The India Cross – pandering to imperialism or apologising for the truth?

The India Cross – pandering to imperialism or apologising for the truth?

by Alan Sked
article from Thursday 26, November, 2020

FROM A MORAL PERSPECTIVE, empire, which by definition implies conquest, can never be justified. Yet for most of world history empire was the normal mode of government and under different names it still exists today. Historians have written thousands of books investigating the origins, workings and consequences of the phenomenon. Indeed, even comedians have got in on the act, for example with Monty Python’s famous ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’ skit in their ‘Life of Brian’. The end result, inevitably, has been a large range of interpretations with the grit in the middle of the argument occasionally producing pearls of wisdom and insight. 

Today, however, debate has been closed down – certainly there have been formidable attempts in academic and public life to close it down – and any memorials to empire are to be seen to be racist or at least reprehensible. This is especially the case with monuments to empire builders, statesmen or imperial soldiers. Politically correct spokespersons, self-appointed guardians of contemporary morals, demand their demolition or at the very least, their removal from public view. The fact that the public usually has no knowledge of or interest in the people or events commemorated is of no importance. Woke Puritanism must always triumph. 

The latest object to attract woke attention is not so much a monument but a sign explaining the eight-foot India Cross, in fact a rather large but typical Celtic cross, on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. A British Indian tourist, a Dr. Vivek Majumder, has been ‘infuriated’ by it because, as he complained to Historic Environment Scotland, the quango responsible for its upkeep, it ‘panders to imperialism’. The quango then agreed within a week to replace the sign with one that will be more ‘accurate and balanced’.  

Dr. Majumder believes the sign is ‘too celebratory’ of British troops and ‘too dismissive’ of Indian ones, a claim which frankly is difficult to understand. The sign itself is very concise and has almost nothing at all to say about Indian troops. Erected in 1862 by public subscription, it reads: “This sandstone cross commemorates the men of the 78th Highlanders who died during the Indian Rebellion or Mutiny of 1857-8”. And under the heading “Heroes of Lucknow” continues: “Indian soldiers rose against British rule and besieged Lucknow in June 1867. In September soldiers of the 78th fought through rebel ranks to relieve the city. The regiment as a whole was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military award for valour.

General Harry Havelock declared he had never seen better conduct, adding ‘I am not a Highlander but I wish I was one.’ The 78th’s legacy lives on within the Highland Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.”

Surely soldiers who were collectively awarded the VC deserve a monument? And the India Cross is as plain as plain could be. It is quite the opposite of, say Roman imperial arches and obelisks with lurid and gory scenes of battles and death carved in stone. It is, rather, a large headstone to men who died bravely and honourably doing their duty. Nor is there any pandering to imperialism on the sign that explains it. Events are described as either a rebellion or a mutiny and the good conduct of the Highlanders is so described, perhaps to remind informed visitors that the conduct of all British regiments during the Mutiny could not be so described.

As is well known, dreadful atrocities were committed on both sides during the Mutiny and each side believed the worst of the other. The Mutiny was the greatest challenge to British imperial rule anywhere since the revolt of the American colonies in 1776 and for a few months the British lost control of India. However, it was confined to about one sixth of India’s territory covering one tenth of its population. Probably the majority of Indians remained loyal to their British rulers and certainly fewer than half the native troops rebelled. Others took an active part in suppressing the rebellion, which was just as well since of the British Army in India at the time only 45,522 soldiers out of 277,746 were European. The Raj in fact depended on its Indian troops to survive. 

Hitler and Stalin were both amazed at how Britain could retain India. How could such a small country with so few troops run the largest empire the world had ever seen? Yet by the end of the nineteenth century with India’s population already approaching 300 million, the Indian army still only contained 70,000 white troops most of whom were stationed permanently on the Afghan frontier. But then Egypt with a population of ten million was ‘occupied’ by a British army of less than 5,000. And in 1896 Southern Uganda with a population of about three million was run by perhaps twenty-five British officials. The Empire, in short, was not run by force. 

The British trick was to work through local elites. Unlike the French, who believed that the secret of their ‘mission civilisatrice’ was to make lesser races French, the British held no such assimilationist ambitions. Their aim was usually to control trade not people or to secure coaling stations or territories with some strategic importance. Nor – as the rebels in 1857 believed – were they intent on Christianising Muslims or Hindus. True, as Disraeli pointed out in 1857, reforms of various kinds had alienated Indian religious and economic conservatives – cartridges, he maintained were not the real issue – but the proclamation issued by Queen Victoria in 1858 when the British government took control of India from the East India Company, explicitly disclaimed ‘the right and the desire to impose Our convictions on any of Our subjects’. Indians must work out their own salvation. 

There is no space here to follow events in India but it might be noted that when war broke out in 1914 Britain ruled more Muslims than the Ottoman Sultan, in fact the largest number in the world. Thirty per cent of the troops in the Indian army were Muslim. Yet Britain was overwhelmed by the support it received from India during the war when it was offered voluntarily – over 800,000 combatants, nearly half a million non-combatants and 85 labour corps. At the armistice almost one million Indian troops were still serving. 64,449 had been killed and 69,214 wounded. During the Second World War the Indian Army constituted the largest volunteer army in the history of the world – and it fought for Britain. When Subhas Chandra Bose advocated resistance he was shunned by all India’s nationalist leaders including Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah. 

After 1947, India retained English as its official language, a bicameral parliament, a judicial and legal system based on common law and a civil service much influenced by Whitehall tradition. Its elite meanwhile favoured public schools with access to Oxbridge as well as clubs with links to Pall Mall. The Indian Army of course retained many British military traditions and Indian writers and poets have since made highly distinguished contributions to English literature. Britain may yet have a British Indian prime minister. 

It would be a great shame therefore to allow minor and quite unnecessary disputes about monuments and signs to undermine what are fundamentally good relations with India which can only improve after Brexit. Dr. Majumder should withdraw his complaint. It doesn’t make sense.  

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.    

Photo of painting by Louis William Desanges (1822–1906) of 78th Highlanders at Lucknow, courtesy of The Highlanders' Museum, Fort George, near Inverness. (CC BY-NC) 

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