The Great Mutiny; India 1857: a Book Review
“Throughout the night the work continued, but as dawn approached not a single gun had been dragged into its allotted position.” (299)
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Christopher Hibbert’s non-fiction narrative The Great Mutiny; India 1857, deals entirely with the Rebellion that sparked among the so-called sepoys in the Indian army, set up by the British. Those soldiers recruited from among the native population were the ‘sepoys’. The Great Mutiny; India 1857 although is not a typical history book with its monotonous description of political reforms and causes for this move or that change of throne. Instead, one could call The Great Mutiny; India 1857 an entertaining vista of a part in Indian history, written with amazing clarity and sincerity.
Christopher Hibbert was born in Leicestershire, England in 1924. A British writer writing on an episode in Indian history is problematic, on plain sight. However, on a closer analysis, The Great Mutiny; India 1857 proves otherwise. The book does not valorize the British; neither does it denigrate the First War of Indian Independence.
“But the Age of Reason had been followed by an age in which the Englishman assumed—as Brigadier-General John Jacob, a famous leader of Indian Cavalry, assumed—that the British were masters of India because they were ‘superior beings by nature to the Asiatic.’” (37)
The formative years of the First War of Independence, what was known previously as The Sepoy Mutiny, takes the reader into the heart of British and native Indian life during the late 18th and early 19th century. Unlike many other Indian versions of the Mutiny or the First War of Independence, The Great Mutiny; India 1857 never takes sides with any one party. Romanticized versions of history often tend to distort historical facts and create altered versions of realities in accordance with the political standpoints of the author. No doubt, history is authored, much like the descriptions in a museum.
I remember, once visiting the Arakkal Museum, Kannur. There is nothing much to see in the museum, except a few bedsteads of the king, some silver platters, paintings and ornaments. The descriptions on the exhibits are the funny part. They read like a petty sentimental romance. There is no mention of facts or logical explanation of what occurred, really. It is in such attempts to sentimentalize history, the British appear ‘cruel demons’ and ‘merciless slaughterers’. The political or cultural element in the British conquest of India seems to have been forgotten, the roots of which still survives in the genetics of the country’s’ political system.
To take an instance, the crucial strategy of the British to maintain their power over a nation of “well over a hundred million people” was a weak but ostentatious attempt to make things appear just. “Without respect and a general feeling that their rule was not unjust, it would have been impossible for the relatively few British in India to control an empire.” (38)
Apart from being just to a history book’s seriousness, The Great Mutiny; India 1857 often presents situations from the daily life of the British and Indian soldiers, humorously. Trooper Charles Quevillart of the 7th Dragoon Guards writes, “The trouble was there was not enough to occupy the men in their long leisure hours.” (43)
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However, on the other side of this joke one could also find the story of a great discrimination, betrayal, and oppression. The Great Mutiny; India 1857 is not just a book for researchers, but an entertaining volume on how it all happened, for every book-loving person, who is in search of a change, for the time being.