Marx on the Indian Revolt, the violence of the oppressed, and imperialist hypocrisy

The following short article by Karl Marx, published in the New York Daily Tribune in 1857, comments on the Indian Rebellion that broke out against the British East India Company the same year. In a few short lines, Marx skewers the hypocrisy of respectable English society reeling in horror at the violence of the rebels; the product of decades of oppression. His words bear great relevance today given events in Israel-Palestine.

In the course of the revolt, which lasted for over a year, the rebels responded to the brutality of British colonialism by killing 6,000 soldiers and civilians, including women and children. This bloodshed was avenged many times over by the British, who left 800,000 Indians dead, including both those killed in the rebellion, and in the famines and epidemics that followed.

As Marx points out, not only did the cruelty of British rule provoke bloody retribution by the rebels, but the ruling classes of Britain and Europe were guilty of far worse atrocities over the course of their history. “John Bull is to be steeped in cries for revenge up to his very ears,” he writes, “to make him forget that his Government is responsible for the mischief hatched and the colossal dimensions it has been allowed to assume.”

This exact same statement could be levelled squarely at the reactionary Israeli government today (along with its imperialist benefactors), who for decades oppressed, murdered and humiliated the Palestinians, denying them their basic rights, and prepared a violent backlash.

Marx also notes the exaggerations and outright lies circulated in the London press (i.e. the propaganda of the British ruling class) about the ‘horrors’ of the rebellion, intended to whip the populace into a furious frenzy and rally them behind a vengeful response. Now, Israel besieges and pounds the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, with the full support and connivance of the west, while the press abounds with all manner of lurid details of Hamas’ brutality (real and invented), and actively cheers on Israel’s murderous and indiscriminate revenge.

We reproduce Marx’s article in full, and invite all our readers to observe the parallels with today.

The Indian Revolt

Karl Marx

The outrages committed by the revolted Sepoys in India are indeed appalling, hideous, ineffable — such as one is prepared to meet – only in wars of insurrection, of nationalities, of races, and above all of religion; in one word, such as respectable England used to applaud when perpetrated by the Vendeans on the “Blues,” by the Spanish guerrillas on the infidel Frenchmen, by Servians on their German and Hungarian neighbours, by Croats on Viennese rebels, by Cavaignac’s Garde Mobile or Bonaparte’s Decembrists on the sons and daughters of proletarian France.

Desanges, Louis William; Captain C. J. S. Gough (1832-1912), 5th Bengal European Cavalry Winning the Victoria Cross at Khurkowdah, Indian Mutiny, 15 August 1857; National Army Museum; infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India / Image: public domain

However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.

The first blow dealt to the French monarchy proceeded from the nobility, not from the peasants. The Indian revolt does not commence with the Ryots, tortured, dishonoured and stripped naked by the British, but with the Sepoys, clad, fed, petted, fatted and pampered by them. To find parallels to the Sepoy atrocities, we need not, as some London papers pretend, fall back on the middle ages, not, even wander beyond the history of contemporary England. All we want is to study the first Chinese war, an event, so to say, of yesterday. The English soldiery then committed abominations for the mere fun of it; their passions being neither sanctified by religious fanaticism nor exacerbated by hatred against an overbearing and conquering race, nor provoked by the stern resistance of a heroic enemy. The violations of women, the spittings of children, the roastings of whole villages, were then mere wanton sports, not recorded by Mandarins, but by British officers themselves.

Even at the present catastrophe it would be an unmitigated mistake to suppose that all the cruelty is on the side of the Sepoys, and all the milk of human kindness flows on the side of the English. The letters of the British officers are redolent of malignity. An officer writing from Peshawur gives a description of the disarming of the 10th irregular cavalry for not charging the 55th native infantry when ordered to do so. He exults in the fact that they were not only disarmed, but stripped of their coats and boots, and after having received 12d. per man, were marched down to the river side, and there embarked in boats and sent down the Indus, where the writer is delighted to expect every mother’s son will have a chance of being drowned in the rapids. Another writer informs us that, some inhabitants of Peshawur having caused a night alarm by exploding little mines of gunpowder in honour of a wedding (a national custom), the persons concerned were tied up next morning, and “received such a flogging as they will not easily forget.”

News arrived from Pindee that three native chiefs were plotting. Sir John Lawrence replied by a message ordering a spy to attend to the meeting. On the spy’s report, Sir John sent a second message, “Hang them.” The chiefs were hanged. An officer in the civil service, from Allahabad, writes:

“We have power of life and death in our hands, and we assure you we spare not.”

Another, from the same place:

“Not a day passes but we string up front ten to fifteen of them (non-combatants).”

One exulting officer writes:

“Holmes is hanging them by the score, like a ‘brick.’”

Another, in allusion to the summary hanging of a large body of the natives:

“Then our fun commenced.”

A third:

“We hold court-martials on horseback, and every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.”

From Benares we are informed that thirty Zemindars were hanged on the mere suspicion of sympathising with their own countrymen, and whole villages were burned down on the same plea. An officer from Benares, whose letter is printed in The London Times, says:

“The European troops have become fiends when opposed to natives.”

Killing british officers Image public domainActual accounts of Delhi evince the imagination of an English parson to be capable of breeding greater horrors than even the wild fancy of a Hindoo mutineer / Image: public domain

And then it should not be forgotten that, while the cruelties of the English are related as acts of martial vigour, told simply, rapidly, without dwelling on disgusting details, the outrages of the natives, shocking as they are, are still deliberately exaggerated. For instance, the circumstantial account first appearing in The Times, and then going the round of the London press, of the atrocities perpetrated at Delhi and Meerut, from whom did it proceed? From a cowardly parson residing at Bangalore, Mysore, more than a thousand miles, as the bird flies, distant from the scene of action. Actual accounts of Delhi evince the imagination of an English parson to be capable of breeding greater horrors than even the wild fancy of a Hindoo mutineer. The cutting of noses, breasts, &c., in one word, the horrid mutilations committed by the Sepoys, are of course more revolting to European feeling than the throwing of red-hot shell on Canton dwellings by a Secretary of the Manchester Peace Society, or the roasting of Arabs pent up in a cave by a French Marshal, or the flaying alive of British soldiers by the cat-o’-nine-tails under drum-head court-martial, or any other of the philanthropical appliances used in British penitentiary colonies. Cruelty, like every other thing, has its fashion, changing according to time and place. Caesar, the accomplished scholar, candidly narrates how he ordered many thousand Gallic warriors to have their right hands cut off. Napoleon would have been ashamed to do this. He preferred dispatching his own French regiments, suspected of republicanism, to St. Domingo, there to die of the blacks and the plague.

The infamous mutilations committed by the Sepoys remind one of the practices of the Christian Byzantine Empire, or the prescriptions of Emperor Charles V.’s criminal law, or the English punishments for high treason, as still recorded by Judge Blackstone. With Hindoos, whom their religion has made virtuosi in the art of self-torturing, these tortures inflicted on the enemies of their race and creed appear quite natural, and must appear still more so to the English, who, only some years since, still used to draw revenues from the Juggernaut festivals, protecting and assisting the bloody rites of a religion of cruelty.

The frantic roars of the “bloody old Times,” as Cobbett used to call it – its, playing the part of a furious character in one of Mozart’s operas, who indulges in most melodious strains in the idea of first hanging his enemy, then roasting him, then quartering him, then spitting him, and then flaying him alive — its tearing the passion of revenge to tatters and to rags – all this would appear but silly if under the pathos of tragedy there were not distinctly perceptible the tricks of comedy. The London Times overdoes its part, not only from panic. It supplies comedy with a subject even missed by Molière, the Tartuffe of Revenge. What it simply wants is to write up the funds and to screen the Government. As Delhi has not, like the walls of Jericho, fallen before mere puffs of wind, John Bull is to be steeped in cries for revenge up to his very ears, to make him forget that his Government is responsible for the mischief hatched and the colossal dimensions it has been allowed to assume.

London, Sept. 4, 1857