Writing about Britain’s Age of Empire

I’ve been posting a lot about India over the past few weeks. I think people are getting a bit bored of it by now. (Let me know if I’m wrong. I have several hundred more photos to share.)

Part of the reason for writing is just that, having finally made it to the sub-continent, I was blown away by it and wanted to share some of my experiences. Another reason, though, is the hope that you might be drawn in to want to read more of my writing about India, but this time looking at my historical novels. I’ve mentioned a few times that my personal favourite of my books is Cawnpore, a story set during the events of 1857, usually referred to in England as the Indian Mutiny. It’s one of a trilogy of books that looks again at the glory days of the British Empire and asks if they were as glorious as many people like to think. They’re far from revisionist history and they are full of excitement and battles, love and betrayal. But they are, I hope, a bit more nuanced than a lot of novels set in the Age of Empire.

I knew when I wrote them that they would never have the commercial appeal of my books about James Burke, cheerfully putting the damn French in their place half a century or so earlier. But it has always saddened me that, though they’ve had some lovely reviews, the Williamson Papers (as the trilogy is called) have ever had the readership I like to think they deserve. So here is an unashamed plug for the books. They are each just £3.99 on Kindle, so you can buy the whole series for less than £12. That’s got to be exceptional value for money.

The Williamson Papers

[NB There are major spoilers here, so don’t read on if you don’t want any idea of how things end.]

The first book of the Williamson Papers is The White Rajah. It introduces us to John Williamson, a young man who runs away from farming life in Devon to go to sea in search of adventure. He finds it when he becomes the companion of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak.

James Brooke is an amazing figure. (I’ve written about his real-life history HERE.) Brooke arrives in Sarawak (in Borneo) in 1839 and is made ruler by Muda Hassim, the Bendahara of Brunei. He starts with nothing but the most liberal and humane of intentions, yet goes on to preside over a massacre so terrible that it leads to protests half a world away in London. It’s a fascinating story of how the high ideals of some Europeans produced such terrible outcomes when applied to other peoples’ countries.

WHY READ IT? It’s got pirates and headhunters and battles and loads of excitement. This is the background for a story about a good man who ends up doing terrible things and how this affects the man who loves him. There’s a lesson for today in the story about good and evil in the mid-19th century.

In Cawnpore, Williamson leaves Borneo, unable to live with what he has seen. He sails for India and takes up a post with the East India Company. He is sent to Cawnpore, where he finds himself at the centre of the events that will lead to the siege of the city and a massacre of Europeans unprecedented during colonial rule in the subcontinent. As with The White Rajah, the background to the story is closely based on real historical events. Williamson, ever the outsider, flits between the Indian and European camps, passing himself off as an Indian amongst the sepoys (something that we know Europeans managed to do during the Mutiny). Again, Williamson struggles to reconcile his own liberal principles and the realities of colonial life. This time it is the Europeans who are (in Cawnpore, at least) on the losing side. Williamson becomes one of a handful of people to survive the siege and its bloody aftermath. The experience marks him, though. He has watched his Indian friends massacre women and children without mercy and then been rescued by European soldiers who strike back with awful savagery. Once again he turns his back on a European colony, this time to return to England, where he hopes at last to find peace.

WHY READ IT? The siege of Cawnpore is one of those bits of colonial history that we have decided to forget about but it’s an amazing story – even if nobody involved comes out of it looking good. This lets you top up your historical knowledge and enjoy a good read at the same time. And I can’t help thinking that if more people had known anything about the history of the region, some recent foreign policy adventures might have been given a bit more thought.

Although Cawnpore is my personal favourite, some people prefer Back Home, which brings the cycle back to England. It’s on a much smaller scale than the others, with most of the action set in London’s Seven Dials, but it features the same themes. Williamson finds a country he hardly recognises. Industrialisation at home and military expansion abroad have made Britain into a dynamic political and economic power that dominates the world. Yet Williamson finds the same divide between the poor and the rich that he saw in the Far East. A friend from his youth has tried to escape his poverty by entering a life of crime in the slums of London. Faced with threats of war with France and concern about Communist terrorists, the government needs to smash a foreign plot – and if they can’t find a real foreign plot, they’re quite happy to invent one. Williamson’s friend is caught in the machinations of a Secret Service determined to prove him an enemy agent and, in his attempts to help him escape, Williamson is once again caught between the machinations of the powerful and the resistance of the powerless.

Back Home ends with Williamson back in Devon where he started out in The White Rajah. But will he finally find happiness there?

Read the book and find out.

The Last Mughal

The Last Mughal

If you read last week’s blog post about Delhi’s Red Fort, you will have seen a reference to William Dalrymple’s book The Last Mughal. I started reading this before we went to India, read some more while we were there, and then came home and finished it. From which you can rightly conclude that it’s not a short book but it’s well worth the effort.

The Last Mughal describes life in one of the great courts of the world. As its secular power waned, so the Mughal court became a focus for high culture: a world dominated by artists and poets. Dalrymple brings that court to life and gives us some idea what we lost with its total destruction.

Inside the Red Fort today

The book keeps a tight focus on events in Delhi in the run up to the 1857 rebellion and its aftermath. Dalrymple makes a point of not discussing the wider conflict with the battles at Cawnpore/Kanpur and Lucknow. However, his summaries of the politics of the events and his analysis of the causes of the conflict and the way it played out are clear and concise and much better informed than those of many other people who write on this subject. Having produced  a novel set in 1857 India (Cawnpore) and then written various bits and bobs about the war, I’m amazed at how misunderstood events are.

Dalrymple’s writing is informed by his own research in the Indian National Archives and elsewhere, working his way through a mass of documentation:

… great unwieldy mountains of chits, pleas, orders, petitions, complaints, receipts, rules of attendance and lists of casualties, predictions of victory and promises of loyalty, notes from spies of dubious reliability and letters from eloping lovers

It is often said that the war of 1857 is particularly well documented. The British loved paperwork and have their own records of orders and memos. Civilians and soldiers wrote letters home that have survived to this day and after the fighting was over there were inquiries and trials and all this material is easily available to historians. Almost all the records that have been used by British historians, though, derive from British sources. Dalrymple’s book is unusual in that much of it is based on Indian material. It means that The Last Mughal provides an excitingly different view of what happened. Anyone who is seriously interested in the conflict would be wise to read it.

I’m not going to attempt to summarise the contents. It’s far too long to reduce to a few paragraphs in a review and too well-written to need a crib sheet. There are parts that I felt could be usefully shortened, but I suspect everybody will have different opinions has to which bits could go. There was a lot of detail about minor characters on both sides: minor princes and their mistresses; British junior officers and their wives. It was easy to get lost, especially given the close family relationships that meant a lot of overlapping names on both sides of the conflict. There’s an introductory list of the main characters with a quick paragraph about each one, but it could usefully be extended to include a lot more names.

There is also a lot of detail irrelevant to the main themes of the book. The account of “one very stout old lady” fleeing the rebels stuck in my mind. Trapped in Delhi, the only escape for one group was to jump from the walls. Faced with a 25 foot drop, the woman screamed and refused to jump. As they came under fire, “somebody gave her a push and she tumbled headlong in the ditch beneath”. She survived the fall and the story of her escape (told in a letter home from one of the men in the party) gives a vivid picture of the reality of the early days of the Mutiny, with Europeans fleeing for their lives. The stout old lady’s escape may not add anything to our understanding of the politics of revolt but it is the sort of detail that brings history alive. In some ways, the book would be improved by removing extraneous anecdotes, but in other ways it would be very much the poorer.

Dalrymple’s extensive use of contemporary accounts, quoted at length, leads to a problem that many historians face: that of whether, and how much, to systematise spelling. Places are referred to by both their European and native names and, in some cases, the native spelling varies from writer to writer. This can create confusion. There is a glossary, which can help but it’s at the back of the book and I didn’t realise it existed until rather late in the day. It’s also not immediately obvious, in a book with hundreds of unfamiliar terms, which of them might be found in the glossary. Had I known it was there, a great deal of flicking backwards and forwards would have been involved. A more systematic use of italicisation or emboldening to indicate when definitions were available might have been useful.

These are quibbles, though, and whichever approach Dalrymple had taken, I am sure he would have annoyed somebody. The book is an astonishing glimpse into a lost world as well as a brilliant account of the historical details of the end of the insurrection and the way that the British handled the aftermath.

It is in the account of the fall of Delhi and the atrocities that followed that the book has, I think, resonances for today.

There is no doubt that the Mutiny (in the early days it was, first and foremost an uprising of troops in British service) was attended by graphic acts of horrific violence, much of it directed against civilians and with terrible casualties amongst women and children. As the British organised a belatedly effective response to an outbreak that had taken them by surprise, the idea that they were fighting a legitimate war of vengeance became common. Many officers expressed the view that it was appropriate, and maybe even necessary, to kill every last one of the Indians who had risen against them and maybe anyone who might have sympathised with the uprising. Here is Lieutenant Charles Griffiths writing after the war was over:

“… Christian men and gallant soldiers, maddened by the foul murder of those nearest and dearest to them, steeled their hearts to pity and swore vengeance against the mutineers… The same feelings to some extent pervaded the breasts of all those who were engaged in the suppression of the Mutiny. Every soldier in our ranks knew that the day of reckoning had come for the atrocities which had been committed, and with unrelenting spirit dedicated himself to the accomplishment of that purpose … it was a war of extermination, in which no prisoners were taken and no mercy shown … Dead bodies lay thick in the streets and open spaces, and numbers were killed in their houses … many non-combatants lost their lives, our men, mad and excited, making no distinction.”

Dalrymple provides many details of the atrocities committed. They’re not an easy read: even the British authorities eventually agreed that things had gone too far.

It’s important to remember that some of the British involved in these atrocities had lived and worked alongside Indians for years. Some had Indian relatives by marriage. Yet they killed without mercy, with significant public support. The Delhi Gazette reported:

“Hanging is, I am happy to say, the order of the day here… Six or eight rebels are hanged every morning.”

It seems that, faced with terrible atrocities, people can turn on their enemies and exact a vengeance that goes beyond anything that was done to them and which later generations will be appalled by. We don’t have to look too hard to see similar behaviours today.

Another aspect of the British response to the uprising which echoes down to today was the way that the blame for everything was pinned on the Muslims. A show trial of the Emperor concluded that he had headed a Muslim conspiracy with “a Mahommedan clandestine embassy to the Mahommedan powers of Persia and Turkey.” It was, according to the prosecution, “a religious war for Mahommedan ascendancy.” The fact that the Mutiny had started among Hindu soldiers and had been supported by wide swathes of the local population was simply ignored. “Hinduism,” claimed the prosecution, “… is nowhere either reflected or represented.” Even more than a century and a half later, the British authorities will never allow the facts to get in the way of an anti-Muslim rant.

In summary, Dalrymple’s remarkable scholarship has produced a wonderful book casting new light on the events of 1857 and providing food for thought for those analysing some of the conflicts of the modern day. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in Indian history and has much to offer everybody.

British India to 1857: The Rise and Fall of the East India Company

British India to 1857: The Rise and Fall of the East India Company

If you follow me on Twitter or read last week’s blog post, you’ll know I’m just back from a holiday in India. I’d like to blog about India while the country is still top of my mind. Last week I did touch on how the war of 1857 (the Indian Mutiny or the First War of Independence depending on when and where you learned about it) still affects the way Indians view their history and their relationship with Britain, although not as much as you might expect. I thought that this week I’d take a look at the events that led up to the War of 1857. I’ve covered this before and my post about it remains one of the most widely read I’ve ever done, so it seems worth repeating for an audience that might not have been following me back when I wrote it.

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In the mid-19th century, India, the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown wasn’t, technically, part of the Empire at all. It was run by the East India Company, a commercial organisation, originally set up to trade with the Far East. Under the India Act of 1784, the activities of the Company were subject to direction from the British government, but the Company remained a commercial organisation with shareholders who were paid dividends from the Company’s substantial profits. How had we reached a situation where one of the world’s largest countries was being administered for profit by a private company?

For centuries, Europe had traded with the Far East. The spice trade was of vital economic importance as far back as the days of Ancient Rome. Look in your store cupboard, even today, and see how many of the spices we use come from the Far East. And remember that, in the days before refrigeration, spices were essential in making meat palatable.

Until the 15th century, trade routes to the East went overland and were controlled first by Arabs and later by the Ottoman Turks. It was not until 1498 that the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, navigated round the Cape of Good Hope and opened a sea route from Europe to the Far East. This meant that European merchants could trade directly with their suppliers and a new age of maritime commerce was born.

Britain was late to the party. By the time that the Queen Elizabeth signed the original Royal Charter of the East India Company in 1600, the Portuguese and the Dutch were well established in the Far East. Repeatedly rebuffed by their rivals in the East Indies, Britain looked to the possibilities of India.

It was not until 1639 that the Company established its first permanent base in India, in Madras on the Bay of Bengal. In 1668, it acquired Bombay, and then Calcutta followed in 1690. These three “factories”, as they were known, were intended as trading outposts: places where merchants could warehouse goods imported and exported in the increasingly profitable trade between Britain and the Indian states.

By the 1740s, the main threat in India came not from the Portuguese or the Dutch, but from the French. Their principal trading point was at Pondicherry, less than 100 miles from Madras. In 1749, the local ruler died. There were two rival claimants for his throne. The French and the British, both trying to extend their own influence, each backed one of the rivals. Both trading companies had their own military forces to defend their activities and each supported their own choice for ruler with troops. Open war was underway by 1750.

Although the dispute was notionally between two Indian princes, involvement of French and British trading companies led, inexorably, to the involvement of the French and British governments. Both sides sent professional government troops to support their own trading companies.

Backed by the military and naval resources of Britain and France, the two companies had now become significant political forces in the region. At this point, in 1756, a separate war broke out a thousand miles away, where the nawab of Bengal attacked and occupied Calcutta. The military build-up around Madras meant that the British were in a position to respond decisively. Ships of the Royal Navy carried an army from Madras to Bengal. At the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757, Robert Clive, commanding the forces of the East India Company decisively defeated the Nawab of Bengal, supported by French troops. The defeat of the Nawab was of huge symbolic importance and Plassey came to be seen as marking the start of British rule in India.

Statue of Clive of India. Whitehall, London

Immediately following the victory at Plassey, Clive installed the British candidate, Mir Jafar, as Nawab of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. Effectively, the East India Company now governed Bengal through a puppet ruler.

The tax revenues of these provinces now passed to the Company with Mir Jafar left responsible for justice and policing. (The Company took over even these residual powers in 1772.) All Frenchmen were expelled from Bengal. With the revenue from Bengal, the company was able to expand its efforts against the French further south and their hold over Pondicherry was destroyed in 1761.

India, at this time, was not a single country. The place was governed by local rulers, some with limited authority while some were absolute monarchs of huge areas of the subcontinent. All, though, recognised that the political and military presence of the British had changed the balance of power for ever. Some chose to make formal alliances with the British. Others sought to maintain some kind of independence by joining with the French.

The Sultan of Mysore allied with them to war on the Company in southern India in the late 1770s and 80s. His son, Tipu, became the most powerful threat to British hegemony. He styled himself the “Tiger of Mysore” with tiger motifs worked into his uniforms, cannons, cane handles, bed hangings, swords and thrones. His famous model of a full size tiger killing an East India Company soldier is now on display in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Tipu Sultan sent agents to Europe to buy arms that might enable him to meet the British on equal terms. Intelligence reports suggested he bought 50 cannon, 80 gun carriages, and 100,000 cannonballs, besides muskets and sabres. His army was built up to the point where he did pose a real threat to the British, but he was ultimately defeated, dying in battle in 1799.

By now, the Company was committed to Indian politics. Company troops had to defend the borders of those rulers that the Company had put in power and this meant coming to terms with their neighbours. In some cases “coming to terms” meant crushing militarily. In others, alliances were formed. The continuing involvement of the French, trying to regain territories that they had lost, and carrying on their Revolutionary Wars in the Indian theatre, meant that the Company continually felt under threat. Rulers who had not been won over to the British side might always ally with the French. Every new territorial gain, therefore, meant more territory that had to be defended, which, in turn, meant the need for further expansion.

The British conquest of India, state by state, was far from being motivated solely by the need for self-defence. The settlement after Plassey, gave the East India Company vast tax revenues. Clive predicted a £2 million annual revenue surplus (an incredible sum in 1760), which led to a 100% rise in the price of Company stock.

The military also benefited directly from the campaigns that accompanied the Company’s expansion. The word “loot” comes from the Hindu word for booty and its adoption into the English language gives an indication of the enthusiasm with which European troops plundered their enemies. Everyone from the humblest private to the general could expect to get rich should they survive a war in India.

As the Company moved from a commercial to a political entity, trade became an increasingly unimportant part of its activities. In 1833 the Charter Act ended the Company’s trading rights in India, as trading was deemed to be incompatible with ruling. The East India Company was therefore the ultimate example of privatisation. The entire government of one of the largest countries in the world had been outsourced to a private supplier whose profits came from the tax surplus of the nation that they governed. (Thomas Babington Macaulay, a leading British politician who served on the  Supreme Council of India, described it as “the strangest of all governments … designed for the strangest of all empires”.)

Government for profit clearly had a vast potential for abuse. A clear example of this came early in the East India Company’s rule, with the Bengal Famine of 1770. This is estimated to have killed around 10 million people – about a quarter of the population of the province. During this time, the government of the East India Company took no effective measures to reduce starvation but, instead, increased land taxes and encouraged the growing of non-food crops (including opium) instead of the desperately needed rice.

Despite horrors such as the famine, many aspects of British rule were benign. In a time when communications with India were slow, British administrators would spend years in post, often not returning to Britain for long periods. In general, the late 18th century saw a relaxed coexistence between the Company’s servants and the native rulers. Many pleasures were shared, with British officers often enjoying lavish hospitality from native rulers.

Initially too, intermarriage was encouraged, with the Company giving cash gifts when their employees had children with Indian women, on the basis that the children would grow up to soldier for the Company. Colonel James Skinner, the founder of a famous cavalry troop, Skinner’s Horse, fathered a substantial Anglo-Indian dynasty. According to his family he had seven wives, while legend claims he had fourteen. In appropriately multi-denominational style, Skinner built a mosque for one Muslim wife, a temple for a Hindu one and then his own church in Delhi, where he was buried in 1841.

The result of such good relationships was a European ruling class that, for a while at least, demonstrated some understanding of India and a real interest in improving the economy of the country. The commitment of enlightened European rulers to their Indian subjects was rewarded with a surprising degree of loyalty and respect by many of the Indians.

By the mid-19th century, though, such mutual respect and understanding was breaking down. One in three wills made by Company servants between 1780 and 1785 made provision for Indian wives or mistresses. Between 1805 and 1810, it was down to one in four and by the middle of the century, such provisions had almost entirely disappeared. A new breed of administrators was ruling India, often contemptuous of all things native. Christian missionaries, whose activities had been restricted by the Company until 1833, were now proselytising widely in a country which was not naturally inclined to Christianity. Changes in the structure of the Army had reduced the pay and promotion opportunities of native soldiers. Perhaps most seriously, the British now controlled so much of India that they were increasingly ruthless in their manipulation of the law in order to seize those few states that remained even notionally independent.

By the time of my novel, Cawnpore, British rule had lasted almost 100 years. A trading company, still structured as a commercial organisation, was ruling over around 200 million people. It was a time of technological and social change, yet the administration was increasingly out of touch with the people and the army was restless. The scene was set for revolution.

In 1857 a rumour spread that the cartridges issued to native troops had been greased with pig and beef fat, making them unclean for both Moslems and Hindus. The story about the fat may well have been untrue. Despite official inquiries, no one will ever know for sure. On 24th April Colonel Carmichael-Smyth of the 3rd Light Cavalry took it on himself (against the advice of many of his officers) to insist that his men drill with the new cartridges. The men refused and 85 were convicted of mutiny. On May 9th, the men were paraded in chains before their regiment at Meerut in north west India and marched off to jail. Shamed by the treatment of their comrades, the regiment rose in revolt on Sunday 10th May, 1857. The Indian Mutiny had begun.

What started as a mutiny in one small outpost became a revolt that swept across the sub-continent and nearly saw Britain driven from its most important colonial possession. When it was over, millions had died, either in the fighting or the reprisals that followed. The East India Company was abolished soon afterwards. The British continued to rule for almost another hundred years, but the relationship between rulers and ruled had changed forever.

Cawnpore

My book, Cawnpore, is set around the siege of Cawnpore, which was a particularly terrible incident in a particularly horrible war. It’s my personal favourite of all the books I’ve written. It’s the second of my books to feature John Williamson, but it’s completely self-contained, so you don’t have to read The White Rajah first. It’s available as an e-book or in paperback.

Cawnpore has not got anything like the sales of my James Burke books, which I think is a pity because people have said some very nice things about it:

“For anyone who has a love for this period, Cawnpore is probably one for you.” Historical Novel Society

“All that historical fiction should be: absorbing, believable and educational.” – Terry Tyler in Terry Tyler Book Reviews

The Kindle edition is an absurdly inexpensive £3.99. Please buy it.

The photo at the top of this post shows part of the royal palace within Delhi’s Red Fort.

A taste of India

A taste of India

I’m back from three weeks in India. We went out with an Indian friend who has been talking about us visiting the country together for around 20 years. Finally we all decided that we’re not getting any younger and if we were going to do it, we should do it now.

It was a fantastic experience, visiting her family in Bombay (Mumbai) and then doing the tourist bit: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Jodhpur. If you’re not good, I’ll make you look at all of my 500+ photographs.

It was lovely to finally see the country that I’d written about back in 2011 with my book, Cawnpore, set during the war of 1857. It was strange writing a book set in a country I had never seen but, of course, the India of 1857 was very different from the India of today. I relied on accounts of the country by Victorian visitors. (I was writing from the viewpoint of a European living there, so the way that people like Fanny Parks saw the country was particularly useful.) We didn’t go to the city that the British knew at the time as Cawnpore. It’s called Kanpur now and almost all traces of the events of 1857 are gone. We did see some of the famous sites from back then: the Red Fort in Delhi and the fort at Agra (just along the river from the Taj Mahal).

In the Red Fort there are the barrack blocks built by the British on the ruins of some of the Moghul palace, which suffered very badly when Delhi was retaken. And in Agra there are the tiny airless rooms built into one of the corridors dating from when the British ran the province from there. There’s the grave of John Russell Colvin, the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Province, who died in the fort (of cholera) in 1857 and whose dying wish was to be buried there.

1857 was a long time ago and, certainly for most Indians, hardly a burning source of resentment. If anyone wants to badmouth the British, they are most likely to complain about Partition and the damage that did to their country.

In fact, the way that Indians feel about the British seems conflicted. Staying at the Cricket Club of India in Bombay, or visiting the Yacht Club there, I felt closer to the England of the 1950s than I ever do in London.

Cricket Club of India

Yacht Club

For many Indians, speaking English seems a crucial part of middle-class identity. There are adverts for private schools everywhere and most of these stress that education will be provided in English.

You can see why Prime Minister Modi sees de-colonialisation as unfinished business. Seventy-five years after India achieved independence, he is anxious to see the relationship with Britain defined in a more 21st century context.

Modi (with a white beard) presenting modern India

1857 is now celebrated as India’s First War of Independence, with characters like Nana Sahib (who led the Indian forces in Cawnpore) given the sort of uncritical acclaim that the British used to give their military leaders who might, with the wisdom of hindsight, be seen as having had a problematic approach to the way they treated their enemies.

Nana Sahib’s sword on display in the Red Fort

In reality, the events of 1857 were complex. Decades of mismanagement by the British had led to a burning resentment of their rule from many elements in Indian society and, once revolt had broken out amongst soldiers serving the British, it spread to encompass the old rulers of India and ordinary Moslems and Hindus who saw their religion under threat They were joined by people with grudges to settle and many prisoners, released by the mob in the early days of the revolt, who simply saw the chance to profit from the unrest. Violence and massacres by the rebels led to retaliation on an almost unimaginable scale from the British. It is a story from which nobody comes out well, although there was extraordinary courage and heroism demonstrated on both side.

The amazing thing is that after 1857 the British continued to rule in India for almost 100 years. Indians even volunteered in large numbers to defend Britain during the First World War.

Memorial tablet to men from Jodhpur who died in WW1

Indians believed that the British had promised independence if Indians went to fight in France. After the war, with no prospect of independence, Indian attitudes hardened. In response, the British introduced repressive legislation allowing them to imprison independence activists with no proper judicial process. Inevitably the Black Bills (as the legislation came to be known) led to protests and one such peaceful protest resulted in troops firing on an unarmed crowd with hundreds of casualties. (The precise number of dead is unknown.) This event, which came to be known as the Amritsar Massacre, is thought by many to have marked a turning point in the fight for independence.

India finally achieved independence on 15 August 1947.

Cawnpore

Although it has a fraction of the readership of my James Burke series, Cawnpore is the book I am most proud of. It’s told from the point of view of John Williamson, a British official in the East India Company’s administration, running India on behalf of the Crown. Williamson is from a working class background and does not fit in well with the men he works alongside. He is happier making friends in the court of the local Indian ruler and immerses himself in the culture and the language. When war breaks out in 1857, he finds himself caught between two camps. As he tries to find a way out of his dilemma, the war becomes more vicious and the bodies begin to pile up.

It’s a story with no heroes and I can see why it will never be as popular as the straightforwardly swashbuckling adventures of Burke, my Napoleonic Wars hero. Even so, I stand by it as the best thing I’ve written. It’s an absurdly cheap £3.99 on Kindle. I’d be very grateful if you could read it.

Indian Mutiny or War of Independence?

In an age when any conversations about empire and colonialism can be triggering, I’ve always been quite surprised that the John Williamson Papers don’t seem to have attracted a lot of political attacks. I’m surprised rather than pleased, because there is no doubt that controversy sells books and also I suspect that there would be more controversy about the John Williamson series if more people had actually read it.

In Cawnpore, I refer to the events of 1857 as the Indian Mutiny. The book is written from the point of view of a Victorian Englishman and “Indian Mutiny” is what Victorian Englishmen called it. Nowadays, though, what to call that uprising is an intensely political decision. To many Indians and Pakistanis the war was the First War of Indian Independence or the Freedom Struggle of 1857. (Wikipedia hedges its bets with ‘Indian Rebellion’.)

Leaving aside political considerations, part of the confusion as to what to call it is down to the fact that several conflicts coalesced into a single rebellion. There seems little doubt that the actual fighting started with a mutiny. That is, soldiers disobeyed a direct order and, when some were imprisoned, their comrades rose up to release them, murdered some of their officers and broke camp. Whether the soldiers were encouraged to mutiny by political activists seeking independence from the British is uncertain. Some Europeans were convinced that the whole thing was a calculated plot, but it is the nature of the political class always to claim that acts of rebellion were incited by “outside agitators” and there is no clear evidence on this either way. What is certain is that the first troops to mutiny decided to march to Delhi and put themselves at the service of the Mogul emperor.

With mutineers claiming to be acting in the cause of the deposed rulers, the conflict quickly began to take on a wider political complexion. Other rulers, like Nana Sahib, saw the opportunity to re-establish their power while the British, deprived of the support of their native troops, were weakened. The situation was further confused because these rulers did not all act in concert. For example, as mentioned in my novel, the troops who mutinied at Cawnpore first marched towards Delhi to put themselves at the service of the Mogul emperor, before being persuaded to return to Cawnpore to serve the Peshwa, Nana Sahib. Although the various leaders of the Indian forces made common cause against the British, their failure to act effectively as a single political or military force counted against them.

One of the first acts of the rebels in many places (including Cawnpore) was to open the jails. So beside the mutinying troops and the various forces of the native rulers, many of those who joined in the fighting were local convicts who simply saw an opportunity to profit from the general unrest. Thus natives who were associated with the British (such as Christians or other Eurasians) were often attacked and murdered, less to achieve a military or political goal than because their attackers could then loot their property. With an almost complete breakdown of law and order and mass conflict spreading across huge areas of the country, there was an opportunity for many old scores to be settled.

Many Indian troops attached to the British forces and many local rulers supported the British, giving some of the conflict the character of a civil war. This picture (by George Francklin Atkinson in 1859) claims to show Troops of the Native Allies.

There are clear modern parallels. In Iraq the fighting following the American-led occupation was blamed on elements of the Army (essentially mutineers), forces loyal to the old regime, criminal elements and those settling scores between different religious groups. In Britain, at least, commentators struggled for ages to find a term which encompassed all these different elements before they settled on “insurgency”. Perhaps that is how we should refer to the events of 1857. But, whatever the best term should be, for the British involved, and for most British historians, even today, the bloodshed and horror of that year are simply summed up as the Indian Mutiny.

Cawnpore

Cawnpore is now available on Kindle and in paperback.

The events at Cawnpore (now Kanpur) are seen through the eyes of an Englishman who, disillusioned with many aspects of British rule, finds his loyalties torn between the Europeans he despises and the Indians he loves. How can he be true to himself and still survive the massacre that will follow the fall of Cawnpore?

Williamson’s story takes us to the heart of the Indian Mutiny, a crucial point in British history. The massacre at Cawnpore shocked the world and its repercussions shaped the future of India.

It’s real history, but not the way you learned it at school.

(This is an edited version of a piece last posted in 2021)