian British imagination was only too keen to envision Indians in the darkest possible terms.

Chakravarty effectively demonstrates how the mutiny, surely Britain’s most desperate imperial scare, could end up, reworked into fiction, actually bolstering imperial self-confidence. That reworking emerged from the same spirit that turned Paton’s sepoys into Highlanders: an enforced segregation of Indian and Briton, a consolidation of military and political control. The suppression of the mutiny ended the founding fusion of British India: the nominal premise that the East India Company had been operating under the aegis of the Mughal emperor. In late 1858, Parliament abolished the East India Company and assumed the reins of government directly, commencing the Raj. Vengeance was visited on remnants of the Mughal regime. Much of the old city of Lucknow, for instance, was razed to the ground and replaced by wide, easily policed streets. British communities were placed in safe, fortified cantonments at some distance from native quarters. And the elderly, misty-eyed emperor himself, Bahadur Shah, who had been yanked by the mutineers out of his courtly world of poetry and song, found himself convicted of treason in a British military court and exiled to Rangoon. As for the mutineers themselves, they suffered British wrath most immediately; thousands were degraded, flogged and summarily hanged. Grisliest of all were the fates of mutineers tied to cannon barrels and blasted into hash.

Yet what did it say about the new British Raj that even this, its most vicious punishment, had been borrowed from the Mughals? For whatever impact the Indian Mutiny made on the British imagination, it could not entirely eradicate those earlier traditions on which imperial rule had been based. In post-mutiny India, legacies of fusion would persist alongside those of trauma, like the memorial plaques in St James’s Church.