The Great Uprising India, 1857

The Great Uprising India, 1857

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Item Code: IDJ525
Author: Pramod K. Nayar
Publisher: Penguin Books
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 0143102389
Pages: 302 + One Map
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 7.6" X 5.0"
Back of the Book

As India marks 150 years of the 1857 Uprising, this meticulously researched and vivid work recounts a time both tragic and compelling. Many-staged and many-charactered, this volume searches for the key issues, causes and effects, figures and developments that culminated in the massacres of Cawnpore, Satichaura and Bibighar, the ensuing counter-massacres, and the gory retribution dealt out by the ensuing counter-massacres, and the gory retribution dealt out by the British on their subjects.

Beginning with an account of the state of the British Raj in 1857, Pramod Nayar moves on to 'A Gathering Storm', the strife that led to the Uprising, 'The Summer of Discontent', recounting the Mutiny, 'The Retreat of the Native' which tells us how the British won back lost ground, and 'The Raj Rises Again', explaining the repercussions the Mutiny had on the administrative plans of the empire. He also delves into the real causes of the Uprising, more complex than what conventional history upholds. Detailed descriptions of the Mutiny's main figure, including Henry Lawrence, John Nicholson, Lord Canning, Nana Sahib, the Rani of Jhansi, and the tragic king of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, are interspersed with quotes, facts and anecdotes that reanimate the past.

An overview and analysis of the Mutiny is flavored with references to the literature of the time and includes an appendix on how the events of 1857 influenced European literary imagination.

Kanpur and Jhansi, violence and counter-violence, heroism and savagery-this every person's guide to 1857 captures the most tumultuous years of British India and re-enacts the drama of the first stirrings of nationalism.


The Mutiny, India 1857, has never really slipped out of imaginations, either Indian or British. Fifty years after the events, G.R. Hearn's travel guide, The Seven Cities of Delhi (1906), provided an itinerary for travelers wishing to see the Mutiny sites around Delhi, just so that they would be familiar with the 'story of this strenuous struggle by which India was saved'. And 150 years after the stirring events of 1857, Holts Tours (London), specializing in Battlefield Tours, advertises an Indian Mutiny tour: Delhi, Meerut, Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra (Battlefields and History, pp. 48-49. Website:, although it has the grace to admit that there were 'appalling atrocities committed by both side'.

But why and how does the Mutiny have this effect? What exactly was the Mutiny?

This book explores the scale and multiple dimensions of the events of 1857 that have sustained popular, historiographic and literary imaginations for over a century.

The Book is situated somewhere between the dry-as dust historical tract, the dramatic narrative of a momentous event, and a scholarly (please note the footnotes, which reveal its aspirations to the scholarly) work. It is a popular account of the most fascinating years in British India before the arrival of Gandhi. It introduces characters and places, events and times; it seeks to capture some of the great drama. The drama that was India 1857.

The bibliography is fairly extensive, and should provide the reader with more texts, should she be interested in exploring further. It includes a large number of first person narrative accounts of 1857, and should be of particular interest to those who want to read experiential accounts. Finally, I have provided a short section on the fiction of the Mutiny. This might be of interest to those who would like to know how literary texts from the time saw and represented the events.

The event of 1857 are open to interpretation. The term 'Mutiny' carries a pejorative connotation from the Indian standpoint. Other terms such as 'the first war of Independent' or 'nationalist struggle' have been proposed, used and contested. 'Uprising' seems to be yet another popular choice. Was 1857-and notice how a date becomes the name of an event, not unlike 9/11-truly 'national' when it did not touch southern India? Was it military in character, or was it civilian and popular too? 1857 meant, and continues to mean, different things to different people.

I have retained the use of the term 'Mutiny', fully aware that it runs the risk of sounding like a Western (Euro-American) account of 1857, which this is most emphatically not. However, the choice was dictated by the indisputable fact that it is the most common, and therefore recognized, appellation (along with 'sepoy revolt') for the years 1857-58, from school textbooks to scholarly works. Ideally the term ought to be placed in quotes-as many scholarly works continue to do- to indicate the questionable relevance and implicit politics of the term. But using the quote marks throughout would be tedious and irritating. I, however, request the reader to assume the quote marks exist, that the term is not simple or decisive in its meanings. The 'Uprising' in the title is a deliberate shift away from the West-centric 'Mutiny', even as the rest of the book uses the commonest term.

I have also retained the use of British spellings like Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Oudh (Awadh) so that it remains close to the original.

Massacres, violence and brutality were common to both sides in the story. There was Satichaura and Bibighar on the side of the Indians: brutal, excessive, and unpardonable. But, equally unpardonable were the British, who destroyed entire villages and executed natives without ascertaining their participation in the Mutiny. Euro-American narratives on/of the Mutiny focus on Nana Sahib's disposition and violence. James Neill, who left behind him as a penalty for mutiny, entire villages empty of human life, does not attract the same attention. If Meerut saw officers being shot dead, Delhi saw three princes stripped and killed in full view of the populace. If no single European was left alive in Meerut after 12 May, 5000 natives died within Jhansi's walls, for the sole reason that they stood by their queen.

Too often British actions have been seen only as retaliatory, a direct response to the cruelties of Nana Sahib and the natives. What is ignored, crucially, I believe, is that James Neill's massacre of villagers in Allahabad preceded the Cawnpore massacres (Allahabad was in the first weeks of June 1857, well before Satichaura on 27 June, and Bibighar almost a month later). Even Christopher Hibbert mentions Allahabad after Cawnpore, thus suggesting a cause-effect sequence, when it was not really so. Michael Edwardes, who is one of the few to acknowledge the 'madness of Colonel Neill' (the title of one of the chapters in his Red year, 1973), locates Neill after Cawnpore. Saul David places Allahabad, Benaras and Neill's actions after the chapter 'Satichaura Ghat'. P.J.O. Taylor, an exception, however, believes that Neill's conduct en route [to Cawnpore and Lucknow] is said to have provoked the massacres in Cawnpore'. V.D. Savarkar, in his India version of 1857, draws attention to this awkward historiography when he states: 'Neill's barbarities were not a revenge of Cawnpore, but the Cawnpore bloodshed was the result of and revenge of Neill's inhuman brutalities.'

Neither side of the story is innocent, neither entirely evil. Neither murder nor mutilation can be justified or explained as 'rebellion' or 'retribution'.

Innocent people, Indian and British, did lose their lives and property. Remembering it all is traumatic, but also politically charged. And this is the reason why Edward Thompson in The Other Side of the Medal (1925) recommended that we stop publishing Mutiny narratives.

For, as the poet Eliot put it: after such knowledge, what forgiveness?


Map: Places Connected with the 1857 Uprising viii
Preface, and a Cautionary Notexii
Chronology: India 1857-59xvi
Prologue: Raj1
One: The Gathering Storm39
Two: The Summer of Discontent62
Three: The Retreat of the Native143
Four: The Raj Rises Again178
Appendix 1: The Fiction of 1857234
Appendix 2: British India, A Chronology252
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