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Disciplined English Tyranny

1816 CE, Barbados

In 1816, Bussa, an African born, slave who was between thirty and forty years old worked as a chief ranger at the Bayleys sugar plantation in St. Philip in Barbados. He was probably a member of the Bussa nation which had spread over West Africa as traders and conquerors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. All that glorious past did not matter much for he was now a slave, brought from Africa in one of those ships, surviving a deadly trans-Atlantic voyage. His ownership had recently changed hands to a man known as a disciplinarian and life was not looking good.

What distinguished Bussa from the thousands of slaves in Barbados was this: Bussa was planning an uprising for almost a year along with few others. His partners too were elite slaves — slaves who had specialized skills — and one of them was a woman.  Due to their status, they could travel freely without attracting attention. With the aim of overthrowing the white planter class,first they started a propaganda claiming that slavery had been abolished in England and the planters were refusing to implement it. The next step in their plan was to set fire to the canes during Easter celebrations, when the planters would be busy. Once the rebellion was successful, a free man of color would be appointed as the governor.

On April 14, 1816, around 8:30 pm, the plantations went up in flames as planned. The canes burned and cane ash fell all around; the smell of burned sugar spread all around. This was a critical time for the slaves. Some of them did not know if they should join the rebellion because most rebellions, except the one on Haiti, had been unsuccessful. If the rebellion failed and they were caught, the repercussion would be deadly for them and their family.

Within few hours of the fires, the militia and the British forces swung into action. Plantation owners, worried about the safety of their families, met and planned the next steps. They did not have to wait long; by midnight the first encounter happened. Slaves carrying machetes, cudgels and axes came face to face against a well armed militia. The fight was uneven; some slaves ran away, while the others were shot dead. There were people like Samuel Jackson’s character in Django Unchained, who showed great courage in jumping in harms way to save their white masters.

Following this, everything went downhill for the slaves. The militia was joined by the black troops of the West India regiment and what happened next was surprise for those who thought that black troops would not fight black slaves. The army had given special privileges to the troops and they did not identify themselves with the slaves and in the battle that followed many slaves were captured and killed. Within four days the rebellion was quelled; Bussa and the other leaders were killed in various battles.

The white plantation owners had many questions: how was the conspiracy hatched? how did Bussa and his friends manage to keep it secret in an island as small as Barbados? Can such incidents happen again? There was one decision though: such incidents should not happen once again and for that draconian disciplinary measures were enforced by the British military. Captive and unlucky slaves were summarily executed. Some were shot, some hanged and inspired by the Spanish Inquisition, some slow roasted over fire. The hanged men were left as is to decompose in the heat. Torture and executions were done publicly to intimidate the survivors and force them into compliance.

1857 CE, India

In places like Barbados and India, numerically few English were able to hold a larger population to slavery or servitude and brutal violence was one of the many tools they used. For a country which claimed to be philosophically strong, ethically superior and  had a library worth the whole native literature of India, they were no different from the ancient Romans or the medieval Borgias when it came to violence. All these people realized that fear was a great weapon if used effectively and that behavior was institutionalized. Such British behavior was not surprising because their empire was built on this well-deliberated and cold-blooded policy.

This disciplined tyranny by the British was seen four decades later in India following the war of 1857. Following the success of Operation Red Lotus, the English found that the initial success by Indians was due to the support of the villagers who became the supply chain for the army. It was then decided that such villages had to be ‘cleared’ which meant that the entire village along with their population had to be burned. Since they were law abiding people, the English first passed laws which called for the hanging of people, even non-combatants, whose guilt was doubtful. Once such enormous powers were granted to military officers and NGOs,  hanging parties went out to villages and hanged everyone including some young boys who had flaunted rebel colors.

Generals Havelock and Neil marched along the Grand Trunk Road burning and destroying whatever they could find. An Indian traveller from that period wrote that Neil let loose his men in Allahabad killing old men, women and children. For the others, a mock trial was conducted and hanged by twos and threes from branches and signposts all over the town. Following that he marched to Varanasi where the same was repeated. One gentleman in a burst of creativity arranged the hanged corpses in the figure of eight. The Governor-general reported back home that, “the aged, women and children were sacrificed.”

Due to this systematic massacre, the English were able to create a dead zone from Kanpur, all the way to Calcutta, thus breaking the supply chain. These were now areas under the English control and thus it became quite hard for Indian troops to march through this area. With this Havelock and Neil broke the back of Indian army and they are glorified for their actions. Even now there are two islands in the Andamans named after Neil and Havelock which speaks volumes about our historical literacy.

References:

  1. Stuart, Andrea. Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire . Knopf, 2013.
  2. Tope, Parag. Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Rupa & Co., 2010.
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In Pragati: The missing prophets of 1857

The ruins of Sikandar Bagh palace showing the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground, Lucknow, India, 1858

The ruins of Sikandar Bagh palace showing the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground, Lucknow, India, 1858

From the late eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century, as the world changed through conquest, colonialism and capitalism, a set of people rose around the world, reacting against such changes. Ironically, global historians – historians who look beyond regional and local causes – call these men prophets in an ode to Abrahamic religions. During this period of encounters and social changes, these charismatic leaders revitalised traditional ways and reorganised societies to challenge foreign institutions and ideas. Garnering support of broad swaths of society, they promised to restore lost harmony, bring in a new moral order, and a bright future. While global historians were able to find leaders for such movements in China, Middle East, United States, Mexico and Europe, they missed the leaders of the First War of Independence in India and fell back on the same old narratives.

As we look at examples from around the world, we get to see some of the qualities and methods of these leaders who influenced fields as diverse as economics, politics and religion. Due to encounters with the Western world, new ideas circulated in the Islamic world and alarmed by the lax religious practices and attempts by rulers in Saudi Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa to model their administration along European lines, leaders arose to return Islam back to its pure form. In Saudi Arabia, this led to the rise of Wahhabism under the leadership of Ibn abd al-Wahhab (1703 – 1792) whose work still influences the modern world. In West Africa, Usman dan Fodio (1754 – 1817) too attacked unbelievers and false religions and his movement led to Islam becoming a majority religion in the Nigerian region.

 Tecumseh portrait

Tecumseh

During this period, leaders also provided political leadership and created larger states from tribal clans. As Africa became overpopulated and there was competition for cattle-grazing and farming lands, small family clans found themselves overwhelmed. This traditional structure which had existed for centuries could no longer cope with the changes brought by long distance trade. It was the right moment for a cruel and powerful leader like Shaka (1787 – 1828) to rise up, wipe out other clans and unite the winners into a large monarchy, which in turn led to the creation of the Zulu kingdom. In the United States of America, Native Americans had to compete for land with the European colonisers who forcefully took over their land. As a reaction, groups under leaders like Tenskwatwa (1775 – 1836) and Tecumseh (1768 – 1813) exhorted their followers to renounce European goods and shun the missionaries. They tried to forge unity among native Americans, but were eventually betrayed by the British and left to perish.

In China, after a humiliating defeat in the Opium War that forced the country to open other ports to foreign merchants, there rose a fear of western power. During that period, as the rulers became inefficient, masses of people joined what is known as the Taiping Rebellion, motivated by a Christian leader named Hong Xiuquan (1813 – 1864). Like the Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, his goal was to return China to an era before it was corrupted by human conventions. Their war was not against the Europeans, but against the Chinese leaders who they thought were the main obstacle in obtaining God’s kingdom on earth. Hong came up with a radical new system which basically countered all the established Chinese traditions, but in the end it was defeated.

Analysis of these prophetic movements across the world show that whenever there is a structural change – in religion or rebellions – it is triggered by a leader. These revolutions were not accidents, but the result of planned action by certain individuals who inspired the masses through messages, symbols and charisma. In the pantheon of prophets we see leaders like Jacinto Pat and Cecilio Chi who led the Mayans in 1847 by blending Christian rituals with Mayan beliefs, Charles Fourier who had a utopian socialist vision and Karl Marx who inspired many nations and their leaders with this theory of proletarian revolt. While many such movements were defeated, the ideas they created lived longer.

 Tantya Tope,  after his capture in 1859

Wikipedia says this picture is Tantya Tope, after his capture in 1859, but this is a fake(See note 2)

When global historians evaluate the “Rebellion of 1857” in this context, it is mentioned as an uprising which was sparked by the greased cartridge controversy. Compared to the other global revolutions, this one was not triggered by any prophet, but was a spontaneous uprising or mutiny and it was after the uprising happened that leaders came up. But if one asks questions like how thousands of Indian soldiers marched successfully to Delhi without a supply line, it is evident that something is missing from the known narrative.

New, as well as ignored evidence now tell us that the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 was a carefully planned operation. Leaders like Baija Bai Shinde, Nana Saheb and his Diwan Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda were involved in the planning using red lotus flowers and chappatis to count the number of soldiers and ensure the commitment of the villages along the army path. Letters translated for the first time in Parag Tope’s “Operation Red Lotus” reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.

Global historians alone cannot be blamed for this lapse because Indian historians themselves have not accepted this view. Then, misrepresentation of the war of 1857 is not new. Depending on the bias of historians, it had many interpretations. According to the official version by Surendra Nath Sen, it was a spontaneous uprising. Marxist historians marginalised the leadership and saw it as a peasant revolt. Another Indian historian wondered how it could be a war at a time when India was not a nation. Now we know that the leaders of the war of 1857 used symbols (red lotus) and messages (Azamgarh proclamation) similar to the prophets of China and USA, and promised a new moral order where people would have political, religious and economic freedom.

Thus, the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 doesn’t have to be relegated to a secondary status in the global prophetic narrative as it satisfies the criteria met by the others.

Notes

  1. This was adapted from an assignment I did for “A History of the World since 1300”  by Princeton University. It was first published at Pragati
  2. Personal communication with Parag Tope

References

  1. Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition).W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  2. Tope, Parag. Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Rupa & Co., 2010.
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