Saturday, September 29, 2007

The New York Times reports on events in India, 1857-1907

The New York Times has recently allowed free access to its archives dating back to 1850. The closest interesting event that I could think of was the Indian uprising of 1857. Search words, “sepoy mutiny’ yielded quite a few results. Some snippets.

The first reporting on the ‘crisis’ in India, occurs in the edition of July 6, 1857 which carries the news that,

“The Bombay and Calcutta papers received by late mails, contain accounts of a mutiny which, breaking out in the 19th regiment of native infantry in Bengal, was spreading like an epidemic through the native cantonments of the British Army in Northern India.”.

The report goes on to describe how the natives always suspected the British of attempting to convert them to Christianity and concludes,

“ Now, if the British dominion in India is held by so false a tenure that the teachings of Christianity and the influences of civilisation will overthrow it, pray what is its value to the subjects in India, or what credit does it reflect upon its protectors in England? If the one hundred and fifty million Hindoos and Mussulmans who have been subdued by the British sword can now after the lapse of a century, be kept in subjection only by being kept in paganism, what hope is there that their civilisation will ever dawn?

If you thought that the reporter was getting sympathetic to the Indian cause, correct that impression. He actually castigates the British for being too indulgent and tolerant of the natives.

As long as the British humour the superstitions and prejudices which benight the Hindoo mind, so long will its power in India be jepardised by the mutinies and rebellions of the natives. There cannot be two masters of the Indian empire. The Briton must rule it politically and religiously, or he must be overrun by the treacherous and rebellious Indian. Every instance of servile respect for the caste superstitions of the Hindoo subject can only be attributed by him to fear in his Christian conqueror. It emboldens him for rebellion. And when he rebels, whether against cartridges or against Christian laws, he should be met in that spirit which gave success to Clive when one hundred years back he met Surajah Dowlah at Plassey and set up for Britain the mastery of Bengal.


Given the traditional rivalry between the British and the French, one would have thought that the latter would have been critical of the former. But, no. The ‘white’ attitude prevailed. In its edition of April 10, 1875, the paper quotes a M.De. Valbesen, one of the most eminent French correspondents sbout to publish the history of the Sepoy Insurrection.

In this supreme struggle where all did their duty, English history was enriched with new and heroic figures, a veritable pleiad of illustrious soldiers, among whom shine the names of Henry Lawrence, Havelock, Nicholson, who fell on the field of honour under the country’s flag while defending the cause of civilisation and true progress.


Reflecting on the incidents of revolt even 35 years after the mutiny was suppressed, the paper, in its edition of August 3, 1891, traces the root cause. Yes, the bloody Russians.


It is evident that the (revolt) has been inspired from without and not from within… Great Britain has now a powerful and skilful rival in the East- a rival who avowedly aims at the control of Asia upto the borders of British India, a may fairly be suspected of designs upon British India itself, The great advantage of Russia in this struggle is the superior faculty the Russians have shown for getting on with the natives. The British, who find aliment for the national vanity in almost everything, attribute this to the fact that Russian civilisation is lower, and therefore, more akin to Asiatic civilisation…. There can be little doubt that the new spirit the natives of India are showing and their new contempt for the British power are the result of skilful and persistent machination on the part of the agents of Russia.

The edition of February 1, 1902 carries a review of a book by W.H.Fitchett, wherein he had tried to explain the reason for the mutiny in the following manner :

The mutiny was the end of the rule of the East India Company and the beginning of the rule of England. The end of one of the worst Governments that ever existed, The evil was not with the men, but with the system, for where you make government an ingenious and indisciplined tyranny, the men who carry out the orders are certain to be tyrants;.it seems clear that the mutiny was the culmination of the century of misgovernment by the company of merchants who resident in London, governed India for dividends. Each revolving day, echoes the execrations of thousands, aye, of millions, on the authors of those laws, for the misery which they have inflicted on misgoverned and plundered India.

Is the reviewer warming to the theme? Far from it. At this point he gets quite critical of the author.

Dr. Fitchett’s narrative fails to place the mutiny in its proper causal perspective. In not a few instances he seems to be a special pleader rather than a historian… In truth, the Sepoy barbarities which cannot be described, robbed them of every shred of sympathy from the civilised world, and roused the British to a not unnatural frenzy of revenge, The pit of Cawnpore cried aloud to Heaven with a voice that drowned the wail of a century of oppression.

A few years later, on Jan 23, 1909 to be precise, while reeviewing a book, “India, its life and thoughts”, by a Dr. John P Jones, the writer pooh-poohs a concern raised by Dr Jones that there was growing dissatisfaction among the natives, similar to what had triggered the Sepoy Mutiny, 50 years earlier.

The Indian mutiny occurred at a time when the Government of India was in the hands of a trading company. The protraction of the rebellion was made possible by the difficulties of communication and the ability of insurgents to seize and hold fortified towns. Today, India has 30000 miles of railroad and the artillery of the garrisons and the army is entirely in the hands of the white troops. Furthermore it is now the practice to send native regiments at least 1000 miles from the places in which they are recruited. Due to the scores of different races and languages to be found in India, this is virtually placing them among foreigners over whom they can exert but little influence.

And concludes with a very perceptive description of the Bengali :

While the Bengali babu is the most vociferous of men, he is also the most timid and the slowest to act.

The Americans had gained their independence from the British a few decades before the Indian mutiny happened and one would have expected them to see events in a manner that was more sympathetic to the cause of freedom. Alas, this was not so. Realisation that there was more than one side to the story occurred much later- well into the twentieth century, when some early Indians visited or migrated to the USA and managed to raise the consciousness.

7 comments:

Sankar said...

Hey Raj
You are the most intelligently interesting or should I say interestingly intelligent guy I have known. Every one of your blogs makes interesting reading on a wide variety of (intelligent?) subjects.

Raj said...

Sankar, when I institute an award for the 'best commenter', you are going to be one of the five top nominees, trust me. Thanks for making me feel good.

Sankar said...

Hey only among the top 5? Sujatha says that's bcos I am not a humorous commenter.She says u should have awards for the following categories
Humourous
Intelligent
Interesting
Argumentative
Just Plain Complimentary
And I am JPC, That's Why.

Semantic Overload said...

Well researched post.
It outlines the truth that people shy away from often: race (or caste) comes before ideology.
This is seen to the present day. Just a few years ago, in cricket, 5 Indian cricketers were fined by the match referee (or umpire, not sure) for unsportsmanlike conduct, aggressive behaviour of the field etc. while I am yet to see a single Australian be called on their attitudes, conduct, and 'gentleman like' behavior on the field.

Yup, its all about the color of the skin.

Raj said...

sankar, you'll make it in all categories, don't you worry.

semantic overload. my point was not about racism, though I did use the expression, "white-man's attitude' in passing. I was fascinated by the fact that the NYT was acting more British than the British. Even when English authors admitted some guilt, the NYT correspondents de-bunked them.

Sajith said...

Good post. We still need to go a long way. In the US, money talks. So more news on the wealth in India will open a lot more eyes.

Nia said...

Good words.