EMPIRE & REVOLUTION: THE INDIAN MUTINY AS A LOSS AND REVIVAL OF IMPERIAL SPIRIT

Miss Wheeler defending herself at the Massacre of Cawnpore.

You can look far and wide for the causes of the Indian Mutiny, which started today in 1857 at the garrison town of Meerut, around 40 miles North East of Delhi.

The most famous cause usually given is the use of pig and cow grease as waterproofing on paper gunpowder cartridges (measured amounts of gunpowder) that the Indian Sepoy troops were then required to open with their teeth, offending their delicate Muslim or Hindu sensibilities. Many other causes are also mentioned, including economic, social, and military ones – such as changes to the terms of military service that required Indian troops to serve overseas. A review of all of these could get quite boring. 

What we have here, really, is what I believe should be referred to as "mechanical history," namely an over-precise. simplifying, and reductionist attempt to find neat, verifiable causes for events that can be backed up in academic notes with references to documents and, better still, facts and figures – give that man with the unread book another PHD!  This merely reveals the inferiority complex of social scientists, rather than the actual workings of history, which is a much more spiritual thing.

The awkward thing is that the kind of grievances and issues that "mechanical" explanations routinely lean on are always there, both in periods of peace and times of revolution. You always have tax irregularities, onerous rules, and occasional abuses by those in positions of authority. They were certainly there during the most uncontested periods of imperial rule, and often more so. As for the period of Mughal rule, even their most enlightened emperors gave their subjects much more to resent and rebel against than the most callous and incompetent British ruler.

It was therefore something else, something much harder to pin down but not exactly hidden, that truly explains this sudden outbreak of violence in India. A clue as to the real cause is evident in some of the Mutiny's better-known features, such as the horrific butchery by the Indians of White civilians, in particular women and children.

Memoriam by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.
Everywhere the revolt broke out, Europeans were slaughtered with terrible cruelty. At Meerut two officers' wives were murdered in ways that acquired particular notoriety. One of them, Mrs. Chambers, was pregnant. Her unborn child was ripped from her womb by the camp butcher. Another, Mrs. Dawson, was recovering from smallpox. In order to avoid contagion while they murdered her, the Sepoys threw burning torches at her until her clothes caught fire and burnt her to death. When the Mutiny spread to Cawnpore, four American missionaries – Freeman, Campbell, Macmullen, and Johnson – were cruelly slaughtered, along with their wives (3) and children (2) in a massacre that involved hundreds of civilians.

Terrible as such deeds are as an effect, there is also a clue in them as a cause, as they force us to consider why so many European civilians were over in India in the first place and what they were doing.

A good many of them were missionaries or pseudo-governmental bureaucrats, with an agenda to reform, standardize, modernize, and "raise up" the natives – all for the greater spiritual and economic benefit of the soul, tax, and dividend gatherers back home. In short, there were too many people out there trying to "improve" things, rather than taking care of the serious business of Empire, which is to maintain power and authority. This, rather than the ratio of Sepoys to British troops, was the main imbalance, and something that sent out the wrong signal to a people used to being treated harshly by their overlords.

It is quite revealing that the very year of the Indian Mutiny was also the exact same year that the first three Indian Universities were founded. A remarkable coincidence! Or is it?

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