INSURGENT SEPOYS: EUROPE VIEWS THE REVOLT OF 1857 Edited by Shaswati Mazumdar, Routledge, Rs 795
The revolt of 1857 is regarded as a watershed in the history of colonial India for many reasons. First, it challenged the British rule violently and spread to quite a few parts of north India, although some scholars are loath to accept it as India’s first war of independence. Second, the transference of power to the Crown after the uprising was proof enough that the upsurge forced a strategic shift in the colonial policy. In international politics, British colonial rule came under the scanner of other colonial European powers. Press releases, editorials and popular fiction and non-fiction written then expressed varied views, from the staunchly pro-British to the virulently anti-British. This book surveys and critically analyses the views that the non-English speaking parts of Europe held about the mutiny.
Though good for research, this book is certainly not the first of its kind. The editor, Shaswati Mazumdar, acknowledges that P.C. Joshi’s Rebellion 1857 is its undoubted precursor. The articles in the book, like Joshi’s, indicate that the European responses were determined by several factors. Some responses were the result of acrimonious colonial rivalry, some were prompted by the conservative’s ire against liberalist Britain, some goaded by imperialist concerns for rampant industrialization, and some inspired by a burgeoning nationalism in Europe in the late 19th century.
The uprising became a constant point of reference for Europe to test its own political aspirations. The first part of the book, titled “News and Views”, presents the opinions in seven European countries, namely Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. Claudia Reichel, in her article, shows how Theodor Fontane, Edgar Bauer and Wilhelm Liebknecht’s journalistic writings have been severely critical of the exploitative British economy and the administrative ineptitude of the East India Company. Nicola Frith shows how French texts strove to prove that the uprising was indeed a revolution while the British press preferred to use restrictive terms like ‘mutiny’ or ‘revolt’. Chiara Cherubini’s article highlights how the conservative section of the Italian press inveighs the administrative double dealing of the East India Company that lead to the revolt, and the ‘hypocrisy’ of the British press in downplaying its magnitude. Margit Köves and Sarah Lemmen show how writings in small, non-colonial countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia, while not always lending moral support to the upsurge, drew parallels between it and their own freedom struggles.
The book’s second part, called “Facts and Fiction”, has some interesting articles about responses that harboured a kind of ambivalence towards colonial rule. For instance, in Germany, Hermann Goedsche, under the sobriquet of Sir John Retcliffe, wrote a novel on Nana Sahib (Nena Sahib order die Empörung in Indien) critiquing the narrow commercial interests of British colonialism while projecting Nana as a leader of thugs. Alessandro Portelli points out a similar ambivalence in the Italian novel Le due tigiri (The Two Tigers) by Emilio Salgari. Two articles, by Swati Dasgupta and Suchitra Choudhuri, are on Jules Verne’s fiction which displays his marked sympathy for the uprising. Dasgupta highlights the politics in the English translations of Verne’s adventure stories, where certain sections subscribing to the rebels’ cause were deliberately deleted or distorted. The book is a treasure trove for researchers on the uprising.