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A history of India and a history of the Indian Mutiny

Indian: A History
John Keay
HarperCollins, 2001

Soldier Sahibs: The Men Who Made the North-West Frontier
Charles Allen
Abacus (paperback), 2001 (first published in hardback 2000)

I have to begin with a confession: John Keay’s big and excellent book (576 pages, including notes, bibliography and index) is the first history of India I have read right through, though I have consulted and skimmed through others on my shelves. So it is impossible to keep in my head even the mainstream facts. From its final chapter, Crossing the Tracks, 1948 -, a metaphor of the historian’s journey “who … must get down from the air-conditioned express … cross the tracks and elbow his way aboard a slower, noisier train”, I gather that in it “India” no longer includes Pakistan, or even Bangladesh, a narrowing from the previous inclusive vista of the whole sub-continent. This may be a concession (together with others) to the fact that the title page gives “HarperCollins Publishers India” below “HarperCollins Publishers London” [their italics].

Indian nationalists may make grandiose claims for the age of their civilization, but the fact remains that its documentation does not really exist before the first Moslem incursion in the 8th century. The first civilizations so far discovered, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, which are of course in territory now in Pakistan, cannot be linked with any other, even negatively by being shown convincingly to have been destroyed by the incoming Aryans, whose religion, the treatment of which is understandably sketchy, though not language, penetrated to the end of the peninsula; the history of Ceylon is left out.

Within this anonymous era, sparsely illuminated by oral myths and some inscriptions, there are a few peaks, such as Alexander’s invasion, which left written history behind it, in Greek. “Ashoka … India’s first defined historical personality” (p. 95 – never mind Porus), died in 231 BC, left some jargon-free, high-minded edicts carved on stone monuments – “extending from Orissa to Mysore, Bombay, Junagadh, Kandahar, Peshawar and Dehra Dun” – and, after uniting much of northern and central India, left an empire that quickly fell to pieces – like many other subsequent ones.. It is interesting to note that Sanskrit emerged as a “prestige language” in the first century AD (p. 132) and (if this can be believed) was artificially constructed from the Prakrit languages – Hindi, Marathi, Gujerati, Panjabi, etc. – derived from the original Indo-European tongue, rather as if Latin had been formed from Italian, Spanish and French. The Hindu states typically continued to war with each other; if one became dominant, it did not absorb the other or others, but, after relieving it of as much treasure as was there, installed a subservient king, who asserted his independence as soon as possible. Wars were, in effect, looting expeditions, and kings seemed to accumulate enormous quantities of gold, silver and jewels without, as far as I can see, otherwise putting them back usefully into the economy. This is not much, if at all discussed – from general knowledge I understand that India was the world’s gold sump.

Harsha (d. 647 AD) united northern India for a while, the last Hindu to do so before the incursion of the (Arab) Muslims through Persia into what became Sind (Persian: = Hind, Ind). About 1000 AD Turkish Moslems, the Ghaznavids, as they would become, started to move in from the north, whence all further incursions would come until the British. The 1192 rout of the Rajputs [by the Ghorids] at Tarain is “arguably the most decisive battle in the history of India (p.237)” when Rajput unity and resistance dissolved. Various Muslim sultans extended their dominance through northern India, but failed to unify it: “Far from uniting India, early Islam’s historic role would be to develop and entrench the sub-continent’s so-called ‘regional’ identities (p. 261)”. I get the mpression that with both the Muslim and Hindu states the succession was always solved with bloodshed.

Genghis Khan’s Mongols are barely mentioned, let alone why they never came to India until, as the Mughals, three centuries later, they ultimately provided India with some dynastic continuity and, at the death of Aurungzeb (d. 1710) had conquered nearly the whole peninsula: the succession Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurungzeb was of able, in some cases, great men. But just when these were needed to confront the West, the dynasty failed, as can be seen even from the dynastic table (p. 385).

The four chapters 16 – 19 (pp. 383 – 508) are of the British dominance; not a bad balance, in my opinion, granted its impact, documentation and closeness in time as against a period of less than 200 years (1750 – 1947). If the author is walking the tightrope to keep in balance between British and Indian opinion, he does so skilfully, though here the climate of British self-denigration helps. He omits, perhaps taking for granted, our differences from previous conquerors, which might be worth listing – we did not come by land, we came to trade, in small numbers, from a literate, organised society, militarily technically advanced rather than innately warlike and predatory, constrained ultimately by a government far away, our religion not directly impinging on the inhabitants.

Much has to be compressed; one feature that is missing is the feeling of British self-confidence that enabled us to rule so many people over such a large area with so few men. At the time of the Mutiny, for example, it is impossible, when reading other sources, not to be impressed by the sheer energy and initiative displayed by those who confronted it. If the obverse of this was racial superiority, it merely gives the value that can be elicited from this universal trait, which is certainly not confined to the British or even the white races.

Perhaps it is unfair to carp at the omission of what must be the benefits of British rule. Here are some I can think of: the bringing of peace to large areas previously scoured by constant warfare (e.g., by the Marathas), the improvement of communications (culminating in the railways), the importation of Western education and technology (despite the author’s sneer at Macaulay’s “notorious tirade”, perhaps inserted for Indian readers, the Minute still makes sense today; would it be churlish to suggest the author has not actually read it?), the gift, inadvertent though it may have been, of both a common and a world language, but perhaps most of all, the open teaching, and, I like to think, the practice of those liberal values which the Indians were able to learn and use against us. The author does admit this last, though somewhat ungraciously ( “the British would thus be hoist on their own petard – p. 431″). Demography is hard to take account of, but I feel that the rise in population during and after British rule does signify one of its benefits, ecologically unfashionable though such a view may be.

Charles Allen’s Soldier Sahibs was published in 2000 in hardback at £22.50 and bought remaindered less than three years later for £9.50. Unless this indicates the publication of a paperback edition, this dumping onto the remainder market suggests a lack of demand, rather a pity, since this is a well told account of the men who were effectively responsible for setting the boundary of British India and hence subsequently Pakistan, as far north as was practical, enabling Kashmir and the Punjab to live in peace. The central character is John Nicholson, the charismatic Nikal Seyn, mortally wounded when his luck ran out as he led the mopping-up operations that followed the breaching of the walls of Delhi, an event he had master-minded and which broke the resistance of the Indian Mutiny.

Allen found it was, however, impossible to write of Nicholson without including the many others as able, daring and energetic, and as convinced of the rightness of their cause, which was, roughly speaking, the establishment of law and order by the expansion and imposition of British power. Fervent, unquestioning religious beliefs were in strong support. “There was nothing but God above, and duty below,” as Neville Chamberlain wrote years later. And Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori was a tag quoted with sincerity, not, as now, with cynicism or derision (p. 11). These were mostly men born in the early 1820s, but promoted and set in place by men of a like sort almost a generation older – the brothers George, Henry and John Lawrence, especially Henry, who died early in the Siege of Lucknow. Their names should be set down: added to the Lawrence generation, Abbott and Mackeson; and the others: Macgregor, Edwardes, Lumsden, Taylor, Cocks, Hodson, Pollock, Bowring, Coxe, Melville, Chamberlain, Daly, Coke and, of course, Nicholson himself – he had two other brothers of promise, Alexander, killed soon after he arrived in India and Charles, who lost an arm at Delhi and died young. All of these knew each other and mostly got on together, some with deep friendship; not surprisingly, there were also differences and insubordination. In the critical days of the Delhi siege, the “young Paladins” – Nicholson, Chamberlain, Baird-Smith and Alex Taylor – simply outfaced and overawed their nominal superiors, Generals Reed, who invalided himself out and departed for Simla, and Wilson, his successor, who authorised the assault while announcing he disagreed with it.

The period chronicled runs from the disastrous First Afghan War of 1840, which notoriously left one survivor of an army of 16,000, to the Mutiny in 1857. The major military events between include the reprisal expedition to Kabul (1841-2), the First Sikh War (1845-6) and the Second Sikh War (1848-9). Concurrent and following these came the pacification of the North West, outside the Punjab, which the first Sikh war had won and the second secured. Although it is evident that no Afghan could be trusted to keep his word, it seems likely that the personalities of such men as Edwardes, Nicholson and Chamberlain were sufficient to convince the tribal leaders that they should remain at least neutral during the Mutiny. In the seven or so years previous to it, in the tribal areas, where the blood-feud perpetuated a murderous chaos, it was the duty of men such as Edwardes to impose order; one of the first tasks was to prevent the native troops, such as Sikhs, just defeated, now recruited, from plundering during the process. It was Edwardes who not only had the nerve to have a fort built in the most strategic point in Bannu but, when it was completed, the temerity to order all the small towers in the district to be demolished – which they were. The book is so packed with such episodes that it is difficult, and would be invidious, to pick examples. In this dangerous region British mastery was gained over some of the fiercest, most unscrupulous and independent-minded men in the world, not by “the Maxim gun, which they have not” but by the individual ascendancy of British officers, of which those given in this book are the most outstanding.

The climax, taking about a quarter of the book, is the Mutiny. Allen can focus “only on the parts played by Henry Lawrence’s Young Men … This is not to give them unjustified prominence,” he claims, for it is no exaggeration to say that the actions of six of the Young Men … combined to turn almost certain defeat into victory” (p. 264). In doing so, they had to leapfrog over the old and irresolute generals officially in command, for they realised that everything they did had to be done at speed, following John Lawrence’s advice: “Act at once, march with any body of European troops to the spot, and the danger will disappear. Give it time, and it will flame through the land (p. 270).” Such was the case of those sent to reinforce the Delhi siege from Peshawar under Chamberlain, Back in Peshawar, Edwardes, Nicholson and Cotton took the drastic step of disarming, to the outrage of their British officers, the native regiments, while Nicholson pursued a mutinous regiment, dispersed and massacred most of it and blew forty of the 120 prisoners from the guns (a Mughal form of execution, fearsome but swift). This seems to have convinced the local population; volunteers came in to join the winning side and for the expected loot that went with it. With a band of these, who dispersed after his death, Nicholson was free to join the Delhi siege, where the besiegers, outnumbered three to one, took the city, perpetrated a murderous sack and stamped out the core of the Mutiny. Here Nicholson was mortally wounded, hours after the city was entered but while its clearing and complete capture still hung in the balance. Found by Fred (later Lord and Field Marshall) Roberts in an abandoned dooli (a closed litter), he lingered long enough to know victory was complete, though not without threatening to rise and shoot the general nominally in command if he ordered a withdrawal. The narrative is simply too powerful to summarize.

The least likely outcome a “successful” mutiny would have brought about would have been a united, organized regime confronting the British, reduced to bridgeheads in Bengal and southern India. The Mughal power, to which the mutineers had attempted to rally, had long ebbed away, the Sikhs would not be capable of expanding from the Punjab, and would have trouble enough holding their own against Afghan marauders, let loose when the British disappeared from the North West Frontier. Chaos would have come again, which only Britain, if it had the will, and all its work to do again, could have ended. Only Britain, still to attain its apogee as world power, could have done it, and it probably would have, given men of the same calibre as those which prevented the need, of which there was still the necessary supply. India, as well as Britain, can be grateful to the men whose tale is told here

6 comments to A history of India and a history of the Indian Mutiny

  • Always interesting to see how a minuscule number of English managed to establish and keep control of India for so long.

    You could write a novel, and people would reject it as being too far-fetched.

  • Kelli


    It might be helpful to think of the English conquest of India more along the lines of the Anglo-American settlers’ takeover of North America. From several initial (tenuous) footholds, tentacles reached out over a long period of time, swallowing more and more territory. The difference, of course, is that India was well-populated to begin with and its inhabitants did not die off or allow themselves to be herded onto ever more marginal lands.

    What most people fail to grasp about the European relationship to India is that it was highly competitive (between European states and merchants) for a long time, that all of these powers raised armies, revenues, and basically became Indian. The British did not consolidate power there until the mid-18th century, and they never directly ruled the entire subcontinent (large chunks of which remained under native princes’ suzerainty until 1947). They merely sat atop a structure that was essentially alien to them (increasingly so as folks back home frowned upon more than passing knowledge of things Indian).

    The genius of a Gandhi lay in the ability to recognize the fragility of this authority, and the genius of a Mountbatten lay in the ability to recognize when the game was up.

  • Mark

    This period in British/Indian history fascinates me as well, though I am a novice; my knowledge coming almost exclusively from the Flashman books by George MacDonald Frazier. Are the Samizdatistas familiar with those books? If so, what are their opinions as to the accuracy of what they have to say about those events?

  • Greg

    I don’t know about accuracy but they’re damned entertaining novels! I started reading them last summer.

  • Robert Schwartz

    I read the Keay Book a couple of years ago. I thought it was pretty good, but I thought, it was insufficently attentive to questions of religion and culture.

    I started a book called the Raj, but put it down because of obvious and inacuraccies that undermined its credibility.

  • Robert N. Eaton

    Have you read Shadow of the Moon, by M. M. Kaye? It is a novel of the Sepoy Mutiny, culminating with the raising of the siege at Lucknow. It perforce mentions prominently most of Lawrence’s Young Men.