Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Great Rebellion in India and the American Civil War

Last year, I purchased a book titled A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 and the American Civil War by Rajmohan Gandhi.  This professor at the University of Illinois is the grandson of the great Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.  I have taken an interest in the Great Rebellion in India because of its place in the history of the British Empire.  The uprising of Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the British Indian Army in early 1857 sparked the largest revolt against British rule since the American Revolution.  But there was more.  Massacres of whites, particularly women and children at Cawnpore (Kanpur) in July, provoked such fury from the British population that reprisals became especially vicious.  White and loyal Indian soldiers (Sikhs, Gurkhas and others) killed as many rebels as possible. 

Charles Dickens typified the British reaction.  The great author whose novels spread word of the plight of the poor in Industrial Victorian Britain spared no mercy for the Indian rebels.  He wrote to Miss Burdett Coutts in October 1857 what he would do if in command in India:

"The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement (not in the least regarding them as if they lived in the Strand, London or in Camden Town), should be to proclaim to them, in their language, that I considered my holding that appointment by the leave of God to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of of the late cruelties rested."

Forceful words.  Yet Mary Chestnut managed to best Dickens' words.  The famed South Carolina diarist who book ranks among the most important primary sources on the Confederacy, actually started it before the war.  She had this to say about the Indian rebellion after reading William Howard Russell's dispatches:

"Read Russell's India all day.  Saintly folks those English when their blood is up.  Sepoys and blacks we do not expect anything better from, but what an example of Christian patience and humanity the white "angels" from the West set them." 

Yikes. Sadly, the myopia extends to this day.  Canadians proudly say how a black man was one of their first recipients of the Victoria Cross, the British Empire's highest decoration for bravery.  They ignore where William Hall won it: the Siege of Lucknow in 1858.  He won it oppressing others.  There truly are two sides to every story.

Gandhi's book, sadly, doesn't work.  He's comparing two different events that have little to do with each other.  At length he discusses Indian intellectual leaders that only specialists could know about.  American readers would be lost in this morass.  Actual connections between the two, like Mary Chesnut's quote above and Russell's dispatches, are cited rarely.  I would have liked to see accounts of soldiers who fought in both conflicts, surely there were a few.  The issue of race also could have been addressed since both the Civil War and the Great Rebellion hinged upon it.  In this sense, Kanpur and Fort Pillow are linked.  The book is also written in a dense format typical among Indian intellectuals whose grasp of English still holds Victorian-era concepts within it. 

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