People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 23

June 10, 2007

The Great Rebellion Of 1857 In The 19TH Century Colonial Novel


 One of the novels character Miss Wheeler depicted as defending herself against Mutineers


Indrani Sen


THE Great Rebellion of 1857 was a hugely catastrophic historical event and like many such episodes in history – like the 1947 partition of India, for instance – it left a profound impact on colonial fiction, poetry and plays. The events of 1857 entered the colonial psyche through these writings, from almost immediately after the event, with the very first ‘Mutiny novel’ appearing the very next year. In many ways, this kind of fiction helped to reinforce prevailing imperial and race ideologies and simultaneously – in a context of post-Rebellion anxieties and insecurities – it also sought to bolster British confidence by presenting narratives of English valour and Indian ‘treachery’.




In the mythology of empire the Rebellion was etched as the ‘Epic of the Race’ and the ‘Mutiny’ novel became, in effect, a vehicle for propagating this ideology. Countless novels presented images of valorous English heroes (generally military), pure and innocent white heroines, lecherous and cruel mutineers, as well as a populace largely loyal to the British. Images of British ‘manliness’ were contrasted to pictures of Asiatic cruelty and treachery, reinforcing racial and cultural stereotypes. Of course, while rebel cruelty was highlighted, there was usually a silence on atrocities of British avenging armies, the indiscriminate cutting down of hapless people and decimation of entire villages.


Historically speaking, mid-nineteenth century was a period of growing racism. It was marked by a generational shift among the colonials coming out to India. Unlike the easy-going ‘tolerant’ Englishmen of an earlier era, who used to speak the local language and mix freely with Indians, this new generation of colonisers, who bore the legacy of Evangelism and Utilitarianism, displayed far greater cultural arrogance. Commenting on this palpable shift in race-attitudes, imperialist historian George Trevelyan noted in his study, Cawnpore (1865) that to this new generation of young cadets, “the sepoys were ‘niggers’”. Trevelyan voiced his dismay about “that hateful word” ‘nigger’, “which is now constantly on the tongue of all Anglo-Indians” and noted that it “made its first appearance in decent society during the years which immediately preceded the mutiny.” (G O Trevelyan, Cawnpore, reptd., New Delhi, 1992, p. 31).


These prejudices were rooted in pseudo-scientific Victorian ‘race theories’, which drew upon science, especially Darwin’s and Gobbineau’s theories, and sought to establish the inferiority of coloured races. An obsession with race hierarchies, classification and ranking were features of Victorian racism. While Indians were thought to have the same racial origins as Europeans, they were classified as an inferior branch which had ‘declined’ through inter-marriage with the ‘dark’, indigenous races. The common origins shared with colonised people was mortifying to the British who often referred to Indians mockingly as their ‘Aryan brother’.


Undoubtedly, the Rebellion helped to fuel racist ideas; it added its own myths and sharpened some pre-existing notions. Myths about the effeminate sensuality of Asians were a part of the ‘commonsense’ of Victorian racism. Indians were perceived as effeminate, childlike, racially and mentally unfit to rule, while the Rebellion also generated the myth of the ‘lustful’ Indian who was a sexual threat to Englishwomen


One of the ‘Mutiny’ rumours was that white women had been tortured and raped in public gaze. Although in actual fact, special commissions appointed after the Rebellion to investigate into this matter ruled it out, nevertheless, the rape of the European woman entered the mythology of the empire. It became a favourite literary topic, appearing in the very first ‘Mutiny’ novel itself, entitled The Wife And The Ward (1859), written by Edward Money, an army officer who was supposedly stationed in India at that time. It showed Nana Sahib of Kanpur lusting after the young white heroine who, preferring death to dishonour, has herself shot by her military officer-lover at the Satichaura Ghat incident at Kanpur.


Voicing this kind of arrant prejudice is an early, possibly one of the most stridently racist of all ‘Mutiny’ novels, First Love and Last Love (1868), written by James Grant, a metropolitan British writer. Casting the two sons of Bahadurshah Zafar as the villains of the story, it labelled all Indians, “from the King of Delhi down to a Calcutta porter” as “niggers” (James Grant, First Love and Last Love: A Tale of the Indian Mutiny, reptd., London, 1913, p.1). It also showed the Mughal princes lusting after the Delhi padre’s daughters and eventually throwing one of the girls to the street- ruffians to be brutally raped and killed.


Racial polarisations were so common in ‘Mutiny’ fiction that it coloured even Flora Annie Steel’s famous novel, On the Face of the Waters (1896), which her contemporaries considered as the definitive fictional account of the Rebellion. Despite her reputation of being different from the typical memsahib-writer in her involvement with schooling for girls in Punjab, Steel ends up fuelling racial stereotypes. She claims historical accuracy in the novel’s Preface – but un-historically glorifies the cruel General Nicholson as god-like and projects the Mughal badshah and his sons as ‘womanish’, ‘scented’ and ‘effeminate’.


The novel, which ascribes the Rebellion to both religious revivalism and to reform measures pertaining to women (e.g. widow remarriage and the abolition of sati), argues that the over-all thrust of the Great Revolt was irrational and whimsical, devoid of any larger political vision. Steel wrote, “…when you ask an uneducated native of India why the Great Rebellion came to pass, he will ... reply, ‘God Knows! He sent a Breath into the World ...” (Preface, F A Steel, On The Face of the Waters, reptd., New Delhi,1985).


Moreover, she suggested that only a small minority had supported the uprising and that the general populace had remained faithful to the British – thereby reducing the Revolt to a minor aberration. Following a master-slave paradigm, Steel suggested that the rebels – indeed, all Indians – wanted to be mastered by the British, and the Rebellion dies out when they recognise that “The Huzoors were the true masters ...” (p.347). The novel’s concluding image is that of a yawning gap between the races, “a vision of the years stretching away into … division and mutual hate” (p.228)




The flight from Lucknow, as depicted in a novel



While scores of ‘Mutiny’ novels reiterated ‘epics of the race’, there were a few, which stood out from the others. In their own way, this handful of novels displayed an anti-racist dimension and sought a better understanding between the races in the post-Rebellion scenario of rebuilding the empire. Most important among them is Philip Meadows Taylor’s unusual novel Seeta (1872) which uses the issue of inter-racial marriage – between its administrator-hero and a young, Hindu widow – as a tool to attack contemporary racist attitudes.


Taylor, who belonged to the older school of pre-‘Mutiny’, ‘benevolent’ colonialists, was deeply unhappy over the growing, mid-century arrogance and censured the racism of a new generation of colonials, “who speak and think contemptuously of its people … who hold them as ‘niggers’ and ‘black-fellows’” (Philip Meadows Taylor, Seeta, reptd.,London,1887, p.70). His novel’s idealised administrator-hero recalls an earlier generation of ‘benevolent’ colonialists, interested in Sanskrit and Persian.


Inter-racial marriage conveys the novel’s anti-racist stance. Taylor seeks to demystify negative racist myths about Indian women being promiscuous, sensual and dishonest, by selecting an intelligent heroine who would show that “there is many a Hindoo girl, like Seeta who would be … a blessing to any man, and to his family also” (p.87). The mixed-race marriage, however, creates a huge furore in outraged colonial British circles, their strident reactions revealing an ugly racism. One vicious memsahib points out that although the “black bride” (p.168) is “as fair as any of us”, she still has to be rejected, because ‘natives’ “are all niggers” and “I hate them” (p.183).


Taylor, of course, does display contradictions. While he praises Indian culture, he nonetheless does condemn the ‘mutineers’. The rebels are revivalists who violently oppose the 1829 law banning sati and the 1856 widow-remarriage legislation – symbols of colonial intervention in reducing colonised woman’s sufferings. Hence the rebels are ‘regressive’, while the British are ‘progressive’ ‘saviours’ of Indian women.


On the whole, like all ‘Mutiny’ novel-writers Taylor too supports colonialism. But he seeks to base it on mutual respect and humanise it with elements from a ‘benevolent’ colonial past. In a subtle way, even his advocacy of mixed-marriage is at one level, a strategy of empire – he cites Akbar’s intermarriage with a Hindu Rajput princess as a wonderful means of closely binding ruler and ruled. In his novel too, the Rebellion has very little following and the final take-over by the Crown is widely welcomed by the people as a healing process.




The takeover by the Crown in 1858 and the establishment of empire saw heightened cultural arrogance in colonial India. A policy of ‘imperial aloofness’ was consciously adopted and the keeping of ‘social distance’ between rulers and ruled encouraged. In this context, there appeared around the turn of the century, a remarkable ‘Mutiny’ novel, J F Fanthorne’s Mariam (1896). Virtually forgotten today and hardly ever discussed even by literary critics, this novel, which was brought out by an obscure Benares-based publishing house, the ‘Chandraprabha Press,’ (rather than by high-profile colonial publishing houses like Thacker and Spink of Bombay/Calcutta, Higginbotham of Madras or Charles Wheeler of Allahabad), criticised late-nineteenth century colonial arrogance. It lamented that the “breach” produced by the Rebellion “between rulers and the governed is more decided and more complete now than it was before”, (J F Fanthorne, Mariam: A Story of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Benares, 1896, p.iii). It went on to make one of the most fervent appeals for inter-racial harmony found in ‘Mutiny’ fiction, urging “the European to recognise the common fraternity of the two races and to descend from the high level of morality and social superiority which he has assumed … and behave more considerately to, the ‘nigger’ than he does at present” (p.iv).


Basing the novel on the real-life experiences of its European memsahib-heroine, which he claimed to have directly heard from her, the author manages at the same time, to present an ‘Indian’ perspective – almost unheard of in ‘Mutiny’ writings. Its Muslim characters, colloquial usage of Urdu, familiarity with ‘native’ social practices and its voicing of ‘native’ outrage over the cartridges issue are all unconventional.


Constituting the core of the novel are the experiences of a memsahib, Mrs Lavater (the ‘Mariam’ of the title), who flees along with some of her family members, (mostly female), after her husband is killed at the beginning of the Rebellion and their house burned down. When this group of Europeans are given shelter – at great personal risk by various Indians – first in a Hindu household and then in a Muslim zenana, this new experience of prolonged and close contact with ‘native’ women, becomes for the women of both the races an eye-opening revelation that helps them to have better respect for each other’s culture.


Colonial racist myths cast ‘native’ women stereotypically as inherently deceitful, promiscuous and dishonest. This novel seizes upon the events of 1857 to open a window on the ‘native’ world, seeking thereby to restore to it the dignity which had been systematically tarnished. It reveals “some of the most beautiful traits of character in both the Hindu and Mohammedan” (p.iv) and tries to establish that “Zanana life” is “purer by far than is generally supposed” (pp.iii - iv). Hence, when the Lavater women return home after the Rebellion, they carry a far better understanding and respect for ‘native’ culture.


In conclusion, we find that the ‘Mutiny’ novel served many functions and played many roles. The majority were narrowly jingoistic, blatantly racist and furthered imperial ideologies. But a small handful of novels made some efforts, however limited, towards correcting misapprehensions about Indians and their culture. Their larger objective was, no doubt, to help rebuild the empire. Nevertheless, these ‘unusual’ novels did, in the process, seek to restore some amount of racial harmony and to critique the cultural arrogance that often marked the post-Rebellion ideology of the British Raj.