Insightful views

Print edition : May 20, 2011

Detailed accounts of different European responses to the Indian Revolt of 1857 and the events relating to it.

THE Mutiny of 1857 has a multilayered, complex and much-contested narrative. While the British made every effort to project it as a treacherous act of revolt by barbaric and disgruntled sepoys, Karl Marx, who reported on the event from London for an American newspaper, was perceptive enough to call it the first war of Indian independence. Later, nationalists such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar tried to show that the Mutiny was not the result of a spontaneous outburst by a few soldiers but had detailed planning with the explicit aim of ousting the British colonial power.

As recently as March 28, 2011, J.V. Naik buttressed this view while delivering the Foundation Day Lecture at the Indian Council for Historical Research. The great uprising of 1857, he said, rightly called the First Indian War of Independence, like all the great revolutions in world history, had preceded first in the realm of ideas. This is evident from the pre-1857 writings and doings of a small band of Maharashtrians.

While the British colonial and Indian nationalist historiographies have been sparring with each other, not much attention has been paid to how the rest of Europe viewed the momentous events of the Mutiny, its temporary successes and its eventual suppression. Insurgent Sepoys: Europe views the Revolt of 1857 is a welcome departure from the prevailing trend. Its editor, Shaswati Mazumdar, has compiled 17 scholarly papers, dividing them into two groups: News and Views and Fact and Fiction. Seven papers in the first group take a look at how German, French, Italian, Hungarian, Czech and Bulgarian newspapers, periodicals, intellectuals and commentators reacted to the unfolding story of the Indian soldiers' insurgency.

In the second group, 10 well-researched papers make a delightful analysis of how the events of 1857 affected the creative imagination of litterateurs in Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. This is perhaps the first time that such an attempt has been made, and as such paves the way for further research.

Shaswati Mazumdar has also written a detailed and insightful introduction, taking a nuanced view of the European responses to the extraordinary events of 1857 and reminding the reader that although the revolutionary movements of 1848 had failed all across Europe, their ideals permeated nationalist movements as well as liberal and radical ideologies. At the same time, industrialisation spurred the quest for new markets, thus providing an impetus to imperialism and offering a rationale for colonialism's so-called civilising mission. The Mutiny gave a jolt to the widespread Orientalist belief in a passive, unchanging India, and as a consequence, Europe woke up to the fact that something as momentous as the French Revolution was taking place in this distant land.

Yet, not many supported the cause of the Indian rebels. Even a liberal German newspaper such as Volks-Zeitung (People's Newspaper) was of the view that while the American Revolution could be supported, it could not be done in the case of the Indian revolt as it had not yet reached the cultural level to justify a revolution. It has to be borne in mind that most European countries in the 19th century were vying with one another to capture newer markets by imposing colonial rule on various Asian and African countries. As Shaswati Mazumdar points out, the revolt occurred at a time when theories about race started to be given the shape of a scientific' discourse that legitimised white supremacy. This white superiority was used to justify colonial conquests and later provided the edifice to build an entire theory of a superior race by the German Nazis.

The editor says that mutiny had become such a favoured theme for novelists that more than 70 English mutiny novels were published by the time colonial rule came to an end. The events of 1857 seem to have captured the literary imagination of novelists on the Continent in a big way as several novels were published in French, Italian and German.

Of them, French novelist Jules Verne's novels are best known because of their translation into English. Although, as Swati Dasgupta shows in her article Lost in Translation: Jules Verne and the Indian Rebellion, entire chapters were deleted or heavily abridged because they provided a graphic description of the exploitative practices of the British colonial rulers.

German responses

Claudia Reichel has given a detailed account of differing German responses to the Indian situation by the renowned author Theodor Fontane, publicist Edgar Bauer, and revolutionary Wilhelm Liebknecht, who was a close associate of Karl Marx. All three of them were living in London at the time of the Indian revolt. Fontane considered the entire colonisation policy nothing but nonsense and had to resign from Neue Preussische Zeitung as editor because of irreconcilable differences over reporting on the Indian rebellion. Bauer wrote about how the events of 1857 restricted the freedom of action of those political activists from other European countries who had taken refuge in London.

Liebknecht wrote for several German newspapers and also for German-language and English-language newspapers in the United States. Like Marx, he too severely criticised the East India Company's colonial policy of unbridled exploitation, but he saw the need for industrialisation and modernisation of India. However, he stood by the Indian rebels and campaigned for the Indian cause among workers.

Echoes in faraway lands

The rebellion of 1857 had its echo in lands as far away as Bulgaria and fuelled the Bulgarians' desire for freedom from Ottoman rule. Rashmi Joshi, in a highly informative article, details how the Bulgarian revolutionary Georgi Stoikov Raskovski, who was also a well-known writer, viewed the Indian soldiers' mutiny as a struggle for independence although his sources for information were mainly British newspapers and journals. He frontpaged reports about India in his short-lived yet progressive journal Bulgarska Dnevnitsa, which he edited from July 17, 1857, to October 16, 1857, pointing out that the revolt had shaken the confidence of the invincible British power and that it was solely dependent upon Indian support.

Without the Indian soldiers, he wrote, all the public services will come to a grinding halt; revenue, law and order will stop functioning. In all the issues of the journal, the Indian insurgency and its steady spread was closely followed and commented upon. While he missed out on some very important events like the hanging of Mangal Pandey because he had to depend on mainly British sources, his outlook is certainly that of a revolutionary who found common cause with the Indians who wanted to oust a foreign power.

Margit Koeves has contributed a well-researched paper to this volume. She has quoted from Hungarian newspapers to show that as the events of 1857 were unfolding in India, they were being keenly watched by Hungarian writers and journalists who were aware of the caste and religious divisions within the Indian army. While there was a desire to understand the plight of the Indians, there was no explicit support for their cause.

How many people know that contemporary India and the preparation for and defeat of the mutiny from 1857 to 1859 formed the subject of an extraordinarily popular novel, Nena Sahib oder die Empoerung in Indien ( Nena Sahib or the Uprising in India), by Hermann Ottomar Friedrich Goedsche, who wrote under the pseudonym Sir John Retcliffe?

Anil Bhatti's masterly analysis of the novel also looks at the entire German discourse on India. The name Nena Sahib itself is a reminder of Nana Sahib Peshwa, who was one of the principal leaders of the Indian rebellion. In the novel, he has an Irish wife who is raped and murdered by the English resident, thus unleashing the tiger-like nature of Nena Sahib, who becomes leader of the Thugs. A bestseller of its time, the novel is full of twists and turns, hair-raising scenes of murder, rape and revenge.

Anil Bhatti points out that while there is criticism of colonial exploitation, Retcliffe adopts an ambivalent stance based on a Darwinian notion that the strong has to overcome the weak. In Anil Bhatti's estimation, the novel belongs as much to the imaginative appropriation of India in the German-speaking world of the 19th century as the better-known works of higher' literature and philosophy.

The book contains a translation of a fascinating article written by Everton V. Machado, entitled The Rebellion in a 19th Century Indo-Portuguese Novel. The article has been translated from French by Joao Pedro Vicente Faustino and Manjulata Sharma. It informs us about the first Indo-Portuguese novel, Os Brahamannes, whose story takes place in Faizabad in 1857. The novel was written by Francisco Luiz Gomes, who was a doctor, a publicist, an author of works on economic and historical subjects and an elected member of the Portuguese parliament. The novel attacks the Hindu caste system, criticises the British model of colonising India and extols the Portuguese way of doing it.

Insurgent Sepoys is a valuable addition to the existing literature on the historic event. One looks forward to reading its sequels.

The author is a Delhi-based journalist.
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