I don’t mind telling you that I hadn’t heard about the Cawnpore massacre before hearing about Tom’s new book which is published on Kindle on 10th September, but what I have heard had certainly piqued my interest to find out more.
Over to Tom to tell us why the Empire Project might have been an inevitable failure.
There is a lot written these days about ‘the Empire Project’: the period (defined differently by almost everyone) when a small island off the north-west of Europe somehow found itself ruling a significant proportion of the whole world. I keep listening to people on the BBC explaining that we should spend more time learning about what Britain did during the Empire – the good and the bad (though on the programmes I hear the suggestion seems to be that the emphasis should perhaps swing towards the bad). It’s frustrating, then, that when Cawnpore was first published, ten years ago, it seems to have been ahead of its time.
Britain only officially became an Empire in 1877, when Victoria was declared Empress of India, but the British had been throwing their weight around for significantly longer. Notably, Lord Clive had won the battle of Plessey, regarded as marking the beginning of British rule in India in 1757. India was always “the jewel in the crown” of Empire and if you want to understand the Empire Project, you could do worse than look at India.
A hundred years after Plessey, the Indians (who attached a lot of importance to anniversaries) were beginning to feel that a hundred years of Empire Project was enough. The result was a widespread insurrection that started with a rebellion within Indian regiments in the British army in the country and which we therefore came to call the Indian Mutiny, though it was far more than a mutiny.
Cawnpore is set in a town in the North West frontier province, which became the site of a famous atrocity by the rebels which triggered, in turn, terrible reprisals by the British. The story is told through the eyes of a man who fits in with neither the European establishment nor the court of the local ruler, but who has a foot in both camps. He watches helplessly as the simmering tensions of what is essentially a British military occupation come to the boil in 1857.
It’s a story full of love and excitement and battles and bravery, but ultimately it is about a man trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation. For in the end there are no clear rights and wrongs in the Empire Project – just people – some good, some bad, most somewhere in between – muddling through until everything goes terribly wrong.
Was the massacre at Cawnpore (and all the other atrocities committed in centuries of British rule) inevitable? I think, perhaps, the Empire Project was always doomed to end in tears. Whether colonisers have good intentions or whether they just seek to exploit and rob, the clash of cultures between the natives and the invaders (for that is what they are) inevitably leads to tragedy.
There is a lot being said these days about how Britain should apologise for things it did in the 19th century and before. Perhaps apologising for the distant past is not that helpful. Perhaps we should be looking at the future rather than back to Empire. As Kabul falls and the citizens face the misery of so many who suffered in the wars of the past, we should stop and think before we again send an army to a distant country to ‘nation build’ or ‘protect Western values’. If Cawnpore raises these questions in anybody’s mind, then maybe it’s done something worthwhile as well as entertain.
While I was writing Cawnpore my son was serving in Afghanistan. For over two hundred years we have had troops in that part of the world. It led to tragedy in 1857 when we stayed in and in 2021 when we pulled out. Perhaps the best thing to do would have been not to have sent them in the first place.
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