Queen Victoria's Empire : The Changing Empire : Hardiman
Q: The Britains in India before Victoria's time -- what were they like?
A: Initially, of course, they were just employees of the East India Company, so they were merely traders living quite a peripheral, sort of isolated existence. But from the mid-18th century onwards, we find people coming up who are both administrators and soldiers, people...who adopt a much more sort of real political attitude towards the Indian people, often very ruthlessly. They are involved in a conquest of large areas, and also they are sometimes prepared to take bribes, act quite corruptly on the side...as a means to...gain power and to enrich themselves. And they often got quite a bad reputation. That was in the years of actual conquest of India. But once quite large areas had been conquered, which is by about the 1780s, the British were faced with the problem of having to rule India. And they had to now get to understand the Indian people, so they really start to try to develop a knowledge about India, and this involved contacting learned Indians, meeting Indian scholars, religious figures, learning Indian languages and in the process, they gained a lot of sympathy for Indian culture. These people were known as Orientalists, and the best known of all was Sir William Jones, who became an expert in Sanskrit language. And he, through his studies, found that there was a link between Sanskrit and European languages, which suggested a certain equality of European and Indian people. So there was respect for India and they often lived in a way [that] was in accord with Indian ways of life. They would -- in the evenings, they would dress in Indian dress, they would mix with Indian people quite freely. They even had Indian mistresses because there were very few white women at the time in India. And so they had a lot of social contacts, so there was a lot of tolerance, of respect, a desire to work with Indians during those early years. And this really, I would say, went on up until about 1815. I think the crucial event really was the defeat of the French in the French Revolution and Napoleon, at that time. Up until then, the French had been considered to be the power [that] was in the lead in Europe. It represented modernity for the people of Europe. The principles of liberty, fraternity, equality and so on, they were the ones [that] were in the running then. With the defeat of the French Revolution, the British really began to feel that they perhaps were the superior power, with the superior civilization. And this is a time also with the development of industry, new economic forms of organization in Britain, and also the growth of a new evangelical spirit, a belief that Protestant Christianity was the superior form of religion. So all of these things come together around this period, around sort of 1815 onwards, to develop a very new attitude within Britain. A feeling that they are the face of the future, really, and a desire to impose this on others. They feel they have a duty to do this, to civilize people, and this is known as the Civilizing Mission. And from this date onwards, really, there is a great change in the attitude of the British to the Indian people.
Q: Talk a bit about the British women who came to India. What difference did they make to the way of life there?
A: Initially, there were very few British women in India. This was partly because it was very difficult to go there. Also, it was believed that the Indian climate was unsuitable for women. There was a very high mortality of Europeans in India, and women at that time were considered to be a weaker sex and...more likely to succumb to disease, so that they were deliberately discouraged from coming to India. Now this began to change with a number of developments...and the beginning of a new understanding of disease. Particularly, the germ theory of disease meant that people had put much more emphasis on sanitation, so that you had to remain clean, and that was the way to prevent yourself becoming ill in India. And this really saw a great increase in life expectancy of the British in India, so it felt safer for British women to come to India. There were other developments of this sort. I mean, for instance, the development of hill stations from the 1840s onwards. These were salubrious places set up in the hills where people could go in the very hot weather, and the hot weather was the time [that] a lot of Europeans found the most difficult to be in India. Being able to go to the hills, they were able to escape that...and live in a very isolated way in the hills, within their own sort of society, but had a much higher survival rate as a result. And then they would go back to the plains during the more temperate parts of the year. In the plains, with the coming of the women, there was an increasing tendency to establish separate enclaves for Europeans, known as cantonments, which were usually on the outskirts of cities. And in these places, the Europeans were able to live in their own houses, they had their own social facilities -- their own clubs, which were for whites only and males only, in fact. They would socialize together -- endless rounds of dinner parties in which the same people would be meeting each other constantly. Quite a sort of incestuous life in a way. Very inward looking. They wouldn't even go into the town to do their shopping. They had their own cantonment shops so that they never had to go to the native bazaar. So they were completely enclosed, and in this sort of situation, the European women had really very little contact with the outside world. Their main contact with the Indians was with servants, and these were people who they'd commanded as inferiors. And the way they talked to Indians was with a language of command. They learned some basic Hindi words, which were often the most insulting forms of address to people, but they did this because this was the way you addressed your servants. They never really learned to relate to Indians as equals, as people they could socialize with on a basis of equality.
Q: Talk about the various causes of the Indian Mutiny. Why do you think it happened where it did at that particular time?
A: There were a number of reasons for why the Revolt occurred when it did, in the place it did. The immediate reason was the belief amongst many of the Indian soldiers in India that they were being polluted deliberately by the British with [ammunition] cartridges [that] had either beef or pork fat. [This] actually set off the revolt in Meerut in 1857. However, once it actually started, a whole range of grievances came to the fore [that] were connected with the things that the British had been doing in the preceding 30 years, essentially. One of them was the way in which the British had tried to raise more and more money by taking land tax from the people at ever increasing rates at a time when there was an economic depression in India. So people couldn't afford to pay, and often, local officials used torture and other very violent means to extract the land tax from the people of India. This really starts from about the 1820s onwards. Because of this, many were impoverished, and they fell very deeply in debt, and had to resort to money lenders. Now there was another change at the time [that[ was very important, which was that money lenders could now take security for debts in the form of land title deeds. Now these land title deeds were something [that] had been actually established by the British. Previous to that, the money lenders hadn't been able to use anything like this for security, for debts. They'd had...to get their debt repayments by other means. Now they had these land title deeds, and if somebody defaulted, they could be taken to court. [T]he British set up civil courts where these sort of cases were tried, and these invariably accepted the written evidence of the money lender, which were the money lenders' account books, against the words of the illiterate peasant. The peasants had no hope of winning these cases, and invariably, the court ordered that the land be confiscated and handed over to the money lender or sold up. Now this was something unprecedented in India. Nobody had been able to do this in the past -- take away a peasant's land...their asset that they earned their living from. It was seen as something very immoral. So this was another important grievance in 1857, and in fact, there were a lot of attacks on money lenders, in which the peasants went to them and destroyed their account books, grabbed back land title deeds, and so on. Another important reason was that many people had been dispossessed by the British in previous years...There were a number of other reasons. I mean, often there were just local rivalries, jealousies really, which came to the fore with a collapse of the government authority. People could take it out on rivals and then join the rebels...in the process. There were a whole range of these sort of grievances [that] came together at that particular juncture, and produced a very explosive mix.
Q: How do you explain the atrocities that were committed during the Mutiny against British women and children?
A: I think the attacks on women can be explained in terms of a belief that the honor of a particular group was reposed in the women. And often, when a group was conquered in war, the women were considered to be extremely vulnerable...to being attacked, raped, taken away into slavery and so on. This was part of...of humiliating an enemy. And so women [often]...bore the brunt of these sort of atrocities in warfare, and this seems to have been an element in 1857, when the rebels were able to capture the British people. They carried out rapes, massacres and so on, which were obviously quite reprehensible.
David Hardiman teaches modern Indian history at the University of Warwick. His writings include studies of Gandhi and the Indian nationalist movement, the social history of the Indian peasantry and tribal peoples, and environmental history. He is a founder-member of the Subaltern Studies group of Indian historians, the aim of which is to write the history of subordinate groups in South Asian society.