The Indian Mutiny was the subcontinent’s first war of independence, with Indians of different ethnic and religious backgrounds fighting side-by-side despite the divide and rule fostered by the British.
The Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution stand alone in history as all-encompassing transformations of human experience. But there is an important difference between them.
The Agricultural Revolution spread slowly, over thousands of years, and the traditional agrarian communities it generated were deeply conservative, changing only imperceptibly over centuries.
The Industrial Revolution, by comparison, was a socio-economic whirlwind. As Marx expressed it: ‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones ... All that is solid melts into air …’
The birth-pangs of the new order were revolutions and civil wars – in Germany, Holland, and Britain in the 17th century, in America and France in the 18th, and across Europe in 1848.
Even before the Industrial Revolution, when European capitalism was still embryonic inside the old feudal-absolutist order, it was reaching out across the globe, its explorers, seafarers, merchants, and slave-traders probing foreign continents in search of plunder and profit.
After 1750, the process of capital accumulation became exponential, and the system’s drive towards ‘globalisation’ intensified. Capitalism required primary products to feed growing industries, markets for manufactured goods, and new investment outlets for surplus capital. Empire became a necessity. And capitalism afforded Europeans the edge they needed to acquire it.
Technology, organisation, and steely purpose allowed small groups of European soldiers to subjugate native states in America, Africa, and Asia that were corrupt, oppressive, and riddled with faction and discontent. Armies of tens of thousands sometimes fled in the face of hundreds or even a few dozen.
India was one of the richest prizes. Several European states established trading posts on the coast during the 17th century. By the middle of the following century, colonial rivalry between the British and the French had swelled into a series of small-scale wars in Bengal and Madras.
The Nawab of Bengal was nominally the viceroy of the Mughal emperor in Delhi. In practice, he was an independent ruler, one of several across India who were often at war with each other. The Europeans were able to subjugate India province by province.
A huge social gulf separated the opulence of the Nawab’s court from the poverty of the villages. The Bengali peasantry regarded their rulers as oppressors. They had no incentive to fight for them.
Because the court was essentially parasitic, without real roots in Bengali society, it was alive with faction, intrigue, and treachery.
It was not superior firepower that enabled Clive’s army of 3,000 to defeat the Nawab’s army of 50,000 at Plassey. In fact, the Bengalis had many more muskets and cannon at the battle than the East India Company.
The two ingredients of victory were treachery among the Nawab’s senior commanders – most of whose soldiers took no part in the fighting – and the effectiveness of a new way of war based on movement, firepower, and aggression.
Feudal armies fought as amalgamations of individual warriors. Bourgeois armies fought as highly drilled blocs of men. The firearms of the age were slow to load, of limited range, and wildly inaccurate. The ideal was to deliver massed volleys at a distance of 50 metres or less. This could shred an opposing formation and break the enemy line at a decisive point.
Clive’s army fought only a portion of the Nawab’s army at Plassey. But it was still outnumbered three or four to one. Bengal was conquered by a combination of feudal division and bourgeois method. The same was true of European conquests throughout Asia, America, and Africa.
Plassey was a turning-point. The French were eclipsed, and many native rulers sought an accommodation with the rising power of the East India Company. The Marathas (in central India) were conquered by 1823, Sind (south-west Pakistan) in 1843, the Sikhs of the Punjab (northern Pakistan) in 1849, and Oudh (north-central India) in 1856.
By the middle of the 19th century, the British controlled 200 million people with an army of just 250,000, four-fifths of whom were native ‘sepoys’ under British officers.
The Company ruled in alliance with puppet nawabs (viceroys) and maharajahs (princes). These native rulers lived in luxury and maintained a public facade of regal pomp, but it was Company officials who held real power.
Zamindars (landlords) and big merchants also thrived under Company rule, sharing with its officials the fruits of intensified exploitation of the Indian peasantry. The poverty of the countryside deepened. In 1769, twelve years after Plassey, crop failures led to famines, epidemics, and an estimated ten million dead.
Imperialism meant economic regression. The clearest example of this is provided by the textile industry.
As the industrialisation of British textile production took off, the captive Indian market was flooded with cheap imports. Native textile merchants and handicraft workers were ruined. The proportion of Indians dependent on agriculture rose from 50% to 75% during the 19th century. India under British rule was being ‘de-developed’.
In 1857, north-central India exploded. Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh sepoys mutinied against their officers when ordered to violate religious taboos by using cartridges greased with the fat of ‘unclean’ animals.
The Mutineers took the British by surprise, seized control of a large swathe of northern India, put isolated garrisons at Cawnpore and Lucknow under siege, and installed a new Mughal emperor in the ancient capital of Delhi.
The British campaign of reconquest was hard-fought and exceptionally savage. Troops were dispatched from Britain, and sepoys from Madras and Bombay in southern India were deployed against the rebels in the north. Captured Mutineers were tied across the mouths of loaded cannon and executed by being blasting into fragments.
The Indian Mutiny (1857-1859) was the subcontinent’s first war of independence. It was an anti-imperialist struggle in which Indians of different ethnic and religious backgrounds fought side-by-side – the antithesis of the divide and rule fostered by the British.
But the Mutineers fought with one foot in the past. The only alternative they could conceive to British rule was a return to the feudal forms of the past. There was no challenge to the property and power of traditional rulers, and therefore no promise of social emancipation capable of mobilising the majority of the peasantry.
Nonetheless, the threat to British rule was real enough, and it inspired wholesale remodelling of imperial administration in the aftermath of the Mutiny.
Queen Victoria was declared ‘Empress of India’. A new Government of India was established. Relations with native Indian rulers were strengthened. A new Indian middle class of clerks, administrators, and lawyers developed. Village brahmins and headmen became tax and rent collectors.
The rule of law replaced the arbitrary arrogance of Company officials. Exploitation and impoverishment were henceforward framed by a tightly controlled government bureaucracy and a reformed Anglo-Indian army.
A hierarchy of privilege and a deliberate fostering of ethnic, religious, and caste divisions were the mechanisms by which India’s imperial rulers fragmented native resistance to ‘the Raj’.
Indians paid for their own subjugation: 25% of tax revenues were spent on the army, as against barely 1% each for health, education, and agriculture. Famines killed a million in the 1860s, 3.5 million in the 1870s, and 10 million in the 1890s – what Mike Davis has called the ‘Late Victorian holocausts’ that ‘made the Third World’.
The oft-repeated claim that India benefitted economically from the Raj is a lie. Agriculture was impoverished, native industries destroyed, and wealth siphoned away by foreign capital. This reality would, in time, produce a renewal of the struggle for Indian independence.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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