One of the most bizarre facets of British public life is its Honours System. Every country in the Western world has one, of course, but the UK is the only state whose honours frequently contain the word “empire” – the British Empire, that is. Even if you were prepared to tolerate gongs being doled out to [insert politician/businessman here] for Services to [insert political party here], the fact that medals are still being forged and awarded in the name of the British Empire sticks in the throats of a lot of people around the world.
At the risk of offending right-wingers who might not have been paying much attention to the news since the end of the Second World War, the British Empire No Longer Exists!!! Lest anyone forget, the national days of many countries in Asia and Africa are centred around their winning independence from this same empire. The last thing any celebrity should be doing is accepting gongs that essentially lionize an institution that was, far from a civilizing and modernizing influence on the world, actually just a global system of exploitation – which probably isn’t seen that way because the chaps who oversaw this system sounded so frightfully pleasant and well-spoken…
Another thing to remember about the British Empire is that, though it was unquestionably the biggest the world has ever seen, it didn’t last nearly so long as its nearest rival, the Spanish Empire – it ran for 2½ centuries, compared with Spain’s one of just over 3 centuries. Very few Spaniards, however – even those on the political right – ever wax lyrical about how their country once controlled most of the Americas.
The historian Stephen Haseler, among others, considers that things might have been different if Britain had suffered a catastrophic defeat in a major war (see my previous Harold Rex article here). If this had happened, perhaps the Empire would have collapsed much more rapidly and dramatically, and perhaps we wouldn’t be cursed these days by occasional polls revealing a disturbing proportion of the population as thinking the British Empire was basically a good thing. The closest such a collapse came to happening before the two World Wars occurred exactly 160 years ago, when an act of casual bigotry triggered a national rebellion in the Empire’s most important colony.
On 10 May 1857 a battalion of sepoys (Indian soldiers recruited into the British armed forces) rose up at a military barracks in Meerut, near Delhi, and killed their British officers. This act of mutiny (which explains the rather patronizing term given to what was a major rebellion, the Indian Mutiny) followed an earlier refusal by the sepoys to rip open their Enfield rifle cartridges with their teeth. A rumour had spread that the grease used for the cartridges was made from fat from cows or pigs – and since the meat from those animals is taboo to Hindus and Muslims respectively, the soldiers weren’t prepared to risk defiling their religion. Rather than throw their hands up and admit this careless error, the officers ordered the sepoys to be stripped of their uniforms, clapped in chains, and given crassly long jail sentences.
Of course, the cartridge-grease scandal wasn’t the only reason why the sepoys revolted: this was only the last of a long series of straws. In the generations since Waterloo the East India Company’s (the effective governing body in India) top brass had gradually abandoned the cultural sensitivity and tact that had been the hallmark of their 18th-Century forbears (for example, the ill-fated Warren Hastings) and saw little reason to disguise the real reasons for the Company’s existence – namely, to get as much out of the country and its people as they thought they could get away with. There were religious and economic grievances as well as military ones. Hindus and Muslims, for example, looked on suspiciously at the actions of Christian missionaries, and devout Hindus in particular were outraged at the necessity for rail and sea transport, given that this would involve different castes mixing socially. As for economics, there was also resentment at cheap British goods flooding India’s market, which was just putting Indian traders out of business, while the British system of land regulation led to cripplingly high rents.
The figurehead for what Indian nationalist historians have called the First War of Independence was Bahadur Shah II, the Muslim Mughal emperor (who turned out to be the last of his line). Bahadur Shah had hitherto been content to accept a British Raj pension, but as the rebels centred on him and his court as the uprising caught fire, he reluctantly allowed his name to be added to those of the rebels and agreed to be the movement’s titular head. Among the various proclamations the Emperor made was one particularly grim one, promising to ‘Put the English to Death!‘
Despite this apparent conferring of legitimacy on the sepoys’ actions, a national rebellion the Uprising was not: it did not succeed in breaking out of its focus of Delhi, Lucknow, and Cawnpore (though this was a huge area), and traditional suspicions between Muslim and Hindu sepoys turned out, ultimately, to be stronger sources of enmity than anti-British feeling. There was not yet anything like a pan-Indian national consciousness. Nonetheless, it would take the British another two years and two months to put the Uprising down, and before that happened terrible atrocities would be committed. For example, at Cawnpore in June 1857, a small battalion of about 700 British soldiers were besieged by around 3,000 sepoys for three weeks, before being promised safe conduct if they surrendered. After they had agreed to the peace terms, the captives were then set upon by the sepoys using cannon and grapeshot. Those who survived (mostly women and children) were then locked up before being dragged from their cells and hacked to death, with the bodies then thrown down a well. When a British relief force under Sir Henry Havelock retook Cawnpore in July 1857 they summarily killed any rebel sepoys they could find by tying them to the mouths of cannon barrels, and literally blasting them to pieces.
The Uprising was finally suppressed for good in 1859. As has already been mentioned, the rebel sepoys could not hope for support outside the Delhi-Cawnpore-Lucknow triangle, and the Sikhs of the Punjab, the Muslims of Bengal and Gurkhas of Nepal remained loyal to the Raj throughout the events of those two grim years. Bahadur Shah II was captured in 1857, and the following year was put on trial for his (very reluctant) part in the Uprising, ultimately being sentenced to live out the rest of his life (another four years, as it turned out) in Rangoon in Burma. The East India Company was abolished in 1858, and replaced with a system of direct rule from London, with the Governor-General being replaced with a Viceroy. The British agreed to respect the religious rights of Indians, but an additional promise of equality of opportunity for Queen Victoria’s Indian subjects was quickly reneged upon, and a legacy of bitterness left by the Uprising lasted for many years, remaining in the memories of those Indians who would later found the National Congress and the nationalist movement that would eventually win the country’s independence in 1947.
160 years on, the various legacies of the British Empire continue to be played out around the world, and not just in the Subcontinent. The writer Piers Brendon puts it best:
Critics reckoned that the balance sheet of the Empire was deeply in the red. On the debit side were arrogance, violence, exploitation, jingoism, racism and authoritarianism. At its heart was a betrayal of the civilised values which the British claimed to espouse. They had professed libertas but practised imperium, subjugating alien lands in the name of freedom.