- Anti-Post (In This Case) Colonial
The First War of Independence, the Sepoy Rebellion, the Indian Mutiny: the lack of consensus about what to call the uprising that began as a mutiny of sepoys—South Asian soldiers in the East India Company’s army—in 1857 suggests the ongoing conflict over a battle the causes and consequences of which remain fraught in several national imaginations. This war spread beyond the soldiers with whom it began to the civilian population and took more than a year to fully suppress. Christopher Herbert’s War of No Pity: The Indian Mutiny and Victorian Trauma is only partially about this conflict. It seems to want to also address another “mutiny”: that of postcolonial critics against Victorian culture. This is indeed a pity.
Herbert claims that he has written an account of Mutiny literature that is “sharply at odds with the standard formulations of postcolonial scholarship.” In the literature on the Mutiny, I found only one book-length study that might be deemed postcolonial, a book that makes Herbert very angry throughout War of No Pity: Gautam Chakravarty’s The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination.1 Chakravarty points out, citing a much larger corpus of post-colonial criticism than does Herbert, that the Mutiny novel has been largely absent from this theory. And, indeed, Chakravarty has many reservations about postcolonial theory himself, citing its tendency to “run aground at times in shallow channels of . . . speculations” [End Page 551] rather than rooting itself deeply in history (14). But Herbert takes Chakravarty’s book and suggests that it is a culmination of hostile postcolonial Mutiny scholarship, one that summarizes and epitomizes a “postcolonial assault on ‘the Victorians,’” which has “its own significant history” (17). No footnote follows this claim. Indeed, a look at the bibliography of War of No Pity reveals a very scant attention to postcolonial theory. In any event, the upshot is that this academic intrigue tends to repeat some of the structures of the Mutiny, but this time as farce. But this is a painful farce, given that fanning the flames of conflict between Victorian and postcolonial studies is a small but still very meaningful version of so many other ugly conflicts in the early twenty-first century.
Herbert argues that the fiction and historiography of the decades following the Mutiny reveal the ambivalence and guilt that the British suffered in regard to their admittedly brutal response. At moments Herbert discusses Victorians as shocked out of their own self-delusion about the values that defined their culture; at others he seems to join the Victorians he analyzes in his sense that their “real” values were betrayed in the Mutiny. In other words, Herbert seems to awaken to the realization that “a culture in which racism was widely regarded as repugnant had fostered an imperial society drenched in an especially virulent and violent form of racism . . .” (16). Surely Caribbean slavery and aboriginal genocide on several continents might have suggested, prior to 1857, such a possibility? Those of us who study Victorian culture can admire it and be critical of it, I hope. To defend it vigorously, as Herbert seems to feel compelled to do here, leads to positions that simply make no sense to me, given his own brilliant work on the idea of culture and the problematic ways in which the concept has been deployed. It is almost as though, in his identification with Victorians, he is now using the culture concept as Victorians might have used it, as a kind of bulwark or protection against something out there that is not well defined, but is vividly imagined.
War of No Pity is haunted by a problem of what seems like free indirect discourse. It is difficult to tell when Herbert is “quoting” the language of the texts in which he has immersed himself and when that language has somehow become his own. In the very first pages, “the briefest possible narrative of the . . . Indian Mutiny” is described in the following language: “The rebellion, smoldering for some...