The Grateful Native: British Empire propaganda in the internet age

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I have not acquired any fortune but I have my paternal estate and the pension of a Subedar. This is enough for me. The people in my village seem to respect me, and are now fully satisfied with the ease and benefits they enjoy under British rule.[i]

From Sepoy to Subedar is the autobiography of Sita Ram, a soldier in the Bengal Native Army who rose from the humble rank of sepoy to the officer rank of subedar. Or it is a con, a fiction, a sophisticated hoax that has stood almost unchallenged for 140 years. But the latter is the minority view. Most commentators believe it to be genuine.

I first picked up the book wanting to read first-hand accounts of Indian subjects under the East India Company and British Raj. Here is Sita Ram on first meeting a senior officer:

Although I was not struck with [the sahib’s] size or strength, still there was something in his eyes I will never forget; they were like the eyes of a hawk and seemed to look through and through one.[ii]

From Sepoy to Subedar came to my attention through online references, with a smattering of reviews talking of its historical interest. Though it is available on Amazon I imagine it sells very few copies these days, but for a while it was a standard text for British officers training in India. Its status might seem of purely historical interest now, yet it is a curious text and I came to see it as casting some light on the Empire many British people still struggle to understand.

Let’s go back to the beginning: From Sepoy to Subedar was first published in 1873, sixteen years after the Indian Rebellion. The Raj was firmly in charge of the country by then, having re-established British rule with a series of retaliatory massacres followed by government take-over and reorganisation of the Company’s armies. The book was published in English by an army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Norgate, who claimed to have translated it from an original Hindi manuscript given him by Sita Ram’s son, following conversations with Sita Ram himself. It was also published in Urdu later that year, though that translation appears never to have circulated widely. From Sepoy to Subedar tells the tale of a loyal ‘sepoy’, an Indian soldier in the colonial forces who saw many of the major historical events of the time first-hand, starring in not a few picaresque adventures along the way. He talks about the aftermath of one such adventure:

The Colonel sahib came often to see me and hear my story, and the other officers were equally kind. The Doctor sahib cut the ball out of my back, and I vomited a quantity of blood which gave me great relief.[iii]

For a long time the book seems to have been considered a minor work and presumably sold few copies. Then in 1911 under one Colonel Phillott, the colonial government created a new syllabus for the Hindustani exams offered to officers as part of their education. From Sepoy to Subedar was selected as a key Urdu text, translated from English by Phillott himself. The book was never, it should be said, published in its original form. Why not? The ‘original’ Hindi manuscript was never produced by Norgate. No-one has ever seen it. One sceptic at the time was told that a senior Indian civil servant had read the original. But no-one ever met Sita Ram, or found any trace of him. This means that every piece of evidence for the authenticity of the text comes from within the Raj’s own hierarchy. Nonetheless from 1911 onward From Sepoy to Subedar became a key text in the Hindustani syllabus for British officers. It was still in use as an educational tool in the 1940s, when it was translated into Devanagari. In the 1970s a new edition by James D. Lunt brought it to a wider English-speaking public.

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