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Mar 29, 2007 11:08 am

Thursday Notes

Tobias Seamon,"The Strange Case of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert," The Morning News, 20 March, Part I, Part II."When he arrived in Manhattan in 1630, Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert had a promising future. But cannibalism, sodomy, and a pet bear (not for sale) forever changed his life, and legacy." Hat tip.

Christopher Lydon,"The First Neo-Cons and ‘The Last Mughal'," Open Source, 28 March, interviews William Dalrymple, the author of The Last Mughal, City of Djinns, and White Mughals. You can listen as Ram Manikkalingam of the Universiteit van Amsterdam and our colleague, Manan Ahmed of the University of Chicago, join a remarkably powerful discussion.

Jacob Weisberg,"George Bush's Favorite Historian: The Strange Views of Andrew Roberts," Slate, 28 March. Weisberg is critical of both Roberts' perspective and his practice. Hat tip.

Finally, JibJab does"What We Call the News!"

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Sudha Shenoy - 3/31/2007

1. What a gloriously nationalistic painting! -- but there's been quite a bit of work over the last 50 years, since the Indian Govt's book was put out.

2. Those infamous cartridges: The arrangements were made in England (where the Indian situation was unknown) & the cartridges sent to India. The cartridges were _waiting_ to be issued, when objections were sent direct to the Govt of India on the 24th Jan 1857. On the 27th Jan (a Tuesday)orders were sent: _only_ British troops would use the new cartridges; Indian troops would grease their own cartridges with beeswax & vegetable oil; the cartidges would be broken with fingers. But by then the revolt was already under way.

The real problem was the General Service Emlistment Act of 1856. _New_ recruits were required to cross the sea if necessary. At that time, this meant loss of caste for Hindus.

3. In May 1857 in Meerut, troops refused to use cartridges -- _not_ the new ones. They were imprisoned. Troops released them from gaol that night, then massacred their British officers & their families. Later in Delhi the same thing happened. Some wives & children were killed a few days later. At Allahabad, a 'model regiment' murdered their British officers. At Shahjahanpur troops killed civilians & soldiers in church. Some British soldiers, a civilian, some women & children were sent to Lucknow. But the troops killed them en route.

At Kanpur the British troops surrendered to Nana Sahib who agreed to send them to Allahabad. The garrison were killed when they came out. 200 British women were imprisoned. When British troops were reported to be nearing Kanpur, NanaSahib ordered the women killed. Indian troops refused, so butchers [plural] were brought in.

4. The British reprisals were certainly savage. Villages were destroyed; large numbers of Indian 'mutineers' were summarily hanged etc.; Indian men -- civilians -- were massacred in Allahabad, Kanpur & Delhi.

See Philip Woodruff, The Men Who Ruled India, Vol I (1953)PP. 344-362. Also see R C Majumdar, The Sepoy Mutiny & Revolt of 1857 (1963.)

5. The situation in the towns & rural areas was patchy & also complex. The 'westernised' elites did not join the revolt, as did those rural groups who had adjusted to an expanding market. Supporters of the revolt were those who had not made the transition. This is a gross oversimplification.

For a close examination at the grass-roots level, see Eric Stokes, The Peasant & the Raj (1978), pp. 180-204. For a clear overview of the urban situation, see C A Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen, & Bazaars..1770-1870 (Indian ed 1992) pp. 359-66.

Andrew D. Todd - 3/29/2007

Well, the definitive book along those line, which George McDonald Fraser of the Flashman books would almost certainly have read, and which apparently provides the framework for William Dalrymple's work, is:

Surendra Nath Sen, Eighteen Fifty-Seven, The Publications Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi, India, 1957.

Here is an old reading note:
This is the official Indian history of the great mutiny, complete with a forward by the minister himself, written in reaction to the nineteenth century English hagiography of the mutiny.

One of Sen's major objectives is to rehabilitate the official villains of the English accounts of the mutiny, both the sepoys as a body, and specific Indian princes such as Nana Sahib and the Rani of Jhansi. So in enormous detail, he goes through a catalog of the episodes which constituted the mutiny, seeking to show that in nearly every instance, individual units of sepoys remained peaceful until their European officers sought to disarm or otherwise neutralize them, whereupon they refused obedience, but rarely harmed their officers, instead providing them with safe conduct. Likewise, native princes, the Ranee and Nana included, did their best under the circumstances to aid English fugitives, and very rarely took any part in massacres. Where the actual culprits in the more outrageous murders can be identified, they prove to be bandits, men of low caste (the man who literally butchered an English lady was in fact a butcher by trade, which would make him some kind of outcaste), and other undesirables, who took advantage of the disorder to break out in crime.

The cause of the mutiny was as much as anything a kind of collective English insensitivity to Indian religious beliefs and Indian ways in general, combined with the excesses of nineteenth century Christian evangelism. Admittedly, this evangelism did embrace reforms such as the suppression of suttee, but Sen stresses that there was a body of educated Indian opinion moving in the same direction. Further, many of the vaunted reforms of the English, such as the suppression of feudal tyranny, were deeply flawed in practice: hence he dwells upon the sheer scale of the looting practiced by the English soldiery, and even their officers, and the corruption which was the norm in a civil government presided over by Englishmen. In short, while Sen is forced to recognize the Later English Raj component of his own heritage, he resents the brutality with which it was imposed.
But at any rate, the English tendency was to ignore Indian feelings in the interests of efficiency. The English repeatedly sought to compel the sepoys to actions which would result in their ostracism from Hindu or Muslim society, not especially out of a desire to effect forcible conversion, but simply because these English were not prepared to take seriously a religion other than their own, nor to inconvenience themselves for it. That being the case, they found it intolerable that some 'native mumbo-jumbo' should prevent them from moving Indian troops by sea, sending them into foreign countries such as Afghanistan or even China. Likewise, in the face of the manifest superiority of the new Enfield rifle, they were disinclined to make many concessions about cartridges and ritual pollution. It must be added to this that many of the English (and the East India Company as a whole) were bureaucratic, and the Indians were still largely feudal-heroic. Repeatedly, the churnings of bureaucracy produced a result which the feudal mind, thinking of government as an individual and holding to the standards of personal integrity, could only describe as breach of faith. The army felt free to disavow the promises of subordinates, even while continuing to profit by the concessions those promises had won from Indians. Here Sen has drawn upon a shrewd point, recognizing the extent that even modern civilized men often find it impossible to ethically justify the behavior of the institutions in which they are enmeshed, and, at best, bear their normal treacheries with a stoic philosophy. One of the more poignant episodes is that of the English colonel who committed suicide to wipe away the shame of having unwittingly been the instrument through which his government betrayed his troops.

For the forty years preceding the mutiny, these insensitivities and treacheries had been provoking regular small mutinies, generally of a nonviolent character. The Indian princes and nobility had been having a generally similar experience at the expense of the civil government, whose principle criteria seemed to be revenue maximization, even to the point of expelling traditional landlords and replacing them by the worst sort of carpetbaggers. At a higher level, a princely house such as the Peshwa, from which sprang Nana Sahib, having submitted to being exiled to some Ganges town, would then have experienced arbitrary reduction of their pensions and civil status.

What made 1857 different from the other mutinies was the circumstance that a group of sepoys, driven into rebellion by a more than usually arbitrary officer, could find adjacent troops, princes, and nobles who after a certain amount of pressure would, variously from fear of the rebels, fear of being made to degrade themselves under English authority, and hope of having their old positions restored, make common cause with the rebels. Once a rebel army was in being, the news panicked English elsewhere into forcing unacceptable choices on their Indians, with the result that rebellion broke out elsewhere.

Ralph M. Hitchens - 3/29/2007

William Dalrymple concludes that the Sepoy Mutiny was "a defensive action against the rapid inroads that missionaries, Christian schools and Christian ideas were making in India." I'm anxious to read his new book and will get to it in time, but this word byte came as no surprise to me, having decades ago read George MacDonald Fraser's highly entertaining historical novel _Flashman in the Great Game_ which made (in passing) exactly the same point.

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