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  • "Their faces were like so many of the same sort at home":American Responses to the Indian Rebellion of 1857
  • Nikhil Bilwakesh (bio)

Read Emerson, Thoreau, or any number of American writings about India in the nineteenth century, and find a depiction with very little deviation, of an exotic seat of mystical apathy spiced with hints of hideous barbarism, where men act faithfully in accordance to what Emerson calls "the idea of a deaf, implorable, immense fate." 1 So in 1857, when sepoys (native soldiers employed by the British) take up arms against their British officers, inaugurating an almost subcontinent-wide revolt and sparking what for a time looks like the beginning of the end of the British Empire, we would expect a complication of the idea. Among the Transcendentalists we find silence. But the silence wasn't due to a lack of media exposure about the events in India. In fact, newspaper coverage of the events in India was thick and varied, and in this article, I examine and survey this wide ranging and critically neglected media coverage of the 1857 Indian Rebellion. While coverage of the rebellion did little to change American perceptions of India, especially in Transcendentalist discourse, the rhetoric and language of that coverage did influence American responses to pressing domestic concerns. Periodical writers employed sensational and other literary devices in order to "translate" the story to the American public, with Democratic, Southern, African American, abolitionist, and Irish American newspapers exhibiting various rhetorical compromises in their responses, in order to further their own domestic goals.

Newspaper coverage of the rebellion, and artistic responses to that coverage, reveal an anxiety toward slave revolts in the late 1850s and into the Civil War, best exemplified by Mary Boykin Chestnutt, whose response to a dramatization of the rebels was horror at the realization that "their faces were like so many of the same sort at home." 2 While Asian Indians were an insignificant population in the United States in the 1850s, the sepoys offered the spectre of a large-scale slave revolt by a non-white populace, and the British response offered models of a potential American response. But if some saw a resemblance between [End Page 1] the sepoy and the slave, others would see a resemblance between the native rebel and the secessionist rebel. The deracination of the sepoy conflict from its specific context in British India and the growing disinterest of the United States in Indian affairs would allow for a more creative use of the term "sepoy" as a device with which to describe American conflicts. By the end of the nineteenth century, "sepoy" could be used in America to describe Southern white troops and guerillas, the Federal Government, African American soldiers, Mormons, Spanish imperialists in Cuba, or striking character actors at the Grand Opera House in San Francisco. I begin this article with a survey of American press, poetic, and dramatic responses to the rebellion in 1857, followed by a discussion of how the language and rhetoric from the Indian rebellion was applied to domestic affairs during and after the US Civil War; I conclude with some comments on one of the larger implications of the study—how foreign conflicts are appropriated for the purpose of describing domestic conflicts.

Scholarship on the ante-bellum connections between the Americas and India has generally been limited to American transcendentalists' readings of Sanskrit texts in translation, Indian competition in the international cotton market, and in Caribbean studies, the consequences of replacing slave labor in the British West Indies with Asian indentured labor after Emancipation. 3 The research presented here may help others determine how American responses to the rebellion may have had an impact on American foreign and immigration policies in the early twentieth century. The question with which I began this research—how did Emerson and Thoreau maintain a static vision of India and Indians in the face of widespread coverage of the anti-colonial struggle of the 1850s?—remains unanswered.

Sepoys and Sensationalism in the Press

The events in India of 1857 have been written about extensively. 4 This article does not at all address historical accounts of those events, but rather seeks to focus...


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