Salahuddin Malik. 1857: War of Independence or a Clash of Civilizations?: British Public Reactions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xxvii + 288 pp. Illustrations. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-547422-0.
Reviewed by Joseph Coohill (Duquesne University History Department)
Published on H-Asia (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
Coohill on 1857
The core of Salahuddin Malik’s 1857 (chapters 1-9) is a solid examination of the complicated and divergent reactions of British public opinion (as expressed through the printed word) to the Indian rebellion in 1857. Extensive use of pamphlets, religious tracts, newspapers, periodicals, and sermons (many of which had been previously undiscovered) makes Malik’s work essential to understanding not only the 1857 rebellion, but also British attitudes towards India and imperialism generally. Scholars or students who still generalize about nineteenth-century British thinking on empire will be given pause by the wide range of responses and arguments about the causes of the revolt and what it meant for British India.
Early on, Malik makes the important point that the initial reaction in Britain itself to the news of the outbreak of rebellion was a general lack of concern. After all, it was first reported solely as a small-scale army mutiny, and there had been other mutinies in India since the beginning of the nineteenth century. But as private letters started to arrive via the Indian mail (some twenty thousand in late July alone), political, private, and public opinion started to question the causes and meanings of what had become a much fuller revolt. Eventually, three major interpretations emerged: that it was a military mutiny and nothing more; that it was a wider civil and social rebellion; and that it was a Muslim conspiracy, possibly to reinstate the Mughal empire. It is very clear from the breadth of Malik’s analysis of sources that, if it had not been for the private communication coming from India in bulk, which shows the size and diversity of the colonial (i.e., British) population in India, opinion in Britain might well have been much narrower in its response.
The opinion of the Whig government and much of the establishment, including the Times, was that the rebellion was a mutiny of sepoys that, for the most part, did not augur any more serious discontent in India. The real strength of Malik’s work, however, is to show that, even within each interpretation of the revolt there was much disagreement over causes and solutions. Within the mutiny school, blame was placed variously on the low pay of sepoys, a sense of “distance” between sepoys and the new generation of officers in the British army, Lord Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse (which ultimately resulted in the annexation of Awadh, and was seen as a great insult to Indian pride), and the offending greased cartridges. Disagreement over the specific origin of the mutiny was strong (particularly over annexation), but, crucially, this interpretation did not allow for, in fact firmly denied, the possibility that the rebellion could mean something much more.
Other establishment figures and institutions, such as Benjamin Disraeli, the opposition Conservatives, and some radicals, saw more in the events that were unfolding through the summer and fall of 1857 (despite having very little in common with each other in terms of other political opinions). In short, it was a full-scale political and social revolution. By the end of 1857, Malik argues, events had largely proved them correct, at least in terms of competition with the mutiny school of thought. It was clear, especially with the ferocity of the fighting, the massacres on both sides, and the harrowing stories of the spread of the rebellion across northern India, that this was something entirely different than earlier army mutinies and that the future of British power in India was potentially in the balance.
Malik then spends three chapters (7-9) outlining the Muslim conspiracy interpretation. He devotes this much space to this school of thought because, he argues, many of the followers of the mutiny school and the revolution school also thought there was a Muslim conspiracy behind the events. This is the fundamental basis for the question in Malik’s subtitle, “War of Independence or Clash of Civilizations?” Chapter 9 is taken up with the larger question of whether Britons in the mid-nineteenth century thought that the events in India were part of “a jihad waged by worldwide Islam against worldwide Christianity” (p. 150). There was, of course, very little evidence to validate this idea, but Malik carefully and judiciously shows the depth of this fear reflected in British public opinion. In addition to the argument that there was a fundamental incompatibility between Islam and Christianity dating from the Crusades, and other perceptions of Islam (see especially p. 156), Malik provides compelling evidence that “isolated incidents in the Muslim world ... in Arabia, Persia, or the Ottoman Empire” were conflated to build a kind of geopolitical fear for the future of Christianity and European culture in Asia (pp. 155-157). This is most clearly shown, not surprisingly, in religious tracts and sermons (which Malik has mined extensively). But influential periodicals such as the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s devoted many column inches to such ideas. One of the overwhelming impressions one gets from these chapters is the surprising level of insecurity and paranoia that 1857 generated in British public opinion.
As stated in the beginning of this review, the bulk of this monograph is an impressive examination of British responses to 1857 and what they meant for ideas of the British Empire. The volume suffers somewhat from expanding these ideas to the contemporary, post-September 11 world and relations between “Islam and the West.” The foreward by Akbar S. Ahmed is almost completely taken up with attempting to make significant parallels between 1857 and current Islamophobia and “current tensions” between Christianity and Islam (p. x). There are two introductions (one by John O. Esposito and one by Anand A. Yang), both outlining similar ideas. Malik’s own epilogue continues this theme. While I could not agree more with the ideas and hopes for “a broader understanding and cooperation between Christianity and Islam” (p. 177) expressed in these parts of the book, the argument that understanding 1857 is an especially crucial to solving these problems is not made strongly enough. It is simply stretching chronology too thin. Nevertheless, the strength of the core of this book makes it essential reading for historians and students of South Asia and the British Empire in the nineteenth century.
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