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Posted on Oct 3, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

The Indian Mutiny – Book Review

By Mike Tomlin

cover.jpgBook Review: The Indian Mutiny by Julian Spilsbury, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, Hardback, £20.00, 448 pages

India of the 1850s was an extraordinary and wonderful country, in the late stages of one of the strangest Imperial conquests ever seen. Although Britain was the conquering power, gradually nibbling away at the independent kingdoms that comprised the sub-continent, the moving force was the Honourable East India Company – John Company – and the vast majority of the forces they employed were Indian, albeit British officered. But India was also a simmering pot with tremendous pressures building beneath the surface, and these pressures eventually exploded into savage and brutal warfare on Sunday 10th May, 1857 in the barracks of Meerut when the Indian troops, sepoys, mutinied and killed British officers, men and their families.

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There have been many books on the Mutiny, known in India as The First War of Independence, and there is much debate about causes and the savagery on both sides, together with a lot of revisionism and theorising. Julian Spilsbury has however written a book which concentrates simply on the military and personal aspects of the conflict and which avoids many of these hotly debated issues. With the very simplest of sketches of India and the background, he focuses almost immediately on the experiences of those involved as recounted from their letters, diaries and books. The book relies heavily on the personal experiences of those involved, rather than the theories of later historians and the like, but has a very strong and well written narrative thread linking these together.

Spilsbury’s writing style is easy and fluid, and whilst it would be going too far to say it reads with the pace of a novel, it moves rapidly along, carrying the reader, and was not a book that was easy to put down. He manages to provide a myriad of extracts and quotations to hang his tale upon without losing the overall picture of what was a very chaotic and overlapping series of campaigns and events. 

Although there are attempts to depict both sides in the conflict, the sources are primarily those of the British, and their supporters, and the book is therefore primarily written from the British side. What comes across is that very Victorian feel of India at that time, and the peculiar qualities and eccenticities of the people, both British and Indian, in that long disappeared world.

The battles and the hardships suffered by the forces involved, plus the almost incredible bravery shown on both sides are well depicted, and the book is very atmospheric. Many of the forces on the British side were loyal, or newly raised Indian regiments, often outnumbering the actual European troops quite heavily, but rarely were the British forces facing odds of less than four to one, and often over ten to one.

What comes across most strongly is the lack of central direction and aggressive leadership on the Indian side, as against the determination to re-conquer and avenge on the part of the British. Time and again the divided sepoys sit on the defensive waiting for the much smaller Anglo/Indian forces to fight their way across hundreds of miles to the relief of beleaguered garrisons or recovery of lost towns. The heroism and sheer exhaustion encountered on the way is superbly depicted by both Spilsbury’s narrative, and the very matter of fact descriptions left by those involved. There are countless images of heavily outnumbered British troops, simply fixing bayonets and running at the enemy and winning the day.

The Mutiny involved much savagery and brutal killing, particularly of innocents, committed by both sides. The book does not shy away from this, but nor does it seek to make it its general theme. The book is primarily a history of the experiences of soldiers and civilians caught up in a most extraordinary and terrifying event – and of some quite eccentric but never to be forgotten characters of the Victorian era.

One criticism I have involves the maps. To me, maps in a military history book are paramount and essential to following a complicated series of events. Apart from a couple of simple hand drawn maps, most of the maps provided are reproductions of highly detailed and probably excellent maps. Unfortunately, the originals were obviously much larger and the reproductions in the book are therefore in most instances very difficult to actually decipher and follow. I’m not sure how this sort of thing gets past the production stage!

The book is an excellent read and one I would heartily recommend, particularly for those with little knowledge of the events or the period. It provides a first class recounting of the military struggle, without drowning in the sort of background information and theorising so popular in more serious tomes, and is a good place to start. Those wishing to learn more of the causes and effects of the Mutiny will undoubtedly go on to read many of the excellent in depth histories available, but will probably never enjoy one more than this.

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