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Good Words 1860
Aspects of Indian Life During the Rebellion

No. vi.

There remains for us now to estimate the weight of Mr Russell's testimony,—to examine the limitations under which it is to be received,—and to reckon its bearing upon our inquiry.

It sounds paradoxical, but it is nevertheless true, that the two most valuable conditions of historical evidence, as to the present, are, absolute ignorance, or perfect knowledge, of the past. Not that the two kinds of evidence bear in the same manner, or on the same order of facts. Just as the man who sees for the first time some noble landscape, perceives with vivid distinctness its broader masses of light and shade, its more striking harmonies and contrasts of colour, its leading lines and characteristic forms, but overlooks or even mistakes many of its details; whilst the man who is familiar with it, remarks rather its half-tints of colour and semitones of shade, follows lovingly this ray of light into a nook where his eye has not been wont to penetrate, observes the brighter green of yonder field, watches the coming out in the sunlight of some distant rosiness of clover leas or heathery hill-slopes, his memory often guessing for his eye, so that indeed, through the very fulness of his knowledge, it often remains doubtful to strangers where for him vision ends, and imagination unconsciously supplies its place;—so it is with the aspects of a country and its people. The man who knows both beforehand, and the man who knows nothing of them, see equally well, but see quite different things. The former looks from within; the latter from without. The latter dwells generally on what is newest to him; the former on what is most familiar. The latter often grossly mistakes what he sees, from not understanding it. The former, from understanding so well, often imports the past into the present, and fancies he sees what is not really to be seen, because he has seen it hitherto, and thinks he must see it still.

Now, Mr Russell's evidence as to India has this great quality of previous ignorance. He visibly knows less of the country and its people than I trust is usual amongst barristers and LL. D. 's. He somewhere speaks of Siva, the Destroyer-god of the Hindoo trinity, whose obscene symbol denotes essentially his masculine character, as if he were a female divinity. He is present at the festival of Kalee, Siva's dread consort, without apparently knowing anything about her functions; "the name of this idol is Kalee," is all he says. He evidently confounds, more than once, Hindoo temples with Mussulman mosques. He speaks of the "Brahmin Rajpoots," a phrase about as sensible as the "Commoner Peers of England," or "Her Majesty's Horse Guards Foot,"—since Brahmins and Rajpoots are two entirely distinct, and very often antagonistic castes. He speaks of a "chuprassie," (messenger,) "engraved with many fine flourishes of honour,"—confounding the man with his badge, very much as if he had spoken of a ''ticket-porter in white metal." All these marks of ignorance are, in fact, invaluable as respects the weight of his evidence, so far as it depends upon Bight or hearsay. For they shew clearly that we have before us no deep Orientalist, no inveterate philo-Hindoo; that the writer must have looked at India from a purely English, and not even Anglo-Indian point of view. They shew clearly that he must have derived his information only from English sources, or from or through natives so far Anglicised as to speak our language. That the latter form an almost imperceptible minority, except at the Presidencies, is well known. That Mr Russell's opportunities of converse with them were extremely limited, is evident from the fact, that he only spent a few days at Calcutta in the first instance, and a few weeks (of which he gives no record) in the last,—his servant Simon, the Roman Catholic convert, being the only one of the class with whom he seems to have had continual familiar intercourse. And not only were his sources of information thus almost exclusively English, bat almost exclusively such as would carry no bias in favour of the natives of India;—officials of either service; soldiers engaged in quelling a rebellion, civilians in punishing it. Thus, whatever witness he may bear against us or our rule in India, must come with tenfold weight, as passing through the sieve of every natural, official, and temporary prejudice which might hinder it from reaching us. Under such circumstances, we dare not omit to notice that Mr Russell does not record one single act of signal clemency on the part of an individual European towards a native enemy, nor one of self-devotion for a native ally, amidst so many of savage revenge, or callousness of heart; nor yet, that in many places he hints at much more than he has told. Fearful as it is to think of it, it is not too much to say, that for every act of folly, oppression, cruelty, which he is thus able to record against Englishmen, or the English rule, native evidence must be able to supply a thousand ; whilst it is perfectly impossible for us even to conceive the effects of any such act when seen from the point of view of the native, of his sufferings, of his sympathies, of his prejudices, nor yet those of a host of other acts, comparatively or even wholly innocent on our part, which the gulf of race, religion, manners, renders oppressive and even deadly,— like the stones in the fable, flung by children at play, but fatal to the poor frogs down the well.

Let it be considered, moreover, that in addition to all the causes which tend to impair the completeness of Mr Russell's evidence, so far as it bears against ourselves, in addition to the natural reluctance which every man of ordinary feeling must entertain to bear witness at all against his country and his countrymen,—there was added, in Mr Russell's case, this further restraint on his plain speaking, that, with the exception of a brace of railway officials, he seems to have been received in India with uniform and marked courtesy and kindness by all, classes of his countrymen, and must have had every temptation to overlook and palliate their failings and their faults. He was, moreover, the representative of a journal, always the complaisant echo of public opinion; which had at the first met the tidings of a revolt, to be quelled at last only by the active assistance of some of the native princes, and the passive loyalty of almost all the rest, with a proposal for universal annexation; which had joined noisily in the outcry for blood, and made a butt for sarcasm of Lord Canning for his so-called "clemency proclamation." When we bear these things in mind, we shall recognise in Mr Russell, not only a quite unprejudiced, but a most unwilling witness; we shall see that, though he may fall short of the bitter truth, it required real manliness and courage in him to express so much of it as he has done.

Lastly, and whatever maybe the outcry of Anglo-Indians against Mr Russell's book, I venture to think, that throughout it he never wanders into sentimentalism or chivalrous refinement; never goes one inch beyond an ordinary Englishman's measure of good sense and right feeling; never claims for the native anything more than the barest rights of a man;—justice and respect to the life which God has given, and, even when that is forfeited, to that form which has been for ever ennobled since the Saviour thought it "not robbery" to put it on. What more he may be entitled to at the hands of Christian men, bidden to love their enemies, and to preach the gospel to every creature, Mr Russell does not inquire, does not meddle with the question. He has simply looked at Hindoo or Mussulman as he has been accustomed to do at Turk or Russian; and it is this common, human point of view which places him often at such direct variance with men, one of whom, as we saw, actually said, and many of whom act as if they thought, that ''niggers have no souls, or if they have any, they are not like ours."

Still, there are, of course, limitations to the value of Mr Russell's evidence, A geographical one, above all. He has seen but one strip of India. Beyond a glance at Madras, his experience has been confined to Bengal and the North-west. Of Eastern Bengal, Assam, the Indo-Chinese provinces, of the whole peninsula of India, properly so called, he can tell us nothing. The Punjaub even remains unvisited; still more Seinde, and that Western coast, nearest to Europe, and, no doubt, the seat of India's most active life. Of any of the first-rate native sovereignties which still subsist, he can give us no account; since Puttiala is second-rate as compared with Scindia's Gwalior, Holkar's Indore, the Guicowar's Baroda, and still more with the Nizam's Hyderabad. More than all, the disturbed state of the country generally precluded him from seeing more than the main lines of communication; the strips of finished railway, the Grand Trunk Road, the road between Cawnpore and Lucknow, or that leading to the great sanatorium of Simla. But this limitation of the scope of his observations, although it should warn us against generalising them as respects the local peculiarities of the country or its people, yet tells in no way against their truth as applied to the relations between England and India, Englishmen and natives. He has seen English power in Bengal, one of the oldest settled provinces, and in contact with one of the most submissive of native races. He has seen it in the North-west, reduced within this century, and peopled by some of India's most independent races. He has seen it in Oude, heretofore the choicest nursery of our native troops, annexed but yesterday. He has seen it in the Himalayas, where we are scarcely yet but protectors, amidst a simple race of mountaineers. The strange Babel of our avenging armies has brought him, moreover, in contact with races which he has not seen in their native homes or haunts; with the Madrassee, the Beloochee, the Afghan, the Sikh. And above all, he has been in constant contact with one element in the moral picture which is the same throughout India,—the Englishman himself. Unless it can be established that the Englishman at Lahore, Kurrachee, or Bombay is a wholly different animal from what he is at Calcutta, Agra, Lucknow, or Simla, Mr Russell's field of experience among the natives, from the cringing Bengalee to the fierce Sikh, must have been sufficient to shew him what the Englishman is to the native, under all conceivable aspects, from the one end of India to the other. And the restriction of his observations to the great lines of communication in Northern India, and to the great cities which lie upon them, simply places before us the following dilemma as to what he has not had the opportunity of observing: Either the state of things on these great lines which bear most the impress of British power, in these great cities where Englishmen most abound, is better than what is the case in remoter districts more left to themselves, or it is worse. If it be worse, then our presence must be a curse to India; if it be better, —let any one, after reading Mr Russell's book, say candidly what that must be which is not so good.

The fact is, Mr Russell had seen precisely those provinces which, but a few years back, would have been generally pointed out as among the chief instances of the blessings of our rule. Not, indeed, the petted volcano of the Punjaub, but Bengal, the richest province under our sway; the favoured North-west, supplied with public works far beyond the measure of the other governments, and the seat of a revenue system, of which we boasted that at last it embodied the substantial principles of justice, and the cherished customs of the people; Oude, the garden of India, annexed out of pure benevolence, to save its people from native oppression. It is concerning these that he testifies of wretched huts and half-clad people, of decaying towers and ruined monuments; it is concerning these that he asks whether the natives have ceased to build houses, as he has never seen a new, or even a middle-aged house built by them. And although it would be wrong to generalise this assertion—although there are, no doubt, neighbourhoods, such as those of Bombay or Kurrachee, where the utmost activity in building exists, still we may rest assured by analogy from such evidence alone—and it would be easy for me to prove— that throughout large sweeps of Indian soil, on which no Times' special correspondent has ever set his foot, wretched villages and half-clad people, ruined houses and decaying cities, mark the limits, and often serve to measure the antiquity, of British rule; that if Mr Russell can say of the town of Buraech in Oude, ''in our hands its descent has been precipitate," the same may be said equally of many a town of Central India or the Deccan, even to Cape Comorin; that if he observed better-clad villagers in Puttiala than in our own territories, the same observation may be made on passing the frontier of many a yet unannexed native state.

One qualification, indeed, applies to Mr Russell's evidence, which is essentially to be borne in mind. He saw India in her days of mourning—amid all the devastation, the heats of blood, the unsettle-ment of a rebellion. Thank God! the broad plains of India are not always being scorched with the fiery breath of war; her crops are not always being licked up by armies, and yet more dreaded armies' armies of camp-followers. The sepoy revolt stands yet practically alone in her history; the sack of Delhi, or that of Lucknow, stand equally alone in the dread tale of the rebellion. It is therefore quite needful that we should distinguish, in Mr Russell's evidence, between what is temporary and what is permanent. So far as the material aspects of India go, the distinction is easy to make. Clearly, it is not the rebellion which has prevented Mr Russell from seeing anywhere a new native house; it is not the rebellion which has sown a wild fig-tree on the Taj at Agra, nor rendered Bengal roadless within sixteen miles of Calcutta. Whatever, therefore, Mr Russell has said on this head, is entitled to credit, irrespectively of the peculiar epoch of his visit.

As respects the moral aspects of India, on the other hand, allowance must no doubt be made for the circumstances of the time. No doubt he saw the races at a period of mutual distrust, often of mutual exasperation. No doubt, whatever picture he gives us of the relation between the Englishman and the native, cannot be deemed a permanently true one, unless confirmed from other quarters. And yet it must be observed, that great portions of his experience apply not only to scenes of actual warfare, but to places, like Calcutta, where the rebellion has only been known through its terrors; like Simla, where all dream of terror from it had passed away. Who would imagine, for instance, from his description of the Vanity Fair of the hills, that the plains below were still reeking with blood? And yet nowhere does Mr Russell shew us the Englishman more utterly forgetful of his own character and self-respect, more intolerable to the native, than here, amidst all the glories of nature, unstained by a single drop of human blood; amidst a race of simple, hardy, kindly mountaineers, even in complexion European. Yet here it is that Mr Russell, in words which I have forgotten to quote, declares that "an interesting people" knows us as yet "only as hard tax-gatherers and severe taskmasters, by whom, even in their sporting tours, they are treated very much as the Saxon villagers were used by the Norman barons on the confines of their hunting-forests and game-preserves." And whatever the rebellion may have done to imbitter men's minds, it certainly cannot have imbued them with that American vulgarity which he describes, of judges sitting in court with cocked-up heels, in their shirt-sleeves, and using them for blotting-paper; or great officials giving audience in slippers, and hanging braces, and open shirt-fronts. Still less can it have created that callousness to service rendered which—at least in the instances which he records—treats with indignity distinguished men who have suffered through their faithfulness to our cause; worries with distrust great chieftains who have rendered us inestimable service; or assigns, as in a case he specifies, to a man who, while attached to a party of native cavalry who died fighting for us to the last, had his nose slit, his hands cut off by the wrists, and his ears shaved off by the rebels, an allowance (in gross) of eight shillings! The sentiment of common dangers, of a common cause, surely draws men together, instead of separating them; where conduct like this is possible, it shews that there must be a gulf fixed between the races, which neither the common cause nor the common danger can bridge over.

Taking, therefore, Mr Russell's evidence with this qualification as to the time to which it belongs, I think we must admit with shame, that it does go far to explain why God sent us the Indian mutiny and rebellion; further still to warn us that, if we persist in the course which he describes, He will surely send us another. And a worse one will be that, if it comes. For, as far as human foresight can judge, the race with which we shall have to dispute the empire of India some day, are the Sikhs. Already under their native chiefs,—and one of those, it is said, a traitor,—they shook that empire to its base under Lord Hardinge's governor-generalship. Though the Punjaub is now a province of our empire, yet, on the other side, the Sikhs have been, during the rebellion, the very right hand of our military power, though its backbone be English. The training which they will have received, as our fellow-soldiers, is very different from that which they received once, as our enemies only. In ferocity, no less than in endurance and courage, they evidently far exceed our late sepoys; and the difficulties and horrors of the sepoy rebellion will be as nothing, should a Sikh rebellion break out. Let us remember that fearful scene of the sepoy burnt alive by the Sikhs, with Europeans looking on, whilst not an officer dared to interfere, and we shall feel that in them we may have to do with a race of men who, when their blood is up, utterly defy our authority and control. That, all through the rebellion, they have had not only the consciousness of such a possibility, but the avowed presentiment of its realisation, is well known.

There are two ways in which this fearful danger can either be averted or rendered innocuous. India may be made so happy and contented, that even the flood of Sikh rebellion may pass over and sink into it without uprooting the landmarks of our power. Or these fierce races of the Punjaub, with their vigorous energies, their fanatical faiths, in the Khalsa or commonwealth, if Sikhs; in the Koran, if Mussulmans, may be themselves tamed— for crushed they cannot be—into gentleness and loyalty. That Christ's gospel alone can do this is most clear; but that gospel must be one of deeds, not words; not preached only, but lived.

The present state of India cannot last. The enormous influx of English capital of late years through English loans, through the transfer of the debt to English hands, through railway expenditure, has no doubt given an extraordinary stimulus to the agriculture and trade of India, to which already some branches of manufacture on a large scale are beginning to be added, in the shape of the weaving sheds and spinning mills of Bombay and Broach. Yet this is so far in great measure but like the splendid existence of a spendthrift, running through the capital of his loans. Even now, the latest announced deficit is of £9,000,000 sterling ; and year by year, the drain of interest to Europe will grow more exhausting to the country. Sooner or later, it must of itself break either England's back, or India's, or both backs at once, unless we can really make our rule in India one of Christian justice, truth, and love. J. M. L.

Erratum.—At p. 250, col. 2, line 5 from the bottom, for "its southernmost province but one (Canara)," read "its southernmost province but one on the western coast (Canara)."

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