1857 – A Year in Hindsight

Posted in British Raj, Desert Bloc, History, India, politics by Anuraag Sanghi on April 23, 2012

Global power equations in 1857 favored the British. After a 100 years of continuous war, India’s global diplomatic presence was negligible.

Cartoon from the December 1857 Nick-Nax.  |  Source & courtesy - superitch.com  |  Click for image.

The pain of 1857 in America. Cartoon from the December 1857 Nick-Nax. | Source & courtesy - superitch.com | Click for image.

World in 1857

The year of 1857, was a remarkable period for Britain.

Germany was not yet born. With control over Indian gunpowder production, France had been comprehensively defeated – and relegated to second-grade power.

Haiti’s independence started a ripple effect across the Americas, Caribbean – and even Europe. Spain began losing most of its South American colonies. By 1857, Spain and Portugal were in steep decline.

America was preoccupied with slavery and its slow-genocide of the Native Americans. Ottoman Empire was not in expansion mode. Britain was well-prepared to militarily confront China and India. The modernization of Japan was just beginning.

That left only Russia to oppose or challenge Britain.

Beginning of the End

Russia was tamed by the Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856).

Britain, France, Austria, Ottomans, Sardinia (part of Italy now) combined against Russia. Nearly 600,000 killed in fighting, with disease or battle injuries, the Crimean War was fought by a trigger-happy Europe.

The Russian Foreign Minister, a German in Russian employ, Count Karl Robert Nesselrode, told Sir George Hamilton Seymour, the British ambassador that

“violence which had been supposed to be the ultima ratio of kings, , it had been seen, the means which the present Ruler of France was in the habit of employing in the first instance”.

Further, Count Nesselrode seeking British support pointed out that

France was forcing a confrontation and that in the conflict Russia would `face the whole world alone and without allies, because Prussia will be of no account and indifferent to the question, and Austria will be more or less neutral, if not favourable to the Porte’. Moreover, Britain would side with France to exert its superior naval strength, `the theatre being distant, other than soldiers to be employed as a landing force, it will require mainly ships to open to us the Straits of Constantinople [the passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through the Bosplate and the Dardanelles], and the united naval forces of Turkey, England and France will make quick work of the Russian fleet.’

An interesting personage in the Crimean War was Hugh Henry Rose (6 April 1801 – 16 October 1885) at the British embassy in Constantinople as chargé d’affaires for the British.

Prevailing Complaint, from the December 1857 issue of the comic periodical, Nick-Nax. “Erie” refers to failing stock in the Erie Railroad & Canal.

Prevailing Complaint, from the December 1857 issue of the comic periodical, Nick-Nax. “Erie” refers to failing stock in the Erie Railroad & Canal.

On Indian Borders

Closer to India was the possibility of Russo-Persian alliance with Indian kings, to take on the British. And the British decided to counter that. Peace in Crimea came about after Treaty of Paris on March 30, 1856, at the Congress of Paris.

After this, the British took on the Persians in the Anglo-Persian War (Nov 1, 1856-April 4, 1857). The origins of this war itself are mired in confusing reasons.

One was the Persian military conquest in 1852 of Herat, now in Afghanistan, but many a time ruled by Persia also. For four years after Persian conquest of Herat, Britain kept quiet. Busy with the Crimean War. After the Crimean war, Britain saw the Persian action, as an extension of the Russo-Persian influence to Indian borders.

The other was the dispute in Persia over Hashim Khan and his wife. Hashim Khan, a part of Shah’s personal bodyguard, was married to the sister to one of the Shah’s wives. Hashim Khan’s wife, married twice previously, became the grist of European gossip  mills. The Shah’s administration preferred charges of deserter against Hashim Khan. The British Embassy provided Hashim Khan with diplomatic cover. The frequent visits to the British Embassy, by Hashim Khan’s wife became a subject of speculation.

The British sent an expeditionary force from India – and the British ambassador, Charles Augustus Murray, presented a charter of demands to the Persian Government. The expeditionary force from India captured coastal towns of Bushehr and the Kharg Island. After a few months of petty fighting in adverse weather conditions, the Anglo-Persian War ended with a treaty. Persia withdrew from Herat. All other issues became irrelevant.

On the Persian campaign were General James Outram, Brigadier-General Henry Havelock. Along with Hugh Henry Rose of the Crimean War, these three people played an important part in the 1857 War in India.

Using unparalleled brutality, they retained the British Empire after two years of ferocious fighting.

But before that

The British in 1857 reinforced their treaty of perpetual friendship with Amir Dost Mohammed of Afghanistan, the Treaty of Peshawar (1855) by an addendum.

Further Britain, withdrew huge amounts of money that were invested in the American markets – precipitating a financial crisis in US (see cartoons linked in the post). Much analyzed and discussed (including Marx and Engels), the 1857 financial crisis severely disrupted US economy.

Britain further reversed it earlier policy of licensing pirates – and instead moved to ban piracy by all countries. This made international waters safe for British shipping and naval force. Piracy was outlawed by The Declaration of Paris, in 1856, ratified by various powers. Initially by Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia and Turkey – but not by Spain, Portugal and the USA.

So, when India exploded into war against the British, it was pretty much alone. International alliances, trade, supplies, treaties were all on the British side.

Fighting against such overwhelming odds, Indian armies fought for nearly two years. Lakhs of soldiers died. Millions of civilians were killed by the British to cut-off Indian armies from their support base – and to force Indians to cease fighting.

The Day After

Th British Raj got the message.

The East India Company was wound up. India became a crown colony.

Overt religious expansionism was jettisoned. Queen Victoria went to great length to convince Indians that the British did not have religious ambitions in India. Christian conversion went intellectually underground. Anti-Indian history and propaganda was encouraged with false theories like Aryan Invasion (Max Muller), Caste System (Herbert Hope Risley), Aryan Conquest of Dravidians (Mortimer Wheeler) being the most prominent.

Another Terrible Failure, from the (New York) Picayune, November 7, 1857.  |  Image & courtesy - superitch.com  |  Click for image.

Another Terrible Failure, from the (New York) Picayune, November 7, 1857. | Image & courtesy - superitch.com | Click for image.

On the Home Front

At the beginning of the year, the British ended the Anglo-Persian War (Nov 1, 1856-April 4, 1857) British concluded peace with the Persian kingdom at Paris on March 5, 1857.

On 31st March, the 19th Native Infantry was disbanded for an earlier action (on 26th February) of holding an armed and un-authorized military drill at Murshidabad – the earlier capital of the Nawab of Oudh, near modern Kolkatta. The disarming and disbanding was done by the Queen’s 84th infantry brought from Pegu, at Barrackpur. This regiment from Pegu (now Bago), Burma, came by an Oriental steamer (later to become P&O) – ‘who made their appearance as if from the skies’.

It was on 5th April, that Mangal Pandey, of the 34th Native Infantry was hung to death.  On 3rd May, the 7th Reserve Infantry (irregulars) threatened to shoot their European officers in Lucknow. On 6th May, 1857, the Governor General’s order to disband the 34th Native Infantry regiment at Barrackpore were carried out.

After Tatiya Tope’s diversionary attack on Rose, and escape of Rani of Jhansi, British forces captured Jhansi – and after the loot, set it to torch. A field surgeon, Dr.Thomas Lowe, attached to the Madras Sappers wrote in 1860, how

The British soldiers were thirsting for vengeance. No maudlin clemency was to mark the fall of the city. The Jezebel of India was there, the young, energetic, proud, unbending, uncompromising Rani

Vishnukant Godse, an Indian traveller, whose Marathi account of the War, narrates,

I offered my evening prayers, ate a meal and went upstairs to see the condition of the city. And what a sight I saw! it looked like a vast burning ground. Fires were blazing everywhere and although it was night I could see far enough. In the lanes and streets people were crying pitifully, hugging the corpses of their dear ones; others were wandering, searching for food while the cattle were running, mad with thirst. All the houses in Halwaipura were on fire, their flames reaching the skies, and as no one was attempting to put them out other houses were catching fire too. I became sick and my head began to go round and round.

Caught in an updraft of cash flow from piracy, slave-trade, sugar-plantations using slave labour, opium, gold finds in Australia, Canada, South Africa (after 1857) – and India’s historic gold reserves Britain was in a unique position of financial prowess.

India paid the price for being positioned badly.

2 Responses

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  1. Sunil said, on April 24, 2012 at 5:47 pm


    Could you write your thoughts on Beef festival at Osmania university

    • Anuraag Sanghi said, on April 24, 2012 at 6:24 pm

      Actually, I kind of predicted this!

      Submitted on 2011/12/13 at 3:37 am | In reply to Lowcaste Indian.

      Low caste people will be forced to continue only lower level jobs and education could even be prohibitted. Even today I hear news specially in Northern India low caste are attacked for entering in temple, being of the same religion of Hindu.

      You should read how even now people converted by Christian missionaries retain dual religious identities – and are often incited to desecrate and defile places of worship. This is the background to restrictions on entry for some people.

      By the way, I have not understood, why African-Americans even today in USA (the largest Christian nation in the world) have different Churches?

      Coming to the Osmania University issue

      Now this is a particularly thorny issue.

      Do you declare them non-Hindus? They win!

      Do you accept this offensiveness? They win!

      Do you make a tamasha – like ABVP did? They win!

      Part of the answer may lie in attacking the agents! The NGOs.

      Of course, a confident leader could take these quislings – and ask them to go ahead and ‘convert’! We have seen how far the British and the Pakistanis have gone without India.

      The other part is that these are not the only people who are down-trading India. All these people who seem to admire Desert Bloc in another dimension.

      Same story!

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