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on 9 December 2002
This is a good, solid effort by Mr. David. He has 2 major points that he wants to prove. The first is that the mutiny was not a spontaneous uprising with one simple cause (the beef/pork tallow cartridge issue). The second is that the outcome (a British victory) was anything but a foregone conclusion. He succeeds in proving both of his points. He shows that the uprising had several causes: poor pay, frustration over the lack of opportunities for promotion, the insensitivity of the British concerning the caste system, and a lack of communication between the British and the Indian troops, caused by arrogance and racism on the part of the British. Mr. David shows that the cartridge issue (which was really a non-issue, since the problem had already been corrected before any of the odious cartridges would have had to have been used) was only a pretext- something that the leaders of the mutiny, mostly high-caste Brahman officers, knew they could use to agitate the "rank-and-file" sepoys. Mr. David also shows that the uprising was anything but spontaneous. There were many indications that something was "in the works". Some of the more astute British officers and East India Company representatives knew what was in the wind...but their warnings were either ignored or, if actions had been initiated to correct grievances, it was a case of "too little, too late". Also, in addition to the above factors, there was much resentment caused by the British annexation of various "fiefdoms"- areas where a local ruler had died and left no natural heir. Longstanding tradition, even under the British, had been that the ruler could pass the property on to an adopted child. The British got greedy and decided they could use the lack of a natural heir as an excuse to grab up these juicy, revenue producing areas for themselves. Once it was clear that the British would not play "cricket"- they'd break the rules when it suited them- some Indians felt that it was time for them to be forced out of the country. Regarding Mr. David's second point, that the mutiny could have succeeded, he proves his point by showing that since the mutiny had spread to several areas, and since the British were substantially outnumbered by the natives, the outcome was dicey for many months. What probably saved the British was the fragmented nature of the mutiny....despite the fact that the uprising itself was planned, there was a lack of coordination and leadership. The various factions pretty much did as they pleased, and the British were slowly able to regain control.....area by area. Mr. David does a nice job of balancing the material that will appeal to the reader that enjoys military history (the nuts-and-bolts of the strategy and battles) and the material that will appeal to the general reader (character sketches of many of the participants, first-person accounts by civilians regarding the horrors of the various sieges, etc.). The maps are all placed together at the start of the book, and are nicely detailed so that the reader can easily follow the "action". If the book has any weakness, it is that since there were so many things going on, the author tends to jump around from place to place a little too rapidly- and he sometimes gets caught up in the small details (for example, constantly giving you the numerical breakdown in various regiments of how many men were British infantry or cavalry vs. Indian infantry or cavalry, etc.). This tended, for me, to break the smooth flow of the narrative- although I can see the appeal to the more military-minded reader. In any case, within the big picture, these are small complaints because Mr. David has written a very exciting and well-reasoned book.
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on 10 October 2002
Saul David's retelling of the bloody events of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 gain enormously from the numerous anectodes of those men and women caught up in the conflict. Inevitably these were written primarily by the British rather than mutinous Indian sepoys leading perhaps to a one sided viewpoint. Even so they have an exciting immediacy that shows terror, heroism and courage. The sieges of Delhi, Lucknow and Cawnpore are covered in detail but read like a thrilling historical novel that I was loathe to put down.The author shows that the causes of these turbulent events were as much due to poor pay and conditions as fear that greased cartridges were to be introduced offending both Hindu and Moslem sensitivities. Indeed the latter was used as an excuse to persuade wavering sepoys to rebel. Colourful figures abound. My favourite is the Rani of Jhansi. A useful glossary is included to explain the many unfamiliar terms such as baba-logs, jemander and havildar and the maps are more than adequate. These were all referred to frequently.More detailed descriptions of the Cawnpore massacre can be found in Andrew Ward's excellent'Our Bones are Scattered' but for an overall description of these events Saul David's book is difficult to beat.
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on 15 January 2004
Narrative history has been championed successfully of recent by the likes of Anthony Beevor and Simon Schama, both regularly riding high in the best-seller lists. Every bit their equal is Saul David who in this book describes the dramatic events of 1857 and 1858 when the complacent British rule of India came near to being swept away. However, David’s book is not merely a colourful account. It also has an analytical edge, seeking to answer the standard but often disputed question of why the mutiny occurred. His compelling answer is that the causes were neither political, religious, nor even due to the harsh conditions imposed upon the Indian sepoys. Instead the mutiny was more professional in character, resulting from Indian soldiers’ wish for better pay and promotional opportunities. If anything discipline was too lax and Indian regiments generally poorly led by their white officers.
The Indian mutiny is a subject which has often been taken up whether by other historians, such as Christopher Hibbert (who compared to this wrote a rather turgid account), or even in fiction. J. G. Farrell received the Booker prize in 1973 for his novel The Siege of Krishnapur, and Zadie Smith wove Mangal Pandy into White Teeeth. Such popularity is easy to understand for the mutiny was more dramatic than any fiction. This drama is finely reproduced by David.
In 1857 British India under Company rule had reached its greatest extent. A disastrous defeat in Afghanistan in 1840 had been more than compensated for by annexations of the Punjab and Burma, whilst minor princely states continued to be snapped up by the Company when there was no apparent heir. But then in March 1857 an intoxicated sepoy, Mangal Pandy, became the first of tens of thousands of Bengal soldiers to mutiny. The course of events is vividly taken up by Saul David, leading the reader from city walls and bazaars, across dusty plains, to the villages and fields of the Indo-Gangetic plain, hill-top forts, Calcutta’s sweltering palaces, and reaching its conclusion in the jungles of Nepal. The story encompasses great heroism and cowardice, ghastly cruelty yet also surprising kindness, and both incompetence and brilliance. David also gives perceptive descriptions of the mutiny’s main figures; Henry Lawrence in Lucknow, John Nicholson at Dehli, Campbell and his highlanders, Canning in Calcutta, the villainous Nana Sahib, the courageous Ranee of Jahnsi, and the pathetic and tragic King of Dehli Bahadur Shah. Fittingly, however, David ends his account of the mutiny with the moving reminiscences of an aged sepoy who remained loyal throughout these traumatic times.
Apart from the mutiny the book gives a brief account of events leading up to the mutiny, and a more in-depth examination of the mutiny’s background. David assumes you know the bones of British India’s history. As regards events afterwards, other than immediately succeeding the mutiny, there is almost nothing. It might have been interesting to at least have had an appendix on different perspectives of the mutiny; how for example it is regarded in India today. As regards the text itself the only thing I could find to object to was a fleeting and rather unconvincing comparison between the mutiny and the American War of Independence.
These are, however, very insignificant qualifications, and may fairly be termed nit-picking. This is a hugely satisfying book. Saul David has set himself the task of describing and explaining the mutiny and does both admirably. The well-written text together with the nature of the subject meant that I found it hard to stop reading at times. David’s also has a masterly grasp of events. These he plays out chronologically with each chapter focusing on a different area of the struggle. This, together with the book’s excellent maps, make understanding events easy. Whether you are a student of Indian or Empire history (there are copious notes and an extensive bibliography), or merely interested in a rattling good read, I can not recommend this book highly enough. This is like Beevor but with more depth.
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on 17 October 2007
Saul David does a sterling job of providing an entertaining and gripping account of the Indian mutiny which all but sealed the fate of the East India Company which was subsequently dissolved in 1858.

Once the narrative gets going it becomes very hard to put down this book and very little foreknowledge of the subject matter is demanded. There are sections when the some of the seiges and battles can get a bit repetitive but luckily those sections are few and far between.

I would recommend this as a starting point for anyone who wants to find out more about this pivotal event in both Indian and British history. The mutiny inspired the first serious attempts at independance from British rule but it also strengthened the British Empire when they were victorious.

The book focuses on the title so if you are looking for more background on the events leading upto the mutiny, British India or the East India Company this would not be the book for you. However, if you wanted to know about how the mutiny started, the misrepresentations in the British press and a very well put together account of the mutiny and subsequent rebellion attempts then jump straight in, you won't regret it.

However, it only gets 4 stars as I would've liked a little bit more from the Indian viewpoint.
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on 14 September 2010
Having read several other books on the Mutiny and having a lively non-specialist interest in this period, I was attracted by the promise of a 'readable' account. Seldom have the promises on a book's cover been so utterly at variance with the content.

Dr David's PhD was on the Mutiny and this book is a spin-off. It lacks the structure or coherence that you would expect of a book, rather than a doctoral thesis. The narrative zigs and zags wildly in both place and time, leaving someone who doesn't know a lot about the events already often wondering where they are or what the general progress of the war is. At one point we are in Lucknow, preparing for the siege, when the chapter ends and we are transported to Cawnpore, returning to Lucknow in a later chapter. Given that these are two of the great sieges of the war, it is easy to forget which outnumbered group of plucky Brits we are reading about.

The story of the Mutiny was dominated by powerful and colourful individuals on both sides. More than most wars, this is a story of heroes and villains and one that a good writer will bring alive. Dr David does from time to time try to do this but he has no eye for character. People are introduced by telling us who their fathers were and whether or not they made a good marriage. Too much time with 19th century source material leaves David introducing us as if he were a vicar introducing particularly boring guests at a Victorian tea party. The difficulty of getting a grip on characters is exacerbated by the eccentric narrative that sees someone introduced on one page and then mentioned by name once fifty pages later and we are expected to remember who it is. This is made even harder by some failures in the indexing.

We have the usual lists of regiments that are the bane of so many military histories. David makes things worse by referring to companies within the regiments (and troops within companies) without- as far as I could see - ever explaining how many soldier were in a troop, how many troops made up a company or how many companies a regiment. Similarly, he shows off his familiarity with Indian terms by using these frequently without translation. There is a glossary (hidden away in the mass of appendices, bibliography, notes and index that make up the last hundred pages of the paperback edition) and I spent far too long thumbing my way to it to make any sense of some of his comments.

There's a lot of solid research and a fascinating story hidden in David's source material. Someone should read through it: they could turn it into a book.
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on 16 December 2015
This is undoubtedly the best book yet written on the Indian Mutiny. Mr David has thoroughly researched the period, and combines brilliant fluid writing style with a modern imperial historians perspective not trapped in nationalist/anti-imperialistic mindset. He clearly sets out the atrocities committed by the Indians, and brutal retribution carried out by the British in revenge without the need to impose his own 21st century views onto the contemporary actions of 19th century men and women. For this he is to be greatly commended as subjects such as this are usually the domain of the most partisan, worthless historians.

The Indian Mutiny, was perhaps the defining moment in the British Raj. Not only did it result in more direct control from London and the abolishment of John Company but it forever changed the attitudes of Imperial Britain to the Indian Subcontinent. Something that is made clear from the book is that with very few exceptions, most Britons did not think the Indian Army would ever mutiny. Officers risked their lives by refusing to believe their troops would be disloyal. After the Mutiny, never again were the British so trusting. They lived in a state of perpetual suspicion of what their Indian subjects might do. To understand the second half of the British Raj from 1857-1947, you have to understand and appreciate the importance of the Mutiny.

The author clearly sets out the story of the mutiny in three parts. First, that caused it. Mr David adeptly argues that the mutiny wasn't about cartridges at all, but instead that the mutiny had deeper social and economic reasons and was preplanned. The author then in the second part sets out what happened during the mutiny. He prevails in bringing order to what was a particularly chaotic episodes which makes it pretty easy to follow, even if sometimes we are moving back and forth between locations. Finally, the third part, mostly contain briefly at the end of the narrative and in the annexes detail what changes resulted from the Mutiny.

I have only given it four stars because Mr David, although usually very thorough seems to not consider some pretty obvious points in the book. First, there is a running discussion thorough the book on whether white women were sexually abused and rape by the Indian mutineers. This was something that caused huge contemporary anger, although with little direct evidence, and later inquiries seemed to suggest it didn't really happen, although even at the time there were doubts this could possibly be untrue. One point Mr David fails to address, is the fact that many woman are ashamed of having been raped, or been seen as having been dishonoured. Even today some feel ashamed of having been raped, in a culture such as Victorian England were a young woman's virtue was all important and the belief in racial superiority over the non-white races was absolute, having been raped would have been the utmost shame. Mr David never considers then the point that many women may well have hid the fact they were abused and many men who may have been helpless to stop anything occurring, may have wished to believe things didn't happen. This would chime with known historical fact. You see very few historical accounts of male rape because people would have wanted to hide it. It is also true that even in the most 'civilised' wars rape is ubiquitous. The western allies convicted hundreds of soldiers for rape in the Second World War. The idea that women would not have been raped during the Mutiny is a fantasy.

There is an entire chapter on the exceptional Rani of Jhansi. I found it strange that seemingly not once does Dr David consider the fact that the reason why she at first holds out against committing to the mutiny is that she felt that if she stayed loyal, she would receive the title and lands that was her ultimate aim whichever side she chose - it is true she probably would have got these things had she stayed loyal. If this is the case it can be argued that it was only after she realises the depth of the suspicions held by the British authorities over her complicity in the Jhansi massacre that she decided to throw her lot in with the mutineers as she realises she won't get what she seeks if she remains steadfast. This seems a very plausible point he does not consider.

Other issues occasionally surface, although they are usually minor. Sometimes he uses poor historical examples. So he says you require the tacit approval of the majority of the population to rule a country (completely correct) but uses the American Rebellion his an example (This is incorrect, the majority of the colonists were ambivalent particularly at the start before they were stoked through propaganda. Yet even then it was poor leadership in London and in America combined with the intervention of France and Spain which spread Britains naval forces too thin that cost Britain the colonies)

All in all, this is a brilliant book. I would recommend it for anyone interest in the history of the British Raj or just in India more generally. The author can be justly proud of what he has achieved.
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VINE VOICEon 28 October 2008
Having expected a 'revisionist' view of the Mutiny, I got one. However, instead of having to endure the cheap revisionism of an author just contradicting everyone else, I was instead wowed by excellent analysis and compelling logic.

David tells the story and then interprets it in a very measured and steady fashion. This is not to imply that he is boring. Quite the reverse. It is just that interpretation is as important for him as the facts themselves. As a result I found the book far more intellectually stimulating than anything else I have read on the Mutiny.

The central thesis that the Bengal Army mutinied to better itself cuts across both British and Indian myth making. Actually this interpretation makes the entire sequence of events more chilling. David is right, though. Promotion by seniority was killing ambition or opportunity. Pay could no longer be supplemented by booty or extra allowances. Officers were no longer close to their men to the degree that had worked before. Reputation, particularly for poor Brahmins in the infantry was being eroded.

Before I get carried away and write an essay, I need to stop and say "Well done, Saul". You managed to analyse without boring, narrate without irritating, theorise without dehumanising. We have all this - without being robbed of an amazing story - fights against huge odds, sudden flights into the jungle, horrific crimes, horrific retribution, remarkable people, ordinary people in remarkable times.
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on 23 December 2010
This is the third book I have read of Saul David and in my opinion his best book to date.
Having some scant knowledge of the Indian Mutiny this book has more than educated me about some of the causes of the mutiny and its eventual crushing by the British and the loyal native troops.I found the book to be very easy to read and no point did I get bored with the book.
There was much tragedy with loss of much innocent life's lost on both sides of the conflict and one did feel for all the victims. The book also exposes some of the arrogance and high-handedness by the British towards the Indian sepoys and all Indians alike and in some respects you can sympathise with the rebels.Saul has excelled with the military aspects of the conflict and covers all the major battles with great detail and has the reader on the edge of their seats!!
Great book and would recommend
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on 24 October 2010
an excellent read. this sheds light on the real reasons for the uprising which modern indians refer to as the ist indian war of independence not a mutiny as the british refer. it also debases certain leftwing politicians rhetoric that colonial soldiers from this region were loyal to the crown and that the british are somehow indebted to their efforts during the 2 world wars (notwithstanding hundreds of thousands of indians opting to fight alongside the japanese in ww2 when promised independance)when really serving the british provided a better way of living rather than toiling in the heat farming.
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on 11 December 2014
Having been borne in India in 1939 this book i found riveting as it answered many many names and places that my dad talked about for the rest of his life. very enjoyable and was read every spare moment. David Carr Taylor
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