The Emotional Literacy of Empire: Memoirs and Medicine in the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857

By Sam Goodman

The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, for many years known as the ‘Indian Mutiny’, held a special place in the history of colonial India.[1] The events that transpired across the country’s central plains over the summer of 1857, and perhaps most famously at Lucknow and at Cawnpore, would be retained in the British national consciousness for decades to follow. This commemoration, however, was not just because of shock at the brutal, reciprocal violence perpetrated by both British and Indian participants, but because the narrative of triumph in adversity and ethnic solidarity satisfied the British disposition towards myth-making which characterised the Imperial presence in India.

Like the Battle of Plassey or the Black Hole of Calcutta, the Indian Mutiny combined elements of heroism and fortitude, of tragedy and the resolve of the British spirit in the face of overwhelming odds, or certain death; all the ingredients necessary for it to become a crucial component of the narrative of British India, and remaining so for the ninety years of the Raj that followed it.[2]

An examination of how and why the Indian Mutiny lingered in the British and Anglo-Indian imaginary in this way involves considering a medium synonymous with the British experience in India, as well as the wider Empire: namely that of the diary or journal. Originating in its recognisable form in the eighteenth century, contemporaneous to the consolidation of British rule in India, the colonial diary was a very popular, and often lucrative, activity for the returning Indiaman or for those generals or notable soldiers engaged in overseas service. Along with the abundance of reports and official histories of the sepoy rebellion, the diary or journal was one of the key ways in which the British experience of these events was captured and disseminated throughout the wider empire. For instance, in the course of my research to date, I have so far examined seventeen diaries or memoirs produced by soldiers, doctors and civilians present at the Siege of Lucknow alone; the total number of memoirs and diaries from engagements at Delhi, Meerut, Agra and others, as well as the further efforts to suppress the revolt in 1858, is much higher, and largely represents the social spectrum of mid-nineteenth-century colonial society, with accounts penned by civilians and private soldiers through to generals.

L0038414 Title page of "An episode of the rebellion

Title page of “An episode of the rebellion and mutiny in Oudh of 1857 and 1858”, Wellcome Library, London.

The number of published perspectives available on the Siege of Lucknow, as well as the Indian Mutiny itself, is both notable in its own right and indicative of the place of the diary within mid-century Victorian publishing culture. With very few exceptions, the majority of these accounts were published in London within six to twelve months of the second (and final) relief of Lucknow in November 1857. They capitalised on the great public interest in the conflict, and also functioned as a means of piecing together an accurate timeline of events, at this point still unclear, especially when it came to what had occurred at Cawnpore. Whilst no historian would consider these diaries unproblematic historical record now, they are nonetheless of great use to us in reconstructing the historical conditions of mid-nineteenth-century Britain and the culture of textual production that existed around colonial India at this time, as well as understanding the diary ‘as a cultural and discursive practice’.[3]

Felicity Nussbaum argues that the traditionally understood format of the private diary is a production of the late-eighteenth century, a time when autobiography developed a set of practices ‘distinct from other kinds of writing’.[4] However, whilst many of the Indian Rebellion diaries conform to the daily entry format that Nussbaum refers to, they are equally influenced by George Walker’s A True Account of the Siege of Londonderry from 1689, a text which combined both eyewitness testimony and the personal perspective of a diary or journal, and in the words of Rebecca Steinitz, ‘signalled the diary’s use-value in the service of current events’.[5]

Aside from the number of accounts produced there, it is similarly notable that many of the diarists of Lucknow are female, and range from a middle to upper class spectrum in relation to the rank or position of their husbands. For instance, diarists of note include Julia Inglis, wife of the garrison commander; Adelaide Case, wife of Colonel Case; Maria Germon, wife of Lieutenant Charles Germon; Emily Polehampton, wife of the Reverend Henry Polehampton; Georgina Harris, wife of the Chaplain, James Harris; Colina Brydon, married to surgeon William Brydon, and Katherine Bartrum, whose husband was a medical officer with a native regiment. Many of these women worked as volunteer nurses throughout the siege, and a large proportion of their testimony relates to their experiences performing tasks that were previously unknown to them, either from tending the sick and wounded through to quotidian activities such as cooking and providing for themselves and their children. Their activities in this field reflect the fact that there was a considerable medical presence at Lucknow, largely as a result of various units retreating to the Lucknow garrison when the rebellion began. N. A. Chick’s Annals of the Indian Rebellion (1859) lists eleven medical personnel at Lucknow, ranging from the rank of surgeon through to apothecary, including Brydon, the sole survivor of the British invasion of Afghanistan a few years prior, and Joseph Fayrer who would go on to become a leading authority on cholera and tropical fevers in later life.[6] Given the recurrence of medical work alongside sickness, disease and wounds suffered in combat within these diaries, it is arguable that they can be read as illness narratives, with all of their authors at some point injured, unwell or affected by the privations of the siege.[7]

The recurrence of illness in addition to the hybrid status of these diaries affects their content, especially with regards to the thoughts, feelings and desires of their authors. The way in which these texts connect a variety of genres influences their composition and style, lending structure, imagery and lexis, whilst the immediacy of the diary format enables its authors to adopt a degree of candidness that exceeds that of the official reports and governmental publications produced in the wake of the Rebellion. The diary format sets up a connection between reader and an individual speaker, offering access to their most private thoughts, feelings and emotions. The diarists of Lucknow reveal a range of emotions throughout their accounts, from deep trepidation in the initial stages of May and June, fear and sorrow through the attacks of July and into August and on the occasion of death and disease within the garrison in the hot season, through to gradual optimism as the first relief under General Henry Havelock and James Outram approaches in September. Focusing on Julia Inglis’ diary, she regularly records her personal emotional state as well as those of the people around her, at both positive and negative ends of the emotional spectrum. For instance, in early June she notes how they welcomed the appearance of Colonel Case as ‘he was always so sanguine and cheery, that a visit from him raised our spirits’.[8] Elsewhere, Inglis notes the emotional strain on members of the garrison, particularly in an incident from 15th June where two officers quarreled resulting in one fatally shooting the other in a moment of anger.[9] Reflecting on this incident and news of other deaths that day, Inglis writes ‘Each day seemed to bring us more melan­choly tidings, and we felt very heart-sick’. Her account indicates the emotional volatility of a garrison under siege, buoyed by minor luxuries or victories and then brought low in moments of despair. Indeed, of all of the emotional states present in these accounts the most prevalent feelings are those of anxiety and fear, with the former recurring thirty times across the course of her memoir, and variations on the latter nearly forty times. For example, Inglis records how, in the latter stages of June when the assault on the garrison was escalating, her and the other ladies were ‘deeply anxious’ as their husbands organised a counterattack, or how they ‘anxiously’ listened to the cannonades and musketry after being moved to an underground room for their safety.[10]

We might consider this inclusion of emotional content in a number of ways. By offering an account of her feelings in each instance, Inglis strengthens the connection between herself and her audience, affording to make her testimony all the more engaging, and encouraging empathy on the part of the individual reader. The inclusion of this emotional depth ensures that hers is not merely an account of the order of battle or the kind of narrative of events she herself dismisses in the preface to her memoir. Rather, her account, and indeed the diary format, allows for more intimate expression of personal feeling, humanising the participants and therefore heightening the emotional weight of their successful defence of Lucknow within that of the wider context of the pacification of British India.

However, such a reading must take into account Inglis’ own objectives, which, as she states in her preface, are to present ‘a thoroughly clear and accurate account’; not only, as Klaver notes, does the diary format trouble distinctions of public and private, but the inclusion of so much emotional detail undermines Inglis’ purported objectivity.[11] Similarly, the hybridity of the diary again bears influence on the inclusion of feeling and emotion within the text. Inglis notes that male and female participants in the siege all at some point felt fear in the course of their duties. There is a noticeable gendered difference to the way in which such fears are expressed in her text, and what they in turn suggest. In casting the women as largely static, waiting for news of their husbands who are away fighting, the diary once again mirrors elements of the adventure novel, with the women in need of protection by the courageous men who manage to master their fear and do their duty. Once again, emotional detail is employed in order to increase the tension of the piece and engage the reader.

The inclusion of such emotional detail within the various diaries produced throughout the siege of Lucknow and the Indian Rebellion more generally are testament to a conflict characterized by extreme strength of feeling. So much of the literature on the Indian Rebellion expresses British shock, surprise and anger at what they viewed as mutinous betrayal, and a repudiation of all the ‘civilizing’ efforts of Anglo-Indian society in the preceding decades.[12] Similarly, the act of rebellion stirred up feelings of fear as the distance and traditional boundaries between colonizer and colonized were violently broken down; though often not corroborated with reliable evidence, stories and rumours of the widespread rape of British women circulated almost immediately.[13] Shock, surprise, and fear later turned to hatred and bitterness, however, driven by such rumours and especially in the wake of the massacre at the Bibi Gar at Cawnpore; sentiments all expressed in the degrading punishments meted out to anyone suspected of involvement there, or to those otherwise thought to have rebelled against British rule. The feelings loosed by the rebellion lingered, and found expression in a range of sources throughout the life of the British Raj, from divisive governmental policy to popular fiction, with the spectre of another rebellion underpinning Anglo-Indian life and driving the overt and covert racism of colonial society up to and beyond Indian independence in 1947.[14] The garrison at Lucknow and those across India that summer won a victory for the empire, but at the apparent cost of their empathy.

Sam Goodman is Lecturer in Linguistics (English & Communication) at Bournemouth University. His current research project explores the intersection between medicine and Anglo-Indian fiction of the post-Second World War period, and he is a member of Durham University’s New Generations in Medical Humanities programme. He is also the co-editor of Medicine, Health & the Arts: Approaches to the Medical Humanities (Routledge 2013).

[1] The majority of the period sources referenced in this article use the term ‘mutiny’, in reflection of its popular currency at the time.

[2] For instance, Lawrence James records that as late even as the early 1940s, British servicemen were still known to sport tattoos acquired whilst in India or British possessions in the Middle East which bore the legend ‘Remember Cawnpore’, a battle cry of various regiments during the quelling of the Mutiny in 1857-58. See Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (London: Abacus, 1997), p. 253.

[3] Rebecca Steinitz, Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 4.

[4] F. Nussbaum, The Autobiographical Subject: Gender & Ideology in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Johns Hopkins, 1995), p. xi.

[5] Steinitz, p. 110.

[6] N. A. Chick. Annals of the Indian Rebellion (Calcutta: Sanders Cones & Co, 1859), p. 872.

[7] Critical works such as Rita Charon’s Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness (2006) have sought to explore the potential of narrative formation and the depiction of illness through metaphor within clinical practice and the broader context of society, considering how representational strategies drawn from the literary sphere are able to aid the development of empathy within healthcare professionals.

[8] Julia Inglis, The Siege of Lucknow, A Diary (London: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co, 1892), p. 29.

[9] Inglis pp. 34-35.

[10] Inglis p. 44 and p. 46

[11] Claudia Klaver, ‘Domesticity under siege: British women and Imperial Crisis at the Siege of Lucknow, 1857, Women’s Writing’, 8:1, 21-58 (2001), p. 24.

[12] Lawrence James, Raj, p. 240-244.

[13] Jane Robinson, Angels of Albion: Women of the Indian Mutiny (London: Viking, 1996), pp. 130-131.

[14] See Gautam Chakravarty The Indian Mutiny & the British Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) for an overview of the Rebellion’s afterlife.


  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (aka the Indian Rebellion of 1857) was exceptionally brutal. British troops and families were surrounded at Lucknow by Indian troops. The siege of Lucknow lasted approximately six months. Sam Goodman at Remedia has posted an article about the numerous published accounts of the Siege of Lucknow. Goodman writes about how British accounts written by participants of the siege often included emotional details that often expressed the “shock, surprise, and anger” of British diarists. The emotions released by the rebellion altered the way that the British and Indians interacted with each other in the future. It is a fascinating post.


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