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Unit 2: India in 1857









'Repulse of a Sortie' (Delhi), 1857

Coloured lithograph from William Simpson, E. Walker et al., The Campaign in India, 1857-58 (1858)

Note how the British troops are portrayed in defensive mode, holding off a larger number of attackers - and literally in occupation of the high ground

The uprising of 1857-8 in India was the most significant colonial rebellion, and arguably one of the pivotal events, of the nineteenth century. But it is also one of the most difficult to understand historically. Its dispersed and fragmentary character, and the competing narratives through which its meaning was constructed, challenge our conventional assumptions as to the coherence and stability of historical ‘events’, and constitute an outstanding case study of the inscription of power in the historical record. These issues begin with the name we choose to apply to the events of 1857-7: a mutiny? a revolution? a war of independence? We shall pursue them through four weeks of study, each of which will consider textual representations of the uprising (as we shall refer to it) in different genres and from widely differing political, cultural, geographical, and temporal perspectives. As we do so, we shall find that ‘writing history’ is an even more contentious and uncertain enterprise than we customarily recognise.

Introductory and secondary reading list

* * * Some of the texts for this unit contain racial language that some may find challenging or offensive;

please contact Stuart Middleton in advance if this concerns you * * *

Week 7: Eyewitness

Lecture slides

Seminar text


  • William Howard Russell, selected despatches for The Times, 1858 (8pp.):

“The War in India”, The Times 29 March 1858, pp.8-9

“The British Army in India”, The Times 31 May 1858, p.6

“The British Army in India”, The Times 19 July 1858, p.9

“The British Army in India”, The Times 20 August 1858, pp.7-8

  • Syed Ahmad Khan, Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (The Causes of the Indian Revolt), pp.1-16 (1859, 16pp.)
  • ‘Narrative of Mainodin’ in C.T. Metcalfe, trans., Two Native Narratives of the Mutiny in Delhi (1898, 47 pp.); also Metcalfe’s Introduction, pp.1-26

Seminar questions:

  • Does the 'Narrative of Mainodin' present an account of the uprising in Delhi 'from purely native sources'?
  • Is the author's support for British rule in India a greater limitation on William Howard Russell's writing than it is on Syed Ahmed Khan's?
  • What narratives of Mughal and British rule in India are presented in William Howard Russell's report from the Red Fort at Delhi (20 August 1858)?
  • 'History, properly speaking, cannot be written by eye-witnesses.' Discuss.


Week 8: Histories

Lecture slides


  • Karl Marx, articles on India for the New York Daily Tribune (1853 & 1857, 42 pp.)
    • 'The British Rule in India' (1853)
    • 'The Future Results of the British Rule in India' (1853)
    • 'The Revolt in the Indian Army' (1857)
    • 'The Revolt in India' (1857)
    • 'Dispatches from India' (1857)
    • 'The Indian Insurrection' (1857)
    • 'Investigation of Tortures in India' (1857)
    • 'The Indian Revolt' (1857)

Collected in K. Marx & F. Engels, The First Indian War of Independence 1857-1859 (London, 1960)

  • J.W. Kaye & G.B. Malleson, Kaye’s and Malleson’s History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8, Vol. I, Preface by Sir John Kaye & Book I ch. IV (1890, 38 pp.)
  • V.D. Savarkar, The Indian War of Independence 1857 (1909, repr. 1970), Part I ch.1 & chs.5-7, Part II chs.1-3 (85 pp.)

Seminar questions:

  • What qualities, if any, do the texts by Marx, Kaye, and Savarkar share that permit us to describe them all as works of ‘history’?

  • How does Kaye explain the uprising, and what silences and exclusions does his account produce?

  • For what can we now use Kaye’s History as a source?
  • How does Marx's account of British rule in India develop over the course of his articles for the New York Daily Tribune? Do Marx’s writings on India have any use for the historian other than as a source about Karl Marx?
  • How does Savarkar’s history of the uprising reproduce the tropes of colonial historiography?
  • Does Savarkar’s political agenda (and later political activities) render his text obsolete for historians of the uprising?


Week 9: Anglo-Indian Femininity


  • Emily Polehampton, 'Diary of Mrs. Polehampton' in A Memoir, Letters and Diary of the Rev. Henry S. Polehampton, M.A., Chaplain of Lucknow, ed. E. and T.S. Polehampton (1858, 22 pp.) 319-41
  • Katherine Bartrum, A Widow's Reminiscences of the Siege of Lucknow (1858), 1-72
  • Julia Inglis, The Siege of Lucknow: A Diary (1892), 157-208

Suggested additional primary texts:

  • Adeline Case, Day by Day at Lucknow (1858)
  • Maria Germon (ed. Michael Edwardes), Journal of the Siege of Lucknow: An Episode of the Indian Mutiny (1958)
  • Katherine Harris, A Lady's Diary of the Siege of Lucknow (1858)

Seminar questions:

  • How do British women's diaries present the structuring alignments of the siege of Lucknow? In particular, how are racial, religious and gender differences constructed in these texts?
  • What is the effect of the numerous quotations from scripture and poetry in Katherine Bartrum's A Widow's Reminiscences?
  • How does Julia Inglis's diary (1892) present the role of women in empire differently from its presentation in the diaries of Polehampton and Bartrum (both 1858)?
  • In what sense are Bartrum and Inglis's texts 'diaries', and does this affect their reliability as historical sources?
  • 'Women's diaries from the siege of Lucknow constitute an archive of mid-Victorian gender ideology, not a record of women's experience of empire.' Discuss.
  • Should women's writing from the siege of Lucknow be subjected to a 'suspicious' or a 'reparative' reading, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick defines those terms?


Week 10: Fictions

Lecture slides


  • *Charles Dickens & Wilkie Collins, 'The Perils of Certain English Prisoners', Household Words, Dec. 1857
  • Flora Annie Steel, On the Face of the Waters, Preface & ch.1 (1896, 15 pp.),
  • Premchand, ‘The Chess Players’ (1924), in Deliverance and Other Stories, trans. David Rubin (1989, 10 pp.), or in The Oxford India Premchand (2004, 10pp.)

Additional text (film) - to watch if you have time:

  • Sohrab Modi (dir.), Jhansi ki Rani (1953)

Seminar questions:

  • Are fictional accounts of the uprising less ‘true’ than those written in other modes?
  • What is the effect of Dickens's and Collins's transposition of the uprising to a different time and place?
  • What aspects of the uprising are ‘silenced’ in ‘The Perils of Certain English Prisoners’?
  • What does ‘The Perils of Certain English Prisoners’ (1857) share with A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and does it change our understanding of that novel?
  • What claims does Flora Annie Steel make for the roles of fiction and history in her Preface – and are they valid?
  • How does Premchand narrate the uprising of 1857 in his short story, and how is it distinct from British narratives of Indian decline?