The rather formidable young woman pictured is Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi. She died in 1858 fighting the British in what was the last major action in the Great Indian Rebellion which had started the year before.
Her story first caught my attention in a book in which she only rated a couple of paragraphs. Not surprisingly since in the scope of the Rebellion in particular, or Indian history in general it is just one episode among many, a footnote. Indeed in some works on Indian history the whole episode is not mentioned.
She was cheated twice by the British. Firstly, in 1854 when they annexed Jhansi on the death of her husband, the Raja. Secondly, when they unjustly accused her of complicity in the mutiny and massacre that occurred in Jhansi 3 years later. As a result of the actions of the British, and others, she was catapulted from being a 'housewife' to the leader of an army and the most important leader of the Indian Rebellion in the space of less than a year. Her death on June 17th 1858, effectively ending the Indian resistance.
Today her name is commonplace throughout India, renowned as a leader of the Rebellion, but she was more than a martial leader. In her brief time she cast aside many conventions to unite peoples of all castes and religions in her cause. She put aside purdah, which she only observed with respect to the British in any case, encouraged other women to do the same and trained them to fight and support the main army; Lakshmibai was not the only Jhansi women to die fighting the British. She cut across the social norms of the time, refusing to accept her fate 'as a woman'. She cared for all her people, and consulted with them at crucial times, and carried them with her.
This is, I suppose, my homage to a remarkable woman and to all the other Lakshmibai's the world over, those women who have had to fight, whether with words or swords, to protect themselves, their families, their homes, and, sadly, still are fighting.
I would be delighted to receive any comments, and especially any corrections, opinions and so forth from anyone 'out there'. Talk to me! Even to agree with me, that I could do better :)
Allen Copsey (email@example.com)
i) The usual image of Lakshmibai to be found looks to be a copy of the one above. It has the unfortunate effect of giving her a cloven hoof for a right hand. The copyist confused her hand and the sword grip. That her sword and hand should be so mistakenly combined is somehow symbolic of her story.
ii) Her name is also written as 2 words, Lakshmi Bai. I have chosen to use what I think is the more modern usage. '-bai' is an honorific implying respect for a woman. It is applied to both women of Lakshmibai's status and also servants to show respect for them also. It is like the suffix '-ji' which also shows respect for the person. Gandhi, for example, is often referred to as Gandhiji.
iii) Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of fortune and wealth. Lakshmibai has been likened to the goddess, Durga, who was created by the three principal gods, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu to force the demons out of heaven. She is portrayed as a beautiful woman, but one that rides a tiger. She is a mother figure, kind and benevolent, and protective, so beware the tiger should you threaten her family.
iv) Rani means queen, as Raja means king. The prefix 'maha-' implies 'great'. There is a hierarchy of monarchs. (The 'maha-' prefix also appears, for example, in the name, Mahatma, given to Gandhi. Maha-atma means great spirit.)
v) The rendition of Indian words into Roman script varies and has changed since 1857. Usually there should be no problem with identification, e.g. Rani was then rendered as Ranee. Also today's letter 'a' was then rendered as 'u' (as in 'under') as in the example of 'sati' and 'suttee'. Lakshmi has been written as Lukshmie. This because the Indian 'a' is more of a 'u' sound. The same process has given English the words 'Punjab' from 'Panjab' and 'pundit' from 'pandit'.
vi) The Victorian British referred to the events of 1857-1858 as The Great Indian Mutiny, but it also became known as the Indian Rebellion, since it not only involved mutinous soldiers, but also civilians. Some Indians, at least, call it the First War of Independence. I've chosen to refer to it as a rebellion. I don't think it quite qualifies as a war of independence.
vii) Copyrights. I think I've given credit where credit is due. I've used images from the books and should I be in breach of copyright I will be happy to acknowledge so - if the original artist or photographer should contact me.
It is apparent to me that Lakshmibai was an innocent victim of the brutal British suppression of the revolt; none of the authors I've read give any credence to the accusations made against her. However she is also the victim of an unholy alliance of the worst of the British Imperialists who wanted her to be a rebel to justify their actions, and Indian Nationalists who wanted her to be a rebel to be an inspiration for their cause. At least the latter had right on their side. It is sad to see modern Indian writers repeating the slanders of the British, albeit with a nationalist tinge. It is over 40 years after the publication of Dr S. N. Sen's book, 1857, which effectively repudiated those claims. I have always found the truth to be far more fascinating and wonderful than legend. Lakshmibai the woman is many more times the hero than Lakshmibai the legend.
A search on the WWW reveals a handful of sites which retold her story but much of it is about Lakshmibai the icon, the legend, not about the woman, and historical accuracy was not always the first imperative. I was fortunate in finding The Warrior Queens by Antonia Fraser which devoted a whole chapter, 25 pages, to the Valiant Rani. Subsequently I came across The Great Mutiny by Cristopher Hibbert which provided another though shorter perspective of her story, and a longer one on the Rebellion itself. John Keay's History of India also provides a short account. Since then my Lakshmibai library has grown.
During my perambulations on the web I found what could be a personal link with the Rebellion. On the Family History in India site is a list of all the British troops who received the Indian Mutiny Campaign medal. One of them is a Thomas Copsey who served with the 54th Foot (West Norfolk). Since Copsey is not a common name and my paternal family come from West Norfolk, Thomas Copsey is quite possibly a relation. Further my maternal family name is Doel, also an uncommon name, and there are two men listed, Aaron and Joseph Doel, who served with the same regiment, 1st Battalion, 13th Foot, and were presumably brothers, and also possible ancestors. Neither the 13th Foot nor the 54th Foot were involved in the Central India Campaign.
I don't have the resources to examine and investigate the original material and all I can do is retell in my own poor fashion what these have told me. I have tried to present as facts only those of which I am reasonably certain are facts. Where I have repeated something which is apocryphal or uncertain I have flagged it so. I have not suppressed any awkward facts. My opinions are scattered throughout is flagged as such and I hope will not be confused with fact. Where possible and sensible I have used direct quotations Mistakes and opinions are my own.
Allen Copsey (firstname.lastname@example.org)
One of the things that investigating Lakshmibai's story has driven home is the sheer difficulty of knowing what to believe. There are some stories which are obvious nonsense, but others are more difficult to gauge. Take the example of her death. There are two principle and incompatible versions of it. They have two elements in common, that her companion, Mandar, was killed at the same time that Lakshmibai was mortally wounded with Lakshmibai surviving for a while afterwards.Otherwise the stories could be about two entirely different people.
The written evidence has to be treated with some degree of scepticism since the author will be presenting certain facts that support their case, and possibly suppressing others. They may be making assumptions of knowledge on the part of the reader to which we are not privy. Intelligence reports are decidedly murky, and have the added twist that if the person spied on knows about the spy, then they may present the spy with false, or misleading, information.
At least with written evidence we can be certain that the words we read today are the same words that were written then. This is not the case with verbal evidence. Mahasweta Devi mentions that from family history that Lakshmibai's stepmother claimed that after the peace treaty between Jhansi and Orchha that the two Rani's embraced like sisters, perhaps, but hostilities continued between the two 'sisters' right up until the British arrived. So what did she really say, and mean?
Then there is a problem with introduced facts. Also in Devi's book she rejects Mrs Mutlow's testimony because Mutlow claims to have hidden in a Hindu memorial in the Jokan Bagh and there are no such structures in the Bagh. However the photograph of the site of the massacre, ie of Jokan Bagh, taken shortly afterwards, shows what, to me, look like Hindu structures of some sort but perhaps I am wrong.
Nonetheless by looking at what the British wrote about her, we can be reasonably certain that if there is a bias it will not be in her favour and that any favourable conclusions we draw from it should be at minimally true. The actual truth could be even better.
|1827-1835||Birth of Manukarnika|
|+14 years||Married to Gangadhar Rao, Raja of Jhansi, becomes Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi|
|1853 Nov 19||Adoption of Damodar Rao|
|1853 Nov 21||Death of Gangadhar Rao|
|1854 Feb 27||Dalhousie refuses the appeals against annexation of Jhansi|
|1854||An appeal to London is turned down|
|1857 May 10||Revolt against the British in India begin in Meerut.|
|1857 Jun 4||Elements of the Jhansi garrison mutiny|
|1857 Jun 8||Remaining Europeans and Eurasians surrender and are massacred.|
|1857 Jun 11||The mutineers and rebels leave Jhansi and go to Delhi|
|1857 Jun 12||Lakshmibai writes to the British|
|1857 Jun 13||Sadishev Rao launches a coup against Lakshmibai. It is quickly suppressed|
|1857 Jun 14||Lakshmibai writes a second letter to the British|
|1857 Jul 2||Major Erskine writes a letter to Lakshmibai asking her to manage Jhansi for the interim|
|1857 Oct 3 - 22||Jhansi besieged by Rani of Orcha forces, and defeated|
|1858 Jan 1||Lakshmibai writes to the British seeking clarification of Jhansi's status|
|1858 Jan 6||Start of British operation to suppress the rebellion in Bundelkand, including Jhansi|
|1858||Lakshmibai recruits army, prepares defence of Jhansi, and contacts the rebels at Kalpi.|
|1858 Mar 25||British start the siege of Jhansi|
|1858 Mar 31||Battle of Betwa River - Tantia Topi's attempt to relieve Jhansi is defeated.|
|1858 Apr 3||Capture of Jhansi, Lakshmibai flees to join the rebels at Kalpi|
|1858 May 22||Battle of Kalpi, the rebels are defeated.|
|1858 Jun 1||The rebels take Gwalior|
|1858 Jun 10||A reward of up to Rs 20,000 is agreed for the capture of Lakshmibai|
|1858 Jun 17||Probable date of the death of Lakshmibai at Kotah-ki-Serai|
Too many things are unknown about Lakshmi Bai and these unknowns start with her birth. It is thought to have occurred between 1827 and 1835. The more romantically inclined would prefer the later date, I am too old for romance and tend to the earlier. Her deeds subsequent to the death of her husband suggest someone in their later 20's rather than barely out of her teens. (On the other hand her reaction to the loss of the appeal against annexation suggests a younger age; such a reaction will be familiar to the parents of teenagers. So a later birth date is not impossible.)
She started life as Manukarnika born in Varanasi (Benares) the daughter of Bhagirathi and Moropant Tambe. As he was chief political advisor to the brother of the last Peshwa of Bithur, she spent her childhood in the palace. Her mother dying when she was small.
There are stories of her childhood, some of which are surely apocryphal, showing her devotion to religion, her preference for wrestling with boys, and an ability to predict the future. Her predilection for the martial activities of the boys is not inconsistent with her later life, and she wouldn't be the first intelligent woman I've come across who preferred male company to the female, or rather 'feminine' company.
Manukarnika was married when she was 14 to Gangadhar Rao, the Raja of Jhansi. He would seem to have been some 25-30 years older than her. She was his second wife, the first having died. His grandfather had signed a treaty with the British which granted him and his heirs and successors title to Jhansi in perpetuity. Jhansi had been pro-British since that time.
With her marriage Manukarnika changed her name to Lakshmi. The change of name being the custom for Indian royalty, not dissimilar to the change of name when British royalty ascend the throne. It is said that she had a son but that it died after 3 months. Whether or not this is true, when Gangadhar died in 1853 they were childless. When he fell ill and his death was anticipated they adopted the 5 year old Damodar Rao, a member of Gangadhar's extended family.
At this time, a will was prepared requesting the British to treat Damodar as the true son of Gangadhar and that Lakshmi should be Regent. The will was read to the British Political Agent in Jhansi, a Major Ellis, and repeated in a letter to the Political Agent for Gwalior and Bundelkhand, a Major Malcolm.
Note that the will precludes that Lakshmibai would become a sati, some would have it that she declined that 'honour'. The practice of sati had been outlawed by the British in 1829. It is unlikely that Gangadhar Rao, even if he approved of the practice (many didn't), would expect his wife to break that law.
Gangadhar Rao died on the 21st November 1853.
sati refers to the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husbands funeral pyre. sati actually means 'virtuous woman', in dying this way she becomes a virtuous woman. It was far from being a universal practice either by caste or by region. Many Indians disapproved of it. I read sonewhere that the first British governor of Calcutta married a woman rescued from her husband's funeral pyre. In the great classic, the Ramayana, Rams's wife walks through a fire to prove her virtue. As is usual, it is the woman who is required to prove her virtue, not for the man to prove his.
In 1853 the governance of India was still in the hands of the East India Company. The Governor General of India being the Marquess of Dalhousie. The many principalities that made up India were each dealt with individually. Jhansi was one of those that were ruled not by the British but by its own monarch, the Raja. The Raja of Jhansi had maintained a pro-British stance throughout his reign. Jhansi had been pro-British ever since his grandfather had signed a treaty with the British in 1817 granting Jhansi to his heirs and successors in perpetuity. Gangadhar Rao made explicit reference to his loyalty and that of his predecessors in his will.
The British had a policy of 'lapse' whereby when an Indian ruler dies without an heir the principality would be annexed. Under Dalhousie adopted children were not considered as heirs.
This latter point had more than a simple legal consequence. Indian custom was that an adopted child was the equal of a child by birth. Further there are certain rites which the eldest son is required to perform on the death of his father to save the fathers soul from hell. This is roughly equivalent to the Roman Catholic ritual of Last Rites. In denying the legitimacy of an adopted son they offended Indian sensibilities.
The Raja of Jhansi's dying request was refused, and the annexation of Jhansi was declared.
The annexation does not appear to have been due to the Rani's sex; it was not unusual for a woman to rule a state in India, or England for that matter. Nor was it because there were doubts as to her ability to govern. The British Political Agent, Major Malcolm, wrote that the Rani was 'highly respected and esteemed, and I believe fully capable of doing justice to such a charge.' He was not alone in that opinion and, as later events were to show, it was wholly justified. It can only have been due to, in essence, greed.
When the Rani appealed against the decision as she did on two occasions in 1853 and 1854, and the other Political Agent involved, Major Ellis, wrote a letter in support of her case, Malcolm, perhaps getting a hint of the political wind did not forward it. The appeals were refused. It was on being read the decision on the 15th March, 1854, that she is famously supposed to have exclaimed 'Mera Jhansi nihin denge' - I will not give up my Jhansi. She then locked herself away in a major sulk for 3 days refusing food and drink. (Such behaviour may seem all too familiar to parents of teenage children.) She then thought better of it and there followed an appeal to the Court of Directors in London, this at the suggestion of her British counsel, John Lang, and it also failed.
The comment of Sir John Kaye, the British military historian who worked for both the East India Company and the India, was that is 'so ungenerous, and being so ungenerous, so unwise'. Others who have examined the case tend to agree the annexation was unjust in that it went against the treaty of 1817 and that Dalhousie's case was incorrect. The East India Company did not have to answer to any proper court of law. The only limit on its powers were political considerations of what was possible. With the policy of lapse and its implementation it unwittingly overstepped the mark as it contributed to the 1857 Rebellion.
The Rani was forced into retirement, she was granted a monthly pension of 5,000 rupees, the palace, state jewels and funds, but in what Sir John Kaye called an act of 'extraordinary meanness' was required to pay the Raja's debts which should properly have been paid out of state funds..
Although much is made of her resentment at being denied Jhansi, and at having to pay her husbands debts, there is no evidence of this resentment. Apart from her lawyer being British, and she was seemingly on good terms with him, she also 'much impressed the Political Agent, Captain Alexander Skene, with the force and charm of her personality and with her evident wish to remain on friendly terms with her British masters' (Hibbert).
It is difficult for me to judge what her life style may have been. As a high caste Hindu woman she would have been expected to observe purdah but with the death of her husband she cast that aside. Both as the Rani and as one of the richest people, if not the richest person, in Jhansi she would have had to conduct business both with the British and with local dignitaries. Also as Rani, she appears to have been accorded the respect of that office, at least by the Indian people, and to be called upon to exercise the duties of that office. Skene's account above suggests that the British also observed the proprieties.
She was said to have been meticulous in her religious observances. She practised rifle and pistol shooting, horse riding and physical exercise every day. Antonia Fraser mentions one Turab Ali who lived to be 113 and who died in 1943. He recalled watching the Rani practise horse riding with the reins held in her teeth with a sword in each hand. An image which is the popular one of her as she rode into battle for the last time.
And so the situation remained until 1857.
i) In the 1850's a rupee was worth about one tenth of a pound, giving her an annual pension of 6,000 of the 1850 pounds. Even today, Rs 60,000 will pay the wages of several servants.
ii) Should anyone think that these events are too distant, I was born only 8 years after Turab Ali died. The eyes of the 27 year old that looked on Lakshmibai as she practiced her riding came very close to looking on the sweet baby that I once was. There are people alive today, in 2001, who spoke with him.
In 1857, 4 years after the death of Gangadhar Rao, mutiny broke out among some sepoys of the Army. The mutiny was limited to the north of India, mainly the Gangetic Plain. It broke out first in Meerut on 10th May.
There were several instances of mutineers turning on their prisoners and the European women and children. There were many atrocities. Some escaped with the aid of local people, often at no little risk to themselves.
The British force in Jhansi were headed by Captains Skene and Gordon, who had replaced the more experienced, and sympathetic, Ellis and Malcolm.
When news of the mutiny in Meerut reached Jhansi, the Rani asked permission to raise a small bodyguard for her own protection, a measure to which Captain Skene readily agreed. Skene and the other British officers failed to take the Rani's lead to protect theselves against a possible mutiny.
On June 4th, some time after the mutiny broke out elsewhere, members of the Jhansi garrison mutinied, took the more important of the two forts in the town, killing two of the British officers and wounding another. They plundered the town, and released the prisoners from the gaol. The remaining British and Eurasians sheltered in the other fort, the Town Fort. There were 61 people, over half of them women and children. One or two others sheltered in the town and were able to escape with the aid of local people. The survivors in the Town Fort appealed to the Rani for help.
It is not obvious what she could do, she had a limited military force, the small bodyguard granted by the British at the outset of the mutiny, at her disposal, and no obvious political influence over the mutineers. They owed no allegiance to the Rani.
Her actual response is unknown, there are several versions. Antonia Fraser's favoured version is 'What can I do? ... If you wish to save yourself, abandon the fort, no-one will injure you'. I assume that at the time the mutineers were not acting against the fort, and that she was stating that the people of Jhansi would not harm them. In this respect she could grant them the implied safe conduct, but whatever she replied they choose to stay put.
On the 7th June, the Town Fort was besieged by the mutineers and the fort surrendered. Safe passage was granted by the mutineers, but just outside Jhansi, in the Jokan Bagh, one of the rebel leaders ordered their deaths.
She gave the mutineers money, by her own admission, but only under the threat of deposing her in favour of a relative of Gangadhar Rao's, Sadasheo Rao Narain, and, possibly, death. A Mr Thornton, the Deputy Collector of Jhansi, reported that she had given the money as payment for the massacre which had been entirely at her instigation. (Some British historians, subsequently pushed this further, or at least misinterpreted it, and made her responsible for the mutiny itself.)
The mutineers then left for Agra and Delhi to join up with the main body of the rebellion on the 11th June.
On the 12th June the mutineers left Jhansi. On the very same day the Rani wrote a letter to the British giving an account of what had happened, the steps she has taken to stabilise the situation and asking for help. To me this letter is quite emotional, showing an agitated state of mind. But notwithstanding that she is already taking control of the situation.
She wrote a second letter on the 14th June with a similar theme. She reported on the status of Jhansi, again asked the British for help and asked them for orders. This letter is calmer and more business like and shows that she had been very busy in establishing a new administration in Jhansi.
The letters were sent to a Major Erskine, who was Commissioner ar Sagar. He forwarded them with a note that the account given 'agreed with what I have heard from other sources'. On the 2nd July he replied asking her to manage Jhansi until a new superintendent could be sent. Erskine's initiative was not well received by Canning and he was sent a letter saying that the Governor General did not blame him for believing the Rani's account but that she would not be protected if her account was found to be false. Major Ellis had reported that she had helped the mutineers with guns, men and money. Despite evidence, other than the Rani's account, that the assistance had been extracted from her under duress, this view of her willing assistance seems to have coloured the official British view of her from thence forward.
The Rani took Erskine's request seriously, forming a government which included her father and stabilising the situation. Tapti Roy mentions that she wrote to Datia urging all chiefs 'to check the disturbances' and told representatives of both Datia and Orchha that 'measures should be taken at Jhansi that no disturbances would occur'.
Almost immediately she had to deal with a rival claimant to the Raja's throne, and estate. Shortly after the mutineers left Jhansi, Sadasheo Rao Narain attempted a coup, but was easily foiled, and taken prisoner. He was found in gaol by the British and hanged by them after they retook Jhansi.
She defended Jhansi against attacks by Orchha. The forces of Orchha laid siege to Jhansi between the 3rd and 22nd of October whilst claiming to be acting for the British. The British ignored her pleas for help in defending Jhansi.
As a consequence of these actions against Jhansi, Lakshmibai was learning the art of generalship and improving the army and defences of Jhansi. It also obliged her to have contact with the rebels who were the only force who could provide her with the military aid she needed. Events were preparing her for the final confrontation with the British, and, it seems, both unwittingly and unwillingly.
Away from the battlefield and court, she restored the library of her late husband and encouraged plays at the court, the theatre having been her late husband's prime interest.
By the end of 1857 the British had dealt with the bigger problems of Delhi and Oudh enabling them to turn their attention on the smaller ones, like Jhansi. The Rani had received no further communications from the British. On the 1 January 1858 she wrote to Sir Robert Hamilton to clarify the position of Jhansi. He made no reply to this communication either.
On the 6th of January, a British force under Sir Hugh Rose, accompanied by Hamilton, marched northwards towards Jhansi, mopping up as they went. Having received no clarification, and knowing of this force advancing towards her, the Rani could only assume, and prepare for, the worst.
The force approaching Jhansi was not doing so with the intention of simply replacing the murdered officials. The inhabitants would have known of how other towns and cities like Delhi and Lucknow had been treated by the British, not to mention the many anonymous villages on their path. They had been executing all the mutineers they had captured, as well as anyone they so much as suspected of being a rebel. Trials, if they were held, were cursory. Many others had simply been murdered out of hand. Plundering had been extensive, even at times taking precedence, for some at least, over military and humane necessity; British wounded being left to die while plunder was taken. Any who objected to this behaviour were ignored. Those objecting included Lord Canning, the Governor General, and Queen Victoria. Dr Thomas Lowe who was the Medical Officer with Rose's force at Jhansi dismissed such considerations as 'mawkish sentimentality'. Lowe's opinion of Lakshmibai was typical of many British, she was 'the Jezebel of India ... the young, energetic, proud, uncompromising Ranee, and upon her head rested the blood of the [British] slain, and a punishment as awful awaited her'. (Even Lowe couldn't help but testify to her character.)
Lakshmibai, whatever her previous position had been, had little choice but to prepare for the worst. She raised a force of 14,000 volunteers from the population and 1,500 sepoys, made contact with the rebels, strengthened the defences and otherwise prepared for the arrival of the British. An intelligence report (quoting from Paul) dated the 7th Feb 1858 from Sir Robert Hamilton says that:-
Although the Rani proposes not to fight the British government yet she makes every hostile arrangement. Six new large guns have been manufactured, carriages for these and old guns are in the course of construction. About 200 maunds of saltpetre being purchased in the Gwalior district had been bought into the fort. Gunpowder is daily made within the fort. Eight gunners from the Moorar rebels were sent from Kalpi and have been taken into service. They superintend the manufacturing of brass balls...
It should be noted that even without the approaching British force, the Rani had every reason to prepare Jhansi's defences not against the British, but against Jhansi's more aggressive neighbours, Orchha in particular.
On Feb 14th a proclamation was issued in the Rani's name calling on Raja's of both Hindu and Moslem faiths to rebel against the British. If this was authorised by the Rani, and it seems doubtful, then this is the first definite statement of rebellion from her. However according to British intelligence reports she had not made up her mind to definitely oppose them as late as the 15th March. Her advisors were split, significantly her own father was for resisting the British force, but she hesitated.
On 21 March 1858 the British forces started the siege of Jhansi. The town was given the opportunity to surrender but Lakshmibai had little choice and with the support of the people, refused. The sepoys she had recruited were mutineers and would have been executed. It is likely that so would Lakshmibai and anyone else considered to be a rebel by the British. Further, the people had gained confidence from the defeat of the siege of the city in October of the year before, and would have looked forward to aid from the rebels.
There is a suggestion of negotiations from two sources. Godse mentions a letter that was sent to the Rani requiring that she and her principal ministers should go to meet 'the Captain' (presumable Rose) unarmed and unaccompanied. Not unreasonably the Rani declined offering instead to send the Prime Minister with an armed escort. From the other side the Aide de Camp to General Rose, a Lieutenant (later General) Lyster mentions negotiations between the Rani and Sir Robert Hamilton for the surrender of Jhansi and that Rose was dissatisfied with progress. If there were such negotiations, and it would be surprising if there were not, the British left no record of them.
The level of support for Lakshmibai is shown by the number of volunteers, 14, 000, from a population of 250,000. When one considers the number of families involved, say dividing by six to give a figure of 42,000, there was a volunteer from at least one in three families. She also organised the women to keep the troops supplied at the front line; there must have been many casualties among them. The British officers observed an enthusiasm and energy in the defending troops that they had never been able to obtain from their own native soldiers. Sadly, enthusiasm is no substitute for training, discipline, weaponry and leadership in the form of qualified officers. Numerically the British were greatly outnumbered, but militarily they had the advantage.
For 10 days the British bombarded Jhansi with artillery and maintained a constant fire from the infantry. The bombardment is said to have been intense, as was the return fire. In actions prior to this one, the rebels had been able to make good their escape and Rose was determined that that should not happen this time and had entirely surrounded the Fort.
On the 30th March a breach was forced in the wall, but before the British could enter the town, a rebel force of 20,000 under the command of Tatya Tope arrived. Rose split his forces and met and defeated the rebel force at the Betwa river. The rebels lost hundreds, the British less than one hundred. It was said by a British officer that the rebels neither asked for quarter nor given quarter. I suspect more the latter than the former. The rebels would know that the British if they took prisoners, it was only to execute them, and I doubt that the British were taking prisoners in any case.
A question arises here as to why Lakshmibai did not order a sally from the fort and so attack the weakened British besiegers. E Jaiwant Paul suggests this failure was due to some treachery, but I'd suggest it was more likely because of simple inexperience; Lakshmibai, after all was not a professional soldier.
With the defeat of rebel relief force Rose was able turn his attention back to Jhansi by the 2nd April. At 3am the next morning, the 3rd April, British troops stormed into Jhansi. The fighting is said to have been intense with the Rani in the thick of it, as she had been during the siege when she, with her ladies, was often visible to the British, directing and encouraging the resistance. At some point she decided to leave Jhansi. Despite Rose's precautions, during the night of the 3rd and 4th April she was able to make her escape with a small party which included her father. Legend has it that she rode with Damodar tied to her back. How she and her party managed to get through the British lines is uncertain. Some have it that it was a deliberate ploy by Rose (she was a bigger danger inside the fort than out), treachery by some of the Indian soldiers employed by the British, negligence by the British soldiers who had left their post to loot, sheer audaciousness on the part of Lakshmibai (she pretended to be leading a party British cavalry and simply rode past them).
Another audacious young woman, Jhalkari Korin, is said to have masqueraded as the Rani and was captured as such by the British. She was unmasked only when she was bought before Rose. Her fate is uncertain. Devi has it that Rose ordered her execution, whilst Lebra-Chapman makes no comment on it.
In Jhansi, the slaughter continued. All the next day the street fighting, looting, destruction and murder continued, the British soldiers "eagerly exceeding their orders'' (Hibbert). A Hindu priest, Vishnu Godse, who was there and wrote of his experiences, 'recalled four days of fire, pillage, murder and looting without distinction' (Fraser). Rose had instructed his troops to 'spare no one over sixteen - except women of course'. Some of those who could not escape threw themselves with their wives and children down the wells of the town. Some to be dragged out again to be bayoneted. In the words of Godse:
[After the massacre and looting had finished] In the squares of the city ... hundreds of corpses [were collected] in large heaps and covered with wood, floorboards and anything that came handy and set on fire. Now every square blazed with burning bodies and the city looked like one vast burning ground ... It became difficult to breathe as the air stank with the odour of burning human flesh and the stench of rotting animals in the streets.
And according to Dr Lowe they were killed 'in their puffed up thousands ... such was the retribution meted out to this Jezebel Ranee and her people'. Unfortunately the crime for which this retribution was so enthusiastically meted out, the massacre of nearly a year previous, had been committed by a handful of men who had left Jhansi almost immediately, men who had nothing to do with Jhansi other than that they had been stationed there by the British. Apart from the 1500 sepoys recruited to help defend the town, none of those 'punished' had actually committed a crime against the British. In return for the murder of 61 by, say, a dozen mutineers, the British murdered, according to their own figures, 4-5,000. Whilst the British claim that they died in battle, it is worth comparing that figure with the number of British casualties for the siege, storming and capture of Jhansi - about 100 killed and 250 wounded.
Whilst Godse's account corroborates the British claim that they killed only the men, the deaths of women occuring more or less accidentally in general, he reports four days of indiscriminate slaughter of the men and systematic looting.
(The original mutineers of Jhansi, the 12th Bengal Native Infantry, were actually in Lohari which part of Rose's force took on the 2nd May. All were killed defending the fort.)
In the meanwhile, the Rani's escape was not without incident.
I have two accounts of British encounters with the Rani during her flight. The more famous is that of Lieutenant Dowker who by his own account pursued her until a shot, possibly fired by the Rani herself, disabled him. Other, Indian, sources have him wounded in a sword fight with the Rani at a village called Bhander. The second account, from Cornet Combe is set in the village of Banda which I assume is Combe's spelling of Bhander:-
'We sent all over the country in pursuit [of the Rani] and one of our troops overtook her at a placed called Banda, 20 miles off. Her escort made a hard fight of it, and though our fellows did their utmost and killed every man she got away, her smart saddle falling into our hands."
She rode the 100 miles to Kalpi in 24 hours and was given a parade of honour on her arrival.
Her father, among others, was not so fortunate, he was wounded leaving Jhansi, managed to reach Datia but there he was handed over to the British and hanged in Jokhan Bagh.
A rebel force under Tatya Tope went to Koonch where Rose, after a delay of 3 weeks to re-supply, went on to meet and defeat them on 6th May. Rose then advanced on Kalpi. The rebels there were at a low ebb, but were heartened by the arrival of the Nawab of Banda, and the nephew of Nana Sahib, Rao Sahib. Encouraged by the reinforcements and Lakshmibai's promise to fight with them to the end, on the 22nd of May they attacked the British. Despite being considerably weakened by the heat and having to fight under the midday sun, the British were able to defeat the rebels who were forced to retreat again. This time they went to Godalpur outside of Gwalior. There, rather than disbanding as the British expected they audaciously decided to take Gwalior. The fort at Gwalior was considered to be the strongest in India and virtually impregnable. The ruler, the Maharaja Sindia had maintained a pro-British stance throughout the Rebellion. If successful the hope of the rebels was that this would encourage others to throw in their lot with them.
The rebels advanced on Gwalior with 11,000 men and were met at Morar by Maharaja Sindia. After the first shots were fired, the bulk of the Maharaja's army defected to the rebels, and the Maharaja left for the safety of Agra. Rao Sahib was crowned at Gwalior and Lakshmibai was famously given a priceless pearl necklace from the Gwalior Treasury.
Rose now took his force towards Gwalior. Lakshmibai was given command of the eastern flank, the most difficult to defend, and met the British at Kotah-ki-Serai on the 17th June. She 'dressed as a man', that is she dressed as someone going into battle, but not totally, she also wore her bangles and the pearl necklace. To me this is a wonderful gesture: to wear a pearl necklace into battle, no wonder her troops loved her. How she dies, and where, and when, is uncertain - there are several accounts. Some have her killed on the parapets of Gwalior in a hail of gunfire at the beginning of the siege, others at Kotah-ki-Serai. Lord Canning gave the following account in his papers, and this seems to be considered the most credible:-
Ranee of Jhansi. Killed by a trooper of the 8th Hussars who was never discovered. Shot in the back, her horse baulked. She then fired at the man, and he passed his sword through her. She used to dress like a man (with a turban) and rode like one ... Not pretty, & pockmarked with smallpox, but beautiful eyes and figure. She used to wear gold anklets, and Sindia's pearl necklace, plundered from Gwalior (Sindia says its value is untold). These when dying she distributed among the soldiery when taken to die under the mango clump... The infantry attacked the cavalry for allowing her to be killed. The cavalry said she rode too far in front. Her tent was very coquettish.... Two maids of honour rode with her. One was killed, and in her agony stripped off her clothes. Said to have been most beautiful. ... The army mourned [the Rani] for two days.
Another similar version by J. Henry Sylvester, who was at Gwalior, says 'the gallant Queen of Jhansi fell from a carbine wound, and was carried to the rear, where she expired, and was burnt according to the custom of the Hindoos'.
Mahasweti Devi reports the brief remembrances of Damodar who was only a child at the time. One in particular tells of how one 'evening in Gwalior came back to his mind over and over again when a loving glance from a pair of enormous eyes seemed to reach out towards him and then move far off - it was as if his mother was going far away, where one could no longer touch her.'
Understandably the Rani's funeral was carried out very quickly after her death since none could guarantee that she would be dealt with proper respect if they delayed. In Sir Hugh Rose's report he mentions her funeral and that she was buried 'with great ceremony under a tamarind tree under the Rock of Gwalior where I saw her bones and ashes'.
Lakshmibai had two 'maids of honour' who accompanied her from Jhansi; we know little more than their names, Mandar and Kashi Kumbin. Mandar is said to have been a childhood friend of Lakshmibai and was killed in the same incident in which Lakshmibai was fatally wounded, whilst Kashi had stayed behind to look after Damodar. It was Kashi, according to Devi, who prepared the Rani for her funeral pyre and who with another close attendant of the Rani's looked after Damodar for two years before surrendering him to the British with the promise of safety. She then disappears from history. One has to be impressed by their loyalty and courage. But then there were many such people even more anonymous, their acts unknown to history. We can only acknowledge the deeds of a few, and they must also stand for all these others.
Two days later the rebels left Gwalior making no attempt to hold what was a virtually impregnable position. The death of Lakshmibai seems to have utterly demoralised them. The 'impregnable' fort of Gwalior was easily retaken by the British. To all intents and purposes the rebellion was over.
Moropant Tambe, Lakshmibai's father, was captured and hanged a few days after the fall of Jhansi.
Damodar Rao, the adopted son, was granted a pension by the British and lived a somewhat more peaceful life. He never did receive his inheritance.
Dalhousie left India in 1856 and was replaced by Lord Canning. History has judged that the roots of the Mutiny lay in Dalhousie's policies and the manner of their execution. He wrote to a confidante that he 'detested the country and many of the people in it'. He said his feelings must have shown on his face. He did not survive long after leaving India. He died in 1860.
Canning, amongst other measures designed to heal the rift between rulers and ruled, recognised the right of the adopted son to inherit the throne. He died in 1862, like Dalhousie it was shortly after leaving India.
The British Government took over the administration of India away from the East India Company.
The British withdrew from the sub-continent in 1947, creating India and a divided Pakistan, later to become Pakistan and Bangla Desh. The loss of India heralded the start of the dismantling of the Empire.
Sir Hugh Rose was made Lord Strathnairn and Jhansi by a grateful Queen.
In one of those ironies of history, one of General Sir Hugh Rose's grandsons, also became a general. General Sir Michael Rose was sent to Bosnia in charge of the UN force there with responsibility for preventing the sort of carnage that happened in Jhansi under his grandfather.
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, became a legend, a figure of inspiration to those trying to free India of the British, whilst her enemies are largely forgotten. Statues of her are to be found all over India, inevitably on her horse wielding a sword; buildings, streets, housing colonies are named after her, even a cricket tournament; a womens regiment of the India National Army who fought against the British in WWII was also named after her; school children are taught her story. In a sense she acheived what she desired; her name and that of Jhansi are inextricably linked, Jhansi will be 'hers', forever - Mera Jhansi nihin denge!
This is what the British had to say of her.
The portrait of the Rani on the home page is apparently from a contemporary portrait in the possession of the Tambe family in Nagpur. Another contemporary portrait is to be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The oft-quoted description of John Lang's is derived from a brief glimpse he had when Damodar momentarily put aside the curtain separating him from her. She maintained purdah when dealing with the British though not otherwise." [The Rani was] a woman of about middle size .. [her face] must have been very handsome when she was younger and even now it had many charms .. The expression also was .. very intelligent. The eyes her particularly fine and the nose very delicately shaped. She was not very fair, though she was far from black .. her dress was plain white muslin, so fine in texture and drawn about her in such a way that the outline of her figure was plainly discernible - and a remarkably fine figure she had. What spoilt her was her voice. "
I was raised with the ideas of British tolerance, justice, sense of fair play, and so on. Qualities which I now know to be universal, not the monopoly of the British. Other qualities, which we British are not supposed to possess, I also now know to be universal. The suppression of the Indian Rebellion shows just those qualities. The atrocities commited on the British by some of the rebels were easily matched in brutality by the British, and far exceeded by them in numbers of victims. As a child I learnt of the Black Hole of Calcutta; that other, greater, Blackness, that of the British, was passed over. There were many British who objected at the time to what was happening, just as there were mutineers and rebels who were appalled at what was being committed in their name, but it was a time of irrational and grievous brutality and those who dared to speak out were shouted down..
This is a small selection of quotes by the British of acts by the British. The purpose is to give some background to the story of Lakshmibai, to show the attitudes of many of the British and the sort of news that would have received in Jhansi, rather than to castigate the British. The effect of the stories of British actions, which would hardly need amplifying, reaching Jhansi, combined with the news of Rose's force heading their way requires little by way of imagination.
By and large these quotes are taken from Hibbert's The Great Mutiny.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?"
The provenance of this as evidence is poor. The letter itself has not been traced, and who was Martin? (Taylor mentions that Major Ellis had an assistant called Captain Martin in 1853 but that does not mean much.) All it proves is that an Englishman had a bad conscience over the affair. Nonetheless, to me, it seems closer to what actually happened than any other account.
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 annesation 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.)
This is not an FAQ, no one has ever asked me any questions about Lakshmibai, and nor am I any sort authority to answer them in any case. These are questions I have asked myself, and my own answers. This is me talking to myself.Was the annexation of Jhansi justified?
There are the first two letters that Lakshmibai wrote to Dalhousie, which I believe to be complete, and an extract from the third. According to Fisher, Dalhousie was irritated by her persistence. It was after the second letter that he decided to settle the Raja's personal property on the son, Damodar, rather than his widow. She continued writing to Dalhousie through to 1856.
The first letter is primarily concerned with the adoption and demonstrating that it had been performed correctly and could not be questioned. The second is primarily concerned with the history of Jhansi and its close and loyal ties with the British. Unfortunately for Lakshmibai, the question of the succession depended on the approval of the adoption by Dalhousie. Since Dalhousie wanted to annexe Jhansi all he had to do was withhold that approval. Here is an extract from the report upon which Dalhousie presumably based the justification for his decision, and a draft justification signed by Dalhousie on February 27 1854.
The extract from the third letter is interesting in that although I believe it is intended to state both that the annexation will not be resisted and that the British are nothing other than bullies, it also shows that Lakshmibai had considered resistance no matter how fleetingly, and was aware of the British strength and Indian weakness. One wonders how this letter, and the irritation at her persistence in stating her case, affected the perception of her in 1857. As a dig at the British it is nicely done, as a political statement it was ill-advised.
The dubious nature of the British case is best demonstrated by Dalhousie himself in this extract from a minute dated 25 March 1854. In it he draws the distinction between inheritance of personal property and inheritance of the state. For the one Damodar Rao was considered the legitimate heir, but not for the other.
If we examine the draft justification mentioned above, there seems to be little of substance in it. It simply ignores Lakshmibai's arguments based on the Treaties with the British.
Point 3 is irrelevant, the question is one of legality, not whether it looks suspicious to some bureaucrat. Gangadhar Rao knew he was dying, and so arranged the adoption. There was no secret about the circumstances.
Point 4 is not relevant since it was the widow (apparently) who adopted a son, and not Ramchandra Rao.
Point 5 is irrelevant, and not true. The British had an interest in Jhansi because of its strategic position within Bundelkhand, as is stated in point 6.
Point 7 is not true. Other states had not benefitted from British rule. Some people would benefit of course, but on average they would not. It is a simple matter of economics. The taxes would have to pay for the British administration and garrison in Jhansi and for funds to go to Calcutta and to England. Where a local ruler would spend most of the tax money locally, the British would send more money elsewhere.
With respect to the well-being of a town after the British took over, Mehr Afshan Farooqi, in his introduction to The Eleven Illustrations, speaks of the descent of Bareily from prosperity and of the observations of two Britons - 'Nevertheless, both Heber and Tennant recognise and admit that the ruin or emigration of the local chiefs (who were also the patrons of the local industries) following the establishment of British rule, was responsible for the decline of many of the local crafts.'
The relevant documents are:-
This table is an attempt to capture all of the statements made by the witnesses involving the Rani in the Mutiny and Massacre. Where a statement contradicts an accusation I have put it in italics. This happens more than once.
|June 5th||-||-||-||The Rani places guards at her Palace and shuts herself up inside||-||-|
|-||Skene and Gordon go to the Rani and ask for help and receive 50-60 guns and ammunition. She also provides 50 of her own sepoys||-||(Actual date not available) The Rani sends her lawyer and offers to protect the women and children at her palace. She sends 40 guards to protect the English||Gordon sends a message to the Ranee asking for help, which is refused as the mutineers threatened her with death.||-||-|
|-||The Rani recalls her men and they and she join with the mutineers||-||-||The Rani's guards join the mutineers.||-||-|
|June 6th||-||-||-||3 British officers attempt to gain admittance to the Rani to ask for help, but she refuses and has them taken to the mutineers. They are murdered.||-||-|
|June 8th||-||A heavy cannon had been put in order by order of the Rani and was firing on the fort.||The 40 guards join the rebellion. Skene assumes that the Rani also sided with the rebels.||The Rani is threatened with instant assassination, so she provides the mutineers with 1000 (?) men and two heavy cannon.||The Rani's troops joined in the attack.||The Rani is 'at last forced' to help with Guns and Elephants|
|-||The Fort surrenders. Skene requires that the Rani sign the surrender agreement, which she does.||The British were reassured by Mahomed Sanar, a doctor, that they would be safe.||-||-||-||-|
|-||-||The Rani accompanies the mutineers to the pultun.||During the Jhansi Massacre the Rani was in the Palace the whole time||-||-||-|
|-||(Actual date not available) The Rani offers a reward for the capture of Mrs Mutlow.||-||-||-||-||-|
It would be suspicious if all the witnesses corroborated every point of each others story, but the greater the involvement of the Rani, the less the corroboration, if not outright contradiction.
A lot of what is said of the Rani is, at best, hearsay. One of the witnesses, the 'Customs Clerk' was in prison when the events he 'witnessed' happened. He also reports what was said by the Rani in response to the request for help from the 3 British officers, something to which he could not possibly have been privy at even the second or third hand. When you remove the hearsay and dubious parts of the statements you are left with nothing of substance.
As for the unfortunate, and much-abandoned, Mrs Mutlow; she has been reduced to begging and to being a 'kept-woman', the last few lines of her statement perhaps reveal all and in particular the sentence ' Now its master's will to do some good for me and two children'. She has tried to please 'master', ie the British officers, and now she needs some help in return. The poor woman is desperate. Sen states that her friend, Daulat Ram, is a British spy, which makes anything she learnt from him suspect, apart from being hearsay in any case. Certainly his story of the letters being confiscated seems odd. If the letters of a wanted woman were confiscated, why wasn't he also confiscated?
According to Sen, Captain Pinkney who, along with Scot, investigated the events in Jhansi found no corroboration for Mrs Mutlow's statement of the Rani's part in the surrender of the fort, but put in his report that the British negotiated the surrender through 'Saleh Mahommed, Native Doctor'. Pinkney also stated in his report that the massacre was ordered by the 'Risaldan' without the complicity of the Rani.
Mr Thorntons statement may have had a part in British thinking even though it seems illogical and, yet again, can only be reporting hearsay. To be fair to Thornton he prefaces his remarks with 'It is the general impression that...' and then gives a fairly detailed account of events he could not have witnessed. It requires us to believe that Lakshmibai invited back into Jhansi the very people that had just plundered the town, to commit yet more violence and to place herself at risk of from that violence.
The elements that we can take from the statements listed above as approaching the truth are:-
Initially the Rani attempted to provide help, and this was refused.
The Rani's men joined the mutineers.
The Rani was threatened with death and the destruction of her Palace by the mutineers
In the end the Rani did provide assistance to the mutineers, but only under duress.
In other words these witnesses tend to corroborate the Rani's account and that of T.A. Martin. The Rani's account is further corroborated by the statement of one of the mutineers. According to Sir Robert Hamilton, this statement was itself consistent with others and he considered it to be, 'as far as it goes', creditable.
There were many witnesses and other statements were taken, but those of Mrs Mutlow, the Customs Clerk and the two orderlies are the only ones quoted, from which I assume they are the only ones that offer evidence against the Rani.
Perhaps the Rani tried to instigate and encourage the mutiny. Possibly. One of her servants was reported to be doing just that, though the report adds that it was not known if he were doing so with the Rani's authority. Her father is likewise accused, and the 'Customs Clerk' accuses him of sentencing him to death for helping the British, but the Clerk's statement has to be treated with some scepticism.
Moreover the threats issued against the Rani by the mutineers hardly suggests a friendly relationship. It is hardly likely that she would foment mutiny and then attempt to help the British when it started.
It is quite likely that the Rani wanted Jhansi back, and I've no doubt that a poll of Indians would have revealed a large majority in favour of getting rid of the British. However that does not imply active involvement. The Rani was well aware of the military strength of the British and the weakness of the Indian forces.
Perhaps she was riding out the Mutiny, hoping that as a by-product she would be able to regain Jhansi. There is nothing to suggest that, her letters to the British imply just the opposite, she was looking for them to return, to restore order, even as late as January 1858
There is no event that requires the involvement of the Rani as part of its explanation. There is no reason to suppose that anything that happened in Jhansi at this time would not have happened if Lakshmibai had never been born. What happened subsequently is another matter.
The impression I have is that the Rani did try to help the British, that as a result she was threatened by the mutineers, which was enough to scare her into withdrawing from the scene. She was in a very weak and frightening position; all the forces of law and order were in open revolt, prisoners had been released from gaol, plundering and looting had occurred. Her own troops joined the rebels, but since the rebels included not just the mutineers but all the other forces in Jhansi (the police, the prison guards (whose leader took a leading role), the customs and salt excise officers) this can hardly be a surprise. After the massacre the rebels then turned on the Rani with demands for assistance which she was obliged to yield. That the rebels are supposed to have chanted 'Jhansi for the Rani' does not imply her involvement but was quite possibly for the benefit of the towns people.
If the Rani's reactions seem to be less than heroic then that should be no surprise; she was in a situation which was confused and volatile, in which she was extremely vulnerable and for which she could have had no preparation; it was all totally outside her experience.
A few images I have culled from books (and not well scanned either) and a couple of my own snaps. The links page has links to sites with other images.
Amazon list some out of print books and have a service to obtain them, possibly other online bookshops run a similar service. I have obtained a number of books through Bibliofind but since their takeover by Amazon a search for 'jhansi' brings no results. abebooks.com look to be more useful.
Remarkably easy, since most of the books that are concerned with Lakshmibai are no longer in print.
Of the fictional biographies, Lebra-Chapman's Durga's Sword is the best and is still available. Also Lebra Chapman's The Rani of Jhansi, A study in Female Heroism in India is the best of the non-fiction but is also out of print. Which leaves the non-fiction field to: Mahasweti Devi's The Queen of Jhansi. Although first published in 1956, is available now in English translation. It tends to be adulatory, does not attribute sources, is rather disjointed but is full of wonderful detail from oral sources as well as the written.
Interestingly of the 875 English language books listed by Taylor only 6, less than 1%, deal directly with the Rani, whereas of the 26 Indian language books, 5, nearly 20% deal with her.
I do not have access to the original source material, but where I have found a document quoted I have transcribed it as faithfully as possible and have avoided changes to format, spelling, etc.. I have used the most complete document available. In general these documents are actually extracts from the original. Where I, or someone else, has added an explanatory comment it is in square brackets (). Missing text is indicated by ellipsis (...) unless it is at the beginning or end of the document in which case it may be assumed.
I have collected together documents relating to the Annexation of Jhansi and The Mutiny and Massacre of Jhansi and offered my own comments on them.
In general the documents listed below are in chronological order with the exception of the statements of witnesses to the mutiny and massacre. These statements were made sometime after the events but I have chosen to list them according to the date of the events rather than the date of the document, in order to provide a more coherent narrative, but be aware that this testimony was not necessarily available to the British at that time.
|1853 Dec 3||Jhansi Rani||Dalhousie||The first of her letters contesting the annexation|
|1854 Feb 16||Jhansi Rani||Dalhousie||The second of her letters contesting the annexation.|
|Prior to 1854 Feb 26||Council of Dalhousie||Dalhousie||Extract of report on the succession of Jhansi|
|1854 Feb 27||Dalhousie et al||Draft justification for annexing Jhansi.|
|1854 Mar 25||Dalhousie||Extract of a minute regarding the inheritance rights of Damodar Rao.|
|1854 Apr 22||Jhansi Rani||Dalhousie||Her third letter requesting a delay in the annexation, but declaring that Jhansi would not resist the annexation with force.|
|Unknown||Mrs Mutlow||Her statement with respect to the mutiny and massacre|
|1858 Mar 23||Sahibuddin. one of Skene's orderlys||His statement with respect to the mutiny and massacre.|
|Unknown||Unnamed customs clerk||His statement with respect to the mutiny and massacre|
|Unknown||Captain P.G. Scot||His report gleaned from three independent witnesses on the mutiny and massacre.|
|Unknown||Aman Khan, Jhansi mutineer||An extract from his statement regarding the involvement of the Rani.|
|1857 Jun 12||Jhansi Rani||Major Erskine||Written immediately after the mutineers left Jhansi. It describes the events of the mutiny, massacre and the initials steps she has taken to restore order.|
|1857 Jun 14||Jhansi Rani||Major Erskine||A follow up letter with an accompanying report (not available here) on the status of Jhansi and a more detailed report of the mutiny and massacre.|
|1857 Jun 14||Jhansi Rani||Major Erskine||The Narrative of Events that accompanied her letter of June 14th 1857.|
|1857 Jun 29||Major Ellis||Secretary to Lord Canning||Telegram giving an account of the mutiny and massacre from some Indians who had been inside the fort.|
|1857 Jul 2||Major Erskine||Jhansi Rani||Requesting her to assume control of Jhansi until a new Superintendent can be sent.|
|1857 Jul 2||Major Erskine||The Proclamation sent to the Rani with his letter of 2nd July 1857|
|1857 Jul 2||Major Erskine||Secretary to Lord Canning||Giving the Rani's accounts of events, detailing his own actions, and other events.|
|1857 Jul 23||Secretary to Lord Canning||Major Erskine||Giving conditional approval to Erskine's actions and expressing doubt on the Rani's veracity.|
|1857 Aug 18||Mr Thornton/Major Erskine||Unknown||Extract from a statement implicating the Ranee in the massacre.|
|1857 Nov 19||Gulam Muhammad, one of Skene's orderlys||His deposition before a magistrate with respect to the mutiny and massacre.|
|1858 Jan 1||Jhansi Rani||Sir Robert Hamilton, Agent Governor General for Central India||Detailing the troubles with Orchha and Datia and pleading for help.|
|1858 Jan 8||Unknown||Extract of British intelligence report of comments by the Rani that she would not fight the British.|
|1858 Jan 16||Gopal Rao, record keeper of Jhansi||Major Erskine||Reporting political and military preparations in Jhansi|
|1858 Feb 14||Jhansi Rani (assumed)||Proclamation of rebellion|
|Unknown||Vishnu Godse||Extract from his account of the massacre in Jhansi|
|1858 Jun 11||Secretary to Lord Canning||Mr R Hamilton||Advising Hamilton that a reward may be given for the capture of the Rani|
|1889 Aug 20||T. A. Martin||Damodar Rao||Letter of unknown provenance exonerating the Rani of complicity in the massacre of the British.|