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Tag Archives | British India

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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Indian History Carnival – 44:Āgamaḍambara, Kokila Sandeśa, 1857, de Havilland

Palace of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula at Lucknow (wikipedia)

  1. Complete Review has a review of Jayánta Bhaṭṭa’s Sanskrit play Āgamaḍambara
  2. Much Ado about Religion, written about 900, is a didactic play that takes on (some) religion in a mix of satire and call for tolerance. Relating directly to conditions in Kashmir of the time, and the local ruler, King Shánkara·varman, and his policies and rule, the arcane specifics remain — despite a brief Introduction and quite extensive textual notes — difficult to fully grasp. Much, however, is also more universal, and so the play is certainly more than of merely historical interest.

  3. In Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstrī’s Kokila Sandeśa, written in the 15th century, the unnamed hero in Kanchipuram sends a message with koel or cuckoo to his wife who is near Kochi. This is interesting to historians because it provides social, cultural and historical details of that period. Venetia Ansell has a three part post (1,2, 3) on this.
  4. More recently, one of the Kulaśekhara kings of Mahodayapuram (the koel’s penultimate stop), Kulaśekhara Āḷwār, who after gaining power over all of southern India turned to Vaishnavism in a big way and is said to have died en route to Tirupati, is also supposed to have founded the temple. There is no consensus on his dates but he was probably pre-10th century AD. Two copper plate inscriptions – which seem to link the temple to the rulers of northern Koṭṭayam, the koel’s next but one stop – and various other archaeological evidence suggests that the temple was indeed well established by the 10th century.

  5. Fëanor translates a French newspaper report on an exhibition about the Royal Court of Lucknow.
  6. The golden age of the city was short, the British having ended it in ambush. It started with the accession to power of the ruler Shuja al-Daula in 1754, who made Lucknow his permanent residence. The Nawab attempted to curb the growing power of the British East India Company militarily, which earned him a stinging defeat in 1764. He then signed a treaty with the British in which he recovered his powers of Awadh in exchange for trade concessions and large payments of money.

  7. Sriram has a post about Thomas Fiott de Havilland who was responsible for the construction of the Madras Bulwark among many other things.
  8. When this was done, de Havilland submitted a proposal to build a bridge across the Cauvery in Mysore with just five arches. To demonstrate his skill in building it, de Havilland erected a great arch in his garden, with a hundred-foot span. The structure became a local landmark and stood till 1937 when it collapsed. The remains of the de Havilland arch are a tourist attraction in Seringapatam even now. The brick bridge over the Cauvery was completed in 1810 in which year de Havilland joined a group of officers who mutinied, protesting against the appalling conditions of the army in Mysore. He was dismissed and returned to Guersney where he was commissioned to construct a barracks. Reinstated in service in 1812, he returned to Madras and became civil engineer and architect of the Presidency in 1814.

  9. Interior of the Secundra Bagh After the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels, Lucknow, 1858 and Chutter Manzil Palace are two pictures taken by Felice Beato who was in India shortly after the Anglo-Indian war of 1857.

Thanks: Sandeep V & Fëanor

If you find interesting blog posts on Indian history, please send it to varnam.blog @gmail or as a tweet to @varnam_blog. The next carnival will be up on Sep 15th.

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Sree Padmanabhaswamy and Subhas Chandra Bose

In 1941, a British official in Chennai received an anonymous letter which claimed that Subhas Chandra Bose had returned to India and was living in the premises of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The letter was forwarded to the dewan Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer who immediately put a close watch around the area.

The letter, received by British officials in Calcutta and passed on to Murphy, said “Bose is in the near vicinity of Sree Anantha Padmanabha of Travancore and still further in the Rameswaram side..It then continued ‘he (Bose) has gone to find out the truth of Lord Sree Krishna’s teaching.'”

According to a docket in the Kerala State Archives, on seeing the letter, the then British Resident for the Madras State, Lieutenant Colonel G P Murphy, forwarded a copy of it to Dewan of Travancore Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer requesting to “closely watch” the area around the grand temple.

The request was immediately complied with but no clue whatsoever of the possible visit of the Netaji, as Bose is endearingly called by his followers and admirers, was found around the temple complex.[British wanted Padmanabha temple watched for Subhas Bose]

PS: The Economic Times article claims that “The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple was built in the 18th century by King Marthanda Varma of the Travancore royal lineage”. They are off by more than a millenia.

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In Pragati: Book Review – Churchill’s Secret War by Madhusree Mukherjee

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill (Image via ChrisM70)

Three days after Germany invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Winston Churchill inspired Britain with the words, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” These words—Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat—is the title of a book by John Lukacs which analyses Churchill’s motivational speeches during World War II as American and Russian forces battled the Axis in Europe and the Pacific. The titles of other books—The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, Churchill: A Study in Greatness—reveal the exalted position Britain’s war-time prime pinister occupies in world history, specifically Western history.

While reading Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat it was unclear what was more funny—Mr Lukacs’ repetition of the title words every few pages or his admiration of Churchill’s speeches extolling the virtues of freedom ignoring the enslaved people of the colonies. For such historians Churchill proved his mettle by leading the country through the war and coming out victorious. Like how many American historians do not see the irony in Thomas Jefferson asserting all men are equal while owning slaves, members of Churchill fan club do not see anything wrong in pronouncing him as the upholder of freedom and democracy despite his unapologetic imperialist stance and inhuman behavior towards the colonies.

In Madhusree Mukherjee’s book, Churchill is neither a lion nor a man of great moral rectitude. He was a man who could have prevented three million Indians from starving to death, but did not. Clouded by racist views of Indians, he even stopped other countries from helping the starving population, antagonised the US president with his stand on India and argued that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to British India. Despite all these, when the first words of Paul Johnson’s biography states that Churchill was most valuable man to the whole of humanity in the 20th century, one has to wonder about the lack of perspective behind that testimonial.

The famine

Between 1941 and 1942, three events occurred which turned out to be disastrous for the people of Bengal. First, fearing the Japanese invasion of India, the War Cabinet ordered a scorched earth policy in areas which would have to be surrendered. Rice was removed or destroyed. Money was advanced to businessmen to buy and hoard. Along with this, boats, much needed by farmers, fishermen and potters for their livelihood were destroyed.

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In Pragati: Book Review – Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope

In late 1856, some strange practices began to surface in parts of north India. Red lotus flowers were circulated in garrisons which housed the Native Infantry. The subedar would line up the troops and then hand a flower to the first soldier, who would hold it and pass it down the line. The last one would leave the station with the flower. Elsewhere, a runner took a bundle of chapatis to a village and handed it to the chief or sentry, with instructions to send the chapatis on to the next village under English rule. In the midst of these lotus and chapati incidents, the soldiers’ slogan would change from “everything will become red” to “everything has become red.” Other unusual events included the announcement of an important yagya in Mathura (which never took place), and the habit begun by many women of offering their rolling pins to the river Ganga.

These signs were noticed by the British—Benjamin Disraeli even raised the question of the travelling chapatis in Parliament—but were dismissed as Indian superstitions.

These abnormal occurrences, ignored by almost every historical narrative on the 1857 uprising, assume significance when seen in the light of an important question: How did the Indian troops travel over a million miles, in the early months of the war, without a supply line? In a regular war, there were three camp followers for each soldier, but once the soldiers mutinied in 1857, who fed them? Case in point: How did the 17th Native Infantry march 140km from Azamgarh to Faizabad in just five days?

The answer may seem straightforward: The villagers fed the soldiers. However, there was an intricate strategy underlying the initiative. To feed thousands of soldiers, each village (comprising of a few hundred people) needed an approximate count. The count was provided by the lotus flowers, while the chapatis and the rolling pins were the means used to confirm the commitment of the villagers. The Mathura yagya was a ruse to facilitate the travel of priests who doubled as spies.

Thus, the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 was initiated by leaders who planned the war, conducted internal and external reconnaissance, and recruited soldiers—with the help of civilians.

Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus—through the analysis of instances such as the use of red lotuses and chapatis—fills the gaps and corrects the myths about the events of 1857. Relying on eyewitness accounts written in Marathi and letters in Urdu and Bundeli, Mr Tope, a fourth-generation descendent of Tatya Tope, sheds new light on the momentous event. Add to it his analysis of troop movements, supply lines, and logistics—and the tale of the 1857 Anglo-Indian War comes to life in hitherto untold, dramatic fashion.

The triad of freedoms

The leaders who spearheaded the 1857 operation included Nana Saheb, his Diwan, Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda. In 1858, Sitaram Baba, a priest in Nana Saheb’s court was arrested by the British. Baba confessed that the conspiracy had been initiated by Baija Bai Shinde two decades earlier, and that the real planning had started three years before. He also revealed information about the runners who had gone to each regiment, and the connection between the lotuses and chapatis. Letters, translated for the first time in this book, reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.

“It is important to note that the rising was neither planned nor stimulated by any patriotic move”, wrote Gregory Fremont-Barnes in Indian Mutiny 1857-58 (2007). What Fremont-Barnes and many other Indian historians often fail to mention is that the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future. After the uprising’s initial success, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a proclamation, read by his grandson in Azamgarh. The proclamation promised a triad of invaluable freedoms: Political, personal and economic.

The crony-capitalist state run by the British East India Company had destroyed the free market system in India. Heavy taxation was the norm, while prices were enforced with the threat of punishment. Manufacturing capabilities were crippled, and the agricultural sector lost the ability to shield the country from the threat of famines. Due to India’s asymmetrical role in the global network, even as the country’s share in the world’s GDP fell from 25 percent to 12, Britain’s share doubled.

On the social front, William Bentinck’s educational policy, based on Macaulay’s Minute, destroyed the private education system that had previously created a society more literate than that of Britain. In a letter to his father, Macaulay claimed that if the new education policy was implemented, there would not be a single idolater left in Bengal.

Even the legal framework was skewed—Indians wanted freedom from missionaries who were working with the Government, and laws which favoured Christians.

By promising the triad of freedoms, the leaders were not advocating a novel or revolutionary idea. They were reverting to the foundations of the Indian polity, which not only guaranteed political, social and economic freedom, but kept them separate as well. In other words, the ruler did not act as a trader, but created an environment suitable for trade.

Fractional Freedom

Mr Tope argues that although the initial uprising was brilliantly planned and co-ordinated, the war was lost due to two reasons. Firstly, the British used their women and children as human shields, which resulted in gory incidents such as the Siege of Cawnpore. Secondly, they resorted to the use of extreme brutality—leaving aside their usual pretences to civilised behaviour—citing the case of Cawnpore (Kanpur).

Recognising the supply lines for the soldiers, British officials attacked those villages through which the chapatis were passed. A law was passed to allow the hanging of even those whose guilt was doubtful. British troops under Havelock and Neill did a death march, killing women, children, infants and the elderly. Sepoys were ritually stripped of their caste by having pork and beef stuffed down their throats before execution.

In books such as The Great Indian Mutiny (1964) by Richard Collier, or The Last Mughal (2008) by William Dalrymple, the British officials’ use of violence is regarded as a reaction to the carnage that took place in Kanpur. However, Mr Tope points out that the government’s brutality was unleashed even before that. British historians recorded that “guilty” villages were “cleared” so that India could be saved from anarchy.

In 1857, the strategy of violent repression was used by the British to secure time to redeploy troops from other countries to India. It was during this time that Tatya’s tenacity became evident. After establishing a command centre in Kalpi, he set up factories for producing ammunition, guns and cannons.

Despite the prospect of imminent defeat, Tatya worked to raise an army, and inspire civilians. When the British took over Delhi, the battle ground was moved to central India. When Rani Laxmibai, who grew up with Tatya, was held under siege, he created a diversion to help the Rani escape. Following the Jhansi massacre, the Indian chieftains who supported Tatya backed down, but he came up with a new strategy—to raise rebellions in regions where the spirit of freedom was strong.

The battles are explained with numerous maps, painstakingly plotted with English and Indian troop movements—a useful tool to interpret the events, and grasp the thinking behind the strategy. The maps, coupled with the detailed narrative and critical analysis, provide a valuable resource to better appreciate the holistic nature of the 1857 uprising.

Upon realising that the 1857 war had ignited the desire for total freedom, Queen Victoria dissolved the East India Company and transferred all powers to the Crown. In her proclamation, she did not give India political or economic freedom, but made an important concession: The English would no longer interfere with the native religions. Even Fremont-Barnes’ apologia acknowledges that successive viceroys took greater heed of India’s religious sensitivities. It was an important victory, writes Mr Tope, for it prevented large scale British settlement in India, and stemmed the destruction of Indian traditions.

The fight continues

Nevertheless, the signature elements of the 1857 uprising—secret messages, planning, and mass murders—were repeated again. In 1932, freedom fighters were warned of danger by Hindu women, who blew on conch shells when they spotted a policeman—the sound was relayed for miles by a network of women.

Madhusree Mukerjee records instances of a different nature in her Churchill’s Secret War (2010). During World War II, when the Japanese army reached Indian borders, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, wondered if it was necessary to revive ruthless punishments of 1857 to prevent a possible uprising. Winston Churchill’s policies, argues Ms Mukerjee, resulted in a famine in which three million Indians perished. Mr Tope describes the events of February 19, 1946, when 78 ships, going from Karachi to Chittagong, changed their name from HMIS (His Majesty’s Indian Ships) to INNS (Indian National Naval Ships) in a co-ordinated move.

Coming back to 1857: Why is it that Baija Bai Shinde’s 20-year conspiracy, Nana Saheb’s planning or Tatya’s Tope’s contribution do not feature prominently in our history books? This probably has to do with the historiography of the event. In the official version written a century later by Surendra Nath Sen, the 1857 War was seen as a spontaneous uprising by “conspirators”. Historian R C Majumdar questioned if it could even be called a “war” since India was not a nation, while Marxist historians connected the revolt to peasant uprisings in Bengal.

This reluctance to deviate from the colonial narrative 150 years after the war and 60 years after obtaining political freedom is a telling sign about the state of historical study in India.

India’s proclamation of independence six decades ago has to be contrasted with the triad of freedoms promised in the Azamgarh proclamation. To the leaders of the newly independent polity, Indian traditions of the past did not guide the future. Their socialist mindset led to state control over education and restricted economic freedom, with the state itself becoming a trader—all of which had disastrous consequences.

Looking back, we know what our leaders tried to build and failed, but as well, what they knocked down.

(This version appeared in the February 2011 edition of Pragati)

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