THE GREAT MUTINY: India 1857 by Christopher Hibbert

THE GREAT MUTINY: India 1857

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The 1857 rebellion of native troops, or sepoys, in the Bengal Army of the East India Company is both a pivotal episode in Indian colonial history and one of those limited but savage engagements that brings out extremes of behavior and tempts the dramatic historian. Christopher Hibbert, a prolific nonspecialist, has nothing new or significant to impart--the causes and consequences of the rebellion are similarly stated in any respectable encyclopedia--and his massively detailed chronicle of, essentially, the seizures and relief of a few key points assumes a degree of interest that the non-British reader may find it difficult to sustain. (Those unfamiliar with the geography will also find the single map less than ideal--and site-maps are badly wanting.) Nor, even with recourse to the appended chronology, is the course of events easy to follow. In short, this opera needs a libretto--or prior acquaintance with the more concise and pointed account of a Philip Mason. But, by drawing on the awesomely voluminous sources, Hibbert has recreated the British experience in its full horror and shame--for outrages committed as well as suffered--and its sporadic glory. Indeed, one marvels perhaps most at how much everyone wrote, and how well: commanders, subalterns, wives--all penned letters, kept journals, composed reminiscences. Besieged for months inside the Residency at Lucknow, a colonel's wife wonders ""what would be the feelings of any lady suddenly transported from quiet, peaceful England to this room, around which the bullets are whizzing. . . ."" And, though many were fools and some were scoundrels, others saw the danger plain. ""I don't think [the sepoys] know themselves what they will do,"" observed one officer at the outset, ""or that they have any plan of action except resistance to invasion of their religion."" So did Queen Victoria, who (privately) urged that the greatest care ""be taken not to interfere with their religion."" The lesson was learned to the extent that the government took over India's rule and instituted some reforms--and unlearned insofar as individual Britons continued to humiliate their Indian subjects. That the rebellion was more than a mutiny, Hibbert recognizes (why then the anachronistic title?), though he agrees with the dominant opinion that, it was less than a national revolt. But reflection of this sort is confined to the brief epilogue; the book itself is a revolving panorama of protest, massacre, and retribution, vigorously described.

Pub Date: Oct. 20th, 1978
Publisher: Viking