Clare Anderson. Indian Uprising of 1857-8: Prisons, Prisoners and Rebellion. Anthem South Asian Studies Series. London: Anthem Press, 2007. viii + 205 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84331-249-9; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84331-295-6.
Reviewed by A. Martin Wainwright (Department of History, The University of Akron)
Published on H-Albion (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Mark Hampton
Unshackling India’s Great Rebellion
The sesquicentennial of India’s Great Rebellion of 1857-58 has spawned scholarship on new aspects of the war as well as retrospectives on the conflict’s often acrimonious historiography. Biswamoy Pati’s The 1857 Rebellion and Clare Anderson’s The Indian Uprising provide thought-provoking examples of each.
Spanning the entire 150 years from the rebellion to the present, Pati’s selection of readings provides an excellent overview of the major interpretations of the war and its significance. The editor divides the book into five parts, each bearing a title descriptive of the issue that the enclosed readings discuss. Some of these titles contain the very names that rival interpretations have bestowed on the conflict and point to the reasons why historians have encountered difficulties in finding a neutral term to describe it. Tying these sources together is a difficult task, and Pati does a good job of placing them in their larger historiographical and contemporary political contexts in his introduction. The first part, “Sepoy Mutiny,” provides two early British accounts (by Charles Ball and J. W. Kaye), depicting the war primarily as a “mutiny” of Indian infantry arising from the use of cartridges greased in pig and beef fat for breech-loading Enfield rifles. Since their focus is on this most famous of causes, these writers do not look much further for underlying reasons than the attempts of officers to convert their men to Christianity, and the keen sense of ritual purity among Muslims and high-caste Hindus.
The second part, entitled “Nationalist Uprising,” contains readings from four Indian historians (R. C. Majumdar, S. B. Chaudhuri, S. N. Sen, and K. K. Datta) from the mid-twentieth century. Curiously, Pati omits any contribution by V. D. Savarkar, who in 1909 first described the rebellion as the “Indian War of Independence” in his book of the same title. However problematic Savarkar’s position may appear in hindsight, it would have been useful to see his arguments so that the reader could better appreciate Majumdar’s rejection of it in his writings around the war’s centennial anniversary. Instead, Pati merely mentions Savarkar in his introduction, in which he quickly proceeds to emphasize the importance of mid-century historians in part because of their unrestricted access to records of the war in the recently independent India’s archives. Perhaps most useful among these readings is Chaudhuri’s chapter from Civil Rebellion in the Indian Mutinies (1957), which criticizes Majumdar while summing up much of the contemporary debate over the extent to which the revolt embodied nationalist sentiments. While disagreeing on many details, however, all four authors in this part of the reader highlight the complex mix of forces and motives behind the rebellion.
Moving in a direction quite apart from mutiny or national rebellion are the two readings (by “Talmiz Khaldun” [a.k.a. Satinder Singh] and E. I. Brodkin) in the third part, entitled “Restorative Movement.” Although writing fifteen years apart (1957 and 1972 respectively), both authors focus on the extent to which the war was an attempt to restore the power of the Mughal emperor. Both assert that Bahadur Shah, the last emperor, was merely a figurehead beholden to the wishes of sepoy leaders. Brodkin goes so far as to describe the emperor and many other so-called rebels as virtual prisoners.
Part 4, “Conspiracy of Organized Movement,” examines the extent of participation and planning among the rebels from the vantage point of their organization. Neither historian (K. M. Ashraf and Iqtidar Ali Khan) in this part sees the war as a conspiracy. Ashraf shows how a jihadist movement attached itself to, rather than created, the rebellion, and Khan shows the impressive level of control that the rebelling Gwalior contingent had over its members. This part highlights the popular nature of the rebel forces, an issue to which the book devotes nearly half its space in part 5, “Popular Protest.”
Each of the eight readings in this final part explains some aspect of popular participation in or interpretation of the war. Six (by Eric Stokes, C. A. Bayly, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Tapti Roy, Gautam Bhadra, and K. S. Singh) take decidedly “bottom-up” approaches characteristic of the late 1950s through the mid-1980s, although two of these readings were written in the 1990s. They demonstrate clearly that participation in the war went far beyond the sepoys. Rather, their “mutiny” served as an occasion for peasants to seek the overthrow of numerous East Indian Company “reforms” that they attributed with a decline in their own prosperity. The last two readings (by Badri Narayan and Rajat Kanta Ray) adopt the more recent cultural turn in historical scholarship, focusing respectively on the perceptions of the war in the popular memories of rural communities and in the minds of the rebels who fought it. Both argue for the popular nature of rebellion, and for evidence of proto-nationalist thinking in later remembrance and contemporary understanding of what the war was about.
This book will serve as a useful reader in upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level courses on Indian history and British imperialism. It sums up scholarship on one of the most controversial wars of the nineteenth century remarkably well. It might also serve as essential background to Anderson’s very recent contribution to the scholarship of the Great Rebellion.
Focusing on jailbreaks during the war within modern scholarly frameworks of colonial encounter, construction of knowledge, and subaltern studies, Anderson argues that the war dramatically altered British understanding of the role of incarceration in India. She does so by using indigenous accounts of incarceration as gleaned through government records (housed mainly in the British Library), particularly those of petitions, disciplinary proceedings, trials, and consultative correspondence. Also important are two prisoner narratives, which she uses extensively to flesh out the sometimes cryptic information obtained through reading between the lines of the government mediated material.
Anderson stresses the symbolic importance of jails to the rebels. Gathering together in close quarters inmates of diverse caste and religious backgrounds, British prisons served as microcosms of Indian society. Although the records rarely mention women, the jailers’ practice of releasing women before the rebels arrived is evidence of their presence in the prison system.
British behavior toward prisoners often reflected British policy toward Indian society in general. The same disregard for Hindu and Muslim mores that helped to cause the mutiny in Meerut also occurred within the prisons. Postmortem examinations of prisoners who died in jail, a common practice in Britain, became controversial when applied to Indians, whose religious traditions continued to regard the practice as defilement of the dead. Continuing contacts between prisoners and their relatives meant that British policies within the jails shaped perceptions beyond their walls. These contacts led to public complaints particularly regarding “respectable” prisoners, who refused, often for reasons of ritual purity, to eat in a common mess with their lower-caste inmates. Indeed, attempts at common messing sparked demonstrations from relatives and fellow villagers of the prisoners concerned.
If prisons were symbolic of Indian society, then the liberation of prisoners was symbolic of the rebellion’s goal of freeing India from colonial rule. Many prison guards came from the same social backgrounds as the rebels and assisted, or certainly did not oppose, rebel openings of the jails. Nevertheless, rebel-assisted jailbreaks did not necessarily amount to freedom for the inmates, because the former often conscripted the latter, particularly those not of “respectable” status, as laborers to transport materiel for the troops. The context of class and caste stratification in prison populations rendered jailbreaks during the rebellion as much occasions for social division and oppression as for political unity and camaraderie.
The fate of the prisoners after the rebellion is as interesting as the story of treatment prior to it. Few were captured and their fates remain uncertain. Unable to return safely to their homes, many may have starved during the rebellion. Others probably changed their identities and secured employment in plantations across India and as indentured servants overseas. Some fled to borderlands, such as jungles in the Himalayan foothills, where they formed “prosperous communities.”
Although the vast majority of prisoners did not escape, the failure of British authorities to recapture so many of those who did led to a post-rebellion reassessment of the penal system. The mass desertion of guards, many who were soldiers who sympathized with the rebels, created a security problem that rendered many Indian prisons unusable after the war. British authorities sought solutions to this problem by abandoning small prisons in urban settings, especially those close to European settlements, in favor of large penitentiaries in remote rural areas. Nevertheless, initial attempts to transfer prisoners to more secure facilities in other parts of India simply created overcrowding and fomented unrest. Transportation to the Straits Settlement and Singapore served as a more practical temporary fix.
The permanent solution, however, was the creation of a prison colony in the Andaman Islands, whose remote location in the Bay of Bengal formed an effective barrier to escape. Indeed, British authorities favored the Andamans as a destination for transporting convicted rebels. Anderson devotes an entire chapter to issues surrounding the settlement of these islands as a penal colony, from the convicts’ dread of crossing the sea, with its potential for ritual pollution among upper-caste Hindus, to the desirability of relocating the prisoners’ families with them in order to avoid the “depravities” that would attend a settlement devoid of females. Anderson, however, is unclear regarding the extent of family settlement in the colony, relying instead on an endnote to refer the reader to an article by Satadru Sen (174n132).
Perhaps the most dramatic part of this analysis of post-rebellion penal reform is the actions of Superintendent J. P. Walker, whose brutality toward prisoners caused criticism even from the British government. Among the excesses he was accused of committing were his refusal to distinguish between social ranks of prisoners in his assignment of labor and his execution of more than eighty prisoners who refused to provide information regarding comrades planning to escape.
Written in straightforward and comprehensible prose, Anderson’s book should be easily readable by undergraduate students. However, because of the narrowness of its topic, it is more likely to be used in a seminar setting and by other scholars of Indian history. The book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Indian Rebellion and the changes it brought about.
of the war
Tying these sources together is a difficult task, and Pati does a good job of placing them in their larger historiographical and contemporary political contexts in his introduction.
to begin with
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
A. Martin Wainwright. Review of Anderson, Clare, Indian Uprising of 1857-8: Prisons, Prisoners and Rebellion and
Pati, Biswamoy, ed., The 1857 Rebellion.
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