The British Empire Library

Rebels against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom

by Ramachandra Guha

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This is an account of seven people: one Irish (well Irish mother only; her father’s family seem English enough), five British and two American who devoted themselves during the 20th century to striving for Indian independence. There are actually several other people who might have appeared in this book but it is not till page 415 that we learn the author’s rather narrow criteria for inclusion. Mr Guha omits what he terms bridge-builders who sympathised with Indian home rule, but avoided the armed struggle or militant opposition. And finally all the subjects of the book made their way alone to India and were subsequently interned or deported.

Most readers will have heard of Annie Besant, the first subject. In the 1960s a biographer wrote her life in two volumes: The first five lives of Annie Besant and The last four lives of Annie Besant. These titles give a good idea of her passionate enthusiasm for a series of different radical ideas. She became successively a militant atheist, an advocate of birth control, a champion of Irish home rule, an activist for trades unions, Theosophy and finally Indian Home Rule. She was evidently an excellent speaker, but her sudden lurches from one extreme left-wing cause to another would have alienated many and while she could assist the India home-rule cause in India it must be doubtful how much influence she had in her homeland.

And here we come to an odd thing about this book. The earlier incarnations of Annie Besant are not mentioned. Instead we have ipsissima verba from almost every speech or pamphlet she produced on Indian home rule, but nothing about her activities in secularism, birth control or trades unions. This is the more surprising because Mr Guha says in his two-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi that what we may call the back-story of Gandhi’s involvement with South Africa as a young man is essential for a rounded picture of the man. I don’t doubt he is right about Gandhi’s career but it seems surprising that earlier events in the ‘rebels’ lives are largely missing from this book particularly so with B G Horniman. He was the son of a naval paymaster, went to Sandhurst and then suddenly chose to go into journalism starting on the Southern Daily Mail of Portsmouth and later the London papers: Morning Leader and Daily Express. He then inexplicably goes out to India at the age of 30 to join The Statesman. English readers will recognise the unusual surname, Horniman, as that of a successful British tea company.

Was he connected to them? Did that have anything to do with his espousing the cause of India independence? We do not know. The only possible clue is the fact that he was gay and therefore in India would hardly conform to the character of a pukka sahib. But that leads to another question. When Horniman became a thorn in the side of the Viceroy’s Government, did they know he was gay? Surely if they had, that might have simplified the Government’s efforts at silencing him. If they did not know, how incompetent were the intelligence-gathering organisations?

I must not exaggerate the lack of earlier history about the characters described in this book. No doubt some of them effectively didn’t have much of a back-story. Madelaine Slade was the daughter of a British naval officer, who learned of Gandhi from Romain Rolland and went to India to devote the rest of her life to him, taking the name Mira Behn. Catherine Heilemann, British but also of German descent, joined a school near Udaipur and later became a keen promoter of rural life and environmentalism under the name of Sarala Devi. Behn’s and Devi’s roles in the movements towards Indian independence and their involvement with Gandhi are handled with sensitivity. Mrs Besant’s high point as President of the 1917 Congress Session and her subsequent sidelining are treated sympathetically. To say the least it was odd that the leader of an independence movement was a British woman. The other ‘rebels’ were Samuel Stokes, an American Quaker; Philip Spratt, a British Communist, who became a journalist and Dick Keithahn, an American Lutheran who joined a Christian Mission in southern India, later founding ashrams and promoting land donation. This is a moving book and its points are fair, well presented and argued. Mr Guha is a meticulous and engaging craftsman.

British Empire Book
Ramachandra Guha
William Collins
Review Originally Published
Spring 2023 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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