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Christopher Herbert. War of No Pity: The Indian Mutiny and Victorian Trauma. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2008. ISBN 9780691133324. Price: US$35

  • Priti Joshi

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  • Priti Joshi
    University of Puget Sound

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In War of No Pity, Christopher Herbert undertakes an act of “historical retrieval” (3) of texts about the Indian “Mutiny.” In so doing, he does us a great service, paying serious attention to a trove of texts that have long remained un- or under-attended. The fairly lengthy scholarly silence on the events of 1857,[1] especially since the centenary of the event, appeared recently to be satisfied by Gautam Chakravarty’s The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination (2004), a book Herbert, rightly, excoriates. His own monograph on the subject is a penetrating book of cultural and intellectual analysis, elegantly written, that rewards patient scrutiny.

Herbert’s primary argument is that the events of 1857-9 had a profound effect on Britons, triggering an initial visceral reaction, but in time a more measured–if also phantasmagoric and riven–response that registers the full trauma that the uprising unleashed. Central to this national trauma was the recognition of the potential for violence and vengeance within themselves. In Herbert’s words: “The Mutiny ... inflicted its wound on the British psyche not merely by confronting it with spectacles of terrifying physical violence but also ... by inflicting upon it the shock of ... a catastrophic wound to the moral order itself.... [T]he discovery of the strain of genocidal cruelty inhabiting humanitarian Christian virtue and linking the British inseparably to ‘those red-handed Sepoys’ formed an essential component of this horror” (55). Locating British responses to the Uprising within domestic discourses and disputes about Puritanism, Evangelicalism and less stern forms of Christianity; vengeance and justice; humanitarian philanthropy and retribution; penal and religious reform, Herbert aims to “understand the Indian upheaval from the Victorian perspective” (25). He does this by approaching British writings through a psychoanalytically inflected approach.

Herbert’s method of reading the texts of 1857–histories, newspaper reports, first-hand accounts, novels, and more–is closely allied to one of the central sub-themes of his argument: that Victorians’ responses to the Uprising were not monolithic or unified, but “divided” and “riven with stresses” (31), contradictory even. To make his point, he highlights “dissenting” (an oft repeated word) attitudes towards a number of key events or topoi–rebel atrocities towards the British, British reprisals, encomiums on British valor and gallantry, Anglo-Indians’ treatment of Indians, and more. Central to his argument about the psychological trauma of 1857 is the demonstration that such dissent existed not only between writers but within any given text. In every chapter and on every page, Herbert teases out–“parses out” is the term he uses (186)–the dissent latent in a text, its “self-division” (92) and ambivalence. “Ambivalence,” he suggests, is “the master trope of Victorian Mutiny literature” (229).

Herbert’s psychoanalytic approach and method of reading produce considerable insights, but also occasions that give a reader pause. The overall argument—that what the British learned about themselves and the fault lines of their culture proved as devastating as mutineers’ actions—is beautifully developed, with a host of subtly read examples. The specific claim, on the other hand, that the images of the “fiendishly vengeful sepoys ... may reveal themselves at last to be the projections, scapegoats, surrogates of some dread ultimately not external but internal, as racialized bogeys commonly are” (34) is less persuasive because, as is not uncommon in psychoanalysis, a diagnosis either finds a willing audience or not. In this case the diagnosis of projection seems to run counter to Herbert’s finely contextualized readings of the 1857 archive. The method of drawing out “self-divisions” within a text too has its strengths and limitations. It produces critical insights such as the reading of Lady Audley’s Secret as a text of “numbed sensationlessness” and “immobilizing panic” (272) which registers the deep trauma of 1857. But in some cases the conclusions Herbert draws from the incoherence he finds within a text feel forced. In the excellent chapter on four Victorian historians–Charles Ball, R. Montgomery Martin, George Trevelyan, and John William Kaye–Herbert patiently unpacks the divergences between Kaye’s announced theme and the body of his text, but the section on Trevelyan is less persuasive because the moments of “dissent” feel too slight and do little to challenge the predominant thrust of his book. Or take Vivian Dering Majendie whose withering attacks on Anglo-Indian racism Herbert finds difficult to reconcile with Majendie’s own dismissive comment about Miss Wheeler’s Eurasian identity (264). Faced with this “dissonance,” Herbert argues that the association of femininity and violence was so destabilizing for Majendie that it produced his “heartless” rhetoric (265). This feels like hard work; after all, the phenomenon of readily recognizing somebody else’s racism but denying or misrecognizing one’s own is hardly novel nor evidence of conscience. Particularly in the case of pre-1857 India, a context in which almost every travel writer, diarist, and first-time visitor noted with shock Anglo-Indians’ treatment of Indians (thereby signaling their own non-colonial status), the mention of racism is less a sign of ambivalence than a generic convention.

That Herbert is less concerned with the “predominant” argument of a text and more with the moments of dissonance that provide evidence of conscience or trauma is, of course, the predominant argument of his text (92-3, 195). This produces powerful readings of the archive but also raises a number of questions. Reading War of No Pity one could be excused for believing that Britons were so appalled by what they learned about themselves that they would recoil from the imperial mission, but as Herbert admits and we know, they did not, instead entering some 25 years later into a Europe-wide frenzy for imperial possessions and the age of “high imperialism.” Why was this so? Herbert notes that the answer to this question is “outside the scope of this book” (56) which is fair, but the question is no doubt one that will arise in many readers’ minds (partly precisely because Herbert has been so persuasive in making his argument about self-division and recoil). Allied to this question, although again “outside the scope of this book” is the question of what material difference such “lacerating self-discovery” made (97)? Let me offer one example from British India: preliminary to the annexation of Punjab in 1849, a battle raged in the English language press in India about the justice of giving “prize money” (a euphemism for property confiscated during war, or “loot”) to soldiers. Some argued for it because it was customary, others against it based on legal principle, yet others supported it because soldiers’ pay was often low and the war had been long. At the end the army decided that soldiers did have a right to “their” prize money. The fierce debate in the press tells us a great deal about the British in India, but the debate made little material difference to those whose property was confiscated and distributed amongst soldiers and the government. And whatever the debate reveals to us cannot obscure the acts–or facts–of empire. Such material questions, I would say, haunt most latter-day studies of empire.

Finally, if the doubts and divisions amongst Britons were so vociferous and the correction of myths as explicit as Herbert argues, how might we explain the persistence of “Mutiny myths”? Herbert would have it that misperceptions about 1857 are due to the stranglehold of postcolonial studies for which “[i] mperialism and colonialism are always, in their very aspect, violent usurpations and enslavement, and are always, one again wants to say by definition, devoid of redeeming features” (5). Because of this ideological “idée fixe” (70), Herbert writes, scholars have reproduced a series of myths about the Uprising such as the canard that the singular response to 1857 was jingoism. Yet the notion that the “Mutiny” gave rise to jingoistic responses amongst Britons or that the primary narrative of 1857 was one of British valor and Indian rapacity was one that existed well before the advent of postcolonial studies. Edward Thompson’s The Other Side of the Medal (1925)–a book Herbert dismisses as “polemical” (13)–registers the yawning gap between British and Indian understandings of the events. He wrote his polemic precisely because he was exasperated by Britons’ use–and abuse–of the Uprising (as was E. M. Forster who wrote about it in his 1924 A Passage to India) and because he wished to negotiate a reconciliation between the two views. That he feared his critique would cost him his lectureship at Oxford is not mere paranoia; Forster, even as he encouraged Leonard Woolf to publish the manuscript, acknowledged Thompson’s concerns.[2]

The one sour note in this otherwise immensely sophisticated book is the alternately defensive and pugnacious stance Herbert assumes towards postcolonial studies. He cites a core of critics whose work exemplifies for him the weakness of the “postcolonial dispensation” (5): Denis Judd, Nancy Paxton, Michael Edwardes, Patrick Brantlinger, and Gautam Chakravarty. One wonders where Lata Mani, Gauri Viswanathan, Catherine Hall, Antoinette Burton, or Nicholas Dirks, to name a few, are in Herbert’s depiction of postcolonial scholars as harping on the “monolithic, always self-consistent nature of imperialism” (5). His disenchantment with postcolonial studies, evident primarily in the early chapters, detracts from the strength of his own arguments. Thus, in the midst of a nuanced discussion of the difference between Malleson and a Punch cartoon that appeared in the “spasm of rage and vindictiveness” (48) that swept through Britain in the early days and that Herbert demonstrates are instances of “the two mental states that we can see by now complementary and closely interlinked: horror-stricken paralysis ... and an almost demented craving for vengeance” (46), we come upon these lines: “The national cry of ‘blood for blood’ was only to be expected. ... Censorious academics who write about it as a reprehensible thing might as well complain about the immorality of hurricanes and floods or of grizzly bears that attack those who come too near their cubs” (46-8). For Herbert to naturalize a reaction that he himself and so many of the writers he discusses clearly recoiled from is disquieting. Finally, one wonders at Herbert’s choice of adversaries: with the exception of Chakravarty, none he tangles with is a scholar of British India or 1857, and almost all the books he cites are broad surveys, containing only a small section on British India. Herbert’s claim about the ideological tenor of “Mutiny scholarship” would be more plausible if he referenced specialists in the field. Indeed, one is puzzled by the absence here of any serious contemporary historian of 1857; the most glaring lacuna is Rudrangshu Mukherjee, one of the most complex historians of the Uprising. These objections are minor, however. This is a book that must be read, as should the archive Herbert has so persuasively opened up for us.