In 1963 the skull of an Indian man was discovered in a small pub in Kent. Folded and pushed inside one of its eye sockets was a scribbled note that revealed he was called Alum Bheg and that he had lived over a century ago in India. He had met his end, like many others, when he was blown from a cannon for his alleged involvement in an attack on a British resident family. Bheg’s skull was a war trophy taken during a mutiny of sepoys, or native soldiers, that began in the ancient city of Meerut on 10 May 1857 and soon erupted into a wider conflict that engulfed an estimated one sixth of the East India Company’s (EIC) territory in India.
The revolt lasted fourteen months and its implications sent shockwaves through the martial and civil spheres in India. It also reverberated throughout British society. To see evidence of this we need look no further than the rivers of ink spilled in newspaper coverage. The numerous editorials, opinion articles and letters from the public that appeared in national and regional publications, such as The Times and Berrow’s Worcester Journal, expose a multifaceted debate revolving around the 1857 Uprising that touched upon such disparate topics as the shortcomings of the EIC, the character of the Indian people and the loyalty of Catholic soldiers. Capital punishment was another recurring topic and it is the focus of this piece.
Contemporary newspapers viewed the ‘mutiny’ as an event of great importance which attracted widespread attention in Britain. Such interest is likely to have been based more on familial than fiscal ties. The 30,000 British soldiers—and the family members that they brought with them—were comprised of people from a variety of backgrounds. And they maintained connections to their homeland. In July 1857, for example, there were over 20,000 letters sent home by settlers that described the startling events then unfolding across India and these were frequently published in British newspapers. In this way, the mutiny managed to reach many people in the United Kingdom and is one of the means by which the events scarred the national consciousness.
This resounded in British literature for decades, with related themes appearing in novels such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and E.M. Foster’s A Passage to India. An infiltration of ideas such as racial superiority and inherent ‘otherness’ into fictional works reveals the subtle ways in which the crisis affected the public psyche. The earliest histories produced narratives that were concerned with military battles and heroic acts. These largely cooperated with the colonial project rather than undermined it: some were even published before the rebellion was comprehensively crushed. Historicizing an event so swiftly is at least one indication of imperial arrogance. Nonetheless, reactions to the uprising largely defy generalisation.
What historians might term an ‘imperial’ narrative of events existed, but this did not go undisputed. In particular, that this was merely a tale of religious prejudices inflamed by the introduction of greased cartridges was never believed to be the only cause by all contemporary commentators. Many were able to trace the grievances of the rebels to a multitude of misjudged policies instigated years previously by the EIC, a once powerful organisation now in its death throes. The press did not tenderly ease its passing. Numerous past procedures of the EIC came in for criticism, reflecting long-held anxieties within Britain about merchants acting in the role of a state. The EIC was thus the primary target in the hunt for an adequate cause. This hunt was initiated by concern for British enterprise in India but lingered in the public discourse because of the rebels’ violent actions committed against British residents. A fierce reaction was sparked from the home press. From early on in the crisis, The Times, Glasgow Herald and Berrow’s Journal were demanding the blood of anyone considered culpable in the murder of British women and children. This sullying of the purest symbols of Victorian domesticity was proposed by The Times as an effort to ‘dishonour England itself’.
Wendy Webster demonstrates how this concept of domesticity being under siege also resonated in accounts of post-1945 colonial conflicts. Just as ideas of ‘white’ domesticity were shaken by fears of ‘black’ disloyalty during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the sepoy mutiny tainted a perceived paternal relationship on both a micro level—between a British officer and the sepoys—and a macro level between Britain and India. So much so that the popular illustrated newspaper, Punch, mocked the notion of a filial relationship forwarded by earlier thinkers like James Mill, with a cartoon that depicted the ‘Clement’ Governor-General Canning patting the head of a child-sized sepoy clasping a bloodied sabre.
The lampooning of those considered too merciful by many in the press is set against a context of progressive debate about the utilisation of capital punishment in Victorian society. Pro-abolitionists had made great strides with several government acts in the 1830s; reducing the amount of capital crimes by 66 per cent and by 1841 execution was only carried out for treason and homicide. By 1857 however there was a clear contradiction in contemporary discourse between the civilised, forward-looking Englishman and the blood-thirsty sensationalist Englishman, addicted to retribution as a means of revenge. The Times suggested that after an ‘immense amount of humanity’, with the reform of the penal code, there appears to be a ‘new phase of the British character to find a general consent in favour of strong measures in the East.’ Understood by some as a repressed retributive spirit connected to the teachings of the Old Testament, the Indian uprising was an episode that led to its resurgence in popular culture throwing into question the constructed identity of British civility.
Ultimately, the revolt failed to knock loose the jewel from the imperial crown. Yet, it is a testament to the sheer depth of the impact that it had on the people of the United Kingdom and India—political, social, cultural and intellectual—that it is still recognised as a landmark event in both these country’s histories.
Arran Jenkins is a History graduate of the University of Worcester. His final year Independent Study, examining the British press and the Indian Uprising, won the Stanford History Group Prize for Best Independent Study in History.