[This introductory essay is adapted from chapter four of my book, Plots of Opportunity: Representing Conspiracy in Victorian England (Ohio State UP, 2004). I gratefully acknowledge the press for granting me permission to reproduce a substantially revised version of my previous argument.]

Few events so captured the imagination and prompted the condemnation of Victorian England as the Indian Mutiny of 1857-59. After the debacle of the Crimean War (1853- 56), as well as Britain's subsequent conflict in Persia (1856-57) and impending expedition to China (1857-58), the English public was sorely unprepared for the rebellion of a significant portion of northern British India. Reports of insubordination and mutiny in segments of the Bengal Army had appeared in The Times since the beginning of May 1857, but the paper did not devote an editorial to the subject until 8 June, when it minimized the danger by declaring, "It would be perhaps too much to say that we feel apprehension at the continued prevalence of a mutinous spirit in the Bengal Army. . . So far there is no great grievance to be remedied, and no immediate danger to be apprehended." Over the following two and a half weeks the paper confirmed this view of the revolt through its dismissive commentary on Lord Ellenborough's unsuccessful attempt to raise the issue in the House of Lords and by means of a dispatch from its Calcutta correspondant, whose sanguine view of Indian affairs appeared on 15 June. Not until 27 June, when details of the rebels' occupation of Delhi and their massacre of its European inhabitants finally reached London, did The Times admit, "This mutiny has assumed a very serious character." The rebellion quickly became the single most-talked-about topic in England, motivating even those who ordinarily took little interest in colonial affairs to form an opinion of the problems facing Britain's largest and wealthiest colony. Many of these opinions were informed by and most comprehensively expressed in the numerous review essays that appeared almost continuously while the Mutiny remained unresolved. Periodicals like Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, the Edinburgh Review, the Quarterly Review, the Westminster Review, and others synthesized dispatches, analyzed Parliamentary debates, speculated on the progress of the revolt and sought to craft public opinion concerning the future of British India.

The rebellion that English MPs, journalists and periodical writers would come to call the Indian Mutiny began on 10 May 1857, when the 11th and 20th Native Infantry and the 3rd Light Cavalry regiments of the Bengal Army at Meerut shot their British officers, broke open the gaol, set fire to several buildings, and marched off towards Delhi, thirty-eight miles to the southeast. Upon arriving there the next day, they proclaimed the aging King of Delhi their leader, killed every European they could find and declared that they were reestablishing the Mogul Empire in India. John William Kaye, author of perhaps the foremost nineteenth- century account of the Mutiny, wrote that this strategic declaration and the capture of Delhi "imparted a political, a national significance to a movement, which otherwise might have been regarded as little more than a local outbreak" (II: 120). The Mutiny spread quickly through the rest of the Bengal Army until, by the end of June, much of northern India centered on the Province of Oude was no longer under British control. By the end of June British troops and civilians had been driven from or imperiled in Delhi (11 May), Aligurh (20 May), Etawah (21 May), Nusseerabad (28 May), Lucknow (30 May), Bareilly (31 May), Bhurtpore (31 May), Shahjehanpore (31 May), Budaon (1 June), Seetapore (3 June), Mohumdee (4 June), Neemuch (4 June), Allahabad (6 June), Jhansi (7 June), Fyzabad (8 June), Jaunpore (8 June), Sultanpore (8 June), Futtehpore (9 June), Naogong (10 June), Gwalior (14 June), Mozuffernugger (14 June), Furruckabad (18 June), and Cawnpore (27 June). Strategically, the three most significant gains for the rebels were Delhi, where anti-British if not nascent nationalist sentiments combined with one of the largest ammunition depots in India; Lucknow, where a small number of British soldiers and civilians were surrounded by what would eventually grow to 50,000 or more rebel troops and irregulars; and Cawnpore, where the Nana Sahib's massacre of British women and children — the infamous Well of Cawnpore incidentĄwould provide an emotional rallying point for British forces throughout India. The Well of Cawnpore incident (15 July) was only the most famous of the many atrocities committed by both sides during the Mutiny and was probably carried out in response to British brutality during the retaking of Allahabad (15-18 June). The British counter-offensive concentrated on these and other captured cities and forts and by the end of August had succeeded in reconquering a significant portion of northern India. By the end of August, British troops had defeated rebel forces at Etawah (24 May), Budlee-ka-Serai (8 June), Allahabad (18 June), Trimmoo Ghout (12 July), Futtehpore (13 July), Aong (15 July), Cawnpore (17 July), Arrah (3 August), Judgespore (11 August), Aligurh (24 August), and Nujuhfgurh (25 August). Many of the smaller towns originally occupied by the rebels had also been abandoned by this point. Delhi was retaken for good on 20 September and the siege at Lucknow broken only five days later. It would take the rest of the year to drive the remaining rebels from northern India, with the deciding pitched battles occurring at Lucknow (16 November) and Cawnpore (5 December). Guerrilla warfare in central India continued into early 1859, but none of it posed a dramatic threat to British sovereignty or British civilian lives.

The most immediate cause for this two-year conflict was the introduction of the new Enfield rifle, which required greased cartridges to fire properly. Unfortunately, the lubricant originally applied was a mixture of cow fat, ritually unacceptable to the Hindu majority of the Indian Army, and pig fat, proscribed as unclean for the sizable Muslim minority. This thoughtless choice of lubrication led to fears of a British assault on the two principle religions of the Indian troops and of a surreptitious attempt to forcibly convert everyone to Christianity. That these fears could lead to armed insurrection and the murder of women and children was interpreted by many in England as a sign of "Asiatic" irrationality and inherent brutality. As the Mutiny progressed, and especially once the Well of Cawnpore incident became well known, this opinion of Asiatic inferiority gained widespread support among rational Englishmen, many of whom recalled "the affair of the greased cartridges" as the first point of evidence against "Asiatics" in general.

However, as Benjamin Disraeli famously stated before the House of Commons on 27 July 1857 in what was the most significant, and lengthy, speech on the Mutiny, "The decline and fall of empires are not affairs of greased cartridges. Such results are occasioned by adequate causes, and by an accumulation of adequate causes" (Hansard's 147:475). In fact, there were numerous "adequate causes" already extant before the Enfield rifle ever arrived on the scene. The Bengal Army was overwhelmingly composed of high-caste Brahmins, many of whom felt contempt not just for the Sikhs and Muslims enlisted with them, but also for their British officers. Both groups were viewed as inferior according to India's complex caste system, and the British officers had the added disadvantages of haughty aloofness from their men and relative ignorance of the native languages. In addition, British territorial and cultural acquisition of India was proceeding at a rapid pace, thanks in large part to Lord Dalhousie's assertion of the Right of Lapse, which refused to recognize the Indian practice of adoption by declaring the British East India Company sole heir to all native princes without a blooded descendant. The East India Company had also recently annexed the province of Oude, the principle homeland for the Sepoy troops, while British laws had voided the traditional practice of sati (1829) and made it possible to convert from Hinduism to Christianity without losing inheritance rights to ancestral property (1850). Missionary activity was also spreading throughout British India, much of it apparently receiving official support from proselytizing army officers and the new Governor General, Lord Canning's, connection with conversion societies. Finally, the rapid spread of English education, railroads and telegraphs threatened to enforce cultural homogenization, as did the fact that all legal proceedings were conducted in English.

For many in Britain, however, these were not "adequate causes" for revolt as much as they were signs of the East India Company's imperial benevolence. In "The English in India," in the Westminster Review, "An Anglo-Indian Lament for John Company," in Fraser's Magazine, and "The Sepoy Rebellion," in The London Quarterly Review, one can find numerous claims of British munificence toward the people of India. Surprised by the widespread disaffection and always two or more months behind the latest events, periodical writers struggled to understand and contain a revolt that threatened to stretch beyond their control. Most strove to walk the fine line between acknowledging the presence of rebellious sentiment without allowing that sentiment to transform in the public's mind into outright revolution; in other words, to excite public condemnation without simultaneously igniting public fear.

To achieve this delicate balance, British periodical authors produced three distinct genres of article that dealt with Indian affairs. Many chose to offer critical summaries of the latest dispatches, Parliamentary reports, and expert opinions; frequently, these summaries accompany more or less lengthy dissertations on Indian history, politics, religions, and customs. Usually written by veterans of Anglo-Indian service, such richly contexualized articles were sorely needed by the British public, which, at the start of the Mutiny, knew very little about Britain's largest, wealthiest and most populous colony. Articles like "Crisis of the Sepoy Rebellion," in The London Quarterly Review, and "Indian Mutinies," in the Quarterly Review, combine education about the past with news and opinions about the present in order to shape public opinion about the probable future of British India. This focus on the future becomes increasingly apparent in articles from 1858, when writers felt assured of British victory.

A second, less numerous group of writers adopted the related, but somewhat more oblique, strategy of offering nonfiction accounts of Indian topics apparently unconnected with recent events. Rather than using cultural education as a supplement to direct arguments for or against specific Anglo-Indian policies, these essayists provided lessons in Indian history, art or architecture designed to subtly mold readers' underlying attitudes towards the subcontinent. "The Grand Mosque and Imperial Palace of Delhi," in Bentley's Miscellany, for example, offers a picturesque travelogue of the rebel capital that obliquely comments on the rebellion through architectural criticism. By appealing to readers' more aesthetic sensibilities, this genre of articles works to provide a network of preconceptions that would help to determine public reaction to the Mutiny.

Firmly committed to the aesthetic register, a third class of authors elected to take a more "literary" approach to Britain's Indian rebellion. Their articles assume the form of fictional letters to an English addressee currently residing in India or fictional accounts of English adventures in India often inspired by actual letters. Among these articles are the series of letters from John Company to John Bull, in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, beginning with "A Familiar Epistle from Mr. John Company to Mr. John Bull," and the three-part "Seven Years in an Indian Officer's Life," in Bentley's Miscellany. This fictional genre of articles grew increasingly prevalent as the Mutiny wound down in 1858-59 and periodical writers shifted from communicating the extent of the factual rebellion to controlling its figurative implications.

An important impetus to this fictionalization of the Mutiny from 1858 onwards is "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners," a thinly disguised allegory of events in India co-written by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins for the Christmas 1857 issue of Household Words. Dickens wrote the first and last chapter of "Perils," a tale set in the British West Indies and narrated by an English soldier, Gill Davis, sent to protect the island of Silver Store from attacks by pirates. The English on the island employ a "native Sambo," Christian George King, who, unbeknownst to them, is actually working for the pirates. Although he is unaware of this relationship when he first arrives, Gill Davis still feels a strong aversion toward King, constantly having to suppress the urge to beat him. His opinion of "Natives" in general is not much better: "I have stated myself to be a man of no learning, and, if I entertain prejudices, I hope allowance may be made. I will now confess to one. It may be a right one or it may be a wrong one; but I never did like Natives, except in the form of oysters" (217). As it turns out, confining one's trust to native oysters might not be a bad idea, since "Christian George King was a double-dyed traitor, and a most infernal villain" (233), who not only betrays the English colony but participates in the massacre of women and children during the pirate assault that ends chapter one. In the second, considerably more ambivalent chapter, written by Collins, the English escape the pirate stronghold and raft down the river to freedom. Dickens concludes the story by having these escapees rescued by English marines originally decoyed away from Silver Store through the actions of Christian George King. They return to the island, now vacant of pirates, and kill their mutinous former servant, whose dead body is "left hanging to the tree, all alone, with the red sun making a kind of a dead sunset on his black face" (264).

Spread throughout these three genres of Mutiny writing are a number of recurrent rhetorical strategies designed to represent Anglo-Indian administrators and soldiers, and the British Empire more generally, in the most favorable light possible. Many of these strategies sought to elevate the British by degrading the Indians. Articles like "The Company's Raj" and "Our Indian Empire," both in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, represent Indians as rapacious savages menacing the virtue of Britain. This imperial version of the motif of "the damsel in distress" capitalized on reports of real and imagined attacks on Anglo-Indian women to incite feelings of chivalrous outrage at home that would excuse almost any level of military retaliation on the subcontinent. Other articles, and some subsequent histories, sought to downplay Indian commitment to the rebellion by portraying the rebels as conspirators. In his speech of 27 July 1857 Disraeli, himself, had laid the groundwork for this approach, which effectively preserves "Asiatic" inferiority for the majority of the rebels by eliminating their potential for independent action even as it casts the few in charge as morally inferior to the British due to their propensity for secrecy. As Alexander Duff, prominent Protestant missionary and author of The Indian Rebellion: Its Causes and Results. In a Series of Letters, wrote in a letter dated 3 June 1857 (although not published until 1858), "the belief is, that some deep designing men, taking advantage of the superstition of the sepoys, invented these falsehoods [about the greased cartridges] to lead them to rise and overthrow the Government" (18). Duff's conspiratorial accusations are echoed by ""Our Indian Empire" and "The Day of Humiliation," both in Bentley's Miscellany, and "The Bengal Mutiny," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, among numerous others. Another class of periodical authors devoted themselves to extolling the British. Adopting the motif of the hero that had been so assiduously championed earlier in the century by Thomas Carlyle, articles like "Indian Heroes," in the Westminster Review, offer glowing portraits of the heroic greatness of the British race. This greatness was said to have been proven even by many British military setbacks, from the doomed defense of Cawnpore to the desperate efforts of besieged British forces at Lucknow, thereby transforming ignominious futility into rhetorical victory. The Mutiny even generated fictional serials meant to represent British heroism; among them were "The Poorbeah Mutiny" and "The First Bengal European Fusiliers," both of which ran intermittently in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine from January through July, 1858. As the title of this second serial reveals, these stirring tales of British heroes relied for their effect, at least in part, on the increasing prominence of race rhetoric in discussions of the Mutiny. This race rhetoric is especially noticeable in "Oude and the Defence of Lucknow," in Bentley's Miscellany, which subtly echoes the title of "The First Bengal European Fusiliers" in conflating "British" with "European" when describing the targets of the Indian Mutineers' violence.

The periodical response to the Indian Mutiny contributed to a number of short-term and long-term effects for British India. Prior to the Mutiny, there was some hope that through the benevolent guardianship of the British, India might one day emerge from perceived social backwardness and Indians, themselves, might participate in their own government. Articles like "The Government of India and the Mutinies," in the British Quarterly Review, and "The English in India," in the Westminster Review, reveal that such democratic sentiments were all but abandoned once British victory was assured both on the ground in India and in the collective consciousness at home. In 1858, before the Mutiny was even completely suppressed, governance of India was formally transferred to the British Crown, which would administer it through a Secretary of State and an advisory council of fifteen men, all appointed positions. This shift in governing policy, together with the obvious success first enjoyed by the rebels and the retaliatory excesses of British troops in ending the rebellion, fostered a growing spirit of Indian nationalism that would eventually result in the partition and independence of British India following World War II. Ironically, the rhetorical success of contemporary responses to the Mutiny would hamper Britain's later ability to productively respond to calls for Indian independence. During and immediately after the Mutiny, the British public had been so thoroughly convinced that Indians were savage, unreasonable and prone to underhanded conspiracies that they were ill-equipped for dialogue with Indian nationalists even a century later.

Finally, the imperial drama and imperialist ideology generated by the Indian Mutiny has continued to inspire lurid imaginative representations of the subcontinent. The popular Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Paramount, 1984), for example, offers a cinematic textualization of the Mutiny with roots in the earliest British responses. The film's most explicit reference to the Mutiny comes in its infamous dinner scene, in which Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) are subjected to a meal of "snake surprise," rhinoceros beetle abdomens, eyeball soup and monkey brains. During this less-than-appetizing repast, Jones discusses Indian history with Captain Blumburtt (Philip Stone), the British commander of an Indian rifle company, and Chattar Lal (Rushan Seth), the Oxford-educated Indian Prime Minister for a child maharajah. The three begin by talking about the Indian Mutiny and then move on to the topic of Thuggee, an Indian secret society that committed ritual murder in honor of the goddess Kali, leaving viewers with the implication that the two subjects are somehow connected. Using "this archive, viewers can trace this implied connection back to the initial accusations by Disraeli, Duff and others that a conspiracy was at work.


Duff, Rev. Alexander. The Indian Mutiny; Its Causes and Results. In a Series of Letters. 2nd ed. London: James Nisbet and Co., 1858.

Hansard's Parliamentary Debates. Third series 147 (20 July 1857-28 August 1857). London: Thomas Curson Hansard et. al., 1857. 440-545. (Benjamin Disraeli's speech on the Indian Mutiny)

Kaye, Sir John William. A History of the Sepoy War in India, 1857-1858. 2nd ed. 3 vols. London: W. H. Allen, 1865-76.

Last modified 29 October 2007