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British Raj Archives - varnamvarnam
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Tag Archives | British Raj

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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The Man who came to destroy Hinduism – 2

The headquarters of thePropaganda fide in Rome

(Read Part 1)

It would be wrong to say that at that point in time Indians of the 1830s hated English. At the Hindu college, which was established by Indians, the British themselves admitted that the English education was as good as any school in Europe. When the Government decided to establish a new Sanskrit college in Calcutta, Ram Mohan Roy was disappointed. He wanted Indians to learn European math, science, chemistry instead of “grammatical niceties and metaphysical distinctions”.

After further objections to the “imaginary learning” of Hindu schools, he [Ram Mohan Roy] summarily assures Lord Amherst that “the Sanskrit system of education would be the best calculat-  ed to keep this country in darkness.” What he wants to see established is “a more liberal and enlightened system of  instruction, embracing mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, with other useful sciences.” This, he urges “may be accomplished with the sums proposed, by employing a few gentlemen of talent and learning educated  in Europe and providing a College furnished with neces- sary books, instruments, and other apparatus.” [The life and letters of Raja Rammohun Roy]

Mohan Roy’s letter to Lord Amherst did not get an answer. By then the fight between the Anglicists and Orientalists had reached a point where a decision had to be made. Macaulay arrived on the scene in 1834 and he had a clear idea about the future direction. Also Duff’s independent efforts had convinced Macaulay that an Anglical education system would succeed.

Macaulay was of the opinion that there was no point in perfecting the vernaculars, since there was nothing intelligent, but falsehood in them. In his Minute, he noted that he had no knowledge of Sanskrit or Arabic, but was convinced that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. On the other hand, whoever learned English had access to the vast intellectual wealth of the wisest nations of the earth and the literature available in English is valuable that the literature of all languages of the world together.[Macaulay’s Education Part 3: The Minute]

Lord William Bentinck signed Macaulay’s draft into law. While the goal of British Government was to promote European literature and science, the Oriental schools were not to be closed. Instead it was decided not to subsidize the students. The large amount of money spent on printing Oriental books were to be stopped and the money instead was to be used for promoting European literature.

Duff had already done this without any Government support and had solved many problems which the administration would face later. When a medical college was established in Calcutta there seemed to be a problem since Hindu shastras prohibited touching a dead body for anatomical purposes. To find a way out, the education commission visited Duff’s school. The students told the commission that it was a fact that shastras prohibited handling of a dead body, but they did not care. They wanted to take up the medical profession. Later orthodox priests told William Bentinck that there was no prohibition against touching a dead body for learning, but Duff was praised for showing that modern science was compatible with traditionalism.

Continue Reading →

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The Man who came to destroy Hinduism – 1


On Jan 15, 1823, Jean-Antoine Dubois, a French-Catholic missionary, who spent time in Pondicherry, Madras Presidency and Mysore left India for Paris, never to return again. During his time in India, he dressed like a native and preached the Gospel, but after 30 years in India, he was convinced that it was next to impossible to convert Indians.

But seven years later, on May 27th, 1830, a Scottish missionary arrived in Calcutta and his goal was to “prepare a mine which should one day explode beneath the very citadel of Hinduism.” This 24 year thought that the methods of other missionaries, like directly appealing Hindus to renounce their faith, would do nothing but anger the natives. Instead he claimed to have found a unique way to destroy Hinduism in a peaceful manner.

To understand how Alexander Duff came up with his recipe, we need to understand the India of 1830s.

  1. The language of the Government was Persian and there were a few educational institutions which taught Arabic and Sanskrit. The learned people spoke these Oriental languages and not English.
  2. Duff arrived at a time when there was a controversy in British India over the language to be used for Indian higher education. On the one side there were the British Orientalists who wanted to use Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic and on the other side there were the Anglicists who had scorn for Oriental languages and Indian culture and wanted to enforce English
  3. The missionary activities were not very successful. The missionary technique consisted of standing in the street corner and preaching which fetched an occasional convert or two, but nothing of great significance. Even in South India, where there were more converts, the converts came from the out castes; the Hindu masses remained unaffected.

Duff would take all these three ingredients to come up with a winning formula, which was eventually endorsed by the Lord himself – I mean Lord Macaulay. Looking back, the formula was simple.

  1. Provide English education for the masses
  2. Make Bible studies an integral part of this education
  3. Be non-apologetic about teaching Christianity.

Thus he would teach Western history, philosophy, and natural sciences and as per the plan Hindus seeing irrationality in their religion would discard their faith voluntarily. But this was tricky business. It was possible that a Hindu who had left Hinduism due to Western education could become agnostic. But Duff would fill that spiritual vacuum with the Christian view of life.

Duff was very clear about what Christian education meant: it was not secular education with some Biblical studies thrown in. For him Christianity contained all knowledge and his goal was to teach with Christianity revelation at the center.

When Duff first proposed this method, veteran missionaries did not find it appealing. Still he went ahead without any government support. Bengalis did not mind an English school, but had reservations about an English school where Bible was an important subject. This reservation made it difficult for Duff to get started; he could not even find a building to start his classes.

One Indian who helped get Duff was Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Mohan Roy who worked with Lord William Bentinck in suppressing sati and who believed that the pure faith of the vedas were corrupted by various cults had founded Brahma Samaj to teach the worship of one God. Ram Mohan Roy provided Duff with a hall as well as his first students. When parents learned that Bible was being taught there, they were reluctant to send their kids, but Ram Mohan Roy helped there as well. On the first day of school, Ram Mohan Roy, who had three more years to live, calmed the students who refused to read the Bible and appeared daily for the Bible class.

Though Duff was a proponent of higher studies in English, he did not hate Bengali. He did not want students to be alien to their culture and hence Bengali studies were an important part of the curriculum. After one year, Duff conducted a public exam  – in front of parents and the media – and students demonstrated their knowledge in language, science and Bible. This was a huge success and it convinced both Indians and the British. Soon the number of students started increasing.

Not everyone in Calcutta was his fan. One of the newspapers published an article suggesting that all students who attended Duff’s school be outcasted. This warning had an effect and the attendance dropped briefly, but later picked up.

Soon Duff encountered students —- not from his school, but from the Hindu college — who were enamored by Western thought and had a low opinion of Hinduism. These were the kind of people Duff wanted to seed Christian religion into and he invited them to his home to attend lectures on “God and His Revealing.” Hindus reacted strongly against Duff and asked the Government to stop this. Lord William Bentinck asked Duff to slow down and this crisis too passed.

But soon Duff got his converts — Krishna Mohan Banerjee, Mohesh Chunder Ghosh, Gopinath Nandi and Anando Chand Mazumdar  — and as he had expected they came from the higher castes. Some of them were Brahmins who ate beef to show their defiance against Hinduism and whose moral vacuum was happily filled by Duff.

By this time the Orientalist-Anglicist fight had reached critical mass. The East India Company needed a supply of qualified clerks and there were educational institutions like the Mohammedan college in Calcutta and Sanskrit college in Benares which provided the employees. The company even started a new Sanskrit college in Calcutta and Oriental colleges in Delhi and Agra. A large sum of money was spent in publishing books in the Oriental languages and translating European works into these languages. For the amount of money spent on education, there was not enough demand for these books.

In the language fight, the Government, missionaries and Orientalists wanted to use the Oriental languages, while Duff sided along with the Anglicists. If Indians were to learn Western culture and Christian theology, he said, it was not possible to do it in Sanskrit, Arabic or Persian or the vernacular Bengali. This decision on which language to choose for Duff was very critical and in a later speech given in Scotland, he said that it concerned the ultimate evangelization of India.

His arguments against Sanskrit were that (a) it was not perfect for Western education (b) ordinary people did not speak Sanskrit and (c) Western literature was not translated to Sanskrit. Since Sanskrit was tied to Hinduism, even if one were to teach Western literature in Sanskrit, the association formed in the mind of people would of an idolatrous and superstitious religion whereas English, would bring fresh ideas without the burden of association.

(Read Part 2)

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