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Aug 24, 2007 3:29 pm


1857 Revisited



2007 is the sesquicentenary of the Indian Revolt, known to some as the first war of Indian independence and to others as the Indian or Sepoy Mutiny. Among several new books published on this topic is Amaresh Misra’s War of Civilisations: India, AD 1857 (New Delhi: Rupa & Co.), in which the author argues that British reprisals involved the killing of ten million persons, spread over ten years.

According to Misra, Britain came perilously close to losing its most prized possession: India. He claims that although conventional histories have counted only 100,000 Indian soldiers who were slaughtered in savage reprisals, none have tallied the number of rebels and civilians killed by British forces desperate to impose order.

Misra's casualty claims have been challenged in India and Britain."It is very difficult to assess the extent of the reprisals simply because we cannot say for sure if some of these populations did not just leave a conflict zone rather than being killed," said Shabi Ahmad, head of the 1857 project at the Indian Council of Historical Research."It could have been migration rather than murder that depopulated areas."

Misra sees the events as the first war of Indian independence, a story of a people rising to throw off the imperial yoke, and his analysis breaks new ground by claiming the fighting stretched across India rather than accepting it was localised around northern India. Misra says there were outbreaks of anti-British violence in southern Tamil Nadu, near the Himalayas, and bordering Burma."It was a pan-Indian thing. No doubt." He also claims that the uprisings did not die out until years after the original mutiny had fizzled away, countering the widely held view that the recapture of Delhi was the last important battle. Critics say the intentions and motives were more muddled: a few sepoys misled into thinking the officers were threatening their religious traditions. In the end British rule prevailed for another 90 years.

The debate isn’t just about history but also the character of Indian nationalism today. Misra asks Who killed India’s 1857 legacy? Readers may also be interested in his article, A Million Mutinies, which is based on his book.

Blogger Kanjisheik looks at the Revolt of 1857 and reviews Misra’s new book.

Amaresh Misra has written three other books: a history of Lucknow, India (HarperCollins, 1998); a biography of Mangal Pandey (Mangala Pande, d. 1857), who led the Sepoy Mutiny (Rupay, 2005), and a novel, The Minister’s Wife (Penguin, 2002).

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Sudha Shenoy - 8/27/2007

1. The regulating Acts related to relationships between the British govt & the Board of Directors in London. Essentially, there was a (nominal) Board of Control, consisting of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Secretary of State & four other Privy Councillors (hence, 'nominal'.) In practice, it was the President who communicated privately with the G-G in India. Most Presidents were hack politicians. The vast bulk of the correspondence was done by the Directors of the Company.

The G-G & the Governors of the 'Presidencies'(Bombay & Madras) were effectively govt nominees, through the Directors. See P J Marshall, Problems of Empire: Britain & India 1757-1813 (1968), pp. 46-49, 102.)

2. As Hastings said, Bengal is two years away from London (p. 29.) "The effective govt of British India was located in India" (p. 53). All the key decisions were taken in India "without prior consultation" (p. 52). "...all the Company's conquests had in fact taken place without the prior consent of the...Directors" (p. 63.) The Board of Control & the Directors could only "...ratify decisions already taken in India or protest ineffectually against them" (p. 102)."...for the most part opinion at home reconciled itself to news of events rather than determining their course" (p. 77).

2. "The...territories in India were conquered by troops...employed by the Company & not..the Crown; they were..governed in the name of the East India Company & not..George III, by servants of the Company, not..royal officials" (p. 21.) In 1765, "...the East India Company had become a regional Indian power of some consequence...[it] had won power through Indian political processes & [its] rule depended on...Indian taxation levied through Indian administrative systems" (Marshall, ch 22 in Oxford Hist of the British Empire, vol 2 (1998) p. 505).

C A Bayly refers to the 'Kampani raj' (as it was known in India) as "a part-Oriental, part-European state" (Indian Society & the Making of the British Empire, 1988, p. 106, also see p. 144).

3. The East India Company established a college at Haileybury to train 'cadets' who would come out to India to administer its territories. The Company army, as mentioned, was its own private army. What changed after 1858: (a) Home civil servants & members of the Indian Civil service were drawn from the same pool of those who had passed the Civil Service exams. Only a tiny number went into the ICS, of course (b) A Secretary of State for India was appointed with (I believe) Cabinet rank, if not actual membership, & an India Office created (c) There was an Indian Army & Navy, with British & later Indian officers, with training in Sandhurst (& wherever Naval officers are trained).

Thus when the Crown took over in 1858, the administration of British India became a direct responsibility of the British govt.

4. The East India Company ceased to be a political ruler in 1858. Its administrators were absorbed into the new Crown administration & its army & navy became the core of the British Indian Army & Navy.

5. The references given above: Marshall is brilliant. The introduction to 'Problems of Empire' gives a close reading of the ideas held & the discussions conducted before the various regulating Acts were passed. Ch 22 in the OHBE vol 2 provides a summary of political developments in India from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century, developments in which the Company was embedded. The impact of Anglo-French wars, esp the Napoleonic wars, is summarised admirably.

Bayly supplies an excellent account of the 'Kampani raj' from the late 17th century (in South India) to the revolt of 1857. He also covers social, religious, & economic changes. He refers just once to the regulating Acts & "...the Board of Control by which govts sought to control Indian affairs in London" (p. 76.)


Mark Brady - 8/27/2007

Thank you, Sudha, for your response.

I carelessly stated that the British East India Company was created by the British parliament. As you pointed out, it was chartered by Elizabeth I. However, as you know, a series of regulating acts (1773, 1784, 1786, 1813, 1833 and 1853) enabled the British government to assert control over the company and to truncate and modify the company's powers and responsibilities.

You write "There was a fundamental change in the political environment in 1858, when the Crown took over the administration of the East India Company's territories." Certainly the East India Company pretty much shut up shop that year. (It was dissolved on January 1, 1874.) However, in view of the huge changes enacted since 1773, would you agree that the British government was the principal player long before 1858?


Sudha Shenoy - 8/26/2007

1. There was a fundamental change in the political environment in 1858, when the Crown took over the administration of the East India Company's territories. That is why the political map remained unchanged until 1947. If the 1857 revolt was against the British, then the British ousted the British in 1858, because of the revolt against the British, & the British then contd to 1947. This is not adequate as an historical account.(See further.)

2. The East India Company was chartered by Elizabeth I in 1600. James I later renewed & extended the charter in exchange for a loan. It was officially a monopoly, but 'private' merchants quickly found their way out to India. The Dutch East India Company remained a formidable competitor until the early 18th century. The large investments needed for the India trade (voyages might take a year to complete) made it difficult for others to compete.

The Company remained a trader through the 17th century. Its trade expanded substantially. It was only with the break-up of the Mughal Empire after Aurangzeb's death in 1707, that it started to acquire soldiers & territory. In the political circumstances of the Indian sub-continent, it was necessary to fortify & defend the warehouses where goods were gathered for the ships that came with every SW monsoon. The territory nearby was also defended, where the weavers who worked for the Company settled. (Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, all started life as Company trading posts.)

The real change came around 1757. By that time the Company's trade in Bengal was firmly intermeshed with that of the local Indian merchants who helped finance it, & obtain cloth for export to SEAsia & England. A new young Nawab of Bengal raised exactions on both the Company & the Indian merchants, then expelled the Company from its trading post, Calcutta. Clive recaptured Calcutta. Then the Indian merchants intrigued with the Company to depose the Nawab & replace him with another. After a few more political shenanigans, there came the skirmish known as the Battle of Plassey. After this, the Company took over tax-collections in Bengal & Bihar, as the agent of _the Mughal Emperor_. This was the real start of the Company as a _political_ player in the complex situation of 18th century India. The London Directors always opposed these political activities by the men in India.

Apart from the Company, there were the Marathas, who acquired far more territory than the Company by the early 19th century; various rulers of old Mughal provinces (like Hyderabad); the Sikhs; the Rajputs; & numerous South Indian rulers. Thus the Company was only one amongst many powers acquiring territory through the 18th & early 19th century.

The British govt became interested because in the mid-18th century the French govt chartered an East india Company, acquired trading posts, & got involved with various Indian rulers seeking to extend their territory against their Indian rivals. The British govt then, over the protests of the London directors, used Company troops + British troops to counter the French, from time to time through the 18th & early 19th century.

Thus by 1857, the Company was one of a number of powers in India, with various territories in different parts of the sub-continent. These then became British India in 1858. They remained unchanged to 1947. The Indian rulers of 1858 remained in situ until 1947.

3. 'Pop' history is often, not always, badly-researched 'history', by non-specialists. It does not further our understanding.

4. If the death toll went as high as ten million, then why/how have historians missed it till now? Even the official hagiography produced by the Indian govt in 1957 didn't say anything of the sort. And there's been ample research on the revolt.

See (inter alia): R C Majumdar, The Sepoy Mutiny and revolt of 1857 (1963). For the British view: Philip Woodruff, The Men Who Ruled India Vol 1 (1953)pp.344-362. He does not mince his words about the British reprisals, including the massacre of civilians. For a close examination of the grass-roots: Eric Stokes, The Peasant & the Raj (1978) pp.180-204. The urban situation: C A Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen & Bazaars (Indian ed 1992) pp.359-66 (a very clear survey.)


Mark Brady - 8/26/2007

1. What is your point? Please clarify.

2. Again, what is your point? I agree the East India Company is not the British government. That said, it was a trading monopoly created by the British parliament.

3. What exactly do you mean by "pop" history? Is it the same as popular history, which can be good, bad or indifferent.

4. Good questions. Perhaps the actual death toll lies between 100,000 and ten million figures. I'm interested in reading more.


Sudha Shenoy - 8/24/2007

1. If the 1857 revolt was against the British, then who took over in _1858_, & ruled till 1947? The Melanesians?

2. The East India Company is not, & never was, the British Govt. The Company began as a trading company & remained a trader for well over two centuries. After about a century or so, it _also_ gradually became one of the many powers ruling over various larger & smaller territories, in various parts of India.

Precisely because of the revolt in 1857, the Crown took over the Company's Indian territories in 1858. Queen Victoria then issued her famous proclamation promising equal treatment of all those who had _now_ become her subjects (etc.) The political map of India then remained unchanged till 1947. The Crown held the same territories in 1947 as it did in 1858. The various Indian rulers held the same territories in 1947 as they had in 1858.

3. Amaresh Misra's forte is the history of north Indian classical music. His two books are in the nature of 'pop' history.

The great Gangetic heartland in which the revolt occurred, constitutes a largish chunk of India. Territory 'near the Himalayas' forms only the northern borders of this area; & the areas 'bordering Burma' are inhabited by various 'tribal' peoples -- then & now. And 'southern Tamil Nadu' is several worlds away -- entirely different language-family (never mind language), vast differences in culture. The North Indian sepoys revolted in the name of the Mughal Emperor held captive in Delhi. Why would South Indian Hindus want to put a Muslim emperor on the throne, thousands of miles away?

4. How have historians missed these tens of millions of Indians killed? Which regiments did the killing? Where are the War Office orders authorising the killings? Where are these operations found in the various regimental histories/ histories of the British Army in India?

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