The Indian Mutiny

By Julian Spilsbury

On the 150th anniversary of the Indian Mutiny Julian Spilsbury takes us back to those thrilling days of yesteryear in more ways than one. There is something almost Victorian in the way he proceeds with the formal and respectful air of someone writing an official history. And while it gains something in its feel for the period and sense of immediacy, such an approach is not without its limitations.

The first such limitation has to do with the maps. As any casual reader of military history knows, maps are not just a bonus feature. They are essential to the text. A good map is an important reference that helps the reader visualize troop formations and movements all but impossible to render in prose. The publishers here have reproduced contemporary maps of India and the major battlefields. And they are no help at all. The excessive clutter and intricate detail (one thinks of Victorian interior decor) makes locating any city a chore. On a large-scale map of North-Western and Central India, Delhi and Lucknow are so camouflaged in the cartographic paisley of overlapping place names (all of the same size) they are nearly invisible. And the battle maps are even worse, with troop placements and descriptive action labels further superimposed on overcrowded urban areas.

An even more significant limitation has to do with the strictly British point of view. The title is indicative of this stance. There is, as Spilsbury is aware, some argument over the name that should be given to the 1857-1858 rebellion, with India having largely adopted the “First War of Independence.” Spilsbury is having none of it.

Today what the British call the Indian, or Sepoy, Mutiny is known in India as the First National War of Independence. It was no such thing – if for no other reason that there was no real “national” feeling.

If for no other reason than that, then the debate can scarcely be considered resolved. Nationalism only clouds the issue. And a lack of widespread public support is less the exception than the rule when it comes to revolutions and wars of independence anyway. The American revolution, to take the most obvious example, was mainly the work of an influential minority, and the colonies had little “national” feeling even after independence. One suspects the real reason the Mutiny doesn’t qualify as a war of independence is because it failed.

But this is by the way. Of more consequence is Spilsbury’s decision to limit himself to the British experience of the Mutiny, and in particular military matters. Little background is provided to place the Mutiny in context (it is suggested that the revolt was primarily directed against British “good government”), and none of the major personalities on the Indian side are developed in any depth. Ahmadullah Shah, for example, the fighting Maulvi of Faizabad, is only mentioned in passing a handful of times. Indeed, the Mutiny is not only told from the British point of view but largely in their own words. Heavy reliance is placed on original sources for first-person accounts of dramatic events like the Cawnpore massacre, the storming of Delhi, and the siege of Lucknow.

This gives the book a sense of immediacy, as well as a Henty-like flavour as the plucky lads go storming the barricades (“it was most gloriously exciting; the bullets seemed to pass like a hissing sheet of lead over us”). Death was painful and slow on the battlefield in those days, giving lots of time for famous last words, many of them duly recorded in all of their theatrical glory here (“Harry . . . see how a Christian can die”). But there is horror and barbarity as well, also captured in eyewitness accounts of mass butchery, disease, and the overpowering stench of death, hastened and amplified in the heat.

Spilsbury’s historical method, as well as his section at the end providing travel tips when visiting the various battlefields today, makes his book a useful reference. But he has nothing particularly new to add to the reams of Mutiny literature that have already been published, and the presentation is uninspired. Still borrowing from the Victorians, it has the air of a duty read.

Review first published online September 18, 2007.

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