The Uprising of 1857 review: Glimpses of a mutiny and after
A historian documents India’s ‘First War of Independence’ with a wealth of photographic evidence from the Alkazi collection
The year 1857 was a watershed one in the history of India. The British East India Company quelled the ‘mutiny’ of Indians, thus paving the way for India to become a British colony. But nevertheless, the uprising was a jolt for the imperial intentions of the British and resulted in many decisions that changed the fate of India.
The Mughal emperor was exiled to Rangoon after a travesty of a trial where he was charged with sedition against his own empire. Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India and this set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the drain of wealth from India bringing it down from being one of the richest economies in the world to being one of the poorest.
Divide and rule
It was during the uprising of 1857 that the British realised that if Hindus, Muslims, rich and poor, high and low castes could get together, they would almost succeed in dislodging them and so they systematically started a policy of what is now called divide and rule.
Many books were written by the British themselves to analyse the ‘mutiny’. Indians too wrote many books on it, but this fascinating period of history still needs much more study and work.
As such, the book under review, The Uprising of 1857, edited by historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, is an important document with its wealth of photographic evidence from the Alkazi collection.
Many names have been given to the uprising of 1857, with the British calling it a mutiny and rebellion. In 1909, Veer Savarkar hailed it as the First War of Independence and this nomenclature gained popularity. Thus, the title of the book itself is interesting and one that immediately draws attention. The uprising was restricted to parts of northern India and the British troops that were sent to put down the ‘mutiny’ comprised soldiers from Punjab along with Afghan and Gurkha regiments.
Llewellyn-Jones makes an important point for students of 1857, “Indians, divided by creed, caste, tribal loyalties, feudal resentment, personal grudges, envy and greed, sometimes fought each other instead of the real enemy, the British.”
The main focus is on photographic evidence, and there is an attempt to study it not just from the lens of the photographer but as Llwellyn-Jones writes, “This book marries little-known photographs with new texts on the Mutiny by current scholars.”
The book deals with lesser-known aspects of the uprising and not just famous stories like that of Rani of Jhansi, Begum Hazrat Mahal or Bahadur Shah Zafar.
With contributors such as Shahid Amin, Mahmood Farooqui, Nayanjot Lahiri, Andrew Ward, Tapti Roy, Susan Gole, Zahid R. Chaudhary, Stephanie Roy Bharath, the ‘marriage’ is very successful.
In the first essay, Amin questions the ‘grimly controlled masculine military understanding’, which meant that the Rani of Jhansi too is glorified for her masculine spirit.
Farooqui’s essay on Mirza Ghalib and Maulvi Mohammed Baqar, while discussing two of Delhi’s intellectuals and their reactions, ends on an interesting note. He writes, “The ‘de-Muslimisation’ of 1857 and the ‘Muslimisation of Urdu’ are not entirely unrelated historical processes.”
Lahiri calls the ‘mutiny’ photographs ‘deliberate narratives’ as they are a valuable archival source that record and remember particular kinds of ‘architectural and human landscapes’. War photography depends on the intent and ideology of the photographers and the ‘social and political memories’ that the British victors sought to perpetuate and preserve.
Ward’s essay describes the massacre of the British at Bibighar in Cawnpore that brought Kanpur to world attention. It helped to unify Westerners in “their contempt for the moral condition of native people, buttress their belief in their own cultural superiority and obscure the atrocities they had themselves committed.”
Llewellyn-Jones’ essay on the royal family of Awadh invokes much nostalgia and empathy for the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.
‘A bloody drama’
Roy’s essay offers interesting insights on the conflict in Bundelkhand with Rani of Orchha opposing Rani of Jhansi and siding with the British. As Roy states, “We witness a bloody drama of struggles, agonies, victories and defeats that were relentlessly personal and stamped with the protagonists’ personal traits.”
Gole’s maps of 1857 offer a wealth of riches as they show troop manoeuvres and positions with explanations. Beato’s photograph, Execution of Mutineers, is iconic, and Chaudhary’s essay explores ‘two ways of thinking about photography and violence’. 1857 saw quite a bit of the latter.
Most of us have seen photographs of the uprising of 1857 but rarely pay attention to the photographers and their work. Bharath’s essay describes them and their contribution to recording the events and sites. This is a must read book for those interested in the uprising of 1857, however its price as well as size and thickness, limits it to a select audience.
The Uprising of 1857; Edited by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, Mapin Publishing, ₹3,500.