Editor's Choice

A Personal Perspective on the Indian Uprising: John Brown's Journal

Beth Hall

Title page from John Brown's journalNLS MS.15393 Journal and commonplace book of John Charles Brown, a private soldier in the 3rd European Bengal Regiment, during the Indian Uprising, 1855-61

What I love about reading journals is that it allows you to temporarily step inside someone’s head; to hear their inner thoughts, get a glimpse into their experiences and discover their beliefs on different subjects. In the first few paragraphs of John Brown’s journal he shares his view on journals saying that they are “of incalculable value to a young man” that it “gives you an ability of expressing your thoughts with propriety...” (folio 3r).

What I particularly enjoyed about reading Brown’s journal is that I was able to see the lead up to and some events of the Indian Uprising of 1857-58 through his eyes and from his perspective. These are Brown’s views (or ones that he has heard and accepted as his – he was not present at all of the events he described) of the uprising in Meerut and the events that followed. Some were events that he witnessed, others that he must have read about or heard about, the details having been passed from regiment to regiment, barrack to barrack. Whether his descriptions are accurate are not of central concern, as Brown's descriptions can be compared and contrasted with other sources. The value of journals such as Brown's is that they help historians piece together the history of the Uprising from different viewpoints and perspectives.

Brown’s journal has a beautifully illustrated front page (above) and illustrations interspersed throughout. His journal also contains a hand drawn colour map of the City of Agra (below). It is clear that John Brown was quite artistic and also a romantic. His journal is scattered with poems and quotes about India and the uprising - heroic poems about battles and Shakespearean quotes. His religion also shows through and he regularly discusses morals, temperance and the Bible.

Brown’s journal begins in 1855 in Chinsurah “30 miles above the City of Calcutta” (a chart of distances in Bengal and Agra can be found on folio 172). Brown provides detailed descriptions of the barracks and his surroundings. He describes a visit to a mosque recalling the “magnificence of the interior” and having taking his boots off before entering (folio 4r). He describes Calcutta and the Hooghly River and a place called Monghyr which he says is termed “the Birmingham of India, on account of its extensive manufactories of cutlery and weapons” (folio 11r) (the city of Birmingham was pivotal in the Industrial Revolution in Britain). Through his writings you gain an insight into his understanding of the Hindu caste system and Hindu religious festivals. He offers his thoughts on the Hindu funeral practice of burning their dead describing it as “certainly a very disgusting thing” (folio 12v) . These types of thoughts on traditional Hindu practices were common among the English during this period and often used by the British as justification for their rule in India.

Brown describes his journey to Agra, his voyage on the Ganges River and the “sacred city of Hindu superstition” Benares (Varanasi). On his arrival in Agra, Brown describes visiting the “magnificent treasure of Agra, and indeed of all India” the Taj Mahal (folio 18v).

His entry for the 14th June, 1856 describes how the "plague" (cholera) swept through his regiment. He tells of the loss of lives saying that “the natives were dieing [sic] daily in great numbers. The total loss of our regiment....was no less than one hundred and twenty four men, five women and fifteen children” (folio 24v).

Brown’s journal then turns to the Indian Uprising. His entry for the 10th of May 1857 opens with a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI which begins “I’ll read you matter, deep and dangerous”. Brown in his elaborate way says “The years 1857 and 1858 present a series of the most wonderful and unparalleled events in British India. Dark clouds had been lowering for some time over the Indian horizon, which resulted at last in India being plunged in war” (folio 26r). He goes on, “of all that powerful and almost innumerable Native Army which the East India Company possessed and gloried in at the commencement of the year, not a shadow remained to them at its close – instead of which they were arranged against their former masters in deadly hostility, turning English guns and munitions of war, against the English, and making all but a successful attempt at the liberation of their country” (folio 26r).

Hand-drawn map of the city of AgraBrown talks of discontent among the sepoys in the army as a result of the introduction of the Enfield rifle into the army, “the cartridge as it is well known is lubricated with fat, to touch which is an abomination and defilement to a Hindoo” (folio 29r). He goes on to say that “it is quite plausible that both Hindoo and Mahomedan minds were excited with suspicion, as they imagined that this might be a stratagem to affect their religious observations and belief” (folio 29r).

He speaks of discontent among the sepoys, of the burning of European dwelling houses and of sepoys who “secretly consulted and held meetings, planning and arranging matters amongst themselves” (folio 29r). Brown says that “expectation was now on tip-toe amongst civilians of all grades, that the eve of a crisis was at hand, but government still refused to listen to such warnings” (folio 29v).

He talks of Meerut as being “selected by the mutineers for the outbreak, their motive for this is not clearly understood” (folio 30r). He then speaks of the uprisings in Meerut and Delhi and describes the bloodshed in graphic terms. In Browns mind “the premature outbreak of the Native corps in Meerutt was the salvation of India, it ushered the revolt upon the stage – immaturely, and to that circumstance is attributed its failure” (folio 30v) . It would appear that Brown believed that a larger and perhaps more ordered uprising of sepoys in the army may have been on the horizon and that the “premature” uprising in Meerut did not allow them time to organise a full scale uprising.

Brown’s journal contains poems about the uprising (written by various people), extracts from a newspaper entitled the ‘Mofussilite’ (folio 43r) and letters describing ‘the Cawnpore Tragedy’ and events in Lucknow.

Brown says that “when after the disastrous occurrences at Delhi and Meerut, and the ill-feeling displayed at other stations, apprehensions began to be entertained of the loyalty of the native troops throughout Bengal” (folio 84r). This is an interesting observation and offers one explanation as to the curb on the numbers of sepoys in the army after 1858.

Brown’s last journal entry is for the year 1860.The subsequent pages contain items such as ‘moral and practical observations’, recipes, including one on how to pickle hams and pages of mathematical formulae.