posted on 29/06/18
When I visited India in 2007, on a tour marking the 150th anniversary of the Indian Mutiny, I was moved and enthralled by the numerous sites and memorials marking this bitter and bloody episode in British imperial history. I was also struck by the way in which the 1857 conflict still held political currency in certain quarters.
The first war of Independence, as it is known in India, united Hindus and Muslims against the colonial oppressors who slaughtered thousands in their efforts to maintain a hold on the country. Seen as a seminal moment in the evolution of the Indian nation, the response of certain factions to some British anniversary commemorations prompted the Indian born economist, Lord Desai to comment: ‘Will some Indians never become truly free of the foreign yoke, never be able to treat a foreigner as an equal? Do we have to be either victims or bullies?’
Notions about the past shift as swiftly as time itself and each decade brings with it fresh perspective and new appraisal.
A new film in the making anticipates a younger generation’s interest in Mutiny history. Swords and Sceptres is an Indo-British collaboration starring Rupert Everett and Devika Beise. It tells the story of Rani Lakshmibai, the heroic Queen of Jhansi, who led an army in fierce combat against the British East India Company and was cut down in the process, thus becoming a symbol of Indian resistance. Interestingly, Bollywood is also due to release its own production on the same subject, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, starring Kangana Ranaut, one of the industry’s highest paid actresses.
Though the British quashed the uprising, the East India Company was deemed no longer reliable to safeguard the imperial jewel. Its long tenure was replaced by British government rule – the Raj – for the next 90 years.
Many of the sites still bear the physical scars of the events of 1857 – the Residence at Lucknow is just one example (see main image). In places, you get a real, rather peculiar sense of stepping into the aftermath, in spite of the time lapse. Standing at the ghats in Cawnpore after visiting the site of Wheeler’s entrenchment gives a true sense of the physicality of it all – the route that people walked to get there, albeit in vain.
Led by Patrick Mercer, MRT’s Indian Mutiny tour gets to grips with the detailed narrative. Patrick has made a speciality of Meerut, where the rebellion broke out. He takes the group to the exact spot where the 3rd Bengal Native Cavalry (3BNC) refused to handle the infamous ‘greased cartridges’ that sparked their mutiny and that of most of the Bengal Army:
‘One of the most extraordinary visits on the whole of the tour is the time we spend in Meerut. It’s an active Indian Army cantonment, so special permission has to be gained to go there – that’s why it’s so seldom visited.’
‘Diarists tell us that if the Commandant of 3BNC, Lt Col George Carmichael-Smyth, had not been so pig-headed about insisting that his troops should handle the cartridges, the whole storm might have blown over. So, perhaps responsibility for the whole Mutiny lies at Carmichael-Smyth’s feet? We see his bungalow and discuss the chain of events that led to the most serious crisis of Queen Victoria’s reign.’
Victorian sensibilities were deeply affected by the massacres and sieges in which European women and children were butchered, and by the betrayal of officers by their locally-recruited regiments.
‘Eerily, the burial register of those civilians, women and children murdered by the Mutineers in May 1857 lies in an ordinary cupboard in St John’s Church (shown above), along with those of more peaceful deaths right up to the present day. The church wardens can sometimes be persuaded to bring this out for inspection – it is a remarkable piece of living history for those fortunate enough to see it.’
The Indian Mutiny is led by military historian Patrick Mercer OBE and runs 24 October–5 November 2018.