As new novels, histories, films, commemorations and fresh archival digs testify, the two revolts
featured in this book continue to command lay and scholarly interest a century and a half after they
were enacted on opposite ends of our world. In a passing remark in Revenge & Reconciliation, my
1999 study of two strands in Indian history, I expressed surprise that nobody had taken a joint view
of ‘two events that took place on opposite sides of the globe at virtually the same time—the
American Civil War . . . and the Indian Rebellion’.
Since no one else took the hint, I decided to do it myself. The result is a story of two revolts, three
countries (India, America and England), one century (the nineteenth), and one epoch (the Victorian,
although Abraham Lincoln shines uniquely in it). The cast of characters is large and includes several
who became famous in varying degrees; others who I hope will stay at least in some memories; and a
few who were giants in intellect or spirit, or both. Two dramas were being enacted, at about the
same time, on two far-apart stages. Were the characters in one aware of the other drama? Were
they interested in the other drama? Were they influenced by it? Did they comment on it? Looking at
the other drama, did they cheer one set of actors as against another set? And if they did, why? Were
there common features in the two?
I wanted to bring both dramas to one stage. The two casts did not have to merge with one another,
but they could follow one another in sequential acts and scenes. And perhaps for a scene or two,
both casts could be on stage together. In short, while others continued their digging into the history of
1857 in India or of the American Civil War for a new archaeology, I realized I could offer new
The two insurrections were independent and separate events. Yet, I nursed a curiosity about the
information Americans had or did not have on the 1857 Revolt and its suppression, and about the
interest they took in it. Likewise, I was keen to know what leading Indians of the time heard about
the American Civil War, and what they thought about it. I also had the desire to see how India’s
future was shaped by the two events, even though one of them occurred very far from our shores. I
decided to investigate this by following the lives of five inhabitants of India who were young (at least
relatively) when the rebellion and the Civil War occurred, and who went on to influence India during
and after their lifetime——Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Jotiba Phule, Allan
Octavian Hume, and Bankimchandra Chatterjee, listed here in the order of their birth.
Apart from anything else, therefore, this book examines how these five reacted to the two revolts
and looks also, if only briefly, at the rest of their lives. I do not claim that these five ‘represent’ their
times in a truer way than others. But they are all fascinating characters and each of them wrestled
with a changing order. Yet, retaining a focus on these five was not so easy, for they competed with
scores of other interesting characters who showed up. However, these five emerge as people
forming a bridge towards our times.
Actually, there are two bridges (as well as two revolts) in this book. One joins ‘then’ with ‘now’; the
other joins ‘here’ with ‘there’. One links nineteenth century India with India today, the other links the
India of the 1850s—60s with the America of that time. Connecting America ‘then’ with today’s
America, or a similar exercise with respect to Britain, was beyond my scope.
I was clear on the entry point for my tale-William Howard Russell of The Times of London, who
witnessed both conflicts, as well as some earlier and later ones. Though the title was not used in his
reports from the front lines, Russell was perhaps the world’s first ‘war correspondent’. As far as I
know, Russell did not actually meet any of the five Indians I have listed—though Vidyasagar
(thirty-eight years old at the time) and Bankim (then twenty) were undoubtedly in Calcutta when
Russell arrived there to cover the rebellion. Likewise, a forty-one—year—old Sayyid Ahmed was
very much in the neighbourhood when Russell went to Rohilkhand and Delhi to witness the end of
Allan Octavian Hume, directly involved in coping with the rebellion, and later a founder of the Indian
National Congress, was a twenty—nine—year-old district officer in Etawah in 1858 when, in nearby
Kanpur, Russell tried to ascertain the truth in the reports of atrocities in that city by the rebellion’s
As for jotiba Phule, he was an active forty—nine-year-old in Pune, when in 1875-76, a decade after
the end of the American Civil War, Russell again journeyed to India and visited the Marathi country,
this time accompanying the Prince of Wales. Thus a thread that weaves the different stories of this
book together is the life, or perhaps I should say the voice, of a travelling Irish newspaperman. But
there are other threads too.
As I read for this project, hoping that Russell would help unify its themes, it became obvious that I
had to broaden its scope. For, on reaching the year 1854 on my journey (along with Russell) to the
1857 rebellion, I ran into a twenty—eight—year—old Russian officer, Leo Tolstoy, then fighting and
also critiquing the 1854 Crimean War even as Russell (eight years older than Tolstoy) was reporting
that war from the opposite (British) side. Could I leave out of my inquiry the Russian novelist and
sage who later impacted not only the world but India in particular with his sharp views on violence
I also had to ask whether I could merely brush past Karl Marx (two years older than Russell),
whose analysis of the then ongoing 1857 rebellion, written week by week in London and published
in the New York Tribune, offered almost the only challenge to the uniform American summing—up
of the rebellion as an eruption of oriental barbarism? At the present time, a larger number of believing
Marxists live in India than perhaps in any other country, but even if this were not the case, Marx’s
scrutiny of 1857 and of British imperialism demanded a place in this study. So both Tolstoy and
Marx are part of this tale.
No one can compress, in any ‘fair’ or ‘representative’ manner, at century into a volume or even a
series of volumes; and no two persons will select the same ‘representatives’. I did not attempt to
locate ‘true’ representatives, Indian or non-Indian, of the nineteenth century. But on the path towards
understanding aspects of the two revolts, I bumped into remarkable Indian and non-Indian
inhabitants of that century and could not resist an urge to interrogate them.
Today we do not study a country in isolation. Our understanding, we know, remains limited and even
becomes misleading if another country is not brought in for a comparison. What is true of the present
may also be true of the past. Our understanding of the 1857 Revolt can only be enhanced and
clarified by a study of the American Civil War. The opposite is also true and studying the two
together may enable us to recognize the global spirit of the times when they occurred.
Also, the rapidly growing USA-India relationship of our day can do with an awareness of older
connections, which are likely to interest the increasing number of Indians studying, working, or living
in the USA, as well as Americans involved today with India. Then there are those, an expanding
number, who through parents or grandparents are linked to both America and India. Being Indian as
well as American by culture and blood, they should know the histories of both lands. For them, this
book may serve as an introduction.
I must thank Zack Poppel, graduate student of history at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, for the valuable research assistance that he provided, which was made possible
by the Arnold O. Beckman Award obtained by me at the university. I thank the university for this
award, for the amazing range of material in its libraries, and for its stimulating atmosphere.
Five American scholars—I will name them in alphabetical order - have been of particular help with
this project. Dr Bryon Andreasen, research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, was generous with his time in unearthing information about India
in 1857-58, a time when Lincoln lived in Springfield. Professor Orville Vernon Burton of the
University of Illinois helped greatly through his landmark work, The Age of Lincoln, published in
2008. Also of the University of Illinois, Professor James Hurt almost magically produced for me the
essay about Lincoln and India written in 1927 by the poet Vachel Lindsay. And professors Fred
Jaher and Blair Kling (again from the University of Illinois) took the trouble of reading the entire
manuscript and made extremely useful suggestions. Professor Kling’s 1977 work, The Blue Mutiny,
and his ideas on a common background for the two revolts have been of real help to me. For these
contributions, and for their encouragement of this book, I offer all five my best thanks. I am grateful
too to Dr Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, also of the University of Illinois, for her helpful perspectives on
nineteenth-century Bengal, and to Justice P.B. Sawant, former chairman of the Press Council of
India, for the material he lent me on nineteenth-century Maharashtra.
I should also thank the libraries I worked in or borrowed from and their helpful personnel. This study
would have been impossible without the remarkable South Asia collections of the University of
Illinois Library, and I have benefited also from Kolkata’s Asiatic Society, National Library and the
Raj Bhavan library.
Others will judge whether the perspective of this volume is fresh or useful. Its stories are in any case
irresistible, which is the chief reason for retelling them. I hope they have not suffered undue damage
while passing through my hands.
Back of the Book
There’s nothing quite like this book: a discursive, knowing account of two of the nineteenth century’s
most harrowing and consequential struggles-the 1857 uprising against British rule in India and the
battle over slavery in the United States of America. Luckily, Rajmohan Gandhi understands both
worlds and the result is a sure-handed, idiosyncratic delight.
With his keen eye for historical parallels [Rajmohan Gandhi], through his insightful
portrayal of personalities and events, enables the reader to enter the multi-hued mental climate of
nineteenth-century India, Britain and America…Unputdownable for both style and substance.
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