The British Empire Library

Mutiny at the Margins: New Perspectives on the Indian Uprising of 1857 Volume 2 Britain and the Indian Uprising

Edited by Andrea Major and Crispin Bates

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Historical writing on the 1857 uprising has long gone beyond the clash of perspectives between Indian nationalist historians, for whom the revolt was the first war of independence, and apologists for empire for whom it was primarily an army mutiny. lt was not the first such in the East India Company's army, but the first that seriously threatened British control of its relentlessly expanding Indian territories. The search for what Disraeli called 'adequate causes' of the revolt began as soon as the news travelled - always some weeks behind the events themselves. Taking part in the search - or the heart-searching - were politicians and imperial administrators, the media, the non-government institutions - notably the Christian missionaries who had spread under imperial protection and who claimed a voice in policy making.

This volume is one in a series of seven, of which four have so far been published, arising out of a major research project, in which historians from Britain, India and the United States explore contemporary and later accounts of the revolt, either revisiting established interpretations or writing from the point of view of 'ordinary' people who were caught up in the events, 'at the margins'. The editors advise that each volume is to be read 'in the light of the others' and this reviewer has only seen the volume under review. However the volumes and each of the chapters within them can stand alone. They include hitherto ignored or unregarded first - hand accounts, analysed in distinctly contemporary ways , with gendered, national Scots or Irish, religious denominational, class and occupational perspectives.

Rebecca Merritt traces the evolution of press and public perceptions of the Uprising. Initially she sees a common need of the press in Britain to construct a grand ideological narrative which would underpin a commitment to maintain British rule. This gives way later to more fragmented accounts. Responsibility or blame is shifted among people and institutions for whom a British imperial role was justified on mutually contradictory grounds. Salahuddin Malik dissects popular British interpretations, and in particular the 'Muslim conspiracy' theories once dominant as explanations of the revolt. Andrea Major analyses the debate about religious influences on the revolt. Was it a reaction to excess missionary zeal or a punishment for lack of support by the East India Company for Christian evangelisation? She cites the view that post-1857 there was a 'feminisation' of missionary activity, educational and medical missionary activity taking priority over 'muscular Christian' evangelisation.

The debate had implications for other parts of the empire especially Jamaica, the Caribbean and Southern Africa, for whom the Indian revolt called into question the real strength of imperial control. Esther Breitenbach examines Scottish Presbyterian opinion because their missionary activity was in areas largely unaffected by the revolt - the lesson was 'business as usual'. There was little discussion of the unrest or its causes which might have cast doubt on the value of missionary work. The Scottish missionary Alexander Duff. whose account of The Indian rebellion: Its ca uses and results was widely read, acknowledged that there was general hostility among Indians to the British, and he agreed with Disraeli's view that the Uprising had not just been a military revolt. But in contrast to Disraeli he used this as an argument for renewed active Christianisation.

Caroline Lewis analyses the writing , public and private , of two women missionaries, Jane Goodenough (who had been held captive with other European and Indian Christians in Agra Fort), and Mary Weitbrecht, the wife of a missionary and a celebrated propagandist for the missionary cause. Caroline Lewis sees contrasting gender perspectives. One stresses the courage of the manly male missionary in the face of danger and hardship. The other presents the female missionary as an independent agent. Lewis notes in Jane Goodenough's letters from captivity a differentiation of the attitudes of missionaries towards Indians from those of the general European community. In a welcome defiance of post-modern critical sensitivities, several chapters have Indian scholars writing about British views, as well as British about Indian.

imperialism, including Irish and Scottish differentiation of their own patriotism from that of the British - a counter to the view that the revolt consolidated ideas of British national identity. Michael H. Fisher writes on 'being Indian' in Britain in 1857. There was a substantial number of poor south Asians or Indians living in Britain at the time, whose presence has often been overlooked and their views ignored. Sarmistha De looks at marginalised 'lower class' Europeans, including sailors recruited to reinforce European elements in the Indian army. Ira Bhattacharya writes on the experience of 'subaltern' British men and women in 1857 who had little or no stake in the ideology of empire. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones writes on the predicament of marginalised groups both Indian and British, of Indian Christians, mixed race communities, civilians and soldiers' widows, and the many thousands of Indians who were working for the British at the time of the Uprising. In a concluding chapter Jill Bender writes on the career of Sir George Grey, Governor of Cape Colony in 1857 and his initiative in sending relief to India without specific orders. Colonial Office policy-making was highly centralised and Grey's actions were not welcomed by officials in London, but they had an important influence on subsequent thinking on imperial governance. Altogether this book is a stimulating and scholarly work of enjoyable variety.

British Empire Book
Andrea Major and Crispin Bates
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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