Tuesday, 8 December 2009
The Jhansi Fort
Events in India during 1857-58 have proved so contentious that even naming them has caused difficulty. Was there a mutiny, an uprising, a rebellion, an insurrection, a war? Indian, or merely sepoy? Wikipedia refers to the 'Indian Rebellion of 1857', whereas Gautam Chakravarty's study of its effects on the British imagination prefers 'Indian Mutiny'.
Writing three or four decades after the violence, Rudyard Kipling referred frequently to the rising as an unforgettable trauma in Anglo-Indian relations. One of his greatest stories, 'The Undertakers', has the Mugger crocodile feeling nostalgic for the rich harvest of that year: 'I got my girth in that season---my girth and my depth'. The Mugger remembers how he 'lay still in the slack-water and let twenty [bodies] go by to pick one; and, above all, the English were not cumbered with jewellery and nose-rings and anklets as my women are nowadays.' When the supply of English corpses stops, the river is empty for a while: 'Then came one or two dead, in red coats, not English, but of one kind all---Hindus and Purbeeahs---then five and six abreast, and at last, from Arrah to the North beyond Agra, it was as though whole villages had walked into the water.'
Here is Christina Rossetti's Indian Mutiny poem, first published in her Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862):
In the Round Tower at Jhansi, June 8, 1857
A hundred, a thousand to one: even so;
Not a hope in the world remained:
The swarming howling wretches below
Gained and gained and gained.
Skene looked at his pale young wife.
‘Is the time come?’—‘The time is come.’
Young, strong, and so full of life,
The agony struck them dumb.
Close his arm about her now,
Close her cheek to his,
Close the pistol to her brow—
God forgive them this!
‘Will it hurt much?’ ‘No, mine own:
I wish I could bear the pang for both.’—
‘I wish I could bear the pang alone:
Courage, dear, I am not loth.’
Kiss and kiss: ‘It is not pain
Thus to kiss and die.
One kiss more.’—‘And yet one again.’—
Rossetti appended a footnote in 1875: 'I retain this little poem, not as historically accurate, but as written and published before I heard the supposed facts of its first verse contradicted.' She had discovered (or thought she had discovered) that, far from committing suicide, the Skene family had been captured and killed. There is still no consensus as to their fate. Here is one rather melodramatic Victorian view of the Skenes' demise: