1857

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Let us pull down that world map again for a moment before proceeding to the next scene. Here they are, the dominions—the cliché is hard to utter—on which the sun in actual fact never sets, spread over six continents and the isles of the sea by a profit-minded, rather pious, and generally decent English conqueror, the first (and the last) well-meaning Imperium since the days of the Antonines. Ask how this is possible, how a nation of under twenty-five millions, dwelling on a foggy little island, can hold so much of palm and pine? Ask more—ask how a private company, the East India Company (more properly, The Governor and Company of Merchants of London, trading into the East Indies) can rule, at a distance of 14,000 miles, the sub-continent of India, with its two hundred millions? Or is it three hundred? No one has counted them accurately. But how did a handful of men from a little place like Macedon, no better than a province, or the citizens of a little Latin city-state, also grasp the civilized world in thrall? The key is organization. But organization can go awry.

India has been restless for decades, as its local rulers have been conquered, dethroned, or moved about by the officers of the company. Then, too, the British have legislated against basic Indian beliefs, outlawing suttee (the burning of widows on the husband’s funeral pyre), suppressing the Thugs (a sect of “holy” assassins), spreading education and sanitation. And now the rumor is about that they may abolish caste in the future. Not content with such outrageous colonialism, the company’s last administrator, Lord Dalhousie, has removed from his throne and pensioned off Wajid Ali, the last king of Oudh, whose capital is at Lucknow in northern India. And merely because Wajid Ali, an indolent and self-indulgent Moslem, has bankrupted his country by building a harem with separate apartments for each of his 370 wives, and leaving his kingdom to be run by the dacoits, an organized society of bandits!

Oudh, Bengal, and the northwest provinces are thinly held by the British. Five sixths of the army is made up of sepoy or native troops, many British regiments having been drawn off for the late war in the Crimea and for another one in China, and only a spark is needed to ignite a revolt. The spark is provided by the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles distributed to the troops. We present now a possibly imaginary but basically true conversation:

One day in January a sepoy at Dumdum is preparing his food when a low-caste man asks for a drink from his lota, or water vessel. The sepoy, a Brahman, refuses: “I have scoured my lota, and you will defile it by your touch.”

“You think so much of your caste,” the other says. “But wait a little. The English sahib will make you bite cartridges greased in cow and pork fat, and then where will your caste be?”

Need it be explained that the Moslem will touch no product of the pig, the Hindu nothing from the sacred cow? The story spreads everywhere, and is followed by mutinies and uprisings in Bengal, at Meerut, and at Delhi, old capital of the Mogul empire. Western and southern India, most fortunately, do not stir. Sepoys lay siege to the little British garrisons and their womenfolk at Cawnpore and Lucknow in Oudh, and the two stories are very different.

At Cawnpore, the British general foolishly takes Nana Sahib, the sepoy commander, at his word when he offers to allow the besieged Europeans to go safely to Allahabad, if they will abandon the fortress and leave their stores. Once outside, the Englishmen are slaughtered to a man and the surviving women and children are, for a time, imprisoned. Nana Sahib takes up his pen, the English having taught him to write.

“As by the bounty of the glorious, Almighty God, and the enemy-destroying fortune of the Emperor, the yellow-faced and narrow-minded people have been sent to hell!” begins his proclamation of victory. But then a relieving force of yellow faces under General Henry Havelock draws near, and the sepoy commander sends his cavalry men into the prison to dispatch, with great cruelty, the surviving women and children, the latter suffering first, being dashed to pieces against the ground or tossed in the air on bayonets, before their mothers’ eyes. A few hours later Havelock’s Highland regiments reach the spot. One officer described the scene:

I have been to see the place where the poor women and children were imprisoned and afterward butchered. It is a small bungalow close to the road. There are all sorts of articles of women’s and children’s clothing, ladies’ hair, evidently cut off with a sword, back combs, etc. Where the massacre took place is covered with blood like a butcher’s slaughterhouse. One would fancy that nothing could be worse than this, but in the well at the back of the house are the bodies and limbs of the poor things. I looked down and saw such a sight as I hope never to see again. The whole of the bodies were naked, and the limbs had been separated. I have looked upon death in every form, but I could not look down that well again.

At the residency in Lucknow, entrenched and well-defended, things look sticky indeed. The British here are resolved to hold out, however, and sick as most of them are with fever and scurvy, starving as well and under steady sepoy bombardment, the men, women, and children wait it out for eighty-seven days. Knowing the Moslem ways, they have kept aside a few bullets for each other when the final rush comes.