Even the terms used to describe the famous Indian uprising against the British in 1857 are political positions. Was it a mutiny, or India’s First War of Independence? Rebellion or uprising? A nationalist movement or a string of local protests?
The violence began in Meerut, in present-day Uttar Pradesh, and the proximate cause was the British acquisition of Enfield rifles. To load these new weapons, Bengal sepoys—the security forces for the Raj—had to use their teeth to tear open paper cartridges produced, in accordance with a British design, at the Dumdum Arsenal, on the outskirts of Calcutta. A rumour had spread that the cartridges were greased with tallow and lard. Biting down on them was therefore an affront to Hindus and Muslims alike.
The first to be appalled was a Brahmin worker at the arsenal, which still today produces ordnance. His disgust quickly spread among the sepoys, and many refused to load the rifles. When they were punished, long-suppressed grievances erupted. In May 1857, some of the roughly 2,000 sepoys based in Meerut turned on their officers, killing them and their families before moving to the town to massacre English residents there. They then marched on Delhi, where their numbers swelled. Over the course of a year, the rebellion spread across northern and central India. The violence was ferocious, producing long-remembered cruelties on both sides.
British colonialism had changed fundamentally in the decades since liberal polymaths like William Jones had tried to understand India and extract value from it, without interfering overmuch in local religious practice. An evangelical revival in early 19th century Britain had sent missionaries to India to provide behaviour improvements and spiritual rescues—sometimes by means of forced conversions. Economic exploitation grew more brazen: from new...