The Year of the Sepoy Revolt

How events in British India were leveraged in the debate over slavery.

The death of Captain Alexander Skene and his wife, Margaret Skene, at Jhansi, during the Sepoy Revolt, English coloured engraving, 19th century © Bridgeman Images

As Abraham Lincoln noted, the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War was a ‘house divided against itself’. This disunion is often generalised as a fracture between North and South. But, before secession, the growing divide was between determined abolitionists and their equally determined opponents, engaged in a battle over public opinion. This was certainly true in 1857, when Indian sepoys revolted against British rule and captured American attention. This foreign event was of great interest to a nation entrenched in a fierce slavery debate.

The rebellion in India was a violent uprising of an oppressed, servile, non-white class against their white rulers: an ominous sign for Southern states built on racial hierarchy. It became of such great interest to Americans that the Princeton Review stated: ‘The year of 1857 will be henceforth known as the year of the Sepoy Revolt … No event of the year in any part of the world has been of deeper interest’ – putting it above events such as Bleeding Kansas and the Dred Scott decision. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, seen through an American domestic lens, inevitably had strong echoes in the fight over abolition.

For years the two sides of the slave debate drew on the British Empire to make their arguments. British abolition, achieved decades earlier, had long been used as a moral paradigm by prominent American abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, William Garrison and Charles Remond. Douglass went as far as to say that ‘if we wish to call attention to anything we may point at Britain’ to get the American people ‘heartily enlisted in the cause’. Anti-abolitionists countered by undermining British morality: South Carolina senator John Calhoun portrayed British imperialism as a greater evil than Southern slavery, calling British India ‘one magnificent plantation, peopled by more than a million slaves’ and ‘far more unlimited and despotic than that of any Southern planter over his slaves’. James Williams and Henry Hotze, eventual Confederate propagandists, declared British abolition ‘pseudo-philanthropy’. These views became popular in the South: the Southern author Henry James Field argued, in his popular book Abolitionism Unveiled, that abolitionists were employed by the British in a conspiracy to undermine the South and their cotton-based economy. Field’s claim may not have seemed unreasonable to many Southerners: Remond, at one point, turned to British abolitionists to see if they would ‘promote cotton cultivation in India, to lessen the profits of the American South’ and toured the British Isles with Garrison, after which Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper began regularly to report on the British Empire. Douglass also publicly considered the work of the British abolitionist George Thompson – who openly stated he hoped cotton cultivation in India would disincentivise American slavery – to be an example for American abolitionists. With these anti-abolitionist arguments, combined with the fact that much of the Northern economy (including many Irish-American jobs) relied on Southern cotton, labelling abolitionists as hypocrites and foreign agents became a successful strategy for keeping the abolitionist movement out of the South, furthering the national divide and reaffirming an anti-abolition coalition.

The portrayal of abolitionists as pro-British and anti-abolitionists as anti-imperialists coincided with heightened Irish nationalism in Northern states. Irish revolutionaries were successful in raising funds and militias in the North. Strong in their nationalism and anti-British imperialism and anxious over the economic impact of abolition, many Irish-Americans felt allied to the Southern cause; as a voting bloc they had buoyed anti-abolitionist candidates to political power in Republican strongholds. Many Irish-American newspapers even became effectively pro South in the 1850s and 1860s. Several Irish publications and their publishers were suspended and jailed by the federal government after the suspension of habeas corpus. James J. Faran, editor of the influential Cincinnati Enquirer, where race riots occurred, was a critic of the war; James A. McMaster of the New York Freeman’s Journal was incarcerated and the paper was suppressed; and Belfast-born John Mullaly, editor of the Metropolitan Record, New York City’s official Catholic newspaper, urged his Irish-American readers to pursue armed resistance to the draft. The New York Draft Riots occurred later that summer. Irish-American anti-imperialism and anti-abolitionism was exacerbated by a perception of abolitionists that was shared and espoused by pro-slavery advocates.

In the South, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 became the rationale for fearing, discrediting and further opposing abolitionist efforts and Northern power. State Senator John Townsend of South Carolina, one of the earliest secessionists and author of the influential pamphlet Doom of Slavery in the Union: Its Safety Out of It, claimed the rebellion proved that two races ‘cannot live together in the same country on the terms of equality’ and that in order to protect itself, the South should intensify not only its commitment to slavery, but its brutality. Southerners also read the sensationalised reports from the British press of attacks against white women by non-white rebels. Imagined attacks on the Southern ideal of ‘innocent white womanhood’ by non-white men are a popular theme in white supremacist arguments, evident in the late-1850s by Jessie Brown, a play about the Indian Rebellion. Based on reporting that exacerbated the spectre of such attacks by non-white men, portrayed as violent and wanton, the play was successful when it toured the South. Southern diarists Eliza Clitherall and Mary Chestnutt saw it and wondered how long it would be before their slaves rose up as the Indians did, revealing how easily the foreign event fit an anxiety-laden domestic perspective and could be used to promote slavery in the South.

These arguments show how British India was leveraged by anti-abolitionists before and after the rebellion: before 1857, British India was ‘one magnificent plantation’ of imperialism; after, it was a product of abolition and an ominous augury of increasing Northern power. To Southern audiences, these arguments first held them firm in a moral commitment to slavery, then capitalised on their anxiety over a reversal in the imposition of race-based violence, which was exemplified in India. To Irish-American audiences, they exemplified a historic mistrust of Britain and validated their suspicion of abolitionists. This coalition would maintain solidarity against racial equality through the Civil War and beyond, opposing abolition and civil rights through warfare, draft riots and segregation to the political machinery of Tammany Hall and Jim Crow.

 

Nicholas Simon is a history student.