Compare and contrast the hypotheses, styles and the contents of the respective volumes on the British Empire by John Newsinger and Niall Ferguson.

John Newsinger’s The Blood Never Dried and Niall Ferguson’s Empire, as composed by two historians who seemingly completely disagree with each other throughout their respective studies on the British Empire, form the basis for an interesting comparative study.  This essay will compare and contrast how the perceived hypotheses, styles and contents of both of these works differentiate in their depictions, specifically, of the 1857 Indian Slave Rebellion.  Within this topic, this essay will specifically investigate how the historians differentiate both in their explanations for the Rebellion, and in their portrayals of the brutalities from either side of the conflict.  It will conclude by determining how these findings indicate the styles that the writers used.

Ferguson’s central argument to how the Rebellion emerged is that the Rebellion was essentially a clash between religions.  In opening his study on the Indian Rebellion by implying that the Hindu Sepoys, by following the examples of the ‘dangerous, unpredictable deity’ of the Goddess Kali who ‘kill[ed] everyone in her path’, were essentially barbaric in nature when it came to defending their religion, Ferguson implies that the British fiercely repressed the Rebellion out of a fear of it escalating to a Kali-esque level.[1]  His representation of the ‘principal victims’ of the Rebellion being ‘in fact native Christians’ is a somewhat confusing polemic that happens to be unexpanded upon and not cited.[2]  However, it shows a bias in his argument in favour of the British Christians, which he emphasises further in suggesting that the ‘conservative reaction’ to the Christianisation of India was the most significant cause to the Rebellion.[3]  Thus Ferguson’s argument is that the Rebellion happened out of the inept and potentially barbaric actions of the Indians.  Newsinger differs from this view.

Whilst Ferguson laid the blame on the ineptitude of the Indians for the religions conflict that sparked the Rebellion, Newsinger contests that the Rebellion was a national movement formed mainly in response to British rule.  In stating that a ‘ferocious popular hostility to British rule’ gave shape to the Indian Rebellion, Newsinger argues that the national revolt was in a ‘particular phase of development’ before it was crushed.[4]  However, the degree to which the Rebellion was fighting a nationalist cause is debatable.  With no active Indian independence movement being mentioned by Newsinger in his study, it seems unlikely that the Rebellion would have forced independence even if the circumstances had been different.  The Indian Rebellion, therefore, was only an insignificant representation of an independence struggle if it is to be defined as one, as the British ruthlessly repressed it before it had the chance to properly develop.

Throughout his study, Ferguson frequently denies of or disassociates the Empire from the horrific realities of its atrocities in repressing the Rebellion.  His representation of the British repression of the Indian Rebellion as being dealt through the ‘vengefulness of the Evangelicals’ justifies the killings by the British as being acceptable within the dogma of Christianity.[5]  Even in writing about 150 Indians being hung from a banyan tree, rather than condemning or rejecting the act, Ferguson remarks that ‘the fruits of the Mutiny were bitter’.[6]  This is an example of Ferguson disassociating the British Empire from the horrors of the atrocity.  It is clear throughout that in no part of his study on the Indian Rebellion does Ferguson seek repentance for the British Empire’s atrocities.  Through his avoidance of repent, Ferguson’s study is representative of an overtly biased, Empire-apologetic, and politically manifested piece of work.

Newsinger argues that the British utilised Christianity to justify their most violent ever actions.[7]  In noting ‘striking parallels’ between the British and Nazi repression methods, he illustrates the clear similarities, illustrated with an account of a mass killing by firing squad, between the mass execution methods used by the British and of those that were used by the Nazis.[8]  Newsinger further builds a comparison by portraying how the British Empire also utilised the Christian God to justify its actions.  One such example is Neill’s statement of how he felt guided by ‘the finger of God’ in committing one such atrocity. [9]  Inherently, theological beliefs were crucial to give justification for the Empire’s atrocities in the repression of the Rebellion.  However, this focus differs in relating to the atrocities of the Indians against the British.

Ferguson very clearly and incorrectly depicts the Sepoys as being as barbaric as ‘their’ god Kali.  Firstly, it should be acknowledged that, with the mutinying Sepoys being made up of both Hindus and Muslims, the mutineers cannot all be seen as Kali-worshippers.[10] It should also be seen as more than just a coincidence of how similarly, word for word, Ferguson writes of the spreading of the rebellion to the supposed spreading of Kali’s destruction.  Whilst he describes Kali’s path of destruction as ‘she ran amok, killing everyone in her path’, he describes the mutineers as seeming to ‘run amok, killing every European they could find’.[11]  This subliminal, negative representation of the mutineers is reflected in his portrayal of the mutineers’ atrocities.  One account that he quotes, of Private Bowater recollecting about a white woman being mutilated by mutineers, is repudiated by Newsinger’s statement that such stories were found, after extensive enquiry, to have been fabricated.[12],[13]  Ferguson’s depiction of the mutineers as barbarians as akin to the Goddess Kali can thus be deemed academically invalid, but his arguments are useful in highlighting where the Indians supposedly violated.

Newsinger’s representation of the Indian atrocities mainly involves him demystifying the reality from the fiction.  Whilst he agrees that the Rebellion often led the rebels to killing as many British as they could access, he disagrees with how exaggerated the reporting of the Indian cruelties was conducted.[14]  Newsinger, on this basis, gives quite an objective stand in representing the Indian atrocities.

Ferguson’s one-sided and often factually deceiving approach to the representation of the religiosity in the Rebellion makes it clear that he is, as Newsinger suggests, an ‘apologist’ of the Christian-British intervention.[15]  Thus, Ferguson’s study can be described as being an apologist’s study on the Indian Rebellion.  Newsinger, contrarily, delivers a much more objective study on the Indian Rebellion.  With his notably fairer representation of the Indian mutineers, and an active attempt at describing the Rebellion as being a movement of many peoples, Newsinger’s people’s history study of the Indian Rebellion is representative of a Marxist approach to the topic.

Word count: 1057/1000

 

Bibliography

Books

Ferguson, N., Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin, 2004.

Newsinger, J., The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire. London: Bookmarks, 2006.

Journal articles

Cottingham, J., ‘Varieties of Retribution’, The Philosophical Quarterly. 1979, 29(116), pp. 238-246.

Gordon, A. ‘From British Empire to American Colossus’, Journal of Contemporary Asia. 2006, 36(4), 545-552.

Mishra, P., ‘Watch this man. Review of Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Ferguson, N.’, London Review of Books. 2011, 33(21), pp. 10-12.

Newsinger, J., ‘A Great British Tradition’, Socialist Review. 2007 [Online] Available from: http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=9952 [Accessed: 01.12.11].

Wayne, M., ‘Failing the Public: The BBC, The War Game and Revisionist History. A Reply to James Chapman’, Journal of Contemporary History. 2007, 42(4), pp. 627-637.


[1] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, London: Penguin, 2004, p. 145.

[2] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, p. 145.

[3] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, p. 146.

[4] John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire. London: Bookmarks, 2006, p. 72.

[5] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, p. 152.

[6] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, 152.

[7] Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, p. 66.

[8] Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, p. 65-6.

[9] Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, p. 78.

[10] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, p. 145.

[11] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, pp. 145, 147.

[12] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, p. 150.

[13] Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, p. 74.

[14] Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, p. 74

[15] Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, p. 7.

 

Originally an essay submitted in December 2011 for the British Empire Year 2 History module at Bath Spa University.

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