The events of 1857 Part II


“Attack of the Mutineers on the Redan Battery at Lucknow”, 30 July 1857

To the insurgents too, Lucknow was important. The siege of the Residency provided a sustained focus for the revolt in Awadh. The longer it lasted, the more committed became both Hindu and Muslim participants and the more persuaded became the great rural taluqdars. Lucknow flourished again as a source of power and authority. A supposed son of the last nawab was enthroned, and a skeleton administration set up in his name. It lasted until March 1858 when the city finally fell to the largest British army, as opposed to Sepoy army, ever mustered in India. Suppressing the insurgency in the rest of Awadh took another year, plus a complete reversal of the 1856 land settlement. But with the fall of Lucknow and the ruthless sacking of this ‘Babylon of India’ the Great Rebellion lost all momentum.

The final scenes of defiance occurred to the south of the Jamuna in the wilder territory, mostly under princely rule, between the Chambal and Betwa rivers. This was Bundelkhand and amongst its states was that of Jhansi, a small Maratha principality south of Scindhia’s Gwalior which had been annexed under Dalhousie’s ‘doctrine of lapse’. Lakshmi Bai, the last raja’s widow, made a strong impression on those British who took over her state. She was ‘of high character [and] much respected by everyone’; she was also comparatively young and possessed of ‘many charms’ and ‘a remarkably fine figure’. Although, like the Mughal and the Nana Sahib, she had a strong grievance against the British, she too seems to have played no part in the mutiny of the Bengal troops stationed in Jhansi. There, in a carbon copy of events in Kanpur, the small British community had sought refuge in the local fort but soon accepted proposals for its evacuation. They then straggled out under what they thought was a safe-conduct and were promptly massacred. Again Lakshmi Bai may have been innocent. She blamed the mutinous troops and insisted that she too had been their victim, having been forced to part with funds and her few guns. The mutineers then marched off to Agra and Delhi leaving her implicated and defenceless.

No British troops were available to deal with this comparatively minor affair, but the rani soon found herself challenged both by a rival claimant to her husband’s defunct title and by the neighbouring rajput rajas of Datia and Orchha. When the latter invaded Jhansi, supposedly on behalf of the British, she began raising troops and herself led them in repulsing the assault. This was in September and October 1857. It is notable that the rani’s considerable military reputation was first acquired fighting not the British but local rivals and that, though her forces were drawn largely from elements who had aligned themselves with the Rebellion, in her correspondence she continued to protest her fidelity to the British. In effect old dynastic scores were being settled and new opportunities exploited under cover of the Rebellion.

The situation changed in early 1858 with the northward advance of a section of the British Bombay army. Having received no encouragement from her various letters to the British, the rani and her advisers rightly assumed that her reassertion of Jhansi’s sovereignty was threatened and her own safety in danger. Now, if not earlier, she definitely became reconciled to rebellion and established contact with Tatya Topi, the Nana Sahib’s protégé who had established himself at Kalpi on the Jamuna. When the British laid siege to Jhansi in March, Tatya came to her aid but was repulsed. After a ferocious resistance led by Lakshmi Bai herself, Jhansi fell; but of its fearless commander, ‘the Jezebel of India’ as a fanciful British writer called her, there was no sign. In one of those hair’s-breadth escapes so dear to Maratha folklore, she slipped out in disguise with a trusty band of followers and rode hard for Kalpi.

Thereabouts the combined insurgents were again worsted, but on 1 June 1858 they responded with the boldest move of the whole Rebellion. Just when the British thought they had finally dislodged them from Bundelkhand, Lakshmi Bai and Tatya Topi seized Gwalior. As Scindia’s capital and still the greatest natural stronghold in India, Gwalior was well-chosen for a final stand. Scindia himself, while remaining loyal to the British, had been pretending sympathy for the insurgents as a way of detaining the large body of mutinous troops based in Gwalior. An appeal in the name of the peshwa, Scindia’s one-time superior in the Maratha hierarchy, failed to sway him; but it did serve to disabuse his troops. With their collaboration, Tatya Topi and the rani entered the city, paid their forces from its accumulated riches, and duly ensconced themselves on central India’s ‘Heights of Abraham’.

This tableau, so dear to nationalist lore, lasted barely three weeks. It ended when Lakshmi Bai died the death of the heroine she undoubtedly was. While riding round the ramparts, she was hit by a spray of bullets as the British launched their first assault. She was cremated nearby, ‘the only man among the rebels’ according to one of her British adversaries. Three days later the citadel fell and with it the last attempt at concerted action by the insurgents. Tatya and his followers would roam through Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh for another year of improbable and much-embellished escapades before he was betrayed, captured and executed. Meanwhile the Nana Sahib and the rump of the Awadh insurgents were penned ever closer to the Nepalese border. By 1860 even these ‘embers’ had been doused or dispersed. Their cause was anyway hopeless, not least because many of the grievances on which it rested had by then been addressed.

Measured in terms of concessions the Great Rebellion was far from being a disaster for the insurgents. Obviously the British made sure that military vulnerability would never again be the undoing of the Raj. By 1863 the Indian component in the Bengal, Bombay and Madras armies had been reduced by about 40 per cent and the British component increased by nearly 50 per cent. This gave an Indian–British ratio of less than 3:1, which was henceforth considered the bare minimum; in 1857 it had been more like 9:1. No Indian troops were now given artillery training; recruitment was increasingly switched from Awadh and Bihar to the Panjab and marginal hill regions whose supposedly ‘martial peoples’ were deemed more reliable and less paranoid about caste-loss; at the same time deployment was so organised as to avoid a concentration anywhere of units with the same composition. Rapid expansion of the railway system and of the telegraph further precluded the danger of mutiny. The 250 kilometres of track laid by 1856 had become 6400 by 1870 and sixteen thousand by 1880. Moreover in 1869 the opening of the Suez Canal slashed journey times between Europe and India, while the 1870 completion of an overland telegraph link brought closer co-ordination of imperial policies and more supervision from London.

The issue of the offending cartridges had, of course, long since been resolved. The troops now greased them themselves with whatever lubricant they preferred; moreover in 1867 the whole procedure became unnecessary when the breech-loading rifle made its Indian debut. Other concessions which addressed the underlying causes of the ‘mutiny’ were much more significant. In recognition of the fact that the mutineers had genuinely feared conversion to Christianity, missionary activity was curtailed and the public funding of mission schools reduced. Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1858 specifically disclaimed any ‘desire to impose Our convictions on any of Our subjects’ and ordered British officials to abstain from interfering with Indian beliefs and rituals ‘on the pain of Our highest displeasure’.

The reforming zeal of the Bentinck era was also repudiated. Already out of fashion in Britain, the presumed omniscience of Utilitarians and Benthamites was recognised as particularly inappropriate in India and the attempt to legislate away discriminatory traditions and eccentric practices was largely abandoned. An exception was made in respect of education; more schools were part-funded by government and the English language continued to be promoted. But the idea that extending the benefits of British rule to all Indians was a moral imperative lost favour. In particular the process of absorbing the Indian states and of eliminating hereditary revenue farmers was reversed. The taluqdars of Awadh, stigmatised as parasites in 1856 and rebels in 1857, had only to clear themselves of shedding British blood to emerge as faithful allies in 1858. Recognised as having a genuine hold on the loyalties as well as the remittances of their cultivating subordinates, they were confirmed in the hereditary possession of their rights and also co-opted into the British administration as local magistrates. Like Bengal’s zamindars and other rural aristocracies they joined the British Indian hierarchy as rajas and rais and became some of its most stalwart supporters.

Likewise their princely brethren of the Indian states. Although annexed states like Awadh were not restored, there were to be no further annexations. Existing treaties with India’s five hundred princes were now to be ‘scrupulously maintained’ while the detested ‘doctrine of lapse’ did just that; it lapsed. With few exceptions, the princes had remained loyal during the rebellion; in British eyes such loyalty now commanded a higher premium than enlightened rule.

The status of the princes was further enhanced by a new constitutional relationship between Britain and India. The royal proclamation of 1858 announced a decision of the British Parliament that all rights previously enjoyed by the East India Company in India were being resumed by the British Crown. Victoria thereby became Queen of India as well as of the United Kingdom, and India’s governor-general became her viceroy as well as the British government’s chief executive in India. The fiction of Company rule thus finally ended. Long as irrelevant as the Mughal, the Company now shared his fate as a casualty of the Rebellion. Instead of pining away in Rangoon, it would linger on for a few more years in a London office ‘unhonoured and unsung, but maybe not altogether unwept’.