BRITISH EMPIRE AND THE LITERATURE OF REBELLION: REVOLTING BODIES, LABORING SUBJECTS by Sheshalatha Reddy, Reviewed by Aaron Worth
 

BRITISH EMPIRE AND THE LITERATURE OF REBELLION: REVOLTING BODIES, LABORING SUBJECTS
By Sheshalatha Reddy
(Palgrave, 2017) xl + 271 pp.
Reviewed by Aaron Worth on 2020-01-21.

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Episodes of violent social and political resistance make us, or ought to make us, peculiarly aware of the framing power of language. There are shades, and sometimes worlds, of difference between a "mutiny," an "insurrection," a "rebellion," a "revolt," a "rising," and the big "R," "revolution." When all of these terms are used to denote the same event--like the one sparked in the garrison town of Meerut, northern India, in 1857--it is clear that further battles, hardly less fierce, are being waged upon semantic and ideological territory: battles over questions of right and justice, scale and scope, agency and motive, and so on. Certainly "The Indian Mutiny," with its suggestion of criminal conspiracy directed against legitimate authority, distorts and oversimplifies, but so, in different ways and to different purposes, does "The First Indian War of Independence," an epithet redolent of nationalist retconning. Likewise, as the instigators of a popular "rising" ten years later, even (or especially) a spectacularly failed one, a small group of inept Irish rebels made an enduring contribution to their cause. But if their "rising" had been branded "the Fenian conspiracy," the label used by contemporary publications such as the Dublin University Magazine, it would hardly have gained the same symbolic value. In between these two outbreaks of anti-colonial resistance--one a shockwave, the other a squib--a short-lived rising in colonial Jamaica and its violent suppression convulsed public opinion back in Britain, where it was variously termed "The Morant Bay Massacre," "the insurrection in Jamaica," and simply "a Negro riot."

Sheshalatha Reddy spotlights these three episodes of colonial and quasi-colonial resistance (plumping for "rebellion" in each case), which for all their differences have more in common than mere chronological proximity. Most obviously, all three triggered alarms of varying degrees of severity on the seismometer of imperial anxiety, and all three led more or less directly to tangible, and highly consequential, changes in policy emanating from London (or as Reddy invariably calls it, "the metropole"). "[T]hese rebellions," she writes, "forced a moment of imperial reckoning, necessitating reconsiderations of the viability, place, and purpose of the colonies" (xii). In the aftermath of, respectively, the Sepoy, Morant Bay, and Fenian rebellions, the East India Company was dissolved, Jamaica was made a Crown Colony, and the Church of Ireland was disestablished. In fact, contemporaries perceived a great many further connections between and among these and other mid-Victorian episodes of colonial resistance, finding an especially irresistible paradigm in the 1857 rebellion, which led to the labelling of Fenians as "Irish sepoys."

Less symbolically, hardened veterans of the "Mutiny" took an active part in the bloody reprisals which followed the Morant Bay rising, while Governor Edward John Eyre's decision to order those reprisals was undoubtedly influenced in large part by the recent events in India. Reddy is more interested, however, in seeking to identify a single, deep-structural cause underlying these far-flung eruptions. In a broadly Marxian account (with familiar Foucaultian refinements), she reads all three as globally distributed manifestations of a seemingly unitary will or impulse: around the world, colonized people reject the subject-making power of "industrial capitalism." The growth and spread of industrial production throughout the colonies, she argues, necessitated the creation of a "disciplined laboring force" there, the concerted deployment of "a new regime" of Foucaultian "biopower" to transform "colonized bodies" into micro-programmed, clockwork laborers like their counterparts in Lowell and Lancashire (into, in other words, the "laboring subjects" of the book's title). In mid-Victorian India, Jamaica, and Ireland, then, the approximately synchronous response to these efforts was a "violent reaction to the violence inherent in the expansion of industrial capitalism in the colonies" (xiii, xvi). But in keeping with the standard elaboration of this master narrative, the mechanisms of disciplinary power, however formidable, ubiquitous, and seemingly all-penetrating, can never quite consummate their project, never wholly complete their work of transmutation, stymied as they are by the recalcitrance of the "colonized 'revolting body,'" an entity which--as we are reminded in a quibble perhaps a little too often repeated--"would always remain both repulsive and resistant" (xx).

From the outset, this thesis prompts a number of fairly substantial historical objections. For a start, none of these colonies (including Victorian Ireland, which Reddy calls a colony) was industrialized to any significant extent before the rebellions under discussion (which is not to say they were unaffected by industrialization, in varying degrees and different ways--a more complicated proposition). Nor can any of the primary agents of resistance involved here--high-caste Indian soldiers taking John Company's rupee, un- and underemployed freedmen in a foundering plantation economy, and middle-class leaders of a republican secret society--be made to play their assigned roles very convincingly. There is accordingly in each of the chapters that follow a certain amount of sawing and stretching to fit each historical episode and its quiddities to the book's overarching thesis. Perhaps most conspicuously, Reddy's archive is strikingly, one is tempted to say tactically, expansive, particularly with respect to chronology, though something of a compensatory or supplementary unity is provided by the assignment of discrete "concept-metaphors" to each chapter and its central historical episode. In the case of India, this is the post-Cartesian "machine"; in Jamaica, the animating "spirit" (surely, however, these are two aspects of the same conceptual metaphor?); and in Ireland, the (biological, prison, or terrorist) "cell" (215). A short conclusion sets the figure of the "disposable re/productive woman" in the context of present-day neoliberalism.

Linking the Sepoy rebellion to the "Rise of the Machines," chapter 1 surveys a wide and interesting variety of texts and genres, including not only prose fiction but James Innes Minchin's 1858 sonnet collection Ex Oriente, Felice Beato's iconic Mutiny photographs, and early twentieth-century Indian economic histories. Here Reddy discusses both industrial capitalism and the rebellion without ever quite managing to get them, so to speak, into the same room. By introducing the more elastic category of "machine," however, she has a far easier case to make: after all, as historians such as Daniel Headrick have demonstrated at length, nineteenth-century technologies were crucial to British rule in India and elsewhere, and for symbolic as well as tactical reasons, technologies of communication and transport in particular were resented (and later attacked) as culturally corrosive agents--and emblems--of modernity. Accordingly, Reddy is right to stress the salience of Indian "Rage Against the Machines" (as one sub-section is titled), especially since not only telegraphs and railways but bureaucracy, the state itself, human bodies, and the Enfield rifle whose greased cartridges the sepoys refused to bite are all and equally to be counted as "machines" here. In consequence, the book's ostensible (and more original) project of delineating a simultaneous, proto-proletarian revolt throughout the colonial periphery necessarily recedes into the background. In terms of period and historical context, this project is further upstaged by extended discussions of two twentieth-century Indian novels, Mulk Raj Anand's Coolie (1936) and Deepchand Beeharry's That Others Might Live (1971). Both discussions are compelling in themselves, and since the socialist writer Anand traces the progress of a peasant boy from country to city, including his experience as a factory worker, Reddy's reading of Coolie nicely exemplifies the story she is trying to tell in this chapter. Somewhat inconveniently, however, the novel is both written and set three-quarters of a century after the Mutiny, and is very much a document, as well as a product, of its own historical moment.

The first of the "spirits" considered in chapter 2 is the specter, terrifying or exhilarating depending on perspective, of the successful Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), which loomed very large in the background of the Jamaican revolt. By rehearsing the famous dispute over the "Negro question" between Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill in Fraser's Magazine, Reddy usefully sets the stage here, though she crowds it somewhat with a long and detailed discussion of C. L. R. James's varied writings on the Haitian Revolution (on the somewhat tautologous grounds that they too are "haunt[ed]" by the Haitian Revolution). After examining two twentieth-century fictionalizations of George William Gordon (who was summarily executed by Eyre on flimsy grounds after the rebellion), the chapter engages more directly with Jamaican literature's embeddedness within a concrete social and economic context, though once more that context is emphatically a twentieth-century one: "Caribbean writers of the 1930s and 1940s," Reddy states, "...wrote during a period of great political and social upheaval immediately following the labor riots that began in 1935 and peaked in 1938." She cites texts by V. S. Reid (1913-1987) and Una Marson (1905-1965) to show how "creole nationalism ultimately co-opts the black revolting body in pursuit of political power through claims to represent the simultaneously resistant and repulsive poor and working classes" (117).

Like the earlier chapters, the one on the Fenian Rebellion ranges freely. Taking in over a century and a half of Irish history, it moves from the Hungry [Eighteen-] Forties to the Troubles of the later twentieth century. It extensively analyzes, for instance, not only such twentieth-century plays as Tom Murphy's Famine (1968) and Sean O'Casey's drama of the 1916 Easter Rising, The Plough and the Stars (1926), but also Steve McQueen's historical film about Bobby Sands and the 1981 hunger strikes, Hunger (2008). More pertinent here is a fascinating collection of photographs of Fenian prisoners dating from the 1850s and 1860s, which Reddy convincingly reads as extensions of the "strategy of containment" embodied in and by the physical prison itself: "The genre of photography," she writes, "captures the prisoner within the photograph in order to frame him as revolting, as a criminal type resistant to British law and order because biologically Irish and thus other" (174). A final section considers a pair of Irish speculative novels, Tom Greer's A Modern Daedalus (1885) and George Birmingham's The Red Hand of Ulster (1912), as part of an emergent subgenre of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels. Including among others Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, they feature the theme of terrorism, a phenomenon that the Irish novels portray as "capital['s]...mutated, and thus seemingly repulsive, clone" (187).

On the whole, then, this book succeeds unevenly. While its organizing tropes or rubrics sometimes illuminate its arguments, they also serve at times to elide, blur, or flatten meaningful distinctions. Given its fondness for classic poststructuralist theory, the book's own ruling "concept-metaphor" might be called a promiscuously connective rhizome. Whether or not it binds its many connections into a wholly compelling historical explanation for the mid-Victorian rebellions under discussion, Reddy has assembled an impressively multifarious collection of texts, many of them little known, and her account of them is consistently stimulating.

Aaron Worth is Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University.


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