1857 on the Peripheries of Empire

During our recent workshop, Daniel Clayton emphasised  the importance of reflecting on where meaning congeals when investigating the impact of events and ideas across an empire. This approach is no more important than when considering the impact of the Indian Uprising of 1857. In India it represented a direct threat to European lives and property, and the authority of colonial rule; in London it represented a challenge to Britain’s reputation as the dominant global power, and a potential risk to colonial control across the empire. In many of the colonies, however, the Indian Uprising was primarily a distant crisis and a draw upon imperial resources. In our last two blogs we sought to demonstrate how the Indian Uprising spurred a mass mobilisation of imperial resources across the globe, as both human and ‘more-than-human’ entities were concentrated in the subcontinent. It would be easy to view the uprising as a centralising force, to apply that regional meaning across the empire. However, as we remember Clayton’s observations, it becomes clear that meaning does not congeal uniformly ‘everywhere and all at once.’ Rather, as will be demonstrated in this blog, the Indian Uprising existed as a peripheral event to many, its impact distant and indirect.

In fact, many colonies remained blissfully detached from events occurring on the other side of the globe, too concerned with local issues to spare much thought for such a distant crisis. This post will explore these ‘peripheries of 1857’ where, despite their own inward perspective, colonial administration was still inevitably affected by global imperial agendas. It will likewise focus upon the role occupied by the Colonial Office – in cooperation with the other offices of the home government in London – as a mediator, maintaining a global perspective and the concept of a united British Empire, even as the colonies retained singularly localised outlooks.

The peripheries of the empire in 1857 therefore provide an interesting insight into the processes of triage employed by the Colonial Office during periods of crisis. While our last blogs explored how  imperial resources were mobilised to serve a single purpose, this one will now investigate how, in spite of that seemingly singular focus, business-as-usual was preserved across the rest of the empire. With so much energy directed toward a single cause, methods of triage were employed to determine how remaining resources were distributed to ensure stability and that other imperial imperatives were maintained. This blog will focus on a few colonies that remained peripheral to the main crisis of 1857 and their engagements with the Home Government and the Empire as a whole.


Saint Helena
The case of St. Helena demonstrates the importance of communication networks for retaining a connection to the wider empire, as well as how associated technologies were unevenly distributed among the colonies. St. Helena was not only geographically isolated, but also communicationally and commercially isolated from the rest of the Empire. It received very little investment from the central government, as it was seen to hold only a very minor role in the promotion of imperial interests. While the Cape Colony commanded nearly one fifth the military expenditure spent across the British Empire, St. Helena received none. Once a crucial re-fuelling station, by 1857 St. Helena was relegated to a peripheral status within transoceanic and global networks of communication and transport. This placed it outside the central sphere of military and political interest, relegated to a position of only tertiary importance, with no standing imperial military and little external investment.[1] In fact, while the colony was often used by traders as a way-station on their travels between Europe and East Asia, it appears that it was not used by the military at all. In 1857, the Governor of St. Helena, Sir Edmund Hay Drummond Hay, received an offer from the United States of America Government, proposing the establishment of a naval depot on the island. Wishing the British to have first right of access to the strategic advantages ostensibly offered by St. Helena, Governor Hay wrote to the Colonial Office, describing “the well recognised advantages of geographical position, safety of roadstead, abundance of pure water, fresh provisions, and supplies of all kinds,” as well as the “peculiarly healthy climate of St. Helena [that would] add much to its value as a Naval Station.”[2] Ultimately, however, the Colonial Office consulted with the Admiralty and determined to allow the deal with the Americans.


Sketch of plan for Naval Depot at Rupert’s Valley, St. Helena

This decision is certainly representative of the lack of strategic interest which St. Helena commanded. The Colonial Office made a crucial decision to allow the island – which produced little internal revenue – to raise funds by renting land to a foreign power rather than invest resources in the colony. In 1857 the empire had little military resources to spare, but likewise they were interested in levying any and all assets they had. St. Helena clearly fell to the bottom of the list, both as a recipient and as a possible contributor toward the strategic interests of the empire.

The same seems to have applied to the commercial sector, which chiefly benefitted from the occasional visit of a merchant vessel looking to restock and refuel en route from Asia. As a result, it appears that the colony found itself struggling to maintain basic living standards for the small community of local residents. Far from being able to fund their own military, St. Helena struggled to finance basic infrastructure, even in the capital. James Town, the capital city of St. Helena, lacked a complete drainage system. In 1854, a project had been approved that would pave the main drain in James Town, making possible higher sanitation standards in the city. The paving was necessary for any future “arching over,” which would place the sewage drain underground, thereby improving public health standards as well as expanding the land area available for construction. However, a lack of funds had seen the work delayed for several years.

It was here therefore that the extent of the reliance upon local officials to maintain the day-to-day health of the empire is most readily apparent. Originally intended to be funded in part by the War Office, this infrastructure project had been delayed as a result of having never received the funds. By 1857 the situation was dire, with the need for higher sanitation standards in the city becoming ever more pressing, while the availability of funds from the imperial government to support colonial maintenance projects on the strategic periphery were at an all-time low. Governor Hay, therefore, developed a somewhat innovative plan whereby the drainage works would be completed gradually over time, drawing solely on surplus colonial revenues. The Colonial Office were happy to approve a scheme that would sever the Home Government from responsibility for financing colonial infrastructure, and allow their resources to be directed elsewhere.[3] It was likewise for these reasons that the Colonial Office similarly approved the building of an American naval depot on St. Helena, declining to use the island’s facilities for British purposes.


While St. Helena was isolated from the whole of the Empire, Trinidad remained closely connected with other colonies in its vicinity and with consumer markets in Europe, despite being distant from events in India. Its government retained a uniquely Caribbean perspective, focused upon the protection of local industry. A surge in sugar prices in 1857 inspired a significant expansion in cultivation which, in turn, required a larger supply of cheap agricultural labour. In the decades following Emancipation, this need had primarily been met by Indian indenture, and the onset of the unrest on the subcontinent was not to deter demand. Despite the supposed preponderance of free trade ideologies at this time, it is clear that the protection of Caribbean sugar interests was seen as a priority in England. It was a convenience that meeting consumer demand for sugar in England intersected with the punitive agendas of Indian lawmakers.

At the end of 1857, the uprising was mostly over, and the Court of Directors of the East India Company was debating what to do with the population of former mutineers. Most agreed that Transportation was the best course of action for dealing with the majority, but a conclusion as to where they should be sent was yet to be made. Colonies such as Trinidad, which were desperate for labour, began bidding to receive the convicts. In November 1857, Governor Robert W. Keate of Trinidad forwarded a report presented by the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Council on Immigration in Trinidad, presenting a plan by which the colony proposed to accept minor offenders from among the Indian mutineers. The Chairman and Governor proposed a plan whereby “however penal in its nature the expatriation of these offenders might be made, their reception in Trinidad would not bear that character.”[4] In other words, instead of maintaining a separate, and costly, Convict Establishment on the island, they proposed to integrate the deported mutineers into the general Indian indentured labour force. They suggested that the mutineers would be indentured to agricultural labour for a period of ten years, “but with power reserved to the Governor of transferring their services or cancelling their indentures.”[5] Far from expressing worries that the mutineers might inspire similar unrest among the existing Trinidadian indentures, or for the general security of the colony, the Trinidad colonial government promoted a plan that prioritised the efficacy of this new work force by pushing for total integration:

I fear that…a contract of such duration with the same employer would present too servile an appearance, and that the distinction between the two classes of Indian labourers would therefore be too marked. It would be preferable, I think, that these deported immigrants, as I would call them, should be assigned for that length of time to the local Government instead of to individual employers, and that this assignment should take place of, and operate in the same way as, the obligation to the residence of ten years now imposed by the Immigration Ordinance No. 24 of 1854 on voluntary Indian immigrants. The labour indentures of both classes should then, I think, be made identical in duration, and the same right of purchasing their time might be extended to both.[6]

In fact, the demand for inexpensive labour in the Caribbean colonies was such that it inspired rivalries. Trinidad repeatedly bemoaned the perceived favouritism shown to the nearby colony of British Guiana in the distribution of deported mutineers. Governor Keate complained that British Guiana received privileged access to this ready supply of labour, as well as receiving advantages in the usual avenues of labour acquisition, in the form of a representative agent for emigration posted in Bombay. Keate complained that if British Guiana were permitted an Emigration Agent in Bombay, so too should they be, so that Trinidad could also gain access to the “higher calibre” migrants.[7]

This inter-colony tension similarly reared its head when gold was discovered on the border of British Guiana. Trinidad raised repeated concerns that the prospect of gold would inspire agricultural labourers to abandon their fields, and indentures to flee their contracts, to seek their fortune in the neighbouring colony.


British Guiana
British Guiana, meanwhile, seemed not to return much of the animosity directed  their way from Trinidad. They expressed similar concerns for their ability to provide workers for the sugar plantations, but were primarily preoccupied with issues of domestic unrest. Chiefly, this centred upon a border dispute with Venezuela, inflamed by the discovery of gold. In aiming to meet their needs in this regard, British Guiana made repeated requests to the Home Government for support, showing little-to-no understanding of how London’s attention might be divided in meeting demands for military, financial, and diplomatic support.

Like Trinidad, British Guiana was primarily a plantation economy, and similarly desired to increase their supply of inexpensive, agricultural labour through the increased importation of Indian indentures. In one instance, the colony was eager to establish a convict settlement from whence the prisoners would be relegated to agricultural work.[8]

In 1857, the colony was granted permission to station an Emigration Agent in Bombay to represent their interests in recruiting labourers, a fact that, as already noted, irritated other colonies that were denied such powers.[9] Inter-colony struggles to control the labour market in this region were not a new event in this region; dating as far back as the late-1830s, in the years following the end of Apprenticeship, Barbados, Trinidad, and British Guiana all attempted to influence the movement of labour. British Guiana, in particular, was known for setting up financial incentives to encourage former slaves to emigrate there from other colonies.[10]

The discovery of gold on the Venezuelan border of British Guiana not only exacerbated these inter-colony tensions, but also reinvigorated a standing boundary dispute. The gold was found at Upata, in a mountainous region separating British and Venezuelan territory. The exact line, however, separating these two regions of Guiana had been under dispute for some years, with multiple reports placing the border at varying points. The River Orinoco, for example, was but one possible border line, as well as carrying greater importance for its being the primary artery from the coast and the only major waterway into the Upata region. With the mouth of the Orinoco currently under British control, the government of British Guiana was anxious to ensure proper protection for this strategic holding while the border dispute was being settled. They requested a naval ship of war be posted at Point Barima, at the mouth of the Orinoco, to prevent its occupation by any foreign powers. In response the Admiralty pointed out that simply no ships of war were then available to stand guard, prompting Secretary of State for the Colonies, Henry Labouchere, to assure the colonial government that he “considers it to be very desirable that in due season a Ship of War should…visit the mouth of the Orinoco for the protection of British interests” even if such action was, at that time, not possible.[11] The missive likewise urged the colonial authorities to make every effort to themselves secure British interests in the region. In other words: the Home Government made clear that the colony was responsible for protecting its own borders and that no imperial resources were at that time available to help.

The border dispute with Venezuela is an interesting example of a local concern that intersected with wider imperial agendas. While eager to lay claim to profits from the gold, the Home Government were not so keen that they were willing to jeopardise peace in the region. Though settlement of the border was imperative if they wished to claim gold, it was equally important for protecting British sovereignty in the region against the claims of the Venezuelans and, most ominously, encroaching American businesses. Upon closer examination, we therefore find that the Colonial and Foreign Offices liaised closely on this subject despite being anxious to not inflame tensions, and unwilling to dedicate financial or personal resources to its settlement. There are clear processes of triage at work here, as diplomatic and knowledge-based solutions were sought in lieu of military options.


Map of the disputed Venezuelan and British Guianese border

Old surveys and maps were favoured over new exploratory expeditions. The colonial government’s repeated sending of survey teams to assess the landscape was strongly opposed by the Home Government. This was particularly true of groups sent to view the gold fields at Upata. The colonists claimed that the expeditions were “composed of British subjects having no intention of infringing any rights of the neighbouring country, but merely of ascertaining and reporting upon the position and prospect of the deposits of gold so as to enable the government of British Guiana to take such steps as may appear advisable.”[12] In so doing, their primary objective, in addition to ensuring that any possible claim to gold was capitalised upon, was to respond to rumours and hearsay within the colonial community and in the media, that the gold was British. Nevertheless, such expeditions risked being seen to aggressively violate Venezuela’s territorial sovereignty. Not being in a position to support any conflagration in the region, the Home Government therefore strongly opposed the sending of survey teams. Instead, they relied upon pre-existing surveys and, most importantly, maps revealing the colony’s territorial boundaries while it was still under the control of the Dutch. Reports from the colony were consulted along with those from the Foreign Consul in Venezuelan Guiana, as well as maps and historical surveys.

One theorist to whom the colony referred in their reports on the matter was Sir Robert Schomburgk, thought to have outlined the most likely boundary in his map of the region. In addition, were others such as Bouchenveder’s map, which suggested a more liberal boundary, giving more territory to the British:

I have carefully perused the correspondence upon the subject of our boundary which took place between Her Majesty’s Government and the Venezuelan Minister in 1841-42, and as the Government of the province of Venezuelan Guiana was allowed to remove the landmarks planted at Point Barima by Sir Robert Schomburgk, although without prejudice to the claims of Great Britain, and that Point is at the entrance of the only channel of the Orinoco navigable by vessels of any great burden, it is obviously desirable that all doubt should be removed as to its rightful possession. I have been as yet unable to trace any memorandum of the data upon which Sir Robert Schomburgk based his survey, but no doubt such exists in the archives of the Colonial Office…In Bouchenveder’s map, it is distinctly laid down that a Dutch post existed on the right bank of the River Barima thus indicating that stream, as the natural and actual boundary in that locality, between Spanish and Dutch Guiana.[13]

Acknowledging the urgency of settling the boundary, the Colonial Office communicated with the Geographical society for any information of the Dutch post mentioned by the Lieutenant Governor. Information concerning the historic boundary – that which had been delineated by the Dutch before handing over the territory to British control – was seen as the most certain way of confirming the boundary without any conflict or need for extra resources. The settlement of the boundary would, in turn, clearly place any gold on either Venezuelan or British land, thereby establishing ownership. Since any reasonable settlement – the Bouchenveder plan being seen to be far too ambitious – was likely to favour the Venezuelans in this regard, the Colonial and Foreign Offices used the British Consul in Bolivar to negotiate for the use of British Guiana as an avenue to those lands, using their control of Point Barima to their advantage. According to this plan, the colony would benefit from the commerce of gold-seekers and merchants, if not from the gold itself.

The boundary between Venezuelan and British Guiana held very real political and economic implications for the region, yet it was settled not through the application of physical resources – such as military, personnel, or money – but rather through the implementation of that paper-based empire. Maps and surveys, used to document the physical geography of the region, were seen as an alternative solution to a complex geopolitical problem.


British Honduras
A border dispute similarly featured at the centre of colonial politics in British Honduras, which at this time was governed by a Superintendent, serving under the authority of the Governor of Jamaica. The post was held by Frederick Seymour, who wrote regularly of issues along the border shared by the colony and Mexico. The boundary in this case was settled as lying along the Hondo River. However, delegation of responsibility for maintaining border security remained uncertain, as did that for the people who moved across the border. Migration was common from both sides, with tribal peoples from the Yucatan moving into the British colony, and colonial logging firms travelling onto Mexican lands in pursuit of valuable trees.

British Honduras

British Honduras

In May 1857, the Chichanha tribe moved across to the British side of the Hondo, fleeing the hostility of stronger tribes in the Yucatan. They then proceeded to cut down mahogany trees to create a settlement, which threatened the local logging industry. Superintendent Frederick Seymour found himself responsible for determining not only whether to allow the Chichanhas to stay and how many British resources were to be redirected toward defending the border against the tribes who sought to follow them, but also how to best mediate relations between the Chichanhas and local loggers. Seymour expressed a fear that a collision between the Chichanhas and the mahogany cutters “could be embarrassing, especially so close to a disputed frontier.” With no support available from either Jamaica or England, and little military at hand domestically, Seymour sought a diplomatic solution, suggesting “the tribes attracted to our settlement by the protection which it ensures against the attacks of their enemies may be induced to remain therein; and dispersing into smaller bands, advance to the interior where their services would be valuable as labourers and timber cutters.”[14]

As in St. Helena, the situation in British Honduras highlights the extent to which the Colonial Office depended upon the actions of individual characters for the maintenance of a stable empire. Despite British Honduras being officially controlled by the Governor of Jamaica, it was the Superintendent of British Honduras, Frederick Seymour, who made the critical decisions that determined refugee policy, balanced commercial and political agendas, and ensured the security of the border with Mexico. By the time the Colonial Office received word of events in the colony, the information had already been filtered through the government in Jamaica and was, as a result, several weeks old. They relied upon the dependability of local governors to ensure that the colonies remained stable, and that the image of British global dominance, and the conceived global empire, were being preserved.


The cases illustrated here have been selected to give a sense of the myriad issues occurring around the globe in 1857. Together, they demonstrate the different ways in which colonies related to the central government and to each other; it points to the regional concerns and themes that pre-empted the Indian Uprising in the imaginations of colonies on the global periphery. It moreover illuminates the means by which the Colonial Office navigated this complex web of inter-colonial relations to preserve a sense of an imperial community, united under the flag of the British Empire. From London, the Colonial Office performed acts of triage, prioritising issues in the colonies, analysing their importance for the imperial agenda, and distributing resources accordingly. They employed alternative methods, communicating closely with other government offices to ensure the most efficient, and cost-effective methods were employed. They also relied upon a network of colonial officials in the absence of reliable avenues of immediate communication to preserve the day-to-day stability of colonial life. Ultimately, the Colonial Office however chose to defer many problems. By encouraging colonies to engage in knowledge-collection and in protecting the status quo, they in many instances deferred action until a time when the consequences could be better dealt with.

Kate Boehme


[1] Most colonies retained a combination of colonial-funded and British-funded military resources, with the amount of the latter usually connected to perceived vulnerability and strategic importance to the interests of the wider British Empire.
[2] National Archives. Saint Helena Despatches 1857. “Sir E.H. Drummond Hay to Secretary Henry Labouchere,” (30 Nov, 1857).
[3] National Archives. Saint Helena Despatches 1857. “Sir E.H. Drummond Hay to Secretary Henry Labouchere,” (16 May 1857).
[4] National Archives. Trinidad Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, No. 113, “Governor Robert W. Keate to Secretary Henry Labouchere, (6 Nov, 1857).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] National Archives. Trinidad Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, No. 89, “Governor Robert W. Keate to Secretary Henry Labouchere, (5 Sept, 1857).
[8] National Archives. British Guiana Offices 1857, No. 1115, “Foreign Office to Colonial Office,” (9 Feb, 1857).
[9] National Archives. British Guiana Despatches 1 Jan – 30 April 1858, No. 11, “Lieutenant-Governor William Walker to Secretary Henry Labouchere,” (23 Jan, 1858).
[10] Alana Johnson. “The Barbados Emigration War,” presented at After Slavery? Labour and Migration in the Post-Emancipation World, (27 June, 2016).
[11] National Archives. British Guiana Offices 1857, No. 9356, “Foreign Office to Herman Merivale,” (9 Oct, 1857).
[12] National Archives. British Guiana Offices 1857, “R. Bingham to Mr. Gutierrez,” (14 Sept, 1857).
[13] National Archives. British Guiana Despatches 1 July – 31 Dec 1857, No. 20, “Lieutenant Governor William Walker to Secretary Henry Labouchere,” (24 Sept, 1857).
[14] National Archives. British Honduras Despatches 1857, Confidential Despatch No. 1, “Superintendent Frederick Seymour to Lieutenant Governor Major General Bell, (15 May, 1857).

Posted in 1857, Colonial Office, Islands in History, Mapping Empire

Mobilising an Empire: Part 2 – “Not Calculated to Attract Any Particular Attention,” Or, How to Smuggle an Army Through Someone Else’s Country Without Anyone Making a Fuss

In 1857, as the Indian Uprising threatened the stability and integrity of the British Empire, the British Government and the East India Company engaged in a massive smuggling operation. The cargo was people: armed men, shuttled en masse and in disguise, across the territory of a sovereign state over which Britain had no jurisdiction, in order to suppress, with overwhelming force, an unprecedentedly large colonial rebellion.

In part 1 of this blog, we looked at how the global mobilization of 1857 played out in the Cape Colony. George Grey’s attempts to contribute to the empire-wide movement of troops towards India to suppress the uprising, while simultaneously managing his own problems of unrest and conflict, and putting his case to a metropolitan government that was far from convinced of the quality of his performance or his entitlement to the financial resources he was consuming, shows (we hope) something of the global nature of the crisis that overtook the empire in 1857, and the ways in which colonial administrators, in metropolitan and colonial settings, managed the conflicting and complex demands of responding to the crisis.

In part 2, we’re looking at how the apparatus of government managed, between August 1857 and the end of the uprising in early 1858, to smuggle about 5,000 British troops across the Suez isthmus in Egypt.

This effort involved, first, all the agencies of government in the capital: the East India Company and the Board of Control, the War Office, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the Admiralty. Beyond the immediate circles of government, it necessitated the cooperation of the private companies which controlled ships, mails and telegraphs. Further afield, it drew in the representatives of government abroad: diplomatic and consular staff, Company agents, military and naval establishments overseas, colonial governors and their staff, and the Indian Government and Presidencies, each with their own military and civil administrative establishments and spheres of operation that went beyond the shores and land borders of British India itself. As we’ll see in our next blog, it also drew in the wider apparatus of empire: navigational and communications technology, geography and exploration, resource management and extraction, and questions of geostrategy and sovereignty which sat at the intersection of engineering, science, law, territorial possession and the use of force.

But first, why smuggle troops over Egypt at all, and what was involved?

First, there was a strong sense of necessity, exacerbated by a lack of information about what was happening in India. As we’ve seen, mails were carried by a system of fast steamers, from India to Suez, and then over the peninsular by horse transport and rail to Alexandria, and thence onward via mail steamer to Malta, Marseilles and Southampton. There were telegraph lines across the isthmus, and across continental Europe from both Marseilles and Trieste, but whether they were used or not, the time lag in communications was generally around a month. The first news of the Uprising itself took forty days to travel, by steamer and telegraph via Trieste, from Meerut (the site of the first outbreak) to London. With no idea how much of the Bengal army had revolted, how far the uprising had spread, and how many troops would be needed to put it down, officials in London were naturally eager to send as many troops to India in the shortest possible time.

Template map Indian Ocean and Red Sea_Cropped

The transport of troops and materiel would take even longer than that of information. The best estimates as of 1857 placed sailing times, by Egypt or the Cape, as follows:

TABLE sailing times 2

(It should be noted here that the Suez route was entirely dependent on the existence of steam, or at least of hybrid sail/steam technology: sailing ships without engines could find themselves becalmed in the Red Sea for months on end. This is why, as we saw in our blog on steam technology in 1838, the use of the Red Sea as a seaway depended on the establishment of a solid infrastructure of coaling stations. Another point to note about the above table is that the timings for Suez were derived from the feedback of information that came back to London as the policy was put into operation, in a kind of capillary interplay of trial and error, improvisation and analysis of constantly changing intelligence sources – here as ever, it’s important not to fall into the trap of viewing imperial policymaking as something which is manufactured in majestic isolation in the imperial centre and then simply applied, unidirectionally, to faraway places.)

As for the attempts at discretion (‘secrecy’ seems optimistic, given the numbers of troops who ended up making the trip), in 1857, transporting troops openly through Egypt presented several problems. A large body of troops on foreign soil, in military order, could be expected to cause enormous diplomatic difficulties: although relations with the Ottoman Empire were friendly after the Crimean War of 1853-5, some resistance might reasonably be expected. Besides, as we’ll see, Egypt’s relation to the empire which supposedly governed it was somewhat complex, and there were issues of prestige for all involved.

Besides the diplomatic issues, there were practical challenges. The Suez Canal was in its early surveying stages, and would not be completed until 1869, after nearly ten years’ work. There was a railway between Alexandria and Cairo, and work was continuing on a line onward from Cairo to Suez, but it was far from complete. From the end of the railway, about twenty miles from Suez, the rest of the journey had to be done by horse-drawn van. Whatever course was taken, the logistics on the ground would have to be taken care of by Major John Green, the Acting Vice-Consul and East India Company agent in Alexandria – the same John Green who we’ve already seen struggling to manage the flows of news and information coming through Egypt, and already overburdened with responsibilities beyond his scope.

But first, there was the fraught business of policymaking to get through: how to get the different agencies of government to commit to such an eccentric course? Concurrently, the inevitable diplomatic effects and risks had to be anticipated and managed. Let’s look at these in turn.



Sending troops overland to India was never a foregone conclusion, and the decision to do so involved activating networks of communication and correspondence between the offices of government in London. The main archival series we’ve been looking at for 1857 is the Company’s Political and Secret Correspondence. This is, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, a slightly strange series: although the Committee was officially a part of the Company, set up to deal with all political and diplomatic policy (in peacetime its major function was to deal with the Princely States), in practice it was the link between the Company and the Board on political, diplomatic and geostrategic policy; and the Board, in turn, was the mediator between it and all the other offices of government. If the Company wanted to (let’s say, just for example) request the War Office to supply large amounts of Crown troops, that request went through the Political and Secret Committee, and then through the Board, to the War Office – and any reply came back, again, through the Board. The Board also exercised complete control over the information that reached the Company from India; if the Directors wished to share any of it with the Court at large, the Committee would have to ask the Board’s permission. When the Foreign Office received intelligence that bore on the situation at hand, or engaged in correspondence that the Directors would need to know about in formulating their own policy, they would send copies of it, through the Board, to the Committee. In sum, when the Company’s rule in India was faced with a grave and immediate threat, almost all its correspondence for dealing with it was mediated by the Board; and all the correspondence that passed was kept, in duplicate, in the records of the Political and Secret Committee.

Given all the conditions noted above, it was perhaps inevitable that the Company would at some point ask for troops to be sent through Egypt; but how those requests would go down with the Foreign and War Offices was a question of some moment. How the Board was to mediate what might well turn out to be a snarl of competing priorities and anxieties was another.

Initially, there were no apparent conflicts. In mid-July, around the time that the first drafts of Crown troops were leaving for India, the Company sent a letter to the Army leadership at the Horse Guards: the Court of Directors, wrote James Melvill (secretary to the Company), “…begs to inform [the Commander-in-Chief] that on the 10th Hussars proceeding to Bombay in 1846, a party of officers and men was sent overland to train Horses for the Effective mounting of the Regiment on its arrival in India. … [they] desired to suggest, whether a like course should be followed as respects the 2nd and 3rd Dragoon Guards, now under order for Bengal and Bombay respectively.”[1]

The suggestion was taken up: two days later the C-in-C communicated his assent. Two parties were to go out initially, consisting of a Captain, riding-master, vet, and nine NCOs and men. Each man was to receive £2 (out of the Company’s charge, it was swiftly decided) for civilian clothes as they crossed the isthmus: the parties were to go in mufti, posing as ordinary civilians. Before the first couple of parties, in mid-August, Green remarked to Lord Clarendon (the Foreign Secretary, and therefore his boss) that “[t]he passage through Egypt of the small party of men alluded to is not calculated to attract any particular attention here as being in plain clothes they pass as Officers’ servants and other second class Passengers such as it is not unusual to see amongst the transit travellers.”[2]

The initial parties were a success; more were sent, and as it became clear that they were encountering no difficulties, the Company began to consider a larger-scale operation. In mid-July, a Lt Col J. G. Fraser sent a memo to the Company, adverting to his logistical experience in Egypt and suggesting a plan for transporting large numbers of troops through Suez. Fraser suggests staggering the arrival of troops with the mails, so as not to overburden communications links; troops could be disembarked en masse in the morning, given breakfast in the train to Cairo, and then loaded straight onto vans for the desert crossing, to arrive at Suez by early the next morning for immediate embarkation. The troops, he writes, would be in groups of about 200, carefully watched the whole way “to prevent them communicating with the people of the company”; he envisages a permanent supply of troops passing to India by this route, to the number of 3,000 a year.[3] The plan was, perhaps, no more detailed than what the Company was already considering, but the unsolicited mail on the subject testifies, perhaps, to the idea’s rapid circulation.

Initially, however, the Board, in consultation with the Government – or perhaps anticipating what they expected the government’s position to be – were resistant. The Court persisted: in early September they communicated to the Board that they had consulted with the Pacific and Oriental Steam Packet Company (P&O), who had proposed a timetable and costing; in the letter, the Court note that, “HM Govt being the best, if not the only competent, judges of the difficulties which may be opposed to the adoption of the course in question…”, the matter might be considered again.[4] Despite the ingratiating tone, a separate letter sent the same day informed the Board that the Court had already accepted P&O’s offer.

The affair caused a bruising exchange between Court and Board: while the Court contended, with no apparent justification, that they believed they had been given tacit permission in a private conversation between Robert Vernon Smith (President of the Board of Control) and the Directors, Vernon Smith understood no such thing:

It is time that this subject, with very many others relating to the speedy dispatch of troops to India, had been discussed in the conversations which I have frequently had the honour of holding with you since the commencement of the late unfortunate events. But, as no steps had been taken of a formal nature to bring before HM Govt the views of the Court of Directors upon this head, and of course concluded that they agreed, through you, in the objections urged against them views of HM Govt, and I think it would lead to any end rather than that of the united government of the Court of Directors and the Board, if every proposal that had been broached at our confidential interviews was, in times of great public emergency, to be addressed as scheme submitted to, and rejected by, the Board.[5]

What is at stake, he admonishes, is the running of imperial government itself; should such actions be taken on debatable interpretations of verbal contact, he writes, “it is obvious that the President of this Board would be under great disadvantage, and that, instead of facilitating, [the Court] would impede, by the most unpleasant recriminations, and differences of recollection as to what had passed, the united action, as well as the good feelings, of the component parts of the government of India.”[6] In the same letter, however, he informs the Court of arrangements for the passage through Egypt of a company of soldiers being moved from Malta to Aden, to make up a shortfall of troops sent from Aden to Bombay. It’s possible to see here, perhaps, how the extreme compression of crisis management brings into a sharper focus the cross-purposes, conflict and animosity – the friction, if you like – between agencies of government within the imperial centre. The copies of Vernon Smith’s letters in the Political and Secret correspondence are drafts, so that, as above, we can see how stronger phrases have been stricken out and replaced by more diplomatic ones: this is a recurring feature of draft correspondence during the crisis, in which it’s possible to see the strain that went into maintaining a constructive dialogue. The need to act fast and decisively forces simultaneous protest and assent; agencies are forced, as it were in the same breath, to co-operate on the business of governmentality while decrying breaches of protocol and questioning each others’ commitment to the functioning of government itself.

In this particular clash, certain points of protocol are at least provisionally clarified. The exchange ends with Vernon Smith expressing his dismay that what he took to be a relatively informal or semi-formal meeting was to be interpreted by the Court as a discussion of concrete policy or communication of intent:

I never understood that the propriety of sending troops though Egypt had been discussed between me and yourselves on the part of the Court; nor do I understand how you could speak on the part of the Court, without having ascertained the opinion of the Court in the usual manner, as I have so often found in our intercourse that the Chairman and deputy Chairman have been entirely mistaken in what they believed would be the decision of the majority of the Directors. … I must, therefore, request that whenever the Court make you the channel of imparting to me their views, with the intention of bringing them before me as a matter of official record, to which public reference may thereafter be made, you will have the goodness to set forth those views formally in writing.” [7]

If anything, Vernon Smith is in a position of extreme embarrassment: the Board’s job is to be the channel of all communication between the Company and the Government at large, and here it has effectively been circumvented on the flimsiest of pretexts. (As it happens, the protocol he clarifies at the end of this passage was not fated to last long: within a year, and before the crisis was even fully over, both Board and Company would be formally abolished and replaced by the India Office, a fully-fledged agency of Government itself, with India transferred to Crown rule. After 1858, administrative spats would have to find other channels.)

By late October, the War Office was giving full assent to sending troops through Egypt, “as our experience in sending small parties of troops by that route justifies the attempt with a complete regiment”.[8] As far as the Company and the Board were concerned, policy was set: from here on, troops would travel to India by both Cape and overland routes.


Just as the Company were dependent on the War Office to grant them troops and arrange their readiness, they could only undertake diplomatically risky projects like the Suez gambit with the assent and co-operation of the Foreign Office. The FO had to mobilise its own networks of consular agents, ambassadors and spies, and its own documentary logistics of sealed packages, diplomatic mail, cryptography and flying seals, to assist the war effort and provide intelligence on proximate and remote threats. Although the FO readily gave assent to the early small parties crossing the isthmus, the whole affair clearly jangled diplomatic nerves: only a few days after approving the plan, the FO wrote to the company (marked “IMMEDIATE AND CONFIDENTIAL”) that “the Earl of Clarendon …request[s] that you will state to the President of the Board of Controul that it is of the utmost consequence that the intention to resort to this measure should not be suffered to transpire, and that on the contrary all parties concerned in carrying it out should be strictly cautioned not to allow the nature of the orders given on the subject in any way to become public.”[9] Even when the pretence of secrecy was entirely token, the Foreign Office continued to counsel caution.

In the meantime, delicate diplomatic approaches had to be made to the Ottoman authorities. Lord Stratford, the British Ambassador to the Porte, managed to secure the assent of Sultan Abdülmecid I to the early parties. Egypt, however, was in practice almost an independent state, in which the Sultan’s Wāli, Muhammad Sa’id Pasha, exercised a degree of autonomy that the Foreign Office seems to have wished it understood the precise dimensions of more fully. It fell to Green to manage the Pasha, Stratford to manage the Sultan and the authorities in Istanbul, and Clarendon to manage them both, resulting in a frequent and meticulous three-way correspondence between them. Directing his initial approaches as the overland policy grew in scope, Clarendon wrote to Green:

…this Govt think it due to the Pasha, who has always evinced so much consideration and attention for their wishes, not to leave him in ignorance of the real character of the large body of passengers who will pass through Egypt with the next mail… You may add that the men will not remain on shore in Egypt beyond the time absolutely required for their passage through the Country.[10]

To Stratford, he wrote:

Your Lordship will mention this arrangement to the Porte, as Mr Green has been instructed to mention it to the Pasha of Egypt; but as the men pass ostensibly as Civilians, it is scarcely to be expected that the measure will call for forth any observation on the part of the Turkish Govt[11]

The policy here, clearly, was that the operation would be soft-pedalled as much as possible. When the first rather larger group of soldiers was sent through in September, Stratford was encouraged not to say anything unless specifically asked; and, if asked, to emphasize that the men would not be in military array, their arms would be travelling separately, and that they would not stay in Egypt “beyond the time absolutely required for their conveyance through the Country”.[12] Once it had been decided to send through larger bodies of troops, stronger expressions of assent would be required.

The mail ship carrying the Sultan’s letter of assent arrived at Alexandria in early October, and it fell to Green to present it. He reported back to Clarendon that:

I will require a little judgment to communicate the Sultan’s letter to the Vice Roy without offending the Vice Roy’s dignity, but the written declaration of HH … enables me, by not hurrying the presentation of this document, to place it in the light of a sanction rather that an order. The exceptional state of things here induces me to use a certain discretion in these proceedings, as it is better that I should take some responsibility on myself, than risk the inconvenience which might result from annoying the Vice Roy at a moment when he might easily retaliate…. without the complete cooperation of the Egyptian Govt it would be impracticable to carry out any measure of this kind, and indeed if the Vice Roy had any disinclination to it, it would be utterly impossible to get over the difficulties that might quietly be thrown in our way.”[13]

A week or so later, Green reported their meeting:

“Said Pasha then alluded to two letters he had received from the Porte, and gave me an opportunity of explaining that I wished him to have his correspondence from Constple before presenting the letter that had been forwarded to me & which I then handed to him. As HH mentioned two letters, I mentioned I had only read one, when he stated that the other letter informed him that instructions would be sent to him as to the number of Troops to pass through Egypt. I observed that I might report this to Yr Ldshp, when he said it might subject him to annoyance at Constple. … I do not attach any importance to this matter, but it is as well to know that something has been said by the Porte as limiting the number of Troops passed through Egypt.[14]

What’s striking here is the level of care that Green, Stratford and Clarendon, all talented diplomats, put into testing the temper of the Ottoman authorities, and trying to descry, from outward signs, the inner workings and tensions of another imperial government – a government with its own ways of doing things and its own complex relationship between core and periphery. While engaged in their own networked correspondence, they’re constantly trying to deduce what correspondence has occurred between their opposite numbers, and to understand the relationships between actors from each of whom they need to exact a certain kind of compliance.

Making the trip

The way had been opened, then – albeit provisionally, and with a certain sense of precariousness. From here on, between the steam companies, the War Office, the Board and the Company and the Foreign Office, a workable logistics began to take shape. The Foreign Office were keen that, once arrived at Alexandria, the troops should not even leave their ships until a telegraph from Suez indicated that ships are waiting ready for embarkation: and that, once ashore, they should be moved as quickly as possible. All parties agreed that the passage of troops should not impede that of the mail: governmental agencies and the Company itself would not brook any obstruction to the vital flow of information, and the steam and telegraph companies’ credit depended on delivering it. Where there is conflict between troops and information, information takes priority. Remarkably, the troops continue to travel in mufti, at least nominally: factored into shipping companies’ and the War Office’s plans, there is always a charge for a civilian overcoat, and equipment is often mentioned as being disguised as luggage – how successfully is open to question.

How the journey actually was for those who experienced it – if not troops, then those who went with them – was recorded, with a dyspeptic eye and Dickensian bathos, by William Howard Russell, the Times correspondent who had made his name in the Crimea. Russell passed through in early 1858, and apart from his complaints about food and accommodation, the impression he gives is of an operation that, though ramshackle and apparently, seemed to get the job done. His account is vividly alive to the juxtapositions and displacements of intense colonial and military activity in a small area suddenly invested with geostrategic significance, and of an infrastructure under rapid construction and unexpected strain. He writes of the train from Alexandria being held up for two hours to make way for the Pasha’s private train, which never comes (the message is relayed by telegraph to “some distant station along the line”, and then conveyed to the train by foot); he also writes of coaling stations along the line as “helpless, hot, ovenlike erections generally eked out by old Crimean wooden huts, within which may be seen an undoubted Englishman, smoking his pipe”. He notes European and quasi-European food and drink being advertised at various stops, or transported out from Cairo for the passengers and soldiers; of passengers and soldiers themselves, rather against what the Foreign Office had hoped, crammed into crowded trains together; and lends a Dickensian absurdity to his description of the vans that took the troops the last few miles to Suez: “Brighton bathing-boxes laid longitudinally on wheels, to which were attached creatures of an uncertain number of legs, resembling very much Scarborough ponies at the end of the season”.[15]

A more straitlaced account comes from The Times, in October of 1857, as the first large levies began to pass through:

The conduct of the men was most orderly. A lusty chorus, which in several occasions proceeded from the carriages, testified to their good humour; and any petty discomforts of the journey through Egypt were quite unheeded in their satisfaction at travelling ‘like gentlemen’.[16]

In the end, the policy of transporting troops by the overland route had few alarming repercussions. Certainly, there will be a lot to write about how it shifted or accelerated the development of communications and navigation infrastructure in the Middle East, and how this fits into the broader diplomatic and geostrategic effects of the Uprising on an international level. There must also be room, I think, for more granular studies of the logistics and the administrative processes behind the policy itself. Of the approximately 40,000 troops that traveled to India from all over the Empire, only about 5,000 traveled through Egypt; by early 1858, when it was clear in London that the need for further drafts was no longer urgent enough to make the shorter route necessary, transports reverted to travelling almost entirely by the Cape route. Although the conflict would continue into the spring, the first scramble to respond was over. The final item in the Political and Secret Correspondence for 1857 is dated the 31st of December. It is a response from the Directors to a notification from the Board that they will be seeking to have the Company abolished.


— Peter Mitchell


[1] Melvill to Yorke, July 18 1857; IOR L/PS/3/54, p. 657

[2] Green to Clarendon, August 19 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 327

[3] Fraser to the Company, July 18 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, pp. 175-183

[4] Mangles and Currie to Vernon Smith, Sept 9 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, pp. 343-4

[5] Vernon Smith to the Chairs, Sept 17 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, pp.479-80

[6] Ibid, p. 480

[7] Vernon Smith to Chairs, Sept 25 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55 pp. 705-10

[8] Storks (War Office) to Clerk, Oct 26 1857; IOR L/PS/3/56 p. 271

[9] Hammond to Clerk, July 24 1857; IOR L/PS/3/54, p. 691

[10] Clarendon to Green, Sept 16 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 681-2

[11] Clarendon to Stratford, Sept 22 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 685-6

[12] Clarendon to Stratford, Sept 16 1857: IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 667

[13] Green to Clarendon, Oct 12 1857 (copy): IOR L/PS/3/56, pp. 349-51; Green to Clarendon, Oct 9 1857, Ibid. pp. 353-5

[14] Green to Clarendon, IOR L/PS/3/56, pp. 384-6

[15] Quoted in Anthony Sattin, Lifting the Veil: Two Centuries of Travellers, Traders and Tourists in Egypt (Tauris Park: London, 2011), pp. 56-7

[16] The Times (London, England), Thursday, Oct 29, 1857; pg. 10; Issue 22824.

Posted in 1857, India Office, Military

Mobilising an Empire: Part 1 – Sir George Grey and the Tale of the Self-Sacrificing Cape Colony

In our last couple of blogs, we have proposed the merits of viewing the violence of 1857 as a global event: one which necessitated the mobilisation of a global network of communications, technology, people, and power, and made use of all the means of bureaucracy, diplomacy, logistics, and violence available to the British Imperial State and the East India Company.

In this two-parter, we will be exploring the events of 1857 from the centre in India, and from the ‘peripheries’, considering both how the resources of empire were tapped in order to mobilise troops for service in India and, on the other hand, how such mobilisation efforts affected policy development in other colonies. In this first part, we will focus on the Cape Colony, which supplied many of the regiments used to put down the rebellion in India. Next week, the blog will focus on how the Indian Government and India Office in England coordinated complex geostrategic and diplomatic efforts to move troops from England through Egypt and the Red Sea.


The Cape
The Cape Colony featured heavily in those efforts to mobilise the Empire to support India. While for the East India Company Board of Control and the Government of India, the Cape was a crucial resource for suppressing the rebellion, it is important to remember that the Cape government likewise had its own concerns. The Indian Uprising, therefore, from the perspective of the Cape, served as a significant, but peripheral, event that shaped, but did not overwhelm, domestic issues. It was the Colonial Office, meanwhile, that balanced these two perspectives, identifying the Cape’s value in meeting imperial priorities while also seeking to maintain the security and stability of the colony. It is the ways in which these perspectives coincided to shape Cape Colony policy that will be discussed here.


Sir George Grey

Sir George Grey

The Indian Uprising
The colony’s governor, Sir George Grey, enthusiastically responded to requests for troops, horses, ammunition, and food stuffs. His first report of the uprising came direct from the Governor of Bombay, rather than the central Indian government or the Home Government. In response, he sent large numbers of troops and horses. By the 22 September, he still had not received any direct communication from the Governor General of India and, feeling affronted at the lack of communication, suggests that he may have “gone too far” in his support of the Indian Government, and will henceforth “be cautious what other steps I take until further instructions reach me.”[1] Nevertheless, just two days later, he anticipates further Colonial Office instructions, by “gradually purchasing horses for the Indian Government” and expresses his intention to “continue to do so as rapidly as possible.” Despite the demand from India being only for 250 horses, Grey asserts his intention to “continue to act upon my own discretions, and ship so many horses as I can procure, until I think that the requirements of the public service in India are probably sufficiently met.”[2]

This virtual exuberance at the prospect of supporting the military effort in India is echoed in all the subsequent correspondence on the subject. In October, Grey reports the despatch of the Boscawen steam ship, with 500 men, plus officers and non-commissioned officers, and the simultaneous shipment of “trained artillery horses from the field batteries in this country…These horses and 250 additional men, with their due proportion of officers, shall be sent on to Calcutta in Her Majesty’s Steamer Megara at the same time the Boscawen sails.”[3] He likewise recounts how 92 officers and 1,743 men, sent from England, were diverted from their original destination in China to support the military in Calcutta.[4]

Grey appears to have taken a great deal of personal discretion in determining what support was necessary and to where it ought to be sent. He often exceeds the requests made of him, or offers provisions without provocation. Some of this might be attributed to inconsistent communications. Grey constantly complained that requests received from the Presidencies of India did not align with those sent by the Supreme Government of India or by the Home Government. He uses such communicational discrepancies to justify his own deviation from official instructions. At one point, he reports that at the same time that the Government of Bombay applied for two infantry regiments on the 23 September,

The Supreme Government of India, in communicating with this Government did not even ask for one Regiment. The instructions I had received from Her Majesty’s Government were to send one Regiment to Calcutta, and one Regiment to Ceylon, and there was a general authority in your despatch of the first of August to take, in conjunction with the authorities in India, such measures in regard to the movement of troops as the interests of the public service might require.[5]

It was not only troops that the Cape was asked to supply; as the Indian Uprising was being suppressed, the colony was also considered as a potential location to which ex-mutineers could be deported. Following the end of the Uprising, sending the King of Delhi to exile in the Cape Colony was debated. Grey eagerly proposed a plan in which the King would be sent to King William’s Town, the capital of British-occupied Xhosa territory named British Kaffraria, where he could be monitored, far from any chance of escape by sea and far from any influence in India. Slightly tangential to the primary point of this blog, but no less interesting for it, was the proposal made by Grey in relation to this proposed plan that “It would be better not to call upon the British Parliament to interfere in the matter, for the Legislature here will readily pass the necessary law upon the subject…moreover it is clearly right, in a colony possessing a representative legislature, with full legislative powers, that the interference of the British Parliament should be as infrequent and as little obtrusive as possible.”[6] This seems to contradict the general tone conveyed in many of Grey’s despatches related to troop disbursements, that the priorities of the Empire take precedence over the immediate needs of the colony. Rather here, he appears to be making a play for greater autonomy, distinguishing the Cape Colony as an independent colony with its own representative government, needless of imperial interference, even while pleading for greater investment on the grounds of its vulnerabilities.[7]


Domestic Cape Policy in 1857
Nevertheless, from the majority of Grey’s missives it is clear that the picture he painted for the Home Government was one of a colony willing to sacrifice its own security for that of another. Emphasising the benevolence and generosity displayed by the Cape colonial government, Grey points out that at the same time that they were supplying India with a larger force than had been asked for, the Cape “was embroiled in its own crisis with the native tribes.”

In highlighting the excessive amount of support offered to the Indian Government he likewise emphasises the resulting weakness of his own Cape force. Often, it is clear that such statements are made in the hopes of acquiring further financial and military support from the Home Government. In one despatch sent to request reinforcements from England, Grey reports,

We have crippled the artillery here by sending every horse from our field batteries, that we have temporarily almost destroyed the Cape Corps by taking two hundred of the best horses from that force, and this has been done with 70,000 barbarians within our Colonial Borders, exclusive of those in Kaffraria and the neighbouring states.[8]

Specifically, Grey was making reference to a series of cattle raids in British Kaffraria, mounted by abaThembu from across the northeastern border. In relation to many such conflicts, Grey highlights the weakness of the colonial army, as a result of the Indian Uprising, often making note of the increased role of volunteer and police forces in securing reputedly dangerous colonial borders. In October 1857, Grey boasted that with only the Mounted Police and Burgher Forces – a primarily volunteer group – a number of border chiefs were captured and convicted of cattle stealing. He reports:

I then caused him [the abaThembu regent Fadana] to be suddenly fallen upon by the Mounted Police and Burgher Forces, who, under the command of Commander Currie, performed this service with the utmost gallantry, discretion, and activity, and the result was, as you will find from the enclosed despatches, that Fadanna’s [sic] party were routed, in a great measure destroyed, and that the robber Chief, and his ally…were both captured.[9]

Grey likewise states his intention to further augment that Mounted Police Force with volunteers, so as to “get it into the highest state of efficiency; and that if we were compelled to enter upon any active military operations against the Native Tribes, such operations should be principally carried on by rapid movements of the Border Mounted Forces.”[10] He further touts the importance of the colony being “entirely under the control of the Government, in order that we may efficiently assist our Indian Empire.”[11]

Nevertheless, a common theme in many of the despatches leaving the Cape was one of security threats caused by the generous role played by the colony in supporting the Indian Government. In the context of the ongoing Xhosa Cattle Killing episode (1856-7) the ability of the colonial government to sufficiently suppress disturbances was likewise frequently spoken of.[12] In February 1858, four Xhosa chiefs imprisoned in the belief that they were conspiring to challenge the colonial government during the Cattle Killing, escaped from the prison at King William’s Town. The reports of this escape were considered all the more troubling as those chiefs, upon reunion with their people, were rumoured to be inciting violence against the British by invoking the Indian Uprising. In a despatch of 11 February, Grey reported to the Colonial Office the rumours of the escaped chiefs that had been reaching his office:

That all the troops had gone to India from England, but were so overpowered by the Indians that all the English troops had left this country for the purpose of assisting their countrymen. That all the horses had been shipped at East London, also the guns, and that the troops had embarked at Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. That it was heard with delight that the Indians are a black race with short hair, and very like the Kaffirs. That it is to be regretted that, whilst their race is overpowering the English in India, the Kaffirs are at the present moment unable to follow up the success, and fall upon the English in this country, and that it was known to his people that Krili [Sarhili] is looking forward to an opportunity and is devising plans for bringing on a war.[13]


“We maintain not a Garrison, but rather an Army”
You may have noticed at this point that discussion of the Cape Colony’s contributions have been largely focused on Sir George Grey and his reports thereon. There is a reason for this: accounts sourced from his despatches do not seem to match numbers found in official reports of the War Department and Colonial Office. Grey paints a comprehensive picture of a colony selflessly denuding itself of military resources to support the imperial agenda, all while battling frontier incursions from the inside. Meanwhile, the Home Government sees a very different picture: one of a colony receiving far more than their fair share of imperial resources and consuming a significant majority of available military funding.

The first suggestion that the Colonial Office was aware of the true size of the resources held by the Cape Colony is in November 1857, when the Secretary of State, Henry Labouchere, urges Grey to donate a portion of what they have to the effort in India.

You are fully apprised of the desire of H.M.’s Government that you should avail yourself of the circumstance of so large a number of troops being assembled in the British Provinces of South Africa to render the utmost assistance…to the Indian Administration, and pray that you will have been able to despatch considerable additional services to that Country, where seasoned Troops will be especially valuable.[14]

Keep in mind, that at this point Grey had, for some months, already been sending reports of vast exports of troops, horses, and other military resources to India, as well as complaining of the effect this had on the state of security in the Cape. It begs the question, therefore, why the Colonial Office would feel the need to encourage greater distribution of resources? Nevertheless, there seems to be little further reference made to any discrepancy until the following year, when the Indian Uprising was over.

A confidential report examining military expenditure in the colonies was circulated by the War Office in 1859, looking directly at the distribution of military resources across the Empire between March 1857 and March 1858. This did not include India because the East India Company still maintained its own force, despite in 1857 having received reinforcements from the general imperial army. In this report particular note was made of inequality among the colonies, both with regard to the amount of support they received from the Home Government, and the amount they themselves contributed toward their own defence. For example, while the colony of Victoria paid, in 1857-58, roughly two-thirds of its own ordinary military expenditure, Canada paid only one-fifth, and the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Tasmania, and New Zealand all contributed nothing. The most stark anomaly, however, related to the Cape. The report of the War Office made special note of,

The drain on British resources which has resulted from our undertaking the defence of this colony, and to the inadequacy of the benefits resulting to British interests. As affording a field of emigration, a supply of our wants, or a market for our produce, our connection with the colony has not been, comparatively speaking, of any considerable advantage to us; in fact, the only direct object of Imperial concern, is the use of the road steads at Table and Simon’s Bays.[15]

While Sir George Grey repeatedly bemoaned the dearth of military support in the Cape Colony in 1857, the report of the War Office actually suggests that for that year the Imperial government had at the Cape, including the German Legion, an army of 10,759 regular troops, costing them a total of £830,687, equal to more than one-fifth the military expenditure across the entirety of the Empire.[16]


A chart noting the relative military investment in the Cape Colony, in relation to its contributions toward the Empire and similar figures for all other colonies. Source: Thomas Frederick Elliot. Memorandum, Colonial Office, 28 January 1860

A chart noting the relative military investment in the Cape Colony, in relation to its contributions toward the Empire and similar figures for all other colonies.
Source: Thomas Frederick Elliot. Memorandum, Colonial Office, 28 January 1860


In a minute thereon, Thomas Frederick Elliot of the Colonial Office reports that, in addition to those numbers, the Home Government additionally gave the Cape Colony a grant of £40,000 “for civilising the Kaffirs and averting disputes with the Natives.”[17] Elliot further complains, “It is true that these efforts have given us the satisfaction of being able to say that we have not had a Kaffir War, but nine or ten thousand troops constitute such an army as England seldom has to spare for less favoured spots.”

Omitting the Mediterranean garrisons, which Elliot qualifies as a “special class” he reckons that the Cape Colony received nearly a third of the direct military expenditure of the British Imperial Government in 1857-58.

Meanwhile, it is also worth noting that Grey repeatedly reported his use of civilians to maintain a volunteer and police force in lieu of military support. While he commended their effectiveness as a means of securing the colony against ‘native’ incursions apparently, in England, opinions differed somewhat. In fact, the only comment made in favour of retaining the exceptionally large garrison in the Cape was that, though “the Colonists would be willing enough to undertake their own protection provided that they might deal with the Kaffirs as they themselves consider best…this would entail a mode of warfare which would not be tolerated by public opinion in England.”[18]

Ultimately, it would appear that while the Cape Colony certainly contributed significantly toward efforts at putting down the uprising in India, reports relating to the detrimental effect on colonial security may have been exaggerated. Rather, it seems as though Grey might have utilised the Indian Uprising, as a means of overstating the colony’s insecurities so as to gain greater military and financial support for his wars against Africans. For the Home Government, while dismayed at the clear anomaly in how their resources had been spent, the solution was still unclear. Elliot himself sums up his minute thusly:

So long as British authority restrains the settlers from defending themselves in their own way, it is bound to find some efficient substitute. The result has been to produce an excessive drain of British resources for a single Colony; the expenditure, as above shown, is enormous, and it is not likely ever to be materially reduced except by a radical change of policy. Such a change would relieve this country from a heavy burden, and, so far as concerns the demands both for men and money, would be a palpable gain. Whether it would be opposed to any just claims of philanthropy, or to the general duties of the Sovereign States towards their subjects, and whether also it would be irreconcilable with public opinion, are questions of a different kind, lying beyond our province. They can only be determined by Statesmen engaged in the actual conduct of affairs.[19]

Sir George Grey was ultimately recalled from office in 1859, in consequence of the Home Government finally acknowledging the extent of the discrepancy between his protestations of resource starvation on the one hand, and the dawning recognition of the disproportionate expense that he incurred for little strategic or economic gain on the other. Yet historians have not yet noted how important the Indian Uprising was for both Grey’s and the Cape’s fate: it provided the prompt for Grey finally overstepping the mark, protesting rather too loudly both a self-sacrifice and a self-pity that drew newly critical attention.

Kate Boehme


[1] National Archives (NA), Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 22 September 1857.
[2] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 24 September 1857.
[3] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 3 October 1857.
[4] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 2 November 1857.
[5] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 24 September 1857.
[6] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, No.304, 11 November 1857.
[7] On Grey’s imperial politics at large, see Alan Lester, ‘Settler Colonialism, George Grey and the Politics of Ethnography’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 34, 3, 2016, 492–507.
[8] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 2 November 1857.
[9] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 3 October 1857.
[10] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, No. 134, 27 August 1857.
[11] Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 3 October 1857.
[12] See Jeff Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7, Raven, 1989.
[13] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Jan – 31 May 1858, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, No.9, 11 February 1858.
[14] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Henry Labouchere to Sir George Grey, 27 November 1857.
[15] NA, Military Expenditure in the Colonies, War Office, 1859.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Thomas Frederick Elliot. Memorandum, Colonial Office, 28 January 1860.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.

Posted in 1857, Colonial Office, Communication, Military

1857: Managing imperial crisis

In our last blog, we looked at some of the ways in which the events of 1857 played out in one nodal point of the network of empire: how colonial administrators, as they went about the business of moving goods, people and capital around that network, coped with new stresses and anxieties, assessed risk, and strategized against potential anti-colonial resistance. In the management of education and language policy in Mauritius, we saw how these process were linked with the regimes of knowledge, acculturation and pedagogy through which imperial power was reproduced. Over the past couple fo months, as we’ve been going through the 1857 materials in the records of the East India Company and the Colonial Office, we’ve begun to get a clearer picture of the year’s events as an interlinked series of upheavals whose ramifications reached through every part of the global network of imperial governance.

The most consequential event of the year, of course, was the Indian Uprising. But at the same time but there was also a serious conflict in Persia, the beginning of the Second Opium War in China, and the aftermath of the unrest, famine and millenarianism of the Great Xhosa Cattle Killing in the Cape. The reverberations of the Crimean War and the ongoing continental anxiety over what would become known as the Eastern Question were still conditioning the mood around the Black Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia. Meanwhile, as these matters were aligning global affairs into ever-more-intricate interrelationships, the means by which people and information travelled were in constant development. Telegraphs were being laid in India and across Europe, and the first transcontinental link had just crossed the Atlantic; the railway boom of the 1830s and 40s in Europe had been extended to India, with a flurry of projects beginning to take shape and lines already being built; and steamship technology continued to increase in speed and efficiency, while the infrastructures which supported it – coaling stations, navigation aids, engineering base, deepwater ports – grew apace.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the records of the Political and Secret Committee of the East India Company. This committee dealt, as its name implied, with matters which could not necessarily be broadcast publicly: matters of diplomacy, warfare, geostrategy, political negotiations and future policy. The Uprising, and the wider crisis of 1857, throw into sharp relief the means by which the empire was governed; the archive of the Political and Secret Committee (hereinafter P&S) provides some potent insights into the inner workings of that system of governance, and the contradictions and tensions in its modes of crisis response, policy-making, and the organisation of geostrategic action at a distance.

The Uprising’s first appearance in the archive (assuming, for simplicity’s sake, that we designate the outbreak of open violence in the Bengal cantonments as the beginning of the Uprising proper) is in the P&S committee’s minutes for the 29th of June 1857. Amongst other communications received, the day’s minutes note a “telegraphic message”, numbered 692 (meaning that it was the 692nd such received in 1857), relating “Disturbances in the Bengal Army”. [fig. 1]


Fig 1. East India Company Political & Secret Committee Minutes, 29th June 1857. IOR L/PS/1/12 f.145v

It’s worth divesting the telegraph, here, of the aura of simultaneity and instant communication with which we now surround it: the dispatch itself was dated in Bombay on the 27th of May, a month and two days before its arrival in London, and the first mutiny had occurred at Meerut on 10th of May. In 1857, information still couldn’t travel that much faster than people: telegraphs from India had to be carried by mail steamer from Bombay or Karachi to Suez, transported over the isthmus to Alexandria, and then telegraphed again from either Trieste or Marseilles. Letters travelled via Malta, then either by train from Marseilles or through Gibraltar to the port of Southampton. Later in the Uprising, telegraph lines across India were destroyed by Indian troops, who burned the poles for firewood and, according to some accounts, cut the wires into slugs for ammunition. (There is also at least one recorded incident of a railway locomotive being stoned by an angry crowd: to what extent the two can be linked as instances of both real and symbolic violence against the technologies of imperial communication and control is, let’s say, beyond the scope of this blog.)

The Uprising and its ramifications spread quickly within a field of action, and a web of political and social connections, that was already global in scope. This point is nicely illustrated by a P&S meeting minute from only five weeks later, on August 4th [Fig. 2]:


Fig 2. Political and Secret Committee minutes, 4th August 1857. IOR L/PS/1/12, f.148v

Here, a bundle of dispatches has been received through Marseilles. Besides the mutinies of Indian and Nepalese regiments, there are reports of disturbances in Broach (Bharuch, Gujarat), reports of the imprisonment of the Nawab of Awadh, and the death of another prince. In Persia, peace terms are being ratified after the Anglo-Persian War, fought to establish the city of Herat under de facto British control (and, in the Persian case, to get it back); a separate dispatch from Sir James Outram, leader of the expeditionary force and still in the Gulf, confirms the dispatch of troops from Bushehr. The Governor of Ceylon, likewise, has been asked to contribute regiments for putting down the mutiny.

In the most immediate sense, the Uprising didn’t elicit a particularly subtle response. Whatever the logistical and diplomatic complexities of what followed, the general aim remained obvious and brutally simple: to concentrate the empire’s maximum capacity for violence on suppressing anti-colonial resistance and preventing its spread. For that, the main challenge was that of getting as many troops as possible to Northern India, as fast as it could be done.

But how that policy, and others, got made illuminates the extent to which power was networked just as much in the imperial centre as in the global web of empire. The often complex systems of bureaucratic routine, precedence, protocol, subordination, negotiation and duplication through which policy was formed are on full and rich display in the P&S Committee’s correspondence with other government departments, collected in the India Office Records as the ‘P&S Home Correspondence’ (IOR L/PS/3; the volumes for 1857 are L/PS/3/54-56).

The first item in this series, as far as the Uprising is concerned, is a request to the Board of Control that the P&S Committee be allowed to share the first telegram (the same one noted in the Fig. 1) with the Court of Directors. The Board, by this point, was exercising control not just over policy but over the internal informational security of the company itself. The nature of Crown Government capture of Company policy by 1857 – how complete it was, what the significant moments of extension were – is a matter of some debate, but it’s worth noting here that the Government had very handily extended a kind of sovereignty over information. Messages that passed between Company servants in India and those in London belonged, in a sense, to the Government, and the Company only enjoyed access to them on the Government’s sufferance. Throughout the Uprising, the communicational networks of the Company ran at full tilt: the collections in the India Office Records series of “Mutiny Enclosures” (largely assembled for fortnightly dispatches by the Suez mail steamer by the unfailing efforts of Henry Lacon Anderson, the chief secretary to the Presidency of Bombay) contain a wealth of military reports, returns, judicial papers, maps, intelligence digests and narratives. In every case, however, only the Board and the P&S Committee had automatic right of access to this material, and applications to share any information with the Court of Directors were frequently refused – as was the case, for example, for the dispatches from Bombay listed in Fig. 2.

The Home Correspondence also points up the extent to which the Board was the effective channel of communication with the Company and all other government offices. At first glance, the series looks like a record of communication in all directions between the Committee, the Court and Chairs of the Company, the Board, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, the War Office and the Admiralty.


Fig 3. Index page to Political & Secret Home Correspondence, September 1857. IOR L/PS/3/56, f.5r. Featuring letters between Sir George Clerk and Robert Vernon-Smith MP (Board of Control) and Sir James Cosmo Melvill (Secretary to the East India Company) and the Company’s Chairs, Edmund Hammond and Lord Shelburne (Foreign Office), Lord Panmure and Henry Knight Storks at the War Office, and W.A. White, HM Consul in Warsaw.

For the most part, however, what it actually represents is the correspondence between the Board and all these agencies, with no communication between them except through the Board; except through the Board, the Committee, and indeed the Court and Chairs of the Company, can’t meaningfully communicate with anyone. Not only that: except for the correspondence between the Committee and the Board, everything else here is a copy of an original which the Board holds: the Company itself is reduced to a largely spectatorial role, as if cc’d into an email thread in which they are powerless to intervene directly. The impression the series as a whole gives to the modern historian is of something like a ringside view of policymaking, curated for the benefit of a body whose control of policy was so mediated, policed and deliberately attenuated as to be reduced largely to an advisory function, even while its most vital interests are at stake.

Much of the most interesting correspondence is between the Board and the Foreign Office. For instance: the Court wished, with the Board’s concurrence, to send advance parties of officers and men from cavalry regiments through Suez, so that they could arrive in India before the bulk of their regiments – which were travelling via the Cape – and have their establishment prepared for immediate action when they arrived in India. Soldiers in uniform, even those of friendly powers, were not allowed across Egypt, so the soldiers had to travel in ‘mufti’. This necessitated letters under flying seal to both Company agents and consular staff in Suez and Alexandria, letters to shipping companies warning them of the plans, and a flurry of correspondence with Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe, the experienced diplomat serving as ambassador to the Porte, and Major John Green, the (apparently very capable) Acting Vice Consul in Alexandria, relaying the progress of a complex and delicate diplomatic dance between the Ottoman court, the Egyptian Pasha, and the somewhat precarious British presence. Meanwhile, consuls in Baghdad and Aleppo were being briefed to give all possible assistance to Company and Army agents trying to source horses for Indian service, bypassing the Parsi horsetrading families of Western India.

The scramble to formulate policy and keep a hold on the global situation means that, among many other concerns, we find Foreign Office staff digging up consular reports from the end of the Crimean War assessing whether it would be possible to recruit the Kurds as irregular cavalry against Persian and Russian opportunism; meanwhile, the Consul in Aleppo sends a series of letters advising that an Arab militia could easily be raised. The Foreign Office forwards letters and carefully filleted digests of intelligence from St Petersburg, including reports of quite abstruse conversations in which hidden meanings might have been intended, and translations of needlingly ambivalent commentary from the Northern Bee (Severnaya Pchela), the semi-official newspaper that was commonly known to be a mouthpiece for the Third Section, the Tsarist secret police. From the Embassy in Washington, there’s a report of an Irish Republican meeting in New York, in solidarity with the rebels – at which it was debated whether Republican activist (and escapee from Van Diemen’s Land) John Mitchel would give his support, since as a fervent anti-abolitionist it was supposed he could not support a non-white insurrection against a white proprietory class; enclosed with the clipping is Mitchel’s almost offensively evasive letter to the editor in reply. Outside of the Foreign Office correspondence, there is a huge volume of correspondence with the War Office, Admiralty and Colonial Office about the movement of troops around the world, in a complex shuffle revealing the insecurities of governors around the empire. There is a long and ongoing correspondence with the Admiralty about navigational infrastructure, particularly that relating to the Red Sea, a sea route whose importance the febrile communicational activity of the Uprising is throwing into stark relief; there is correspondence with Richard Burton, the Arabist and translator of Omar Khayyām, about whether to establish British bases in the Horn of Africa; and a fraught exchange with a Liverpudlian guano prospecting firm over a ban on using Arab labourers on the Khuriya Muriya Islands near Aden.

So what’s to be learned from this? Well, as ever in our blog, conclusions are provisional. We’re gathering what we hope will be the materials of a new history of imperial governance; this blog is about the journey rather than the destination. But what we’ve found so far from the records of 1857 is, we think, further evidence of the simultaneity of imperial governance, across multiple modalities of rule, constitutional arrangements, and administrative agencies; of its global reach, its interrelatedness, and of officials’ keen awareness of that interrelatedness; and of some of its contradictions as it changed over time, was contested and pulled in different directions. What we get from the Political and Secret Home Correspondence is an idiosyncratic, and in some ways unexpectedly illuminating, view of a major imperial crisis as it both drew on a global system of power and helped to induce the conditions by which it would be further entrenched.

Peter Mitchell

Posted in 1857, Communication, India Office

Security, Economy and Education in Mauritius, August 1857

In August 1857, the British Empire was in the midst of an imperial crisis. The Indian Uprising caused panic across the governmental system, as it threw the vulnerability of British colonialism into stark relief.

This was no more evident than in Mauritius, which had become a formal colony of the British Empire through the Treaty of Paris in 1814, when it was ceded by the French (though the French language remained commonly spoken there). In Mauritius, the Governor led a legislative council in the construction of local policy. While the council had the power to pass laws, called ‘Ordinances,’ they were subject to the approval of the Home Government and had to adhere to imperial policy. Often, the creation of an Ordinance would involve a long, drawn-out, process of discussion and debate, between members of the colonial legislature, prominent colonial figures, the Governor, and the Colonial Office in London.

While the uprising in India persisted, the demand for labour in Mauritius had never been greater. High prices encouraged cultivation of sugar cane which, being grown on large-scale plantations, required increasing numbers of unskilled workers to tend to the fields. Plans to recruit immigrant labour to construct new roads and other public works in the Seychelles, only served to further exacerbate demand.[1] With a small ‘native’ population, these conditions opened up an avenue for a substantial rise in indentured labourers in the late 1850s and early 1860s, many originating in India.


The Futty Satam of Bombay carrying 300 Immigrants and Coolies, and dismantled in a hurricane, being towed to Mauritius (© National Maritime Museum) [2]

Bombay had only  recently, on 17 June 1857, reopened the channels for Indian emigration to Mauritius, to the considerable elation of the Mauritius landholders and the island’s Governor, James M. Higginson. The temporary embargo on the flow of labour from India had, in the meanwhile, inspired some fairly dramatic – and illegal – efforts to meet demand. In one instance (though likely not the only case), a group of enslaved people were purchased in Boyanna Bay, Madagascar. Upon boarding the English ship, the Joker, their owners declared the captives to be ‘free,’ before later selling them onward, in Mauritius, as indentured labourers. While frowned upon, the practice was common, and virtually impossible to prosecute under existing law in the colony, as in many cases such as this one, the slaves-cum-indentured-labourers were brought to Mauritius under old licenses which, while no longer issued, were still technically valid in 1857. The Governor bemoaned the escape of Captain Aps, commander of the Joker, from Mauritius, and stated  the intention to prosecute Aps should he return, yet also anticipated  “considerable difficulty in obtaining a conviction.”[3] On the part of the Colonial Office, the effort to curtail the flow of illegal indenture was limited to communication with the Admiralty and the Foreign Office, in order to clarify policy with regard to the ban on bringing emigrants from Madagascar and curtailing the use of old licenses.

Following the reopening of emigration from Bombay, it was chiefly Indian workers who began to flood into the colony, with demand for labourers largely trumping concerns regarding security during the Indian Rebellion. Ships carrying indentured labourers arrived in a steady stream, while colonial troops left the island in a similar exodus, bound for India. On the 10 August alone, six companies of the 33rd Regiment and one company of artillery left for Bombay, with further troops scheduled for despatch the following day.[4] Over the subsequent weeks, more troops departed, bound for Calcutta and Bombay. The governor acceded to all requests for troops received from India, while complaining of the vulnerable position in which Mauritius was left:

The detaching of a wing of the 4th Regiment will certainly leave Mauritius with a garrison reduced considerably below the strength that has been assigned for its requirements, and less than the position and importance of the Colony would entitle it to; but the urgency of the requisition and emergency of the service for which additional reinforcements were required at Bombay, appeared to the Major General and myself to justify our laying aside ordinary considerations.

It was therefore under heightened security considerations that the colonial government was faced with an influx of unskilled indentured labourers. Interestingly, it was also at this time that they began discussions for the implementation of a compulsory government education scheme.

Ordinance No.21 of 1857, “for rendering compulsory the education of children in the colony,” while being generally agreed upon in theory, was debated on virtually every detail in the colonial legislature, in the religious community, and in the Colonial Office in London. The exact nature of the instruction to be offered and the methods by which Indian children in particular would be exposed to British ideas were considered of great importance. While some members of the legislature thought that it might be prudent to trial an easier, voluntary, system first, the Governor and most members saw that if they were to attempt comprehensive education, it would have to be compulsory so as to combat both considerable resistance among the immigrant population, and concerns over class status among the more established inhabitants:

Now, whatever force this line of reasoning [in favour of a voluntary system] may be supposed to carry with it, as regards the creole population…more especially if the promised influence of the Roman Catholic Church be exerted in favour of state education, from which it has heretofore stood aloof, the argument is totally inapplicable to the immigrant population, whose reluctance to sending their children to Government Schools, as at present constituted, is notorious, and cannot be neutralised by those influences that may operate with the creole. By the last return, it is shown that only 51 immigrant children, throughout the island, were attending these schools, and 31 Indians born in the colony, and belonging to classes above that of the common labourer, and even admitting the necessity for compulsion was not equally imperative in both cases, the strong and patent objections to class legislation could not be overcome.

Exposure to European social and moral ideas was to be conducted in part through religious instruction. While all agreed on the importance of teaching Christian values, for the “moral benefit” it would afford to the newly arrived children of labourers, the emphasis that government schools would place on Protestant religion infuriated some members of the Roman Catholic clergy, who had already established schools in the colony.[5] Bishop Collier, leader of the Roman Catholic community in Mauritius, expressed his concerns that government inspectors would destroy all the Roman Catholic elementary schools in the colony, “by declaring that the instruction given in them is inferior than that given in Government schools and forcing accordingly all the children to attend the latter.”[6] He likely expressed concerns that students, in switching between government and Catholic schools, might receive conflicting religious instruction. In response, the Colonial Office concurred that the Ordinance ought to be amended so that “no child should be compelled to attend the government schools if already receiving regular instruction in some other school to be certified as efficient by the Anglican or Roman Catholic Bishop, or by the officiating minister of any other Christian body in the colony to which the school is attached.”[7] The Colonial Office thereby protected the semi-autonomy of the Roman Catholic schools, so long as “an opportunity will be afforded to Indian children to hear the word of God, without offending the religious prejudices of the Coolies” and they adhered to the requirements of government.

Ultimately, Christian education was deemed necessary as a means of adapting Indian children to British codes of morality and ethics. Parents of students were given the choice of exempting their children from religious instruction, but only if they should themselves pose an objection; without an explicit statement from the parents, in person, the child would be subject to an hour of Christian instruction per day.

The colonial government likewise determined that instruction should be given in the principal administrative language of Mauritius, French, rather than in an Indian  language or English. This deviated from the previous example set by the Roman Catholic schools, which had up until then often used the children’s vernacular tongue in the classroom. The provision was voted through by the general body of the colonial legislature, to the chagrin of Governor Higginson, who foresaw considerable resistance from the general community of labourers and difficulty in enforcing the policy. In fact, it was only through considerable coercion that he saw a mandatory requirement that children know French being practicable. The level of coercion necessary to impose such a measure likewise raised concerns in the Colonial Office, whose officials, in light of recent events in India, apprehended the possibility of arousing resentment in the population. Given the current state of affairs in India, and the diminution of the garrison held in Mauritius as a result, such resentment among a newly-arrived, unknown immigrant population was a troubling prospect.[8] Nevertheless, the measure passed. The choice was ultimately made to serve the dual purposes of ensuring that Indian labourers were steeped, from an early age, in the linguistic culture of the colony and, practically, that a sufficient pool of teachers, knowledgeable in that language, would be available.

The linguistic debate likewise demonstrates the close links between how the colonial government – and the Colonial Office – sought to protect social order and promote commercial development. Forcing children to learn the language of colonial government served a similar purpose of producing a cohesive, communicable, working class. Ordinance No.21 also included provisions designed to preserve the central reason for the children’s presence in Mauritius: to work. The final Ordinance required all children in the colony between the ages of 6 to 12 years, inclusive (6 to 10 years old for girls) to attend some kind of government-approved school for three hours per day.[9] Initially both girls and boys were to attend school for the same period of time, but it was later reduced for female children for reasons of morality,

To meet an objection of some weight, grounding on the unusually early physical development, and the precocity of the sexes so remarkable in Mauritius, and the consequent dangers to public moral that might arise from the intercourse between boys and girls of a ripe age.[10]

The school day was also fixed at three hours, as opposed to longer periods on alternate days, so as not to interfere with the great demand for child labour by employers. The role to be played by employers in ensuring compliance with the new ordinance was also a subject of concern. While employers were well-positioned to observe any instances of non-compliance, their strong presence among the unofficial council membership prevented any measures being added to the ordinance that would hold them liable:

I can see no reason, as observed by the late Sir William Molesworth, why persons who engage Indian parents should not be compelled to take care that the children of their labourers should attend Government Schools; and it was my desire and intention to have introduced an Article, enacting that the tuition fees should be deducted by employers from the wages paid to the parents, and rendering it illegal to employ any child within the specified ages who shall not, by regular attendance at school, be conforming to the law. As it appeared to me that by these means the chief incentive to contravention of the law would be supressed, and the inducement to parents to obey its provisions would be greater, than those operating for its evasion. But having ascertained that this proposition would be opposed, with strength and unanimity, by the unofficial side of the Council, I did not conceive it to be politic or expedient to press it.[11]

It was therefore, under these conditions, that a system of compulsory education was installed in Mauritius. A government initiative, designed to ensure all children – most especially immigrant labourers – were all provided with a uniform, government-approved programme, the final result offered a prescriptive combination of religion, literacy skills, and linguistic conformity. It represented the outcome  of debates with pre-existing education institutions and alternative Christian schools, while also indicating the ways in which various colonial government priorities intersected in the construction of imperial  policy. The compulsory education measure reflected a desire for social order, borne out of stability concerns during the Indian Uprising. Yet, it also points to a broader theme in imperial administration in this period: the extent to which the money-making machine of late-1850s empire, grounded in agriculture, trade, and the demand for labour, was prioritised, often placing social programmes at the service of this one, ultimate, goal.

Kate Boehme


[1] National Archives (NA). Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Report upon the condition and prospects of the Seychelles.” 10 July, 1857.
[2] National Maritime Museum. John Bechett Hodgson, “The Futty Satam,” c1851.
[3] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Letter from Governor James M. Higginson to Henry Labouchere,” 2 August, 1857.
[4] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857. “Letter from Governor James M. Higginson to Henry Labouchere,” 10 August, 1857.
[5] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Draft Letter from Colonial Office to Governor William Stevenson,” 31 December, 1857.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Letter from Governor James M. Higginson to Henry Labouchere.” 4 September, 1857.
[9] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Letter from Governor James M. Higginson to Henry Labouchere,” 4 August, 1857.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.

Posted in 1857, Colonial Office, Education