Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi
While on the subject of India, a little-known nationalist heroine was Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, a major figure in the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
From the 16th century to the mid 20th century, the British effectively controlled India. They did so often in collusion with remnants of the Princely States, which were semi-independent, often Muslim principalities with origins in the Mughal Empire. Therefore, until 1858, India was effectively ruled by a private corporation, the British East India Company, with a style of rule that grew increasingly rapacious and exploitative as time progressed. The British East India Company was kept in power by the Indian Army, a de facto private militia made up of Indian units (Sepoys) commanded by British professional officers seconded to the Indian Army.
In 1857, units of the Indian Army rebelled. This was an event known as the âSepoy Mutiny’, but these days more generally regarded as the âIndian Rebellion’. Indian troops turned on their commanders, and then upon the wider British expatriate community, killing a great many. The mutineers were somewhat vague in what they were hoping to achieve, with most picturing a return to some utopian vision of the past.
What the rebellion, lacked, however, was coherent leadership, and into this vacuum, or at least part of it, stepped Lakshmi Bai.
Bai is an honorific, and Lakshmi was the Rani, or queen of Jhansi, a Hindu princely state that was part of modern-day Uttar Pradesh. Not a great deal is known about Lakshmi, other than that she was born sometime in 1828, and upon her mother’s death when she was still a infant, was raised largely by her father’s courtiers. As she grew, she developed an interest in war and military organization, and at some point, she raised a female regiment for service in the state militia. Later, she entered matrimony as the second wife of the reigning Maharaja.
Upon his death, there was an attempt to marginalize her as a potential ruler, which was rendered moot anyway when the British seized control of the state. This was in 1853, and four years later the rebellion broke out. The Jhansi Fort was besieged, and British officers and civilians were slaughtered. Lakshmi’s apologists have tried to distance her from these events, but there can be no doubt that she was right in the thick of it. A British army doctor, Thomas Lowe, described her as âThe Jezebel of India â¦ the young, energetic, proud, unbending, uncompromising Ranee, and upon her head rested the blood of the slain, and a punishment as awful awaited her.’
When the British returned in force, they were met by Lakshmi at the head of an army, and a bitter fight was fought, which naturally, the British won. When the Rani was killed, resistance quickly crumbled.
The net result of the rebellion, however, was the ouster of the British East India Company, and its replacement by the British Raj. It would be a little under a century before true independence came to India.