Nana Sahib, from a sketch made in 1857
Nana Sahib, from a sketch made in 1857

Dalhousie as Governor-General
Great men of the highest rank have been numbered among the British Governors-General of India; brilliant men who might have achieved greatness but failed to do so; masterful men whose successes were achieved by methods which were sometimes questionable; strong men who went their way wisely and quietly, whose names the British public has almost forgotten.

But in the whole series from Warren Hastings himself to the distinguished statesmen who are still living among us today there is no figure more remarkable than that of the man who left India at the beginning of 1856 after eight years of strenuous rule.

Two only among the great Governors-General, Wellesley and Dalhousie, have been guided by the conviction that it was desirable to seize every opportunity to bring native states under direct British dominion. All have recognised the necessity for asserting British influence and British control, but all the rest have done so with a distinct preference for main­taining the government of the native dynasty if it were practicable to do so.

Dalhousie and Wellesley alone preferred on principle to substitute direct British dominion wherever it was possible to do so without positive injustice. The most extensive annexations were indeed those for which Lord Hastings was responsible; but in his case there had been no alternative; they were necessitated by the Maratha War. Wellesley had proceeded mainly by the method of subsidiary alliances, and in the case of Arcot by the ejection of a dynasty which had proved itself hopelessly unfit to govern.

Dalhousie now added to the British dominion by the conquest and annexation of the Punjab as already narrated, and, somewhat against his will, by the conquest and annexation of a great part of Burmah. In both cases the war was not of his making, and the annexation was bound to follow; but the case was very different in sundry other cases, where it may be laid down with certainty that Dalhousie's predecessors would not have annexed at all.

Most of them were examples of "escheat"; that is to say, the territories passed to the paramount power, the suzerain, by lapse or failure of heirs, a process familiar alike to Western and to Indian law.

The most prominent instance was that of Nagpur, where Lord Hastings in similar circumstances had not annexed but had preserved the native government by setting up a Bhonsla who was of the kindred of the lapsed family, though he had no legal title to the succession. But Dalhousie, when the Nagpur Rajah died without an heir, refused, acting perfectly within his legal rights, to seek for a native successor, and annexed the Nagpur territory.

The Adoption Question
But he went further than this in other cases. It had been customary for a Rajah, failing: heirs of his body, to adopt a successor in accordance with Hindu law. The paramount power, whether the Moguls or the British, had never admitted an obligation to recognise adoption as conveying a title to the throne, but had habitually recognised it as a matter of grace.

At Satara, Jhansi, and elsewhere Dalhousie refused to sanction adoption, and annexation by lapse was the necessary result. No one could dispute either the legality of his action or the immensely superior character of the administration by the British; but intense uneasiness was created among all the native dynasties who saw that a continuation of the process would gradually absorb the whole of India under direct British dominion. The final annexation was that of Oudh, but for a different reason - the persistent maladministration by the reigning Mohammedan dynasty in spite of repeated warnings.

Here, however, the responsibility did not rest with Dalhousie, who had recommended a different course; and he had himself left India when the annexation was actually carried out in accordance with instructions from England.

Dalhousie during his term of office greatly extended the system of education, carried out immense public works, introduced the telegraph, initiated railway construction, developed the material prosperity of the country, and completely mastered the disorderly elements. The Punjab in particular, first under Henry Lawrence and then under his brother John, was converted into an exceedingly prosperous and, as was presently proved, loyal province.

But Dalhousie's system had produced an intense unrest beneath the surface; it had involved a large increase in the native army, while, in spite of his own protests, this had been accompanied by a reduction in the number of the white troops. His masterfulness and his personal hold upon every branch of the administration had taught many of the higher officials to look to headquarters for direction instead of being prepared to take a vigorous initiative themselves; and thus Dalhousie's powerful rule even by its own efficiency and progressiveness prepared the way for the cataclysm which followed.

The mutiny is apt to be regarded outside of India as a somewhat unintelligible phenomenon, the outcome in part of the arrogant attitude of the British towards the natives and in part of a panic because of what was called the Cartridge Incident.

As a matter of fact the phenomenon is perfectly intelligible if we attempt to realise the whole situation. In the first place the government was lulled into a sense of perfect security by the completeness of its power demonstrated during the regime of Lord Dalhousie, and also by the consciousness of the material advantages that the peoples were reaping or would reap from the excellence of its adminis­tration.

That sense of security provided the very best opportunity for those who wished to organise a revolt. There were two groups of natives who had a very strong inducement in their own history, to overthrow the British power, the Mohammedans who had been the lords of India and the Marathas who believed that they would have been the lords of India but for the British.

The available instrument of revolution was there in the sepoy army, if it could be persuaded that its own interests lay in the over­throw of British dominion. The government in its unconsciousness blindly played into the hands of agitators by giving them the opportunity of appealing to the superstitious or religious terrors of the soldiery; and it had alienated the Hindu princes, who would normally prefer a British to a Mohammedan or a Maratha ascendancy, by its new attitude on the adoption question.

As for the population at large it had been accustomed for centuries to treat wars and revolutions like earthquakes and famines as inflictions to which it had to submit passively without dreaming of taking a direct part. The elements which were not thus fatalistically peaceful were precisely those which very much preferred anarchy to any orderly government, and especially such a government as that of the British. Finally, all over Hindustan from the borders of Bengal proper to the river Sutlej there were swarms of native regiments, while the white troops could be reckoned in hundreds.

Native divisions
The salvation of the British lay in the fact that there was not and could not be any national organisation of India for their overthrow because there was not and never had been an Indian nation. The over­throw of the British could only be followed by an internecine struggle for supremacy among the different divisions and cross divisions into which India was broken up by races, religions; and dynasties.

The Mohammedans were not going to fight for Hindu liberties or a Maratha supremacy. The Marathas were not going to fight for a Mogul supremacy. The Rajput princes were not going to fight either for Marathas or for Mussulmans. There could be no common aim except a merely destructive one.

And so when the insurrection came it was the work mainly of the Mogul faction, and was joined only by such Hindu princes or chiefs as had a personal grudge against the British Government: The Nizam remained loyal, though he. found 'it hard to keep his troops in restraint; Sindhia remained loyal, though it was only for a time that he succeeded in keeping his soldiers in check.

The Rajputs and the Punjabremained loyal, and in the end the Sikhs, who were traditional enemies of the Moguls and detested the Hin­dustanis, rendered splendid service to the British. Even in Oudh the great landowners or talukdars stood resolutely aloof until after the back of the revolt had been broken.

Nana Sahib
The organisers then of the revolt, so far as it was organised at all, were a Mussulman faction on the one hand, who intended to reinstate the Mogul empire over India, and on the other Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the last Peishwa who had been deposed in 1819.

The Nana looked upon himself as the hereditary head of the Marathas, and he cherished an intense personal grudge against the British Government because, while it left him great estates, it had not continued to him the immense pension which it had allowed his adoptive father for life.

The Nana secretly fomented sedition, while the Mussulman conspirators directed their especial attention to the army, utilising for that purpose the superstitions of the Hindu soldiery as well as the sympathies of the Mohammedans. An ancient prophecy was circulated which pronounced that the British Raj would end with its hundredth year, 1857.

Hindus and Mohammedans alike could never rid themselves of a belief that the British intended by force or by trickery to make them all Christians, for which Mohammedan rulers had given ample precedents in the forcible conversion of Hindus to Mohammedanism. The Hindus had recently been disturbed by being ordered to serve in Burmah; for the Hindu who crosses the seas thereby loses his caste, a matter at least as serious to him as excommunication to a Roman Catholic.

This alarm was increased by a proclamation issued by Lord Canning, soon after his arrival as Governor-General in 1856, announcing that in future all regiments would be liable to service across the sea.

Greased Cartridges
Then came the Cartridge Incident. A new rifle was adopted in which greased cartridges were used, the tips of which the sepoy had to bite. It was reported that the grease was made from the fat of cattle and pigs. To the Mussulman the pig is an unclean animal and to the Hindu the cow is a sacred one. The panic was not allayed even by the withdrawal of the first batch of cartridges and the public declaration that the grease employed would be free from the obnoxious ingredients.

Mutiny Breaks Out
The whole sepoy army throughout Hindustan was in a ferment. Regiments began here and there to mutiny; then on May 10, 1857, the whole of the regiments at Mirat, a great military station in the north-west provinces, mutinied, killed every European they could lay hands on, marched upon Delhi, and proclaimed the restoration of the Mogul.

In the next few weeks nearly every sepoy regiment between Delhi and Patna had thrown off its allegiance though Allahabad was secured, and almost all the British with the few sepoys who remained loyal were shut up in the Lucknow Residency, or at Cawnpore or Agra, or were assembled on the Ridge out­side Delhi besieging a mutineer force in that city which outnumbered the besiegers by at least five to one.

Before the end of June Cawnpore had fallen. There a mere handful of combatants and a large number of non-combatants, women and children, were besieged by Nana Sahib. For three weeks the defence was maintained till the place had become untenable. Then the defenders took the only course open to them and surrendered on terms. They were to be sent the river in safety to Allahabad. They were crowded into boats and pushed off into the stream.

Then the native boatmen slipped overboard, and the Nana's men from the shore began to pour volleys into the helpless fugitives. The treacherous attack was followed up by a general massacre of the men, while the women and children were carried back to captivity in Cawnpore.

Delhi taken
From the end of June to the second half of September the interest of the great struggle concentrated at three points, the siege of Delhi by the small force on the Ridge, the defence of the Lucknow Residency, and the efforts of Sir Henry Havelock to effect the relief of Lucknow. The mutineers were assembled in force at Delhi itself, in the city of Lucknow, and at Cawnpore, blocking the advance of the relieving force.

Until the latter part of August the six thousand men on the Ridge before Delhi were kept mainly on the defensive. By that time John Lawrence had been able to despatch a flying column from the Punjab under General Nicholson to reinforce the besieging army, followed at the beginning of September by a siege train, without which it would have been impossible to attempt the actual capture of the mutineer stronghold.

By the daring and skill of the engineer operations, actively conducted by Alexander Taylor, breaching batteries were at last brought to bear on September 11th; on the 14th the Kashmir gate was blown up and the ramparts of Delhi were stormed; day by day the British troops fought their way into the city, and on the 21st they were in full possession, with the Mogul himself in their hands, though a large portion of the mutineer force was on its retreat to Lucknow.

The Lucknow Residency
Meanwhile at Lucknow itself the Residency held out stubbornly. The character of the defence may be gathered from the fact that no fewer than twenty-five mines were detected and exploded by the vigilance of the garrison engineers in nine weeks.

The force was never in actual danger of starva­tion, but the absolutely ceaseless strain was terrific; practically no news could be obtained from outside; a serious loss had been suffered by the death of Sir Henry Lawrence in the first week of the siege, and even the loyal sepoys, splendidly as they fought, were declaring that they must march out on October 1st unless relief had arrived, when Havelock and Outram broke their way in on September 2Sth and the pressing danger was averted.

The Cawnpore Massacre
Havelock had begun his march from Allahabad on July 7th with two thousand men all told, a quarter of whom were sepoys. The first object was to rescue the captives at Cawnpore, the next to advance through Oudh to Lucknow. On the tenth day he reached Cawnpore. On one day he had fought two successive actions, and on this tenth day three. He was too late. When Nana Sahib found that nothing could stop Havelock, he deliberately butchered the women and children in cold blood and flung the bodies of his victims into a well.

Never in our history had such a cry for vengeance arisen as when the story of that hideous crime was told.

Havelock crossed the Ganges and drove the rebels before him in one fight after another; but cholera had attacked his force, and now came news that down the river Dinapur had mutinied and on the west the Gwalior army was on the march.

Without some reinforcement it was impossible to advance, and he had to fall back on Cawnpore itself. It was an unfortunate necessity, for it made the people of Oudh imagine that the relief was abandoned and the triumph of the mutiny was assured, so that the talukdars no longer ventured to restrain their dependents from joining the insurgents.

The Relief of Lucknow
Nevertheless reinforcements under Outram did arrive. On the day after the ramparts of Delhi were stormed, Havelock and Outram joined hands at Cawnpore, their whole force numbering three thousand men. Outram, the senior officer, would not deprive his heroic comrade of the glory of achieving the relief, but chose instead to serve as a volunteer under him. Ten days later they drove their way through the mutineer hosts, and the Lucknow Residency was secured.

The tide had been stemmed; now it turned. Sir Colin Campbell had already arrived in India to take the chief command. On November 17th he effected the actual relief of the Residency, the non-combatants were withdrawn, the position so long and so stubbornly defended was abandoned, and a strong garrison was placed instead under Outram in the neigbouring fort called the Alam Bagh. Havelock's work was already done; that typical Puritan hero passed away a few days after Sir Colin's arrival.

There was still plenty for the commander-in-chief to do. The city of Lucknow was still held by an im­mense force of mutineers. On the south-west the Gwalior army, under the one really capable mutineer leader, Tantia Topi, had joined Nana Sahib at Cawnpore.

Not three weeks after the relief of the Residency, on December 6th, Campbell routed and split the enemy's force, driving the Nana over the Ganges in one direction and Tantia Topi over the Jumna in another. On March 17th Lucknow itself was captured after hard fighting.

Meanwhile Sir Hugh Rose had been conducting a brilliant campaign in Central India, and at the beginning of April he put Tantia Topi finally to rout and captured Jhansi, the last real stronghold of resistance, though many months still passed before the last embers of the great revolt were stamped out. Only in the final stage the Oudh talukdars had taken alarm at a proclamation issued by the Governor-General and had thrown themselves actively into the revolt when it was already hopeless.

'Clemency' Canning
No episode in our history has in it so much of tragedy, none more of heroism than the story of the Indian Mutiny, when the British fought with their backs to the wall shoulder to shoulder with loyal natives; when numbers of women showed a supreme fortitude in the day of supreme horror.

But not the least heroic among many heroic figures was that of Lord Canning, the Governor-General, who, in the midst of such a storm of wrath as never before or since has moved the British people, dared to face bitter obloquy, fierce denunciation, and angry ridicule, while he held fast to the principles of justice and refused to seek an undiscriminating revenge. The name of "Clemency" Canning, flung at him in scorn will cling to him through the ages as a high title of honour.

The mutiny brought the end of the old order. It convinced the government at home that the time had definitely come for ending the old East India Company and transferring the government of India to the Crown. It was not British dominion but the dominion of the East India Company which lasted for a hundred years.

The India Act of 1858 established the system under which the government of India is vested in the Viceroy and Council, responsible to the Secretary of State for India, who is a member of the ministry responsible to Parliament. The first Viceroy under the new regime was the last Governor-General under the old, Clemency Canning.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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