Bounty from a mutiny

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The Indian Mutiny, 1857

by Saul David

Penguin/Viking, 20

Review by Roger Hutchinson

One day in the early years of the 20th century, a Catholic priest in the city of Cawnpore in the north of British India was called out to give the last rites to an old lady in the local bazaar.

Having expected, we must assume, to minister to some anonymous elderly Eurasian or native convert, the priest was astonished - more astonished than it is possible for us to realise - when the occupant of the death-bed revealed herself to bear the name of Margaret Wheeler.

What images must have been conjured by the resurrection of that woman. What sounds and smells of blood, heat, dust and violent death; what seismic uncertainties. For Margaret Wheeler had been, just 50 years earlier, one of the emblematic figures of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 - the mutiny that had to all intents and purposes claimed her life.

Wheeler was in 1857 the 18-year-old virgin daughter of the commander of the Cawnpore garrison, General Hugh Massy Wheeler. Hardly any Europeans survived the insurrection there. After a ferocious siege most them were massacred following a false armistice from the rebel leader Nana Sahib.

Young Margaret herself, it was reported, had been seized by a sowar, an Indian cavalryman, named Nizam Ali Khan. But rather than submit to his lust she had killed firstly Khan and then herself. This tableau of perfect British female virtue, the girl who chose death before dishonour, became the subject of numerous Victorian engravings and stage reconstructions.

She may as well have died, as she well knew. In fact, she seems to have settled down with Khan in the Indian quarter of Cawnpore, refusing to contact her surviving family for fear of getting her husband into trouble, and voluntarily releasing her astonishing secret only in her final hour. Her priest may reasonably have wondered if the ripples from the explosion of the Indian Mutiny would ever fall upon a final, peaceful shore.

The momentous events in northern India between 1857 and the official declaration of a state of peace two years later have never been short of chroniclers. But they belong in the short list of British historical phenomena, which clearly require re-working for successive generations. Saul David has provided the 21st- century version with a brilliant display of literary history that escapes the word "definitive" only out of deference to its inexhaustible subject matter.

In common with most of his predecessors, David provides a Eurocentric account. It is possible to revise the mutiny from an Indian viewpoint but hardly at all from Indian sources, as those primary sources are and always have been thin on the ground. Not many mutineers were literate in any language, and those who survived the terrible British revenge were reluctant to pen their memoirs.

Saul David is of a generation of historians who grew up not only beyond living memory of the mutiny, but also in a post-imperial Britain. He has no personal or patriotic axe to grind. The further we get from 1857 the more capable we are of attempting a degree of cool rationality, which was impossible until comparatively recently.

A mere 150 years later, such a study reveals to us only one certainty: that northern India was in 1857 possessed by collective insanity which led both sides of the conflict to resort to the kind of barbarity which could be described as medieval, if that was not a slur on the Middle Ages.

The cause is obvious. It was not cartridges greased with pork or beef fat; it was not greedy rajahs or ungrateful sepoys or fanatical fundamentalists. The cause was British imperialism. British writers from 1857 to the present day have had difficulty with the Indian Mutiny because it presents them with a unresolvable dilemma: were all Indians responsible, or just a few? Our racial instincts forced us towards the simpler, first assumption. That made it easier to blow innocent men out of cannons. But its fretful, destabilising companion is the inescapable realisation that if all Indians were mutineers at heart ... what on earth were we doing there?

Saul David’s formidable narrative leads him to conclude that there was a significant element of plotting in the months before the mutiny. But once it had burst into flame at Meerut and Delhi the rebellion raged down the Grand Trunk Road like a force of nature, feeding hungrily upon centuries of resentment, oppression and fear. Hardly an Indian, it is safe to say, did not feel some of the liberating impulse, which led even elderly ayahs and havildars to taunt their erstwhile mistresses and masters with the imminence of their extinction.

It is not possible to justify such hideous excesses as the massacres at Satichaura Ghat and the Bibighar or the wholesale random torture and executions carried out later by irregular brigades of vengeful Europeans. Blood was everywhere, atavistic horror replaced reason, the vale of the River Ganges became a kingdom of madness. That is a standard of violent revolution, and the Indian Mutiny was a revolution which failed.

Except that it destroyed the East India Company as a quasi-government once and for all: when executive administration and military authority were restored in the Raj, both were firmly in the hands of the British Crown. And except that never again, in the 90 years which remained before Indian independence, would Britons stand so confidently astride the subcontinent. Its balance had been fatally shaken at Meerut and from that day onwards it was a matter of when, not if, the Raj would fall.

The story which began in 1857 has never quite been resolved. Not all of its million sub-plots found so neat an ending as the tale of Margaret Wheeler. More representative by far is the legend of Wheeler’s nemesis, Nana Sahib, the enigmatic rebel leader who oversaw the massacres at Cawnpore. Despite being the most wanted man in the British Empire, Nana Sahib was never captured. Long after his probable death, sightings continued to be reported. The last came in Gujarat in 1895 when a young British officer detained an elderly sadhu and excitedly cabled Calcutta: "Have arrested the Nana Sahib. Wire instructions."

Calcutta’s reply, subtly redolent of exasperation at the power of myth and mirage under the Indian sun, read: "Release at once".