This year is the 150th anniversary of the greatest armed rising against British imperialism the world has seen. It began as a mutiny of the largest army in Asia – the East India Company’s Bengal Presidency Army – and turned into a general rising of the peasantry across the whole of what today is northern India.
India at the time was dominated by the British in the shape of the East India Company – a private corporation that, following the Battle of Plassey in 1757, had transformed itself into a representative of British sovereignty on the subcontinent.
But 1857 saw the disintegration of Company rule. The rebellion stretched from great urban centres such as Delhi and Lucknow through to the smallest villages. Every symbol associated with British authority was targeted – government buildings, courts, jails and even post offices.
As the mutiny progressed, soldiers merged into the local peasantry. They attacked record offices associated with rent collection, destroying not only European property but also that of local moneylenders and businessmen.
Telegraph offices – the sinews of British power – were also destroyed, but not before they were used to spread the revolt. Out of a force of some 139,000 troops, only 7,800 remained under British command by the end of the year – and their loyalty was regarded as doubtful.
The Bengal Presidency Army – or Sepoys, as they were commonly known – had been at the heart of Britain’s wars of conquest inside India itself and around the world. From Russia to Burma, from China to Afghanistan, the Sepoys fought and died for the British.
India was the barracks of British imperialism and the Bengal Sepoys were the major engine of what had become a perpetual motion machine of violence, conquest and “loot” (a word taken from Indian languages).
This process of pillage and accumulation was central to the formation of the global capitalist system.
Just one year before they mutinied, the Sepoys had taken part in the repression of the Santhal uprising of tribal peasants. Out of 50,000 Santhal rebels, some 20,000 were killed. This was just one of a series of peasant risings in India that punctuated Company rule in the first half of the 19th century.
The revolts were hardly surprising – land revenue collected by the British in India was 70 percent greater than that collected previously. It amounted to a quarter of the revenue of the British state, then presiding over the industrial revolution.
This money was used to break into the vast military labour market of the Mughal empire, India’s previous rulers, and thus secure a monopoly of armed force on the subcontinent.
But getting hold of this revenue involved more wars to subdue the various successor states of the old Mughal empire, whether Islamic, Sikh or Hindu. These military campaigns lasted the best part of 100 years from the Battle of Plassey through to the Sepoy Mutiny itself.
The initial spark for the revolt began in Meerut, a military camp near Delhi, when soldiers refused to use new rifle cartridges because of rumours that the grease was made up of a mixture of pork and beef fat.
Having to bite such cartridges to load their rifles would be blasphemous to Hindus and Muslims.
No mercy was shown to Christians, whether European or Indian. The issue of religion was becoming bound up with resistance to British rule.
However British annexation of the kingdom of Oudh, which meant the loss of land for 40,000 of the Sepoys, casts doubt on whether religion should occupy such a central place in explaining the mutiny.
The other two Presidency Armies of Madras and Bombay remained largely unaffected. After all, the Sepoys had no problem with using their cartridges against the British during the mutiny.
Wider controversies have emerged out of debates among historians about the role of the rebellion in world history.Was it a backward looking attempt to restore the old landed classes and political elites of the pre-Company era, or was it a precursor of modern anti-colonial nationalism?
Were peasants drawn into the rebellion by their landlords and established political elites threatened by British reforms? Or were landlords and old elites forced to join the rebellion as British authority disintegrated, leaving them confronted by an armed and mobilised peasantry?
Was the final defeat of the rebellion inevitable? And if not, what would the consequences have been of the destruction of imperialism’s main military engine, both for India itself and the subsequent history of global capitalism?
William Dalrymple’s book The Last Mughal is a new popular history of the rebellion that focuses on the fate of Bahadur Shah II in his court in Delhi.
Dalrymple does not answer these central questions, partly because his focus emphasises the old elites and the British, rather then the new forces that confronted them. But he does raise issues central to contemporary controversies about religion, politics, and imperialism.
For what has bewildered generations of historians is the way that the centrality of religious symbols during the revolt fuelled unity between the subcontinent’s Hindus and Muslims, rather than increasing such divides – a dynamic most historians assume to be inevitable.
Slogans emphasised the threat of the Christian “ferengees” (foreigners) to both Muslims and Hindus. The Sepoys, typically upper caste Hindus, flocked to Delhi, the seat of the old Islamic Mughal empire, and demanded that its sovereignty be restored.
In Oudh, the storm centre of rebellion, the Sepoys promised to restore the authority of the old elites only if they swore solemn oaths of fealty to the Muslim emperor and turned their backs on the “disloyal” British.
These demands reflected a desire to return to the emerging order of relatively independent sovereigns of various religions operating under the broader umbrella of Islamic “suzerainty”. This was a decentralised system of rule emerging in the 18th century, inherited by the British, who wrote it off as “Oriental despotism”.
Dalrymple’s main focus, however, is on the way the foundations of the modern British Raj, which replaced Company rule after 1857, were laid in the bloody and brutal repression that followed the mutiny.
This “devil’s wind”, as it was called, shaped both the fervent racism and the religious bigotry of the British Empire. It also sparked the emergence of fundamentalisms, Hindu and Muslim, which have distorted Indian politics since.
One very useful part of the book is the documentation of what some historians call the “Delhi Renaissance”. Dalrymple demonstrates how new currents of thought – cultural, religious and scientific – flourished in the Mughal capital, before being destroyed by the British.
Razed to the ground
The British killed every single male adult they found in Delhi, forced the women and children out of the city, then razed to the ground some of its greatest monuments.
For all the talk of “Muslim backwardness”, it transpires that Muslim modernisation was eradicated by the British – along with whole sections of people who had been the standard bearers of a new culture.
It was in the aftermath of this repression that the foundations of what is today called “Islamic fundamentalism” emerged. The British strengthened the old Hindu landowning and trading elites, as a new Islamophobia came to obsess the Raj.
The changing balance of social forces that resulted had much to do with the later shape of both communalism and nationalism in India.
All this provides excellent material for socialists. Typically we are told that modern capitalism, along with many modern progressive ideas, emerged on the basis of colonial conquest. What such arguments neglect is that imperialism was a deranged vehicle for such “progress” producing many of the horrors wrongly associated with previous “tradition”.
The possibility opened up by Dalrymple’s approach – that these things might have developed differently – contains important pointers to reassessments of the Sepoy rebellion and its more global significance.
There are however some difficulties with Dalrymple’s book which readers should be warned about. He draws too sharp a contrast between post-mutiny racism and an earlier period when British colonial officials had more respect for Indian culture.
In doing so he underplays the violence, bloodshed, and plunder of Company rule in the proceeding period. He obscures the social basis of an earlier generation of colonial officials, who often had Indian wives and “went native”, but were fabulously rich – which was only made possible by the use of military force against starving peasants
This neglect of the material framework of ideological exchanges between British officials and Indian subjects opens the door to rehabilitating the idea of empire. This material framework ensured that the benefits of enlightenment were available only to a narrow elite.
Dalrymple has a tendency to see many features of the rebellion in the same light as this elite – a bunch of uncivilised marauders, as opposed to an armed anti-colonial insurgency – and neglects much recent historical work that questions this picture.
These debates and others are bound to receive a thorough airing this year as the anniversary of the Sepoy Mutiny looms. But whatever the contradictions of the great rebellion, socialists should celebrate an event that destroyed the East India Company, shook the British empire – and inspired later generations of people battling against imperialism.
The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £25. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com
John Game is researching labour history at the SOAS in London