Jill C. Bender. The 1857 Indian Uprising and the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 214 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-13515-4.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Baker (University of Notre Dame)
Published on H-War (September, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Tucked away in a corner in St. James’ Church, one of Delhi’s oldest Anglican churches, lies a plaque dedicated to the memory of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wylie Norman. Norman began his imperial career as a soldier defending colonial interests in South Asia. He fought against the Sikhs in the Second Anglo-Sikh War, the Afridis during the Kohat Pass campaign, and the Santhal people when they rebelled in today’s Jharkhand. But most famously, he fought against the so-called mutineers of 1857 during the Indian Rebellion’s most famous sieges: Norman was at Delhi, Lucknow, and Cawnpore. But St. James’s plaque does not only commemorate Norman’s illustrious military career. It also emphasizes his second career as colonial administrator. While the Indian Rebellion made Norman’s career and earned him honors among his peers, he did not stay in India to oversee the land he helped conquer. He moved about the British Empire, serving in London, the Caribbean, Australia, and Africa. He turned down the job of India’s viceroy but he did serve as governor of Queensland and Jamaica. As the plaque reads, Norman was “through life a loyal and devoted servant to the State.” He published his own writings on the Indian Rebellion and throughout his career brought his military experience and battle-hardened resolve to his administration of the British Empire.
Norman was a typical servant of the state. His administrative roots and military prowess lay in India but he also felt called to serve his queen and empire around the globe. Men like Norman are the heart of The 1857 Indian Uprising and the British Empire. In this book, historian Jill C. Bender removes the Indian Rebellion from its setting in northern British India and widens the scope of “Mutiny” scholarship to the entire British Empire. While existing scholarship focuses on either the actual fighting of the Indian Rebellion or its aftermath in British India and Westminster, Bender focuses her monograph on how British subjects around the globe, especially colonial administrators, perceived the rebellion and its imperial aftereffects. Bender demonstrates that the Indian Rebellion was not just a site of trauma and introspection for the British in India but also a “significant moment for the empire, unleashing lasting fear throughout the colonies” (p. 11). She argues that scholars have overlooked the important ways colonial officials, stationed far from India or relocated from there, relearned the practice of empire in light of the atrocities committed by and against Indians in 1857 and 1858.
To get at the decentered, yet still official, mind on the Indian Rebellion, Bender focuses on three prominent colonial officials: Sir George Grey, Edward John Eyre, and Sir Hugh Rose (Lord Strathnairn). By tracking these three administrators in the archives of the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, and New Zealand, Bender illuminates the fears, understandings of imperial responsibilities, and assumptions about the practice of empire that developed outside of London in the face of the Indian Rebellion. Through Grey, Eyre, and Strathnairn, she provides not only prominent examples of the official mind and posts—in Ireland, Jamaica, southern Africa, and New Zealand are Bender’s “cross-section of empire”—but also key sites of imperial anxiety and useful case studies for testing her hypothesis that the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion reverberated far beyond India and Britain (p. 14). This insistence on viewing the British Empire holistically and outside of London is one of the book’s strengths. Bender sees the British Empire not as disconnected splotches of red on a map but as an integrated connected network of distinct colonies unified by administrators, members of the military, and families transferred from one post to another. She conjures up an empire that is unified by more than just shared allegiance to queen and country. In doing so, she illustrates a nineteenth-century vision of empire that was unified and not chopped up into geographic areas or academic specialties.
Bender divides her book into five chapters, organized thematically instead of geographically. She begins by considering initial responses to the mutiny: initial promise of aid, outpourings of Christian sympathy, and even proposals to resettle the “mutineers” away from India. However, Bender recounts how this emphatic reaction soon gave way to a more theoretical discussion of not only the nature of colonial subjects but also what colonies and colonists owed to one another. For while the residents of the empire abroad and in Britain watched the events in India with shock and pity, they mostly worried for their own safety. In chapter 3, Bender explores the ways worried colonial administrators and settlers alike monitored the reactions of imperial subjects in Ireland, South Africa, and Australia to gauge their own safety. In the wake of these fears, she argues, colonies began to reexamine their relationship with one another. Could one mutiny lead to another? Was there solidarity among British subjects across the globe? Would helping India weaken their own defenses? If they stuck out their neck, would other colonies help them in their time of need? In chapter 4, Bender argues that the official policy of mistrust and the need to categorize that spread throughout India in the wake of 1857 also spread to the rest of the empire. Chapter 6 continues examining the global lessons of 1857 by analyzing the imperial conflicts in the decade following the rebellion in India—the New Zealand Wars, the Morant Bay Uprising in Jamaica, and the crises in Ireland. Bender demonstrates that in the years following the Indian Rebellion, colonial administrators and settlers did not forget the lessons learned in India and they embraced the brute force meted out in India to quash the sepoy rebellion. Yet, as she illustrates powerfully, while the Britons living in the colonies could not forget the Indian Rebellion, their countrymen back in Britain could. As memories of 1857 faded so did the unquestioning acceptance of the imperial brutality.
Ultimately, The 1857 Indian Uprising and the British Empire successfully illustrates how Britain’s colonies around the globe had to readjust their relationships with one another and the metropole in the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion. In doing so, Bender makes a compelling case for studying British imperial history through a comparative lens. However, this comparative lens also has its drawbacks; at times, the narrative is both obvious and disjointed—disjointed because readers are pushed and pulled around the globe at a breathless pace and obvious because of course a rebellion in one part of an integrated empire sparked fear and suspicion in other parts of the same empire. However, The 1857 Indian Uprising and the British Empire proves a necessary and successful intervention revealing the interdependence of Britain’s colonies and the global trauma of the Indian Rebellion. In this book, the official and globe-trotting mind of the British Empire is front and center, revealing the folly of studying only the history of one colony, or the relationship between the metropole and colonies without paying attention to the myriad connections between the colonies themselves.
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