1857 and all that

Maya Jasanoff writes in the LRB:

By the 1890s the mutiny was comfortably a thing of the past, sanitised by time, victory and imperial consolidation. But the prospect of unsettling protest within India was not a thing of the past, particularly following the misbegotten partition of Bengal in 1905. On India’s frontiers, competition with Russia reached its most intense at exactly this time. Beyond India, the British Empire faced other serious challenges; and though Chakravarty correctly emphasises the centrality of war to Victorian Britain, the greatest of these wars, the Boer War, barely gets a look-in. Last but not least, there was the fact that the successful expansion of empire brought about increased reliance on the Indian Army, which was needed to hold down key possessions from Singapore to Egypt. Just how critical the sepoy army remained – and how cautious British commanders needed to be in deploying it – would be underscored during the First World War, when woefully ill-equipped sepoys came close to mutiny on the Western Front, and Indian forces in Mesopotamia, some of them Muslim, had to be persuaded to fight against fellow Muslims, in the wake of the Ottoman sultan and caliph’s declaration of jihad. Surely it is significant that British writers and readers revived stories of the mutiny at a time when the Indian Army was more vital than ever.
It is worth underscoring that these fantasies of penetration, assimilation and espionage corresponded to a period when Britons in India were far less tolerant of cross-cultural mixing than they had been before 1857. If anything worked to erode the cosmopolitan world of James Skinner (and his intermarried parents), it was the mutiny.

One comment

  1. I dunno about calling “kernel” James Skinner’s world “cosmopolitan.” It’s far too modern a word and methinks Hobsbawm would like us to remember that the national is a necessary precursor to the cosmopolitan — but maybe I’m just a bitter desi who wants the Kohinoor back:)

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