Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi

The Accusations

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There is no formal charge sheet against Lakshmibai, but she has been accused of instigating the massacre and of aiding the rebels with money, horses and elephants. Later, so-called historians would have her responsible for the mutiny as well.. Her character was also impugned with accusations of licentious behaviour.

Dealing with her licentious behaviour first, Sir John Kaye, historian for both the East India Company and the India Office dismissed the stories as myths. Everything known about her behaviour points the other way. Personally I would have no problem if she had been 'licentious', but I believe that for some, such considerations are important.

Evidence of Complicity

The accusations seem to be based, at best, on hearsay:-

  • There is the charge that she aided the mutineers with money, horses and elephants made by a Mr Thornton, who had been Deputy Collector in Jhansi. He subsequently added that she had instigated the massacre. There is no proof that she instigated the massacre, and she herself told the British of being forced to give money to the mutineers, but this under threat of death. That he should recall the far more serious act after the minor one does nothing to enhance his credibility.

  • Then there is a statement from a Mrs Mutlow who claimed to have seen a note to the massacre victims guaranteeing their safety. Sen points out that her testimony is flawed in more than one respect. Firstly, she said that the Rani had written in the first person which the Rani like all Indian nobility would not have done (see here for an example). Secondly that it was signed by her, again something that the Rani would not have done, she would have used a seal. I would also ask how she came to see the note? Besides such a note would not of its own imply the Rani's complicity in the subsequent massacre. It is possible that when the Rani was initially asked for help; she advised them to leave the fort and that no one would harm them, but that was before the mutineers laid siege to the fort so she would have meant that the townspeople would not harm them. Such a statement could easily have been shifted in time and embellished to produce Mrs Mutlow's account. That is if the Rani made such a statement in the first place.

[Mrs Mutlow, a Eurasian, survived with the aid of her ayah (nanny), and because of her Indian appearance. She lost both her husband and brother in the massacre. They had gone to the Town Fort with the other civilians. Her state of mind must be judged with those facts in mind.]

Could it be that Mrs Mutlow, and possible Mr Thornton and others, viewed the Rani as being a more powerful and influential figure than she actually was? In which case her failure to save those massacred must have implied guilt at the very least by inaction on her part?

Major Erskine

Finally, and more importantly because it gives a glimpse inside the British upper echelons is the statement of Major Erskine. Erskine was the man to whom the Rani had addressed her report of the mutiny and massacre in Jhansi. It was he who had asked her to take control until the British could return. He had believed her account stating that it '[agreed] with what I have heard from other sources'.

He was criticised for his belief in the Rani's credibility and seems to have come under some pressure to change his mind. Quoting Erskine from the 21st August 1857:-

It is the general impression that the mutineers after killing some of their own officers and plundering the town were going off and it was only at the instigation of the Jhansi Ranee, with the object of obtaining possession of the Jhansi state, that they attacked the fort the next day together with other armed men furnished by her ... The mutineers are said to have received Rs. 35,000 in cash, 2 elephants and 5 horses from the Ranee" (my emphasis)

The key phrase here is 'It is the general impression...'. Surely this can only imply that there was no actual evidence that such a thing happened? Where is the logic in the Rani's supposed action as outlined in this statement?

There was no longer a British force in Jhansi; de facto she was the only source of political power in the place. Would she invite back into Jhansi, a mutinous force that had, in Erskine's words, been "plundering the town"? Would she tell them she had all that cash lying around? Or would she have been relieved to see them go? She had a bodyguard, but only a small one as permitted by the British, and so she would only be placing herself and the town at peril.

The Rani herself told the British of the money she had paid the mutineers. If it had been a payment for them doing such dirty work for her, surely she would have kept it secret?

Further Major Ellis stated in a telegram of the 26th June of the mutineers 'having at last forced the Ranee to assist them with Guns and Elephants'. (my emphasis)

Then there is the evidence of one of the captured, and condemned mutineers. He said that the Rani had been 'obliged to yield'. A statement that Sir Robert Hamilton, Political Agent of Central India, believed.

All in all it makes no sense. Erskine must have been toeing the official line. The Rani was to be the official scapegoat for the mutiny and massacre at Jhansi.

Resentment at Annexation?

The motive for Lakshmibai's involvement in the massacre was said to be her resentment at the annexation of Jhansi, but if we look at the Rani's personal situation:-

  • With the annexation of Jhansi, Lakshmibai lost the right to raise taxes, set laws and maintain an army. However socially she was still the Rani, the most important person in Jhansi. She still held court. She may have ceased to be Queen of Jhansi but she was still the Rani of Jhansi, as it were. Since the setting and collecting of taxes is not the most loved aspect of government, it is possible that the British action simply relieved her of her most unpopular responsibilities, but otherwise left her status in the eyes of the people of Jhansi intact.

  • She was receiving a good pension from the British. Her situation was secure and comfortable, as was that of her adopted son, Damodar.

  • She had had 3 years to get over the disappointment of losing Jhansi.

  • She seems to have been on good terms with the British Political Agent, Captain Skene, and showed interest in maintaining good relations with the British.

  • She made a good and favourable impression on Skene and it would seem that Skene was not alone in this; any who had contact with her were favourably impressed by her. The image we get from people who knew her is at great odds from the image of the resentful, scheming, murderous rebel she was supposed to have been.

  • On the private level, Lakshmibai was a Hindu, and a brahmin at that. Whilst I am unqualified in Hinduism, my understanding is that it does not include an 'eye for an eye' type doctrine, but, if anything, teaches an acceptance of one's fate. It also teaches duty, duty to family, duty between husband and wife, between ruler and ruled. Her 'duty' to her late husband, her son, and people would preclude personal vengeance. At her court she would listen to religious readings. Whilst we don't know her true feelings, her culture would militate against harbouring a grudge or seeking revenge.

The case for a festering resentment seems weak and unsubstantiated.

The actions of a Rebel?

Her actions after the mutiny and massacre, are not those of a rebel. If she had been involved in the mutiny with the aim of regaining Jhansi, then she would know that to succeed the British would have to be expelled from India, otherwise they would return. Nonetheless she did nothing to further the rebel cause, at least not until the British laid siege to Jhansi. On the contrary she appealed to the British for help on more than one occassion, even in her letter of the 14th June; asking them for orders. When Jhansi had been invaded, she contented herself with defending Jhansi and did not take any aggressive retaliatory action. Her actions are consistent with someone who had not been involved in the mutiny or massacre; with someone who was not a rebel.

In the wider sphere, Jhansi was a small state and as such vulnerable to attack from other states. The British, whatever their faults, at least guaranteed the integrity of Jhansi, presumably a factor in the original treaty between them and the grandfather of Gangadar Rao. With the British gone, Jhansi was at risk, a fact demonstrated by the two neighbouring states invading Jhansi in 1857. In this context she needed the British.

There is another factor, law and order. Even today India is relatively lawless, very lawless in some parts. The land to the north of Jhansi was prime bandit country, and there are still bandits operating there, most famously the late Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen. Up until the 1830's travellers in India had the additional threat of the Thugs who would enveigle their way into travelling parties, and then, once trust was gained, murder and rob them. Some local leaders would protect Thug bands in retrn for a part of the takings. Only the British were in a position to take them on, and the task was given to Colonel Sleeman to lead the effort, an effort in which he was successful. The Rani almost certainly knew of Sleeman, and quite possibly met him, as in the 1840s he had his headquarters in Jhansi and was also political agent for Bundelkand, and so she would have known of his, and the British, achievements.

Martin's Letter

In a book published in 1894 (Maharani Lakshmi Bai Saheb Hyanche Charlta, Parasnis) a letter sent by a T A Martin in 1889 to Damodar Rao stated:-

"Your poor mother was very unjustly and cruelly dealt with - and no one knows her true case as well as I do. The poor thing took no part whatsoever in the massacre of the European residents of Jhansi in June 1857. On the contrary she supplied them with food for 2 days after they had gone into the Fort, got one hundred matchlock men from Kurrura, and sent them to assist us. But after being kept a day in the fort they were sent away in the evening. She then advised Major Skene and Captain Gordon to fly at once to Duttia ad place themselves under the Raja's protection - but even this would not do - and finally, they were all massacred by our own troops--the police, jail and customs, etc. How could the poor Rani have succoured them?"

In 1897 a Mr Martin, presumably the same man was in correspondence with a John Venables Sturt about the Rani. Extracts from these letters also talk of the Rani's innocence of rebellion, and also of her death. He claims to have known the Rani and was in contact with Damodar Rao and had a copy of Damodar Rao's autobiography and biography of the Rani.

But who was Martin? There was a Captain Martin in Jhansi in Nov. 1853 who was one of the British officers called in to witness the adoption of Damodar Rao. Is this the same man? In his letters to Sturt he says he knew the Rani personally which implies he was in Jhansi before 1857. C. A. Kincaid in an article for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, April 1943, says that "Martin escaped the massacre and with another Englishman and lady was hidden by the Queen in her palace". However given the implications of this for the Rani's innocence it is remarkable that no other author has mentioned it and, most crucially, nor does it appear in the available extracts of Martin's letters.

Conspiracy Theories

One can construct any number of theories about what might have been going on behind the scenes, but there is no proof for any of it. For example, perhaps the massacre was engineered by an overly ambitious British officer. He would survive, become a hero and achieve promotion, except the mutineers went too far. Perhaps, we should look at Lieutenant Taylor, the sole officer to survive the original mutiny but who died in the massacre, or Captain Gordon who killed himself rather then be captured. Or perhaps someone in the hierarchy had made an amorous advance to the Rani and been rebuffed and that man bore her a grudge. And so on, all are equally worthless without proof.

In fact, if I favour any conspiracy it is that someone in the hierarchy bore Lakshmibai a grudge. At the time of the annexation of Jhansi Dalhousie would have been advised by one of his underlings. If that man had, say, sort to curry favour with Dalhousie, or had simply been incompetent, he might have slanted his advice towards annexation. The case for annexation has been so easily demolished that one has to question the advice given to Dalhousie. Once Dalhousie had published his decision he would have found it politically difficult to back down. Now Lakshmibai fought hard against annexation taking it all the way to the Company's board of directors in London, Dalhousie's bosses. The poor quality of the decision would have been revealed. Whilst publicly backing Dalhousie, they would have been privately displeased; Dalhousie would have transmitted that displeasure to his underling. Now if that underling was still in place in 1857 he could have taken the opportunity to poison the air for Lakshmibai, gaining his revenge on the Rebellious Rani; the native woman who had the temerity to question his advice and expose his incompetence. Maybe it wasn't Lakshmibai who harboured a grudge over the annexation - maybe.

It doesn't matter how I look at the massacre of the British I can see no reason for the Rani to have been involved. The action itself fitted with the actions of mutineers elsewhere - they needed no other instigation or payment. Similarly the massacre by the British at Jhansi fitted in with their other actions. There is no need to include the Rani in either action, each would have happened whether she existed or not.

To repeat what I have said elsewhere, in looking at the Rani's guilt we are missing the real conspiracy, the real guilty party. The British were engaged in suppressing the rebellion; seeking retribution from the population as a whole, not just the rebels. General Rose wrote in his report to Canning on the battle for Jhansi '[that] the inhabitants, from the Ranee downwards, were more or less, concerned in the murder and plunder of the British'. If Rose believed that then the British soldiery certainly did. As we have seen there was no evidence for such a belief. At a more political level, and more importantly, the British were also intent on ensuring, by intimidation and terror, that it wouldn't happen again. In pursuing those aims many innocent lives were taken, in that respect the Rani was just one more victim.

There was one conspiracy theory that I do like to entertain. There is some confusion over her death, which is odd considering her importance and the number of witnesses. What if she didn't die? All she would have to do would be to put on a sari, and she could have walked away from the battlefield. Perhaps sometime around 1900-1910 an old woman lay dying thinking, with some amusement and pride, at the legend she had become... Perhaps. So long as she remained anonymous, the British would have no interest in her. In fact others have had similar ideas, one having her living into the 1920's, but I think we have to file such things alongside sightings of Elvis.

Nonetheless, I have read of one English woman who was feted by the English as a heroine for killing her sleeping abductor, his family and then herself. Except that she didn't; she married him instead, lived anonymously, only revealing her secret to a British clergyman 50 years later on her deathbed. All things are possible.


i) For Sleemans own account see Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official at Project Gutenberg. There is also on the web accounts of Sleeman's campaign which include this statement:- "In June 1831, the Raja of Jhansi, who occupied a well-fortified castle on a hilltop defended by two cannons and at least a thousand men, refused to surrender to Sleeman Thugs. In response, Sleeman called on the resources of the Army, and the castle was attacked with artillery and infantry. In the smoke and confusion, the Thugs managed to slip away, but this erstwhile Thug sanctuary was leveled." which is historically untrue, Jhansi fort is still standing. However in Mike Dash's book 'Thug', he quotes a Jhansi official in 1832:- "The Khyrooa Thakoor will not give up the Thugs at the order of the Jhansee chief because he desires a service from them, and pays no attention to the Jhansee Chief's orders. This residence is on a hill, and is a strong castle, and he confides in its strengh, and has put two pieces of cannon on it; and has a thousand followers at his command..." In other words the fort in question was the fort of a local chief in Jhansi state. Again one would expect the Rani to be aware of this fort and its fate.

ii) For an account of Phoolan Devi's life see Another St. Valentine's Day Massacre and Phoolan Devi, Bandit Queen. In her story are many of the ills that afflict modern India.

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Last modified: 2005-09-23 23:23:01.000000000