The two revolts occurred almost back-to-back in the mid-19th century, in India and the U.S., but no one had studied the two together, says Rajmohan Gandhi, a research professor in the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Illinois.
As a son of India now living in the Land of Lincoln, however, it’s no mystery why Gandhi might choose to write “A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 and the American Civil War” (Penguin Books India).
“I felt that a comparative and joint history might illumine poorly understood corners (of the conflicts),” Gandhi said. “Also, the growing U.S.-India relationship requires people in the two countries to know more about the history of the other.”
One book reviewer described the two events – one a revolt against British rule in India and the other a battle over slavery in the U.S. – as two of that century’s “most harrowing and consequential struggles.”
Gandhi reconstructs events from both struggles from the point of view of William Howard Russell, an Irishman who wrote for The Times of London who Gandhi says may have been the world’s first war correspondent. In the process, the author finds significant connections among the histories of the U.S., Britain and India.
Also woven into the story are five influential inhabitants of India, as well as three well-known figures from world history: Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy and Abraham Lincoln.
“The book shows that in 1857 and 1858 American interest in the Indian revolt was wider and deeper than usually realized, though most Americans accepted the British interpretation of the so-called Sepoy Mutiny,” Gandhi said. “It also shows that in the 1850s and 1860s informed Indians took a smaller interest in the American battle against slavery than may be imagined, though there were significant exceptions.”
It’s also noteworthy, he said, that “whereas Abraham Lincoln sought to capture a deep meaning for the Civil War’s great bloodshed, and to convey that meaning to all Americans, no one in India, whether British or Indian, attempted to discover a profound meaning for the large bloodshed in India.”
The author is a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and a former member of the Indian Parliament. Among his previous books is a 2007 biography of his grandfather, a proponent of non-violent resistance who helped lead India to its independence following World War II.