Sahib, p.11Richard Holmes
The suppression of the Mutiny in central India was caught up with the fate of Lakshmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi, one of the most striking figures in the whole conflict. Jhansi had been annexed by the British when Lakshmi Bai’s husband died without a natural heir. When the little British garrison surrendered in June she was believed to have been involved in the massacre of the prisoners.105 She certainly sought to come to terms with the British during the autumn, even as Major General Sir Hugh Rose’s Central India Field Force was moving into the area. But when it became clear that she would indeed be tried if captured, she at last sided with her staunchly anti-British troops, and energetically threw Jhansi into a state of defence. Sir Hugh Rose was forced to mount a formal siege, and the rani’s garrison steadfastly answered him shot for shot. Rose was about to order an assault when he discovered that Tantia Tope, a prominent Oudh rebel, was close at hand with a huge army – 22,000 men to Rose’s 3,000. Rose decided to take just under half his force out to the River Betwa to meet Tantia, and on 1 April he won a remarkable victory. Rose assaulted Jhansi the next day, taking the place after a bitter struggle, but the rani escaped and joined another rebel force, with whom she was killed fighting on 17 June 1859. Tantia Tope’s little army staggered on into Nagpur, and he was eventually captured and hanged. The Nana Sahib, arch-fiend in the eyes of the British, was never caught, but almost certainly died of fever in Nepal.
THE BRITISH RAJ
ONE OF THE RESULTS of the Mutiny was the replacement, in August 1858, of the Company’s rule by that of the Crown. The Secretary of State for India would have an advisory council of fifteen members, the majority of whom should have lived in India for at least ten years, eight nominated by the Crown and the rest by the Company’s outgoing Court of Directors. The governor-general became the viceroy and retained his supreme council. On 1 November of that year, Queen Victoria’s proclamation, embodying the new arrangements, was read out across India. It confirmed all existing grants and treaties, renounced further territorial ambition and promised religious toleration. Rebels who surrendered before 1 January 1859 would be pardoned unless they had been involved in massacres. The Company’s military forces were embodied in those of the Crown, giving rise to the almost bloodless ‘White Mutiny’ of 1859–61.
The legacy of the Mutiny was poisonous. Although Penderel Moon, a distinguished Indian administrator of a later generation, thought that relations between British and Indians were less damaged than others had suggested, even he acknowledged that: ‘The Mutiny did, however, tend to accentuate the social cleavage between the two races and to intensify the overbearing, contemptuous attitude of some of the British towards the Indians.’ The British sense of isolation and superiority was enhanced, and even if officials behaved courteously towards Indians of rank, they expected to be treated with deference. Some of them were ‘offensively arrogant’, and ‘non-officials of the rougher type’ behaved even worse.106 Philip Woodruff, another former official, emphasised that the Mutiny affected only part of India: the south was largely untouched. He thought that: ‘The civilian seems to have recovered more quickly than the soldier, both more quickly than the trader or planter.’ Even Alfred Lyall, who had been white-hot with fury at the massacre in the Bibighar at Cawnpore, wrote in November 1858 that: ‘In spite of all that has happened I take an immense interest in the natives of India and like constantly to be among them.’107
Nevertheless, the Mutiny had a ‘living and enduring presence’ as long as the British remained in India. When the last British soldiers left Lucknow in 1947, General Sir Francis Tuker even considered demolishing the flagstaff above the Residency (where the Union Jack had flown day and night since the siege) so that the Indian flag could not flutter over the holy ground.108
By ending the ‘doctrine of lapse’ and guaranteeing native rulers the right of succession, the British government actually made it more difficult to interfere in cases of manifest injustice. And a widespread recognition that this had been both an agrarian insurrection and a clash between Indian rulers, whose adherence reflected local loyalties and hostilities, as well as a military mutiny, persuaded many British politicians and administrators that the prevention of anarchy in India depended on the continuation of British rule. The fact that British victory had teetered in the balance was not forgotten: one deduction was that the proportion of British to Indian soldiers had been too small. There had been 45,000 Europeans to 232,000 Indians in 1857 – a ratio that was much the same as in 1835, and in the vital area from Delhi to Barrackpore just 5,000 British soldiers to 50,000 sepoys. In March 1859 a royal commission recommended that there should be at least 80,000 British soldiers to 190,000 Indian. In fact the recommended figures were never attained, with the maximum reached being 62,000 to 135,000, with an overall increase of some 30,000 in the 1880s due to the Russian threat to the North-West Frontier. In post-Mutiny India, British units were stitched into Indian brigades to ensure their ‘reliability’, a procedure which continued through both world wars.
Well aware that the new rifle had played such a significant role in the Mutiny, the government ensured that British units received new technology before Indian soldiers did, and that modern artillery was largely British-manned. The British soldiers who fought in the Second Afghan War of 1878–81 carried the new Martini-Henry rifle, while their Indian comrades were still armed with the Snider – essentially the old Enfield with an extemporised breech-loading mechanism. The Indian troopers of Hodson’s Horse, were carrying the old muzzle-loading Victoria carbine when they set off to join the Peshawar Valley Field Force at the start of the Second Afghan War, and received their ‘new’ Sniders on the march: ‘not a very suitable moment, one would have thought, for such a change’, mused the regimental historian. The regiment did not get Martini-Henry carbines until 1880, nine years after the weapon’s introduction into the British army.109
The new constitutional arrangements were reinforced in January 1877 when a vast gathering, auspiciously on Delhi ridge, solemnised Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title ‘Empress of India’. A delighted Lord Lytton, the viceroy, recorded the presence of ‘sixty-three ruling princes’ and ‘three hundred titular chiefs and native gentlemen’, maharajas, rajas, raos, nawabs, sheikhs, dewans, rawals, tharkurs and desais from Cape Cormorin to the Hindu Kush and from the deserts of Sind to the hills of Assam. The viceroy received three salutes of thirty-one guns apiece with a feu de joie in between the salutes. Val Prinsep, the official artist, thought that the musketry ‘was splendidly executed and with the desired effect, for it made the rajas jump and raised quite a stampede among the elephants, who “skedaddled” in all directions, and killed a few natives’.110 Almost 16,000 prisoners were released, and an amnesty was granted to all those exiled after the Mutiny, except Prince Firoz Shah, a relative of the late King of Delhi.
This distant reference to the Mughals was singularly apt, for the new empire had something in common with the old. The hierarchy of feudatory princes, the most senior distinguished by graded gun salutes, the establishment in 1861 of the Order of the Star of India, and even the creation of Indian heraldry, with elephants and alligators doing duty for the mythical beasts of European heraldry, were all designed to buttress the empress’s position. There was even an ‘Indian Eton’, Rajkumar College, established in 1870 for the sons of princely houses. Rulers could be decorated or given extra guns for good governance, charitable activities and demonstrations of loyalty, or demoted or even deposed for excesses or manifest injustice. In 1869 Porbander, for example, was demoted to a third-class state after its ruler cut off the ears and nose of one of his courtiers for allegedly corrupting his son. But there were times when even prim, official India turned a blind eye to rough justice. The Maharaja of Kashmir passed a labouring convict who begged exoneration because it was only a ‘little matter’ that had led to his incarceration. He explained what he had done.
‘Oh,’ said the Maharajah, ‘bring pen and ink.’ The convict was stripped and laid on the ground, and the Ma
One authority suggests that there were 629 princely states in India, with more than 300 in the Bombay presidency alone, ranging from ‘backyard principalities’ to the huge Baroda, second in size only to Hyderabad.112 Between 1857 and 1947 about one-third of the subcontinent and one-fifth of its people had native rulers, with British influence applied through residents and political agents. It was ironic that British support for the old order came at a time when ‘a new elite, English educated and city based’ was demanding change.113 The establishment of an Indian National Congress in 1885 helped focus demands that Britain should help Indians advance to the state where they could manage their own affairs, but there was no agreement as to quite when or how self-government might come about. There were more extreme expressions of nationalist sentiment in the press, mirrored by violent outbursts of imperialist rage, especially amongst non-official Europeans, jammed uncomfortably between the subject mass and the ruling elite, resentful at the first signs of what they saw as the creeping Indianisation of local justice and administration.
The Indian Civil Service, ‘one vast club’ according to one of its members, and ‘the heaven-born’ by general consent, was tiny, with around 1,000 members. Not only was it well paid, with starting salaries for assistant commissioners of £300 a year, £2,700 for judges and collectors, and £8,000 for lieutenant governors, but its members qualified for a pension of £1,000 a year after twenty-five years’ service. 114 From 1854 onwards entrance was by competitive examination, and there had been a shift away from what Henry Lawrence had called ‘men who will mix freely with the people, and will do justice in their shirt-sleeves’, towards clever young men who could deal with examinations with a heavy classical bias. The first Indian passed the exam in 1863, but there were no more passes until 1869, when three Indians were successful. Two who were then rejected for being over-age, duly sued the Secretary of State for India and were reinstated. One, Surendranath Banerjea, was dismissed during his first year of service for signing an inaccurate return. It was an indication of the system’s reluctance to accept the inevitable. There were many who saw the writing on the wall. Sir Henry Cotton pointed out that:
Men who speak English better than most Englishmen, who read Mill and Comte, Max Müller and Maine, who occupy with distinction seats on the judicial bench, who administer the affairs of native States with many millions of inhabitants, who manage cotton mills and conduct the boldest operations of commerce, who edit newspapers in English and correspond on equal terms with the scholars of Europe …
could not be expected to salaam whenever they met an Englishman in the street.115 It was hard for even those who had been liberal and paternalistic to adjust, not least because of social and religious difficulties in meeting Indian women or enjoying a meal together.
The best that can be said is that most viceroys and the majority of their officials cared passionately about their task, even if they were not sure quite how to let go of the reins. Lord Curzon, viceroy from 1898 to 1905, and architect of the Delhi Durbar of 1902, publicly and controversially censured a regiment which had failed to punish two of its soldiers who beat a cook so badly that he died. The Earl of Willingdon, viceroy in 1931–36, founded the Willingdon Club in Bombay as a protest against the racist attitude of his own club. Philip Woodruff, writing after Independence, argued that ‘if today the Indian peasant looks to the new district officer of his own race with the expectation of receiving justice and sympathy, that is our memorial.’116
On my ride across the North-West Frontier of what is now Pakistan, I halted for the night in a tiny village somewhere west of the Shandur Pass, and met a man who had travelled some distance to show me a rifle Lord Curzon had given to his grandfather. Asked if I knew the gentleman who had been assistant district commissioner at the time of Partition, I replied that I did not but I feared he might now have been gathered to his fathers, as it was some time ago. This was a pity, it was agreed, for he had been wise and honest, which was more than could be said for too many of his successors.
With domestic politics changing, the Raj still pursued an imperial foreign policy. Burma was annexed in discrete mouthfuls, with three Burma wars in 1824–26, 1852–53 and 1885–87, with a period of guerrilla warfare thereafter. But the main external preoccupation of the Government of India remained the Russian threat to the North-West Frontier, with Kipling warning about ‘a shifty promise, an unsheathed sword/ And a grey-coat guard on the Helmund ford’ and the Russian Colonel Terentiev gleefully predicting, in his book Russia and England in the Struggle for the Markers of Central Asia, that the Cossack boot would soon kick the whole rotten structure down. We may now seriously doubt the logistic feasibility of any such attack, but with the pace of the Russian advance across Central Asia – Tashkent in 1865 and Samarkand in 1868 – there were repeated bursts of alarm and Russophobia in both London and Calcutta.117
The ‘Great Game’, played out between rival explorers and intelligence agents, occasionally became deadly serious. The First Afghan War was triggered by British fears of Russian involvement in Afghanistan, and the root of the second was much the same. In the summer of 1878, when there was already an international crisis in the Near East, the Amir Sher Ali of Afghanistan agreed to accept a Russian envoy, but not to receive a British embassy. Lord Lytton at once ordered an invasion. Kabul was taken with deceptive ease, Sher Ali fled, and Sir Louis Cavagnari was installed as envoy to his successor, Yakub Khan. In September 1879 there was a rising in which Cavagnari and his escort were murdered. A column under Major General Frederick Roberts duly took Kabul and proceeded to inflict the customary condign punishment, but a wider uprising forced him to abandon Kabul and take refuge in the Sherpur cantonment, where he beat off a massed attack on 23 December.
Roberts was relieved by Lieutenant General Sir Donald Stewart, and the British agreed to accept Abdurrahman Khan, a nephew of Yakub’s, as Amir of Kabul and the surrounding area. But at the same time Sher Ali’s younger son, Ayub Khan, Governor of Herat, made his own bid for the throne, and on 27 July 1880 he trounced a British brigade at Maiwand, which ranks alongside the Zulu War battle of Isandlwana as one of the few defeats inflicted on the high Victorian army by a ‘savage’ foe. The survivors took refuge in Kandahar, where they were rescued by Roberts after a spectacular march from Kabul. Roberts went on to beat Ayub outside Kandahar, and the British eventually decided to evacuate Afghanistan in May 1881. Abdurrahman extended his rule across the whole of Afghanistan, but conducted his foreign policy in accord with the Government of India, establishing a workable balance which was to last until the end of the First World War.
However, there was often sporadic fighting on the North-West Frontier, which sometimes flared into minor campaigns, such as the Waziristan operations of 1894–95, the Chitral relief campaign of 1895 and the Tirah expedition of 1897–98. Most of these originated in what was called the ‘forward policy’, the government’s determination to make its writ run as close to the Afghan border as possible, and to mount punitive raids (the tactics of ‘butcher and bolt’ according to one critic) against troublesome tribes. The young Winston Churchill, cavalry subaltern and press correspondent, went up the Malakand Pass with Major General Sir Bindon Blood’s force in 1897. ‘We hold the Malakand Pass to keep the Chitral road open,’ he wrote. ‘We keep the Chitral road open because we have retained
Chitral. We retain Chitral in accordance with the “Forward Policy”.’118 He found the whole experience dangerously fascinating:
On the frontier, in the clear light of the morning, when the mountain side is dotted with smoke puffs, and every ridge sparkles with bright sword blades, the spectator may observe and accurately appreciate all
In 1904 the British suspected that the Russians planned to establish an agent in Lhasa, capital of Tibet, then loosely under Chinese control; a small force marched there and duly imposed a treaty declaring that Tibet would have no relations with foreign powers without Britain’s consent. It was the last of old India’s little wars, whose vignettes looked to both past and future. The expedition’s political officer was Francis Younghusband, soldier and explorer, who would have fitted comfortably amongst the shirt-sleeved warrior-administrators of the 1840s. The expedition applied modern technology to warriors from an older world, with 18-pounder shrapnel bursting over the heads of masses of pig-tailed swordsmen. And it was here that the Raj’s imperium was carried up to the roof of the world by pipe-smoking norff-of-the-river boys from Stepney and Bow – for the British battalion involved was 1st Royal Fusiliers (The City of London Regiment).
It is impossible to say quite how Britain’s rule in India would have evolved had world war not broken out in 1914. On the one hand the beginnings of representative government had been grafted onto a paternalistic bureaucracy, with the Morley-Minto reforms of 1906–10 testifying to a genuine determination to give Indians a share in their own government. But on the other there were growing numbers of pro-nationalist strikes, riots and other disturbances. However, when war came in 1914 there was an astonishing sense of unity, and a wave of loyalty to the ‘King Emperor’, often inspired by the conviction that an India which made its full contribution to the imperial war effort would have proved itself worthy of self-government. And it should never be forgotten that despite serious attempts by the Turks and the Germans to shake its loyalty, the Indian army remained true to its salt during the Great War, fighting on battlefields that were to make Plassey and Assaye, Ferozeshah and Sobraon seem almost benign.
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