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Our Bones are Scattered.

This is a meticulously researched account of the 1857 Mutiny of the Bengal Army and the appalling massacres and atrocities of the sieges of Cawnpore and Lucknow, to say nothing of the equally appalling retribution exacted by the British Army. The extent of the research is illustrated by the fifteen pages of sources supported by 112 pages of notes. It is a tale of treachery by Nana Sahib and his henchman, Azimullah Khan, of the inept British order to issue cartridges which had to be greased with pork and/or cow fat (both sacred to Hindu, Brahmin and Moslem soldiers) and an illustration of how thin was the 'Red Line' in support of the East India Company.

In the preface to this fair and unbiased account of these tragedies, the author makes three telling points: to write about the British in India is to ask what were they doing there. No nation had the right to conquer another. No one can say how many thousands of Indians - including women and children - died during the suppression of the rebellion. There were certainly many times more than the Europeans who died at Cawnpore: so many that it seems almost incredible that ninety years later the British and Indian peoples should have taken leave of each other so amicably.

The answer to the first point is well illustrated - trade, administrative efficiency, the imposition of some semblance of law and order and the fact that if the British did not dig in, then the French, Portuguese or Dutch would have done so in that era of empire building. Point two is an inescapable truth and the nations who have done so have invariably spawned legitimate resistance movements to overthrow the subjugators. The Mutiny, or India's First War of Independence as Indians call it, is an excellent example. Point three omits a possible rider - 'and leaving the Hindus and Moslems to murder each other with traditional and savage brutality'.

To the text itself. The historical background to the situation in India prior to the Mutiny is dealt with in absorbing detail from the formation of the early East India Company (whose original brief was to open up trade with Sumatra) through Clive and Plassey, to the wily deals with the numerous Maharajahs, the raising of native Indian regiments to support the Company and the gradual introduction of British regiments and their retinue of camp followers.

Thus by the 1850s British social life in the various compounds became an attraction for many young women in search of husbands and young men in search of fame and fortune. Parallel with this, the growth of Eurasians, Anglo-Indians, intermarriages and liaisons created a section of society in between the British and the native Indians. This was to have many consequences at the time of the mutiny when loyalties became divided and strained.

When the mutiny began in 1857, the narrative becomes an almost day-to-day account and frequently hour by hour. The reader is spared no detail of the horrors created by the siege of Cawnpore: the disease; lack of medicines and surgical equipment; and the gradual reduction of the Entrenchment and covered buildings in the appalling heat of the Bengal Summer. Through all this, the defenders clung to the forlorn hope that a relief force would be sent from Calcutta to help them. That force arrived too late to forestall the ultimate savagery of the slaughter of the garrison on the banks of the Ganges after Nana Sahib had granted them 'safe conduct'. That affair was then capped by the cold-blooded murder of all the surviving women and children who had been herded together in the Bibighar. The retribution which the British exacted in putting down the rebellion beggars belief.

Horrible as this sorry story is, it is puny when it is considered alongside the Spanish Civil War, the activities of the Nazis in the Second World War and the wholesale slaughter so recently carried out in the Balkans. Indeed one is left to wonder if human nature has changed much through the centuries.

PETER LEE
COPYRIGHT 1997 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Lee, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
Words:677
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