Sacred Wrath

Irish Famine and Indian Mutiny

The process of alienation had been going on for centuries much closer to home. Ireland, which provided, ironically, a quarter of the officers in the British Army (including Napier himself) and half the white troops in India, was England’s first real colony. It had been invaded by Henry II, subjugated by Henry VIII, “settled” by Elizabeth, “planted” by James I, ravaged by Cromwell and crushed by William of Orange. Each Irish rebellion was visited with fresh English oppression. Economic exploitation further aggravated the relationship between the two peoples, so much so that Dean Swift advised his countrymen to burn everything from England but her coal. Moreover, since the Reformation Ireland had been bedevilled by the mutual hatred of a Protestant ascendancy (with its English Pale around Dublin and its Scottish garrison in Ulster) and a Roman Catholic majority, subject to a penal code designed to keep it in a state of permanent inferiority. Thus Irish resistance was not just an expression of patriotism; it was, in more senses than one, an act of faith.

The American and French Revolutions sharpened nationalist aspirations, and England conceded measures of self-government and religious toleration. But in 1798 a radical peasant uprising took place in Ireland, with French backing. Pitt’s remedy was brutal repression followed by attempted assimilation: the Act of Union (1800) incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom of Britain. Catholic emancipation, the proposed reward to the Irish for sacrificing their legislative independence and sending MPs to Westminster, was put off until 1829. But for the “Liberator,” Daniel O’Connell, and most of his compatriots this was no more than a step towards the goal of ending Saxon tyranny over Celt. As The Economist acknowledged, the English did not treat the Irish as part of the Empire but as “a conquered tribe.” Consequently the Irishman merely existed in the present, whereas he lived in the past and in the future.

His imagination is filled with what Ireland was, and with what it may become. And you have but to touch on these two topics, the past and the future, in order to set fire to his mind, and to make him send up a shout that might rend the heavens, for a Repeal of the Union.1

More heartbreaking cries rent the heavens after 1845 as the Irish suffered famine, pestilence and exodus on a biblical scale. Here, spelled out in letters of blood, was the proof that Ireland must be master of its own fate.

Even in normal years Ireland hovered on the brink of starvation. By 1845 its population had risen to over eight million and pressure on the soil increased accordingly. Many families, rack-rented by landlords (a third of whom were absentees, Palmerston among them), survived on tiny plots of half an acre or less. They grew mainly potatoes, which sometimes constituted their entire diet—healthy enough to make Irish soldiers “consistently taller”2 than English ones. But there were fatal dearths and for three months before each new crop was harvested a third of the people went hungry. Visitors to the wild western provinces of Munster and Connaught, where reliance on the potato was heaviest, were appalled by the want and squalor. On arrival they were assailed by hordes of beggars, all in the last stages of destitution, all vociferous in their appeals: “Won’t yer ladyship buy a dying woman’s prayers—chape!”3 Inland they encountered ragged, Gaelic-speaking multitudes, “a harvest grown ready for the sickle of hunger.”4 Families shared bare, windowless cabins with any livestock they possessed. Evicted tenants and dispossessed squatters dwelt in burrows, bog-holes or turfed ditches known as “scalpeens.” Many of them had never seen a tree and did not recognise a currency note. Englishmen of refined sensibilities likened Irish peasants to “white negroes,”5 “apes”6 and “human chimpanzees.”7 A Frenchman exclaimed, “I have seen the Indian in his forests and the negro in his irons, and I believed, in pitying their plight, that I saw the lowest ebb of human misery; but I did not then know the degree of poverty to be found in Ireland.”8

Some parts of the island, especially the more developed east, were less badly afflicted. But Dublin itself contained slums, such as the Liberties, which made Tom-All-Alone’s seem salubrious: “The entrance to the courts is very narrow—a sort of great stench valve, or over-ground sewer. As a general rule, there is a green slimy stream oozing from a surcharged and choked-up cess-pool, through which a visitor is compelled to wade.”9 Much of the city’s sewage poured straight into the River Liffey, which was a sink of “contagion”10 (though its black water supposedly had “miraculous properties”11 that gave strength to Guinness’s stout). According to William Cobbett, English hogs were “better lodged, and far better fed, and far more clean in their skins, than are thousands upon thousands of human beings” in the second city of the Empire. Yet with its broad Georgian streets and harmonious neo-classical squares, Dublin was as fine a metropolis, Cobbett acknowledged, “as almost any in the world.”12 One of its most splendid buildings, dominating the busy cobbled quayside, was the grey stone Custom House constructed on liquid ground by James Gandon, whose task would have been easier but for local advice given, as he sardonically remarked, freely and without a fee. It was domed, porticoed, topped with an immense statue of Commerce and decorated with other symbolic motifs and allegorical figures, among them Britannia and Hibernia embracing. Most poignant of all was the representation of Neptune banishing Famine and Despair.

This tableau was utterly confounded in 1845 when the fungal disease Phytophthora infestans turned a quarter of the potato crop into putrid black slime. Distress at once became acute, especially in the west. It was somewhat alleviated by government measures: public works, price controls and the import of yellow Indian corn, hard as flint and so indigestible that it was known as “Peel’s brimstone.”13 However, after Peel split the Tory party by repealing the Corn Laws, which imposed duties on foreign grain, Lord John Russell’s Whig ministry committed itself even more sternly to free trade. When the potato harvest failed again in 1846, this time almost completely, Britain relied on the panaceas of Adam Smith—private enterprise and market forces. So while peasants starved, ships full of Irish corn sailed for England, which sent troops rather than food to quell protesters. The Irish must look after themselves, maintained Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Treasury official in charge of coping with the catastrophe. Anything in the nature of a dole would sap the principle of self-reliance, cutting “like a canker into the moral health and physical prosperity of the people.”14 Nevertheless, England did provide some wholly inadequate relief, though even this was too much for the London Times. It inveighed against the dangers of conciliating and demoralising “Paddy,” and preached the uncompromising gospel of laissez-faire.

For our part, we regard the potato blight as a blessing. When the Celts once cease to be potatophagi, they must become carnivorous. With the taste for meats will grow the appetite for them; with the appetite, the readiness to earn them. With this will come steadiness, regularity, and perseverance; unless, indeed, the growth of these qualities be impeded by the blindness of Irish patriotism, the short-sighted indifference of petty landlords, or the random recklessness of Government benevolence.15

Meanwhile, during the autumn and winter of 1846, Ireland was being consumed by the famine.

From the mountains of Donegal to the lochs of Kerry villages emptied, workhouses overflowed, evictions multiplied and crime rates soared—starving men saw transportation as a deliverance and prison as a reprieve, and some even tried “to break into gaol.”16From the bogs of Mayo to the hills of Cork the countryside swarmed with human scarecrows, scavenging for blackberries, cabbage leaves, nettles, bark. Even a tough government inspector was “unmanned by the intensity and extent of the suffering I witnessed more especially among the women and little children.” At Clare Abbey on Christmas Eve he saw crowds of them “scattered over the turnip fields like a flock of famishing crows, devouring the raw turnips, mothers half naked, shivering in the snow and sleet, uttering exclamations of despair while their children were screaming with hunger.”17 Then came reports of mass mortality. The hovels of Sligo were crowded with sick, dying and dead. The roadsides of Limerick were dotted with “emaciated corpses, partly green from eating docks, partly blue from cholera and dysentery.”18 The hamlets of west Cork contained a population of “famished and ghastly skeletons,”19 naked adults huddled in filthy straw like doomed animals, children with the wasted limbs and shrivelled faces of premature old age. In Clare the dead were buried in mass graves without “sheet or coffin.”20 In Roscommon seven cadavers were found in a hedge half eaten by dogs. As late as May 1849 fifty-seven “wretched paupers” at the cholera hospital in Parsonstown “breathed their last on the same day.”21 The horrors were unevenly spread. The novelist Anthony Trollope, who crisscrossed the country as fox hunter and post office inspector, saw no “unburied bodies” and claimed that deaths from “absolute famine were, comparatively speaking, few.”22 It is true that about 90 per cent of the deaths were due to consequential disease, mainly typhus (known in America as “Irish fever”).23 But in terms of overall mortality as a proportion of the population, Ireland’s “Great Hunger” was one of the most murderous famines in history.

By 1851, when the holocaust had burned itself out, perhaps a million had died and another 1.5 million had emigrated. The anguish of exile was commemorated in names given to points of embarkation: the Pier Head at Killaloe was christened the “Wailing Wall” while the Cove of Cork was known as the “Harbour of Tears.” But there was no safety in flight for many took their sickness with them. They perished in Liverpool, which became known as the “City of the Plague.”24 They expired in the transatlantic “coffin ships,” where death rates were often higher than those of slavers or convict vessels. They found graves in the hostile New World. At Grosse Isle in the St. Lawrence, where immigrants were quarantined in dreadful conditions, stands a memorial to the tragic toll. It is a tall, granite Celtic cross, erected in 1909 by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America and dedicated to the thousands who died of fever “on this island having fled from the laws of the foreign tyrants and an artificial famine.”25 Here, recorded on its ebony plaque in Gaelic (the English and French inscriptions are milder), is the unvarnished myth that has ever since inspired Irish nationalism. Leaders of the movement, such as John Mitchel, charged that the Irish had been “carefully, prudently and peacefully slain by the English government.” The famine was, in the words of Charles Gavan Duffy, “a fearful murder committed on the mass of the people.”26At home and abroad even today, according to Conor Cruise O’Brien, some Irish people equate this “man-made famine”27 with the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

When the historian turns to Ireland, as Macaulay wrote, borrowing the image from a Roman poet, he steps on a “thin crust of ashes, beneath which the lava is still glowing.”28 Yet it must be said, pace a recent authority, that the Great Hunger was no act of “colonial genocide.”29 It was not manufactured. It was a natural disaster made more lethal by the chronic poverty of Ireland’s subsistence farmers. Moreover, by restricting government interference to a minimum, English politicians and officials were responding in accordance with the received economic wisdom of the day. Trevelyan was no monster, deaf to pity as he sanctioned the export of grain from starving provinces. On the other hand, he was a ruthless ideologue. A stern Evangelical and a rigorous philosophical radical, he was prepared to make terrible sacrifices on the altar of what he saw as an ultimately beneficent historical process. In Trevelyan’s opinion the famine was the “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence,”30 apparently operating on Malthusian lines, to civilise the Irish. Yet Trevelyan was not the impotent victim of a monolithic orthodoxy. Many contemporaries favoured state intervention, damning laissez-faire when it meant “Liberty to die by starvation.”31 Others pointed out the shameful incongruity of spending vast sums to promote the opium trade or to conquer Sind, and paying £20 million to compensate West Indian planters for the emancipation of their slaves, while giving only £8 million (half of it in loans) to relieve Ireland. Even those engaged in carrying out government policies denounced the philosophy behind them. One experienced Poor Law Commissioner condemned the theory “that a person who permits the destitute Irish to die from want of food is acting in uniformity with the system of nature…I believe it is part of the system of nature that we should have compassion for them and assist them.”32 Contrary to some claims, then, Trevelyan and his political masters cannot be exonerated as the slaves of dogma. It is by no means anachronistic to say that, despite the difficulties, including a financial crisis at home and food shortages throughout Europe, they could and should have done much more to assist Ireland in its supreme hour of need.

The truth is that John Bull had scant sympathy for Paddy. The English gave little in charity yet accused the Irish of ingratitude. They liked to blame the famine on Hibernian fecklessness and to assert that the real cause of potato rot was Popery.33 An American traveller, who heard English aristocrats describing the Irish as “a company of low, vulgar, lazy wretches, who prefer beggary to work and filth to cleanliness,” concluded that it was a law of nature “to hate those we oppress.”34 The Irish recognised the animus and kicked against the pricks. But the famine, which provoked a revolt in 1848, also ensured that it was never more than a clash in a cabbage patch. Quixotic leaders of the “Young Ireland” movement, such as the green-uniformed William Smith O’Brien, could not rouse a peasantry too broken to try “to ‘squelch’ the ‘bloody old British Empire.’”35Meanwhile, the British government, alarmed by Chartists in London and revolutionaries on the Continent, had filled Dublin with so many troops and guns that the Custom House had to be used as a barracks and an arsenal. Nevertheless, Irishmen had raised the Green Flag in opposition to the Union Jack and kept alive a tradition of political violence whose manifestations would be legion.

This is not to say that revolutionary organisations such as the Fenians (founded in New York in 1857 as the Irish Republican Brotherhood), still less terrorist splinter groups like the Invincibles, commanded significant support in Ireland, let alone throughout the Empire. Indeed, very few Victorian proponents of Home Rule for Ireland demanded complete separation from Britain, preferring some kind of dominion status. Still, the blood of famine victims was the seed of the nationalist cause. Its spillage on such a scale demonstrated that Irishmen at Westminster were not, as John Mitchel put it, “members of an Imperial senate” so much as “captives dragged at the chariot wheels of an Imperial ovation in the enemy’s capital city.” The “sacred wrath” which the Irish felt at the “horror and desolation” that had overtaken their country spread across the globe as the national diaspora continued: by 1860 there were 300,000 Irish in Canada, 250,000 in Australia and during the next ten years a million went to the United States. At home and in the wider Empire, Roman Catholic Irishmen were generally reckoned a subversive influence. But in the cellars of Boston, the slums of New York and the tenements of Chicago “bitterness against the English” was unconfined. The story of the famine, which grew in the telling, evoked such “hatred and horror,” said Mitchel, that no U.S. citizen would have cause to “wonder hereafter when he hears an Irishman in America fervently curse the British Empire.” That Empire would be buried, he prophesied, while “the passionate aspiration of Irish nationhood”36 was still green. British politicians observed the same prospect, though of course from a different point of view. They bemoaned the hatred of England that was being carried abroad. And they feared that Ireland, along with other oppressed nations, would be the nemesis of the Empire.37

While Ireland was urged to shift for itself, Britain intervened more and more in India, for equally high-minded reasons but with correspondingly lamentable results. By the 1830s, when reform was all the rage at home, many whites (among them, ironically, Charles Trevelyan himself) aspired to extend the benefits of European civilisation to the subcontinent. Often they were animated by Utilitarian and Evangelical sentiments. They wanted to found “British greatness upon Indian happiness”38 and to substitute revealed religion for the “filth and obscenity” of heathen idolatry, involving as it did “bull, peacock, monkey and other nameless objects of worship.”39 Lord William Bentinck, who served as Governor-General from 1828 to 1835 despite having been blamed for the Vellore Mutiny, led this drive to westernise. He banned suttee, the burning of Hindu widows—which Europeans sometimes attended as a spectacle, like the animal fights which rajahs staged for them. He suppressed thuggee, the ritual strangling of travellers—the British saw Thugs, none too clearly, as “a national fraternity of murderers.”40 He attacked corruption and encouraged the spread of “useful knowledge.”41 He reformed the judicial system and abolished flogging for sepoys, though not for white troops. He initiated a steamboat service on the Ganges. He instituted public works—drains, roads, bridges, irrigation schemes and the like. He even blew up and melted down the huge Mughal gun at Agra for its metal and it was rumoured (wrongly) that he proposed to sell blocks of marble from the Taj Mahal. At a time when the cheap cloth of Lancashire was destroying the hand-weaving industry of Bengal and superseding the muslins of Dacca, formerly the “Manchester of India,”42 Bentinck promoted the first cotton mill, which soon undersold English products. Tall, aquiline and cold-blooded, the Governor-General regarded the subcontinent as a great estate to be improved. But only an “all-powerful” government could accomplish this, by ensuring the requisite security for property and persons. “This is civil liberty,” said Bentinck. “Political liberty would turn us out of India.”43

Summing up in his lapidary fashion, Macaulay wrote that Bentinck “infused into Oriental despotism the spirit of British freedom.”44 As this paradox suggests, the Governor-General, always a liberal conservative, was inconsistent. Like other westerners, he was alloyed by the East. In Government House he kept “royal and Asiatic” state but he dressed in a frock coat like a “Pennsylvania Quaker.”45 Seeing him on the way to the country with an umbrella under his arm, Englishmen talked “loudly of the dissolution of the Empire, and the world’s end.”46 They were further scandalised when he invited “native gentlemen” of rank to feasts worthy of the Mughals. But he imported his pickles from London, his cookery from Paris and between courses his band played Mozart and Rossini. Bentinck travelled with an escort of three hundred elephants in the manner of Shah Jehan, his own beast was hung with jhools (broadcloth) of scarlet and gold, and his silver howdah was polished with cow dung. But he so neglected the menagerie begun by Wellesley that some thought its “own decadence signified that of the Empire”47—the British collected wild animals, as the prospectus for the London Zoological Society indicated, in deliberate imitation of “Rome at the period of her greatest splendour.”48

There was nothing unusual about Bentinck’s eclecticism. However convinced westerners were of the superiority of their own race, religion and culture, many found it hard to resist the influence of the Orient. Its most obvious attractions—hookahs, nautches, eastern costume (excluding pyjamas) and Indian concubines, or “sleeping dictionaries”—were less acceptable to sahibs than they had been to nabobs. Now anybody who showed signs of “going native” was open to contempt: one lieutenant complained that “27 years in this country” had made his commanding officer “a perfect nigger in thought and habits.”49 Yet the most prejudiced griffin (novice) soon acquired a taste for Indian food, especially curry, kedgeree and mulligatawny soup. Indian servants, a ubiquitous presence, often orientalised their masters. They groomed, shampooed and dressed them and, it was said, all but masticated their food for them. Moreover, they tended to run their employers’ households according to Indian rhythms, turning “the colonial power relationship on its head.”50 Britons also learned polite Indian bathing habits and kept their dhobi-wallah (laundry-man) busy; generations of them, returning home, were revolted by the “un-washedness of English people’s skin and clothes.”51 Sarees had once been recommended as oriental togas; but although English women stuck to Piccadilly fashions, they were not immune to those of Chowringhee. Honoria Lawrence “felt very awkward in [the] presence of natives with my uncovered head.”52 White women often now watched durbars (at which their menfolk doffed their shoes) from behind a screen, protected like the inmates of a zenana from the alien male gaze.

Also reflecting the customs of the country was the growth of “the Moustache movement.”53 Some British officers had begun to sport hair on their top lip during the Napoleonic Wars. They did so largely, it seems, in dashing imitation of coxcombical Frenchmen, who took the Spanish view that an “hombre de bigote”54 was a man of resolution, their whiskers evidently being “appurtenances of Terror.”55 The mode became imperative in India, where beards were deemed sacred but the moustache was a symbol of virility. Indians looked upon “the bare faces of the English with amazement and contempt,” regarding as “na-mard, unmanly,” countenances emasculated by the razor. So in 1831 the 16th Lancers hailed with delight an order permitting them to wear moustaches. But the battle for this “war-like appendage”56 was not yet won. In 1843 James Abbott’s “large mustachios”57 raised eyebrows, despite his gallant feats as a political officer on the North-West Frontier. Such hirsute handlebars, worn by “the vulgar clever,”58 still seemed a foreign affectation. And when Lord Dalhousie, as Governor-General, disparaged “capillary decorations” in 1849 they fell “like leaves in October.”59 But they soon sprouted again when organs such as the Naval & Military Gazette and the Agra Messengercampaigned for them. In 1854 moustaches were made compulsory for European troops of the Company’s Bombay army and they were enthusiastically adopted elsewhere. The Royal Durban Rangers at once ceased to shave their upper lip, for instance, and the Mercury complimented them on their improved appearance. Despite further opposition, the vogue became a fetish and a martial art.

Moustaches were religiously cultivated and subjected to severe discipline, enforced by Queen’s Regulations. They were brushed and pomaded. The follicles were fertilised with patent unguents such as Ayre’s Formula, Elliott’s Tonic Lotion and Oldridge’s Balm of Columbia. The topiary luxuriance was trained with iron curling tongs. During and after the Crimean War barbers advertised different patterns in their windows such as the “Raglan” and the “Cardigan,” the latter “a remarkable affair, alternately billowing out and narrowing.”60 Moustaches were clipped and trimmed until they curved like sabres and bristled like bayonets. Their ends were waxed and given a soldierly erection. Imitating warriors, civilians too stiffened their upper lips: Friedrich Engels mocked Anglo-Irish aristocrats with “enormous moustaches under colossal Roman noses.”61 By the 1890s the manly fringe was “the mark of every successful masher.”62 For different reasons sailors and parsons eschewed the fashion but it was jealously guarded by the beau monde. Edwardian tuskers rebuked servants who aped the “fancy hairdressing” of their betters.63 Nothing should be permitted to devalue these military insignia, which achieved their apotheosis in the crossed scimitars of Lord Kitchener and gained iconic status in the famous Great War recruiting poster. So the moustache became the emblem of empire, roughly coterminous with the Raj but largely derived from it—much as the Romans derived the habit of wearing trousers from the barbarians.

Nevertheless, the tiny British caste, itself temporary, official and divided into a strict hierarchy, became more assertively racist during the 1830s. As a French observer noted, the Englishman only appeared before the natives “on a footing of superiority and grandeur” and if one of them addressed him as “you” instead of “Your Highness” he had to be given a “very sharp lesson in manners.”64 Domestic servants were regularly beaten and high status was no protection against white violence elsewhere: any Indian was liable to be kicked by “any planter’s assistant or sub-deputy railway contractor whose path he may chance to cross.”65 Matters would get worse after the Mutiny. An American visitor to India, who was “astonished to see everybody bowing to us in the streets,” noted that a rich native had “narrowly missed a horse-whipping lately”66 because he did not stop his carriage and make obeisance to a British officer riding on the same road. General Baden-Powell refined the convention, asserting that

as a rule the niggers seem to me cringing villains. As you ride or walk along the middle of the road, every cart or carriage has to stop and get out of your way, and every native, as he passes you, gives a salute. If he has an umbrella up he takes it down, if he is riding a horse he gets off and salutes. Moreover they do whatever you tell them. If you meet a man in the road and tell him to dust your boots, he does it.67

Always prepared with a fatuous cliché, the founder of the international Boy Scout movement justified this custom on the grounds that before a man can rule he must learn to obey. Few things, indeed, could have inspired Indians with a more ardent desire to rule themselves than such public assertions of racial supremacy.

Henry Lawrence himself, who came to be revered as an imperial soldier-saint comparable to Horatius, treated brown men with studied arrogance. They left their shoes outside his tent, uttered many “Salaams” and “Sahibs,” and remained standing while he “sat without a coat, waistcoat or jacket, his legs over the arm of a chair or his feet on the table.” Furthermore, as his wife Honoria reminded him, he scarcely ever addressed an Indian without “an abusive epithet…[even] when you are not angry.”68 Often he was angry, alarming even friends by the gunpowder in his composition. Lawrence’s acolytes were rougher still in their effort to establish “Christian civilisation in lands where Idolatry too often occupies the Temple, Corruption the Tribunal, and Tyranny the Throne.”69 John Lumsden’s well-used shillelagh became a regimental totem, hung on his door and saluted. In fact, the great gulf fixed between Europeans and natives was widening remorselessly. Emily Eden, Lord Auckland’s sister, could hardly find a comparison to illustrate the difference between them:

An elephant and Chance [her dog], St Paul’s and a Baby-Home, the Jerseys and Pembrokes, a diamond and a bad flint, Queen Adelaide and O’Connell, London and Calcutta, are not further apart and more antipathetic than those two classes. I do not see how the prejudice can ever wear out, nor do I see that it is very desirable.70

Still more striking was Thomas Babington Macaulay’s alienation from India. Steeped in the classics and wedded to the notion that Britain was the modern embodiment of progress, he completely failed to appreciate this new world. Yet his response to it was constructive as well as instructive—as befitted this brilliant “book in breeches,” this “Babbletongue” whose “occasional flashes of silence” made his conversation “perfectly delightful,”71 this historian of genius, the only British rival to Gibbon.

Macaulay said that Europeans were attracted to India as tigers were to the hills: “They encounter an uncongenial climate for the sake of what they can get.” He himself came to the subcontinent, as legal member of the Governor-General’s Council, to make his fortune—in four years he accumulated over £20,000, which gave him the independence to write. What he found was a land of barbarism, sometimes ludicrous, often revolting, always exotic. The sight of the native boatman, entirely self-possessed though clad in nothing but a pointed yellow cap, who came aboard to land him at Madras, almost made Macaulay “die of laughing.” Having surfed over waves like huge bolts of green silk, he was “quite stunned” by the scene on shore. “Such a land—nothing but dark faces and bodies with white turbans and flowing robes,—the trees not our trees,—the very smell of the atmosphere like that of a hothouse,—the architecture as strange as the vegetation.”72 Still more bizarre, in Macaulay’s view, was the Rajah’s palace at Mysore, a vast confection of jewelled knick-knacks and tinselled tat. Grotesque (and sometimes obscene) images were also, Macaulay observed, objects of worship:

Having seen his Highness’s clothes, and his Highness’s horse, I was favoured with a sight of his Highness’s Gods, who were much of a piece with the rest of his establishment. The principal deity was a fat man with a paunch like Daniel Lambert’s, an elephant’s head and trunk, a dozen hands and a serpent’s tail.73

Macaulay might have been less dismissive of India if his Sanskrit dictionary had not fallen overboard and he had learned that language—said by Sir William Jones to be “more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either”74—instead of Portuguese on the two-week voyage from Madras to Calcutta. For this squat, ungainly man, known as “Beast” at Cambridge, combined intellect with imagination. His mind, which seemed to bulge from his forehead, was astonishingly capacious: he could read as fast as he could turn pages and he remembered everything, from the whole of Paradise Lost to street songs heard once in childhood. He was also an ardent romantic. He once had to turn down a by-path to avoid other walkers because he was crying over the Iliad, “crying for Achilles cutting off his hair; crying for Priam rolling on the ground in the courtyard of his house; mere imaginary beings, creatures of an old ballad-maker who died near three thousand years ago.” He might have responded with equal passion to the wealth of oriental legend, lore and literature even then coming to light. But, immersed in the treasury of European culture and beginning to write The Lays of Ancient Rome, an epic to republican virtue rather than imperial might, he let it make no impression on his heart or his head.

Actually he accommodated himself to India better than most. He found Calcutta, where the climate suited only insects and undertakers, less suffocating than the House of Commons. He learned to eat breakfasts of “eggs, mango-fish, snipe-pies, and frequently a hot beef-steak.” As much as possible he shunned official dinners, where he had to sit next to the lady of the highest rank, “in other words, the oldest, ugliest, and proudest woman in the company,” and where the conversation was “deplorable twaddle.” He got used to the swift deterioration of his surroundings: “Steel rusts; razors lose their edge; thread decays; clothes fall to pieces; books moulder away, and drop out of their bindings; plaster cracks; timber rots; matting is in shreds.”75 Such corruption typified India, in Macaulay’s view, contrasting with the solidity of British civilisation. Like Bentinck, who thought Macaulay a miracle, he believed that the subcontinent could only be saved “if it were remodelled on English lines.”76 Thus he promoted freedom of the press and equality before the law. Most particularly, as his famous minute stated, he believed Indians should receive a western education and learn the English language.

Needless to say, his assumption of the superiority of European learning has been roundly condemned, not least because it was expressed in such trenchant terms. Although brought up to believe in Goliath and Methuselah and a land flowing with milk and honey, Macaulay disparaged Indian history which abounded with “kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long—and geography made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.”77 But his ultimate purpose has largely been obscured. He aimed to fit Indians for independence and to teach them to embrace European institutions of government. Thus British civilisation would triumph even when its power had vanished, just as the civilisation of ancient Rome had survived the passing of the Caesars. The Empire being an empire of opinion, conservatives such as Lord Ellenborough opposed the spread of western education precisely because it did undermine British rule. But Macaulay declared that the ending of the Raj would be “the proudest day in English history”—provided that his compatriots left behind an empire immune to decay, “the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.”78 This was a legacy that many Indian nationalists were prepared to accept. What is more, they valued English as, so to speak, the lingua franca of the subcontinent and, thanks largely to America, the Latin of the modern world. It became the vernacular of emancipation.

The drive to reform India along European lines continued until 1857. Its pace was variable and so were its consequences. For westernisation, which eventually fostered liberal nationalism, initially provoked a conservative revolution. Of course, it was not that simple. The Indian Mutiny (to use its British name) was a mixture of military uprising, political coup, religious war, peasant revolt and race riot. It was a reaction against all sorts of grievances, some long-standing, others immediate. Ever since 1813, when Christian missionaries were admitted, the British had seemed bent on the conversion of India. Associated with this was the attack on native customs such as suttee, most forcefully conducted by General Napier who promised to act according to the custom of his own country: “when men burn women alive we hang them.”79 Many Indians regarded the “great engines of social improvement” which Lord Dalhousie championed—“Railways, uniform Postage, and the Electric Telegraph”80—as assaults on the caste system. Caste segregated people, whereas they were brought together by these instruments of hell—villagers thought that locomotives “were driven by the force of demons trying to escape from the iron box” in which the Feringhees had imprisoned them.81

The Marquess of Dalhousie, the most masterful Governor-General (1848–56) since Wellesley, bore down opposition with patrician hauteur. He reformed the revenue system, alienating the tax-farmers (talukdars) who were dismissed as “drones of the soil.”82 He tried to improve the lot of women. He completed the conquest of the Punjab, golden “Land of the Five Rivers,” proudly adding “four million subjects to the British Empire and plac[ing] the historical jewel of the Mogul Emperors [the Koh-i-noor Diamond] in the crown of his own Sovereign.” He seized lower Burma to “secure our power in India.” He annexed princely states in the subcontinent when the ruler left no direct heir, flouting the Hindu tradition of adoption; among the plums that Dalhousie pulled out of this “Christmas pie”83 were Jaipur, Udaipur, Jhansi, Nagpur and Oudh. Moreover, he disregarded Napier’s warning that the sepoys were close to mutiny. They were ill disciplined, badly rewarded, appallingly housed and squeezed into uncomfortable western uniforms. White officers often called them “nigger” or “suar” (pig), and General Anson, who became Commander-in-Chief in 1856, never saw an Indian sentry “without turning away in disgust.” In the same year sepoys were obliged to go overseas (previously a voluntary service) if ordered to do so, even though crossing the “black water” broke their (usually high) caste. Still more abhorrent to both Hindus and Muslims was the grease used on the cartridges of the new Enfield rifles, which replaced Brown Bess muskets in 1857. With singular ineptitude the British ensured that it contained both cow and pig fat.

The army command at once withdrew the offending cartridges (which were never generally issued) but sepoys now saw pollution everywhere. Other rumours were rife during the first months of 1857, the centenary of Clive’s victory at Plassey, among them prophecies that the Raj would only last for a hundred years. Equally ominous was the sudden appearance of chapattis, little grey cakes of baked flour, which men distributed throughout the northern provinces for reasons that remain a mystery. High-ranking figures plotting subversion in India, notably Nana Sahib, adopted son of a deposed Maratha ruler, took heart from Britain’s setbacks during the Crimean War. Although cocooned inside their own society, some British officers sensed that a full-scale revolt was imminent. At Ambala on 5 May a Lieutenant Martineau wrote: “I can hear the moaning of the hurricane, but I can’t say how, when, or where it will break forth.”84 It broke forth at the great military station of Meerut, forty miles north of Delhi, less than a week later. There eighty-five skirmishers of the 3rd Light Cavalry, who had been court-martialled for refusing to accept the cartridges, were mustered on the dusty parade ground in stifling heat under a leaden sky. They were ceremonially stripped of their uniforms, fettered and marched off to serve a ten-year gaol sentence, some lamenting, others cursing. Despite further warnings the British were completely unprepared when, at sunset the next day, three regiments mutinied. They killed about fifty officers and other Feringhees, including women and children, and burned and plundered at will. Then they marched on Delhi, soon capturing the ancient capital and modern arsenal of India.

Its loss could have been fatal to the Raj. For, as one missionary wrote, “Our Empire here has existed more upon the opinion that the people had of our strength than upon our force” and the natives would now be encouraged to “rise in a body with a determination to murder every European.”85 This happened in Delhi. The mutineers also proclaimed Bahadur Shah, the hook-nosed, white-bearded, octogenarian heir to the Mughals, Emperor of India. He was an improbable leader. A poet and a mystic (who believed that he could turn himself into a gnat), he dwelt amid splendour and squalor in the Red Fort in Delhi, stimulating himself with naked dancing girls and draughts of opium enriched with crushed pearls, rubies and coral. Yet he seems to have conspired with the mutineers and he certainly provided them with a figurehead. An avatar of decadence, he was also a living symbol of the past which they sought to restore. So the “Devil’s Wind”86 coursed through north India, along the Grand Trunk Road, down the brown Ganges and the blue Jumna, across the great swathe of territory stretching from the Punjab, via Rohilkhand, Oudh and Bihar, to Bengal. In the words of Lord Canning, Dalhousie’s successor as Governor-General, the Mutiny was “more like a national war than a local insurrection.”87

From Lahore to Calcutta panic gripped British society. Always a white froth on a brown tide, it was in danger of being blown away in the gathering storm. Indeed, seeing the flight of the capital’s Europeans across the maidan to Fort William and ships in the Hooghly, one witness was reminded of the evacuation of Herculaneum after the eruption of Vesuvius. While larger communities concentrated on defence, smaller ones scattered, often with terrible consequences. Maria Mill’s experience, recalled in her poignant unpublished account, was typical. Her husband, an artillery major, was killed at Fyzabad and she fled into the countryside with her three children. Deserted by their servants, they endured heat, thirst, hunger, illness, exhaustion and “unspeakable anguish.” Occasionally brave villagers, “moved with compassion,” helped them, even providing a wet nurse for her baby boy. Once a sympathetic rajah gave them shelter in a cow shed with other fugitives, three sergeants’ wives and their offspring. Mrs. Mill found this a mixed blessing:

I quite feared illness must be the result of so many being crowded together, beside the want of air, and proper food and, to be associated with these women, whose language was often dreadful to hear, was not the least of my miseries, for I was shocked that my children should hear it.

She was unable to breast-feed her baby, who died en route, and when she reached Calcutta after a four-month odyssey, she gave birth to a daughter who also died. Mrs. Mill and her two older children owed their own survival to luck, having been surrounded “by a fierce body of desperate men, who were apparently ready to murder us without any compunction.”88 Despite the sepoys’ obvious disaffection, though, many British commanders insisted that their own regiments were loyal and refused to disarm them. Up and down country they paid for their faith with their lives.

Yet the mutineers were never able to transform the uprising into a war of independence. They lacked unified command, a coherent strategy and (for the most part) Enfield rifles. They were distracted by the sieges of Cawnpore, Lucknow and Agra. Their support was always confined to the north and even here it was patchy. Few princes or educated people joined them. Many of their countrymen fought against them, notably thirty thousand sepoys. They had to face formidable contingents of Sikhs, Punjab cavalry dressed in red turbans spangled with gold, dark blue tunics, scarlet cummerbunds, light yellow trousers and large top boots. They were also opposed by Gurkhas, valiant Himalayan infantry in green woollen overcoats (which they refused to discard in temperatures sometimes over 140 degrees) and black worsted headgear which was described as a frightful compromise between a puggaree and a Glengarry. Using steam power and the electric telegraph, the British were able to call in fresh white troops, some from abroad, others with Crimean experience. They included Scottish Highlanders, bag-piped and red-coated, bonneted, plumed and kilted, who were variously thought to be women, eunuchs and demons with a keen appetite for “curried black babies.”89 Certainly they were a terrifying array, once complimented by General Havelock for holding their fire until “you saw the colour of your enemy’s mustachios.”90

The mutineers got no assistance from Dost Mahomed in Afghanistan, while Herbert Edwardes recruited a North-West Frontier militia: “Every idle vagrant, every professional robber, every truculent student in the mosques, at whose finger-ends fanaticism was beginning to tingle, found a market for his sword.”91 Sir John Lawrence, who had succeeded his brother Henry as master of the Punjab, quelled sedition (fissad) by giving free rein to his implacable Christian soldiers. The most famous of them was General John Nicholson, a giant of morose temper and superhuman courage—his method of killing tigers was to ride round and round them on his horse until they grew dizzy and then strike them down with cold steel. Some tribal people literally worshipped Nicholson though when their devotions became too intrusive he had them flogged. With his bushy black beard and glittering grey eyes, Nicholson exercised a hypnotic sway over all who encountered him. Having stamped out manifestations of mutiny in the Punjab, he swept down from its russet plain like the “incarnation of vengeance.”92 The sign of his arrival was corpses swinging from newly erected gallows.

Other British commanders were equally homicidal. At Allahabad Colonel James Neill, exceeding the zeal of his Covenanting countrymen, executed six thousand people, more than were killed on his own side during the entire Mutiny. And he destroyed so many villages during the march towards Cawnpore that his officers protested: if Neill “depopulated the country he could get no supplies for his men.”93 In June the exhausted defenders of this dusty city surrendered when Nana Sahib, at the head of the rebels, promised them safe passage down the Ganges. Instead, they were massacred as they embarked on the boats. The following month, when the relief force closed on Cawnpore, Nana Sahib had the survivors literally butchered. The mutilated bodies of 197 women and children, some still breathing, were thrown into a well. This crime, aggravated by other atrocity stories, many alleging rape and nearly all spurious, maddened the British. Prior to it some officers expressed revulsion at the reprisals. “This hanging work is very sickening,” Captain Campbell told his wife. “I cannot feel the pleasure that some seem to do now, in looking at the dead Mutineers. They are God’s creatures.”94 But the murder of the so-called “angels of Albion”95 sent a thrill of horror through the world. Many paid pilgrimages to the site of the killings: one officer found “blood on the walls, and marks of the sword cuts and bullets; locks of hair lying about, and a little child’s shoe.”96

Such accounts apparently licensed an insensate lust for revenge. Captain Garnet Wolseley took a vow that “most soldiers made…of having blood for blood, not drop for drop, but barrels and barrels of the filth which flows in these niggers’ veins for every drop of blood” they had spilled at Cawnpore. There Neill flogged mutineers, or suspected mutineers, and made them lick blood from the slaughter-house floor before they were hanged. Prior to dancing the “Pandies’*8 hornpipe”97 or receiving a “Cawnpore dinner”98 (a bayonet in the stomach), many were gleefully or casually tortured, and defiled with pork and beef. They were told that their corpses would be flung to the dogs so that “their souls would not rest.”99 Burning with holy rage, many clergymen approved that doom. They and their compatriots did so in part because the mutineers had shattered the myth of British invincibility, with incalculable consequences. As a British merchant in Calcutta wrote, “Another Cawnpore, and it is my firm belief that we shall be driven into the sea or massacred, and then India will be lost to the English.”100 But the pathological animus was primarily inspired by what seemed to be a hellish inversion of the cosmic order. The “peculiar aggravation of the Cawnpore massacres,” wrote The Times’s war correspondent William Howard Russell, was “that the deed was done by a subject race—by black men who dared to shed the blood of their masters.”101

At home the British denounced the mutineers as brutes and barbarians who deserved no mercy. Canning said that the prevailing sentiments compared in savagery to those of “an American Slave-state newspaper,”102 though as it happened they were echoed in Boston and New York. The paean of hatred silenced organisations such as the Aborigines’ Protection Society. Englishmen rejoiced in gory reports of the mass shooting of mutineers from guns, a punishment held long afterwards to be “a wonderful display of moral force.”103 One wrote, “I feel a portion of the Roman emperor’s passion who wished that a nation had but one neck that he might be destroyed at a blow.”104 Martin Tupper wanted to cover India with “groves of gibbets.”105 John Tenniel produced a triumphalist cartoon entitled “The British Lion’s Vengeance on the Bengal Tiger.”106 Londoners actually taunted the tiger at the Zoo, much as their descendants would kick dachshunds during the Great War. Even Macaulay succumbed to the hysteria: “I, who cannot bear to see a beast or bird in pain, could look without winking while Nana Sahib underwent all the tortures of Ravaillac.”107 The historian puzzled over his emotions. He acknowledged that sadism was injurious to the character and recalled his horror on reading that Fulvius had put the entire Capuan Senate to death during the Second Punic War. But, Macaulay concluded, he would not be sorry to hear that the sepoy garrison at Delhi had suffered the same fate.

Many Britons expected that the Mughal capital would be “taken like a pinch of snuff.”108 But the city, with its deep dry moat, thick red walls and strong green bastions, was well defended. As one British officer wrote, “The Pandies are exceedingly plucky and fight like fiends.”109Moreover, thanks to the powerful glacis, the siege guns, 24-pounders drawn by elephants, could only make breaches high up in the fortifications. They failed to reduce Delhi to what military wits called a “Pandymonium.” So the storming of the city, which began on 14 September, was a bloodbath. Nicholson led the assault and was mortally wounded at the Lahore Gate. A prolonged and ferocious battle followed through the narrow streets, walled gardens, white mansions, domed mosques and cypress groves. The British advance faltered as soldiers got drunk on pillaged alcohol—their Sikh allies, it was noted, took their “rum like true Christians.”110 “Even when the men were sober they behaved some of them with the most rank cowardice,” one officer wrote, “having what we call, regularly got funked.111

Yet over a fifth of all the troops engaged were killed, as were thousands of civilians. The carnage shocked even a hardened young subaltern like Frederick Roberts, who described entering “a veritable city of the dead.”

We marched in silence or involuntarily spoke in whispers, as though fearing to disturb those ghastly remains of humanity. The sights we encountered were horrible and sickening to the last degree. Here a dog gnawed at an uncovered limb; there a vulture disturbed by our approach from its loathsome meal, but too completely gorged to fly, fluttered away to a safer distance. In many instances the positions of the bodies were appallingly life-like. Some lay with arms uplifted, as if beckoning, and, indeed, the whole scene was weird and terrible beyond description. Our horses seemed to feel the horror of it as much as we did, for they shook and snorted in evident terror. The atmosphere was unimaginably disgusting.112

Lieutenant William Hodson compounded the horror by murdering three of Bahadur Shah’s sons, who had surrendered with their father at Humayun’s Tomb. The princes were first stripped of their finery and later a Captain Williams sent “his wife all the rings and ornaments found on the King’s sons when they were shot.”113 The city was sacked with the same ruthlessness and a vast amount of hidden treasure was unearthed. As usual, Queen Victoria (who deplored the unchristian spirit of vengeance) acquired some prize articles, including the evanescent emperor’s jewelled hat and gilt chairs. Every man brought home enough spoil to make himself “a Croesus,” wrote Herbert Edwardes. It was “like the return of the crusaders.”114

The recapture of Delhi augured the defeat of the Mutiny, though the white terror continued after the final relief of Lucknow (where Henry Lawrence had been martyred) in 1858. During the hard campaign to crush the last vestiges of resistance in central India the British “committed all sorts of atrocities.” As Major Pemberton Campbell acknowledged, “Our men were very savage, treating these poor wretches like vermin. Some carried ropes on purpose to hang them with, which they did with great delight.” Others told suspected mutineers “to run, and when they got about 20 yards shot them, as one would a hare in a battue.”115 British vengeance was sustained by an overwhelming sense of betrayal. Officers had been killed by their own men, families stabbed in the back by their personal servants. Yet the charges of “treason” and the cries of “treachery” were scarcely logical. Equally inappropriate was the word “mutiny,” which helped to justify the vast catharsis. For as radicals like John Bright and Charles Dilke pointed out, the British had no right to assume the loyalty of a land taken and held by force, and governed for the benefit of conquerors alien in creed, colour and culture. Arguably they themselves, as vassals of the Mughal emperor, were in revolt. Moreover, their vindictiveness was bound to exacerbate race hatred and, in the long run, to undermine the Raj. Just as “Sarmatia fell unwept without a crime,” mused William Howard Russell, as he contemplated the violence his compatriots had done to Hindustan, “so might we fall unwept with many crimes.”116 Canning attempted to avert ruin by means of policies that earned him the hostile nickname “Clemency.” The first Viceroy, as he became, was less lenient than he sounded and took strong measures to increase British security. However, Canning did deplore the daily use of the term “niggers” in the newspapers, saying that it would “be a bad day for us when that word becomes naturalized in India.”117 But he could not stem the growth of racial prejudice.

The British government, which superseded the East India Company, also came to espouse appeasement in the wake of the Mutiny. That catastrophe, which marked an epoch in the history of the British Empire, had evidently been caused by the liberal reforms of Bentinck and Dalhousie. The new emphasis would therefore be on consolidation rather than improvement, on holding the subcontinent rather than preparing it to shed the foreign yoke. India would now be ruled according to the canons of conservatism. So Christian evangelism was discouraged. Hindu customs were respected. Annexations ceased. Bahadur Shah was deposed but Indian princes became lions under Queen Victoria’s throne. Zamindars and talukdars were treated as “native gentry.”118 Leaning on them, a caste of firm, honest, efficient British officials would govern an inferior race and keep anarchy at bay. However, there were contradictions at the heart of the post-Mutiny Raj. For in some ways the British rejected what one Indian journal called “Asiatic stationaryism.”119 As Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (son of the Colonial Under-Secretary) put it, they sought to make their Indian empire “the cradle of changes comparable to those which have formed the imperishable legacy to mankind of the Roman Empire.”120 For example, they continued to promote western technology and progressive education. As Kipling later wrote of his countrymen,

They terribly carpet the earth with dead, and before their cannon cool, They walk unarmed by twos and threes to call the living to school.121

To be sure, learning was no longer fostered in the assimilative spirit of Macaulay and Charles Trevelyan, who had rejoiced that Indian youths, taught English literature, would “become more English than Hindus, just as Roman provincials became more Romans than Gauls or Italians.”122 Yet an educated elite, equipped with modern ideas, was bound to challenge the paternalistic Raj, especially when it was buttressed by the most reactionary elements in Indian society. Unlike the mild Hindu, the studious Hindu would pose a serious threat to white supremacy, a threat of cultural miscegenation as well as political subversion. In the European club and the cutcherry (office) no Indian was more bitterly vilified than the “sleek babu123 (clerk).

Meanwhile, all sorts and conditions of men continued to look for signs that the days of the Raj were numbered. One blazing portent appeared in Calcutta on 1 November 1858, at a ceremony marking the transfer of power in India from John Company to the British Crown. It included a proclamation (read out all over India) promising respect for native customs and religion, which Queen Victoria herself had made more conciliatory in an attempt “to draw a veil over the sad and bloody past.”124 The press praised this endeavour and the Calcutta Englishman denounced irreconcilables who uttered the “wicked and foolish cry of India for the English.”125 When darkness fell the capital was brilliantly illuminated. Esplanade Row, Chowringhee Road and Auckland Gardens were a dazzling constellation. The outlines of Government House, the Town Hall, the Ochterlony Monument, the Burmese pagoda and all the public buildings were picked out with coloured rows of oil and gas lamps. The ships on the river, “particularly the men-of-war, burning beautiful lights, held up by hundreds of jolly tars at the yard-arm in their white dresses, made the scene an exquisite bit of fairy land.”126 The evening culminated with a colossal firework display costing 30,000 rupees, which took place in front of an appreciative crowd on the maidan. But as the crackers, squibs, Catherine wheels, Bengal flares, Roman candles, “serpents and cornucopias” were lit, everything got out of hand. Thousands of rockets “suddenly went off ‘sky-larking’ on their own account.” Sparks ignited the “immense wooden edifice” representing Mount Vesuvius, which was “stuffed with combustibles” set to erupt. The tame volcano became a wild inferno, scorching and blasting its surroundings like the Mutiny itself. The conflagration spread to a large transparency of Queen Victoria, an icon not intended for the flames. As a British witness wrote, she was “burnt in effigy.” This incendiary spectacle delighted “disloyal natives, who shouted ‘Wah! Wah!’ and seemed to see herein an omen.”127

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