How The Times shaped its coverage of the 1857 Indian Mutiny to support a broader justification of Empire (by Valentin Boulan)

How The Times shaped its coverage of the 1857 Indian Mutiny to support a broader justification of Empire (by Valentin Boulan)

The Indian Mutiny began in May 1857 when the discontent of Sepoys in the Bengali army, sparked by British demands to use rifle cartridges greased with beef and pork fat, which were against both Hindu and Muslim beliefs, escalated into numerous rebellions against British rule in northern and upland central India. The event, which took British authorities over a year to entirely suppress, was heavily reported by the British press and profoundly shocked the public due to the extreme violence displayed by both sides, from the massacres of British civilians carried out by Indians to the brutal retaliation of the imperial forces. This essay will focus on the factors which determined and limited The Times coverage of the first insurgency in Bengal, particularly looking at the ways in which the newspaper acted as a biased “imperialised institution”, as suggested by many historians . In other words, it will not consist of a factual assessment of the newspaper’s content on the event itself, but rather explore some of the techniques used, debates stimulated and ideas put forward within its publications, and how these supported and legitimised ideas of British imperialism during the crisis.

Such choice of study is motivated by several factors. From a practical point of view, focusing on The Times presents many advantages with regards to the availability and great quality of its mid-19th century archives, which enables an in-depth analysis of its issues which cannot be done upon many newspapers. Furthermore, it may be argued that its popularity at the time as the most read British newspaper, as well as the remarkable pace of its reporting structure, particularly when it came to India where correspondents based in Bombay and Calcutta ensured the exclusive nature of news, made The Times a major element of the Victorian press, and hence a valuable subject of study . As far as the determined timeframe is concerned, the portrayal of the Bengal Mutiny in the British press is an appealing subject, because it highlights how violence and cultural tensions between Britons and natives were depicted to the public during Britain’s era of colonial expansion. Hence, to analyse and deconstruct the views and perspectives readers were exposed to via the press during the Bengal Mutiny case study, and in The Times specifically represents a significant contribution in understanding what factors may have affected how Victorians formulated their own opinions about imperial events, and how the politically partisan press covers important events more generally.

Perhaps one of the most consistent factors which characterised The Times’ coverage of the Bengali Mutiny was the process of demonization of the native Indian, and of the Sepoy in particular, expressed throughout its issues. Indeed, one of the ways in which this was implemented was through the heavy reliance on clichés portraying Indians as a naturally savage people. For instance, whilst making no attempt to clarify the provocation of the Mutiny, the first editorial report on the crisis depicts the event as caused by “a superstition which was described and derided in days that we call antiquity”, referring to the insurgents “an idolatrous creed” . Similarly, a letter to the editors published on 20th May describes India as being “in a state of nakedness of barbarism” , providing a representative view of what The Times focused on in the first few weeks of its coverage of the Mutiny .

In addition, this global racist rhetoric was further fuelled by the distinctive dismissal of both Hinduism and Islam as inferior and violent religions, which also contributed to the overall demonization of Indian Sepoys. Certainly, particularly in the late August to mid-September period, The Times often described Hindus as dishonest, cowardly, and prone to become hostile to the British population in India. Muslims, on the other hand, were seen by editors as “ferocious animals”, who at times “lose everything human and behave like very demons” . This process of discrediting both Islam and Hinduism as bestial, primitive religions, contrasting with the calmness and rationale of the British was perhaps best achieved in a letter which recalled the murder of a British officer years before the Mutiny occurred. Explaining how the officer attempted to “moderate the animosity of Hindoos and Musulmans” on a day when both faiths celebrated religious festivals, it described the killing as a display of “savage ferocity”, standing as evidence for the evil nature of both groups .

Needless to say, during the Mutiny itself, regular reports of bloody massacres by Bengalis were equally held as graphic evidence that Indians were a naturally violent people. Often focusing on the murders of women and children, those reports, usually published both in news and in the form of private letters, used strong language such as describing a Colonel as “hacked to pieces” by bayonets, or recalling the merciless beheading of mothers and their children . As pointed out by Embree , whilst it would be unfair to suggest that British retaliation towards Indians were completely sidelined by the press, those were nonetheless far less frequent and often excused as moments of madness in the face of the monstrous actions of the enemies, or legitimised as absolutely necessary in order to bring chaos to an end . Hence, by focusing a lot of its early coverage on the demonization of native Indians through prejudiced views and unbalanced accounts of violence instead of focusing on the reasons why the Mutiny took place, it may be argued that The Times provided its readership with a limited understanding of what was happening in India at the time. By painting the misleading image that the Mutiny was simply a senseless revolt and the logical consequence of the violent nature of the Indian people, it therefore both implied the need for British rule and overlooked the responsibility of British colonial officers in provoking the crisis.

By contrast, another important factor which shaped The Times coverage of the Bengali Mutiny was the regular emphasis on the personal experiences of British settlers on the ground, which contributed to sensationalise report of the Mutiny. Before going further, it should be made explicit that within the context of this essay, sensationalism is not defined as the practice of over exaggerating the significance of the event to maximise sales. Rather, it is the process whereby reports of the Mutiny made use of powerful language in order to appeal to their audience on an emotional rather than intellectual basis, as defined by Stead .This was largely achieved in three ways. Primarily, this was done through the frequent publication of letters, either addressed to the editors of The Times about loved ones, or originally aimed to friends and family but later published in the newspaper. Aside from the fact that they enabled discussions about the Mutiny to continue daily despite the slower pace at which correspondent reports arrived, the publication of letters by those directly involved often told the story of entire British families and, as previously mentioned, the struggle of mothers and children to escape from the carnage in particular . Furthermore, by often choosing to publish letters which made explicit strong emotional bonds between their authors and receivers, often beginning by phrases such as “Dear Mother” or “Dear Sister” and expressing the fear never to see loved ones again, the sentimental aspect arousing from the letters’ descriptive, graphic content regarding native violence was further strengthened.

In addition, a second way in which Mutiny reports focused on individuals was through the regular publication of British victim lists from India. Indeed, whilst it was common practice in the 19th century for The Times to publish brief domestic death reports, such reports about India provided background about victims’ careers, personalities and personal lives, and often described their final moments as heroic and dignified, which further contributed to the sensationalist process of emphasising personal tragedy during the Mutiny . Finally, the dedication of entire news articles to the deaths of relatively high profile individuals or their relatives also contributed to this mechanism. An excellent example of such occurrence was the publication of the letter written by the Governor-General to the Mayor of London following the loss of his brother Colonel Finnis during the Mutiny, which states “I have heard much of your brother’s high character and ability, and, as an officer of native troops, he was noted for the good feeling, tact and useful influence which have marked his command of Sepoys” . Arguably, such practice was sensationalist in two ways, because it focused on figures the general public knew, which added to the original emotional impact of death. Therefore, by portraying the Mutiny through the traumatic personal experience of fellow countrymen and giving its victims faces and voices, The Times reporting of the Mutiny provided a sensationalist account which amplified the dramatic nature of events and aimed to shock its readership by appealing to them on an emotional basis. Such approach, certainly contrasting with the negative image of the native previously highlighted, supported Empire because it suggested that suppressing the Mutiny was essential not only to Britain’s prestige, but most importantly in order to rescue helpless British citizens in India.

On a thematic level, another feature which shaped the way in which The Times reported the Mutiny was the fact that it never questioned the ideology and practice of British imperialism more generally. Indeed, rather than looking at the broader picture and put the righteousness and principles of Empire under scrutiny, the editors focused on smaller debates surrounding the causes of the insurgency within the Bengali army, and of the Indian Mutiny as a whole later on. For instance, one of the main debates during the crisis regarded the constitution and aptitude of the East India Company’s army. Perhaps the main part of such debate concerned the proportion of British to Indians within the army, which at six Indians to one British soldier was seen as too high for the security of British troops and the stability of the Raj . Somewhat contradictorily, the ability and training of British officers within the army also received much criticism. Indeed, articles within The Times described them as a declining force, whose newest elements were lazy, heavy drinkers, whose majority was too inexperienced and whose most educated and culturally aware elements were systematically removed from regiments to exercise bureaucratic duty . Furthermore, British officers were accused of mistreating their troops and of being too segregated from them, which meant that when tensions occurred, the weak bonds between Indians and British troops were therefore far too weak to prevent the escalation towards Mutiny.

Much of the discussion during the Mutiny also revolved around how Sepoys should be punished for their crimes, particularly once it became evident that countless British lives were being brutally taken. Such contest, largely fought within the letter to the editors section of the newspaper, mainly consisted of a struggle between those who accepted the partial responsibility of British officers and demanded measured retribution in order not to spark further disorder in India, and those who argued for strong repressive measures such as the executions of all the “cruel superstitious Bengalee Sepoys” found guilty of crimes against the British, a view which overall seemed to be partly supported in editorial articles . As pointed out previously, in some cases blame was targeted at one religious group only within the Indian army, a letter to the editors going as far as arguing that all Muslims within the Bengal army should be banned and deprived of their pensions .

Finally, the impact of Christian missionaries in India also occupied an important part of the debate surrounding causes for the Mutiny. Whilst some letters to the editors questioned their role in creating tensions between British and Indians, the editors themselves strongly argued that only missionaries who also occupied positions of power within the army, hence exercising a position of authority among potential converts were potentially threatening to harmony within the army . Overall, hence, although attempting to explain the causes of the Mutiny was obviously a valuable and necessary effort, by only focusing on several small debates during the crisis such as the responsibility of the army, the role of Christian missionaries or the ways in which mutineers should be punished, The Times coverage was limited by its apparent reluctance not to bring the practice of Empire under the scrutiny of public debate.

Finally, whilst Empire was not criticised during the crisis, it is also evident that throughout the Mutiny, The Times carried out what may be defined as a pro-Empire campaign to counter-balance the bad news coming from India. Interestingly, this largely occurred not only within, but alongside articles directly related to the Mutiny itself, and thus it was not uncommon for articles nostalgically praising the past adventures of early colonialists to be published next to dreadful news about what was, one may argue, at least partly the effective long term consequences of their actions. For instance, an editorial article praising the campaigns of Baron Robert Clive, a key man in the establishment of the East India Company’s military and political supremacy in Bengal was published in June, the first sentence of which summed up the tone of the entire piece in introducing: “On this very day one hundred years ago the magnificent Empire of Britain in the East was founded by the genius and daring of a single man” . Similarly, another article about to the Duke of Wellington nostalgically recalling his return to his early playground of Eton before he went on to fight for the British Empire, mainly in India, was published soon after, although the Duke had died half a decade ago and the article was largely irrelevant to current news .

A second way the pro-Empire campaign was carried out was through the use of paternalistic language, which represents another aspect of the racist narrative previously highlighted and suggested that Empire was chiefly positive for Indians themselves. For example, many articles at the time praised the effects of British rule on India’s economic expansion, its impact on raising moral standards through Christianity as well as the superiority of European knowledge, particularly in the field of science and its positive impact on Indian education. The analogy of Indians as schoolboys looking up to their teachers was most overt in an editorial article which, attempting to explain why Sepoys revolted, suggested that “if a master neglects its school, it is sure to fall into disorganisation” .

Similarly, suggesting that the Mutiny was not representative of an Indian majority’s opinion about British rule was also a way to promote Empire. For example, when a small committee of both Muslims and Hindus met in Calcutta in August to publically reiterate their support in the government, the event was heavily reported in The Times. A similar argument was applied with regards to the army, an article going as far as claiming that most of the East India Company’s army was more loyal than Napoleon’s Guard and Caesar’s 10th Legion, and described how Sepoys regularly sacrificed their food rations and ran to a certain death to protect their European officers . Hence, by crusading in favour of British Imperialism through nostalgic, paternalistic rhetoric and by repeatedly claiming that the majority of Indians embraced British rule, The Times promoted an enthusiastic view of British imperialism, contrasting with the fact that in practice, its legitimacy was being seriously challenged.

This essay has attempted to demonstrate that The Times coverage of the Bengali Mutiny was influenced and limited by four main features which shaped a pro-Empire bias, namely its demonization of the Indian Sepoy, its emphasis on the personal experience of British victims, its focus on debates which did not threaten the ideal of Empire itself, and finally its open praising of Empire as the best way to rule India. Although such rhetoric may appear extremely radical to the modern reader, they are unsurprising and largely reflective of the language and norms of 1857, an era less than three decades subsequent to the abolition of slavery. Furthermore, it may also be argued that although in the mid-19th century, the pace of reporting was definitely increasing, during the Mutiny it did not yet match that of growing demand, which explains why factual information was so often replaced by opinions and debates. Needless to say, whilst this essay argues that The Times supported imperialism throughout the crisis, it does not claim that its conclusions apply to the entirety of the Victorian press, since it focused exclusively on one newspaper in order providing an in depth analysis. Hence, further investigation into the coverage of the Bengal Mutiny among other major British newspapers, such as the more liberal Manchester Guardian, would undoubtedly prove valuable to further understanding of how the press as a whole portrayed the Mutiny, and how homogeneous such portrayal was.


Primary Sources
The Times Digital Archive 1785-1985

Secondary Sources
Embree, Ainslie, 1857 in India: Mutiny or War of Independence (Boston, 1963)
Hibbert, Christopher, The Great Mutiny: India 1857 (New York, 1978)
Kaul, Chandrika, Media and the British Empire (London, 2006)
Stead, William Thomas,“Government by Journalism”, Contemporary Review, 49 (London, 1886)
Thompson, Andrew, Imperial Britain: the empire in British politics, c.1880-1932 (London, 2000)


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