IN EARLY MAY 1857 -- 150 years ago this month -- the British empire found itself threatened by the largest and bloodiest anti-colonial revolt to face any European empire anywhere in the world during the 19th century.
The British had been trading in India through the East India Co. since the early 1600s. But in the late 1700s, the dynamic had begun to shift. A new group of conservatives came to power, determined to radically expand British power abroad and to defend the economic interests of Britain against all threats. The governor general of India, Lord Wellesley, called his new, aggressive approach the "forward policy." Wellesley was determined to establish British dominance over all its European rivals, and he firmly believed in removing hostile Muslim regimes preemptively if they presumed to resist the West's growing power.
There were many voices in the right-wing press supporting this view. They argued that the puppet Muslim allies that effectively allowed the empire to run their affairs could stay for the time being, but that those governments that were intent on resisting the advance of the West were simply not to be tolerated.
Nor was there any doubt who would be the first to go: a dictator whose family had usurped power in a military coup. According to British sources close to government, he was "a cruel and relentless enemy," an "intolerant bigot," a "furious fanatic" who had "perpetually on his tongue the projects of jihad." This dictator was also deemed to be an "oppressive and unjust ruler ... [and a] perfidious negotiator."
Wellesley had arrived in India in 1798 with specific instructions to effect regime change and replace this dictator -- Tipu Sultan of Mysore -- with a Western-backed puppet. First, however, Wellesley had to justify publicly a policy the outcome of which had already been decided in private. It was only by marshaling a body of apparently persuasive evidence against opponents that the bellyaching anti-imperialists at home -- in this case the coterie that had gathered around the statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke -- could be shut up.
It was with this in mind that Wellesley and his allies began a comprehensive campaign of vilification against Tipu, portraying him as a vicious and aggressive Muslim monster who planned to wipe the British off the map of India. This essay in imperial villain-making duly opened the way for a lucrative conquest and the installation of a more pliable regime.
The British, however, were not satisfied with removing Tipu. As the years passed, they slowly progressed from removing threatening Muslim rulers to destabilizing even the most malleable Islamic states and annexing them to British India. In February 1856, they annexed the prosperous kingdom of Avadh on the somewhat lame excuse that the Nawab, or provincial governor, was "excessively debauched." By early 1857, the East India Co. was directly ruling about two-thirds of the subcontinent.
Moreover, many British officials who believed in the forward policy were nursing plans to impose not just British laws and technology on India but British values as well. This meant banning the burning of widows, allowing them to remarry and outlawing infanticide. An evangelical lobby at home also pressed for increased missionary activity, and India in the 1840s and 1850s slowly filled with pious Christian fundamentalists who wanted not just to rule India but to redeem and improve it.
The tracts of the missionaries reinforced Muslim fears, increasing opposition to British rule and creating a constituency for the rapidly multiplying jihadis determined to stop the rule of the kafir infidels. At the same time, the existence of such "Wahhabi conspiracies" to resist the Christians strengthened the conviction of the evangelicals that a "strong attack" was needed to take on "Muslim fanatics."
The reaction to this steady crescendo of insensitivity came in 1857 with the Great Mutiny. On a May morning, 300 mutinous Indian soldiers (known as "sepoys"), who had been fighting on behalf of the British, rode into Delhi, massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find and declared the Mughal emperor to be the leader of a chaotic and officerless army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world's greatest military power.
Of the 139,000 sepoys of the Bengal army -- the largest modern army in Asia -- all but 7,796 turned against their British masters. In some parts of northern India, such as Avadh, the sepoys were joined by a very large proportion of the population. Atrocities abounded on both sides. The great Mughal capital, caught in the middle of a remarkable cultural flowering, was turned overnight into a battleground.