1857 Through the Looking-Glass
By Geoffrey Wilson, author of LAND OF HOPE AND GLORY
In 1857, Indian people rose up in revolt against British rule. The uprising has been given various names, including the Indian Mutiny, the First War of Independence and the Great Rebellion. As the differing labels suggest, the exact nature and causes of the uprising remain contested to this day.
The central premise of my novel, Land of Hope and Glory, is simple: what if the Mutiny had happened in reverse? What if an Indian empire had ruled Britain in the 19th century and British people had rebelled against it?
My aim was to create a sort of mirror image of the situation in India in 1857, although I decided the mirror would be somewhat distorted. The Europe of my alternate world is not precisely analogous to India under British rule, and to emphasise this I set the story in 1852.
On the eve of the real Mutiny, two-thirds of the Indian subcontinent were ruled by the East India Company, on behalf of the British government. The rest of the region remained under the control of various nobles, often referred to as the ‘Indian princes’. The princes were in theory independent rulers, but were in practice dominated by the British. The Mughal empire, which had once held sway over much of northern and central India, had disintegrated and the latest Mughal ruler’s power extended no further than the walls of his palace complex in Delhi.
At the start of Land of Hope and Glory, the Indian empire of Rajthana has ruled Europe for more than a hundred years. Much of the region is governed directly by the empire, while the rest is controlled by feudal nobles. In England, areas such as Wiltshire and Shropshire are known as ‘native states’ and are ruled by hereditary earls. Hundreds of years earlier, the Moors conquered most of Europe, including England, but now their power has declined. An English king still sits on the throne in London, but his authority is greatly diminished and he is little more than a puppet of the Rajthanans.
The real Indian Mutiny began when simmering discontent in the East India Company’s northern army boiled over into revolt. At the time, there were many more Indians than Europeans in the Company’s armies. Most regiments consisted of Indian soldiers and non-commissioned officers, led by British commanders. Indian soldiers, known as sepoys, mutinied, in some cases killing British officers and other Europeans. A series of uprisings sprang up in northern and central India as Indian civilians joined forces with the sepoys. Most of the Indian princes remained neutral or loyal to the British, but a few sided with the rebels.
In Land of Hope and Glory, the Rajthanans’ European Army consists of European soldiers and non-commissioned officers, led by Rajthanan commanders. Simmering discontent in England boils over into a revolt and English regiments mutiny against their officers. Civilians join forces with the soldiers and much of south-east England falls into the hands of the rebels. The earls remain neutral, although a few back the rebellion.
Early on in the real Mutiny, Delhi fell to the rebels and thousands of sepoys travelled to the city to join the uprising. The rebels called on the ageing Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah II, to lead them. But Bahadur Shah, uncertain whether the rebellion would succeed, vacillated between supporting the Mutiny and distancing himself from it.
In Land of Hope and Glory, mutinous English soldiers flock to London and call on the ageing King John III to lead them. The King gives his tentative support, although it is unclear to what degree he is being controlled by the rebel commanders.
The real Mutiny ended in 1858 when the British finally suppressed the uprising in all regions. But in Land of Hope and Glory I haven’t mirrored real events exactly. In my alternate world anything could happen, and as the story progresses over multiple books, the rebels might well turn out to be more successful than the sepoys of 1850s India.
Note on sources:
In writing this post I referred to the following books: The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple, The Indian Mutiny by Saul David, The Lion and the Tiger by Denis Judd and Armies of the Raj by Byron Farwell. For anyone wanting to know more about the real Indian Mutiny, I can do no better than recommend these works.