Christina Rossetti’s poetry is often coloured with feminist insights, as she handles conditions ranging from that of the unmarried Victorian women to so-called ‘fallen women’ with remarkable sensitivity. Yet there is one fallen woman who even under Rossetti’s pen cannot escape traditional sexist and racist narratives: Rani (Queen) Lakshmibai of Jhansi, hailed by British colonialists, such as Thomas Lowe, as the “Jezebel of India”.
Rani Lakshmibai’s infamy in British narratives is closely linked to her involvement in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 against colonial rule by the British East India Company. The mutiny began with rebels from the 12th Bengal Native Infantry, who were enraged after 85 Hindu and Muslim soldiers were sentenced to 10 years of hard labour and imprisonment for refusing to fire rifle cartridges they believed to be contaminated with pork and beef (offensive to both religions). Rossetti’s portrayal of the mutiny in her poem In the Round Tower at Jhansi reflects typical British contemporary narratives of the rebellion in numerous Indian cities. She focuses on two lovers forced to kill themselves before they are slaughtered by the rebels:
‘A hundred, a thousand to one; even so;
Not a hope in the world remained,
The swarming, howling wretches below
Gained and gained and gained’
Indeed, the rebellion was a brutal affair, as rebels killed many wives and children of officers in the city of Meerut. When the rebels approached Lakshmibai’s city of Jhansi, however, the Rani assured the British that no harm would befall them under her watch. Nonetheless, a violent massacre of the British at Jhansi did ensue, as portrayed in Rossetti’s poem. Despite the Rani assuring the British that these rebel sepoys did not answer to her, and writing to two British officials that she hoped they would ‘go straight to hell for their deeds’, her title as Jezebel of India was confirmed. The Rani and the sepoy rebels were homogenised as the animalistic other: Rossetti’s ‘swarming, howling, wretches’.
History has not been kind to Rani Laskhmibai of Jhansi, yet it is a serious disservice to conflate her story with the violence of one group of sepoys. The Rani was not born into royalty, but married Maharaja Gandaghar Rao, ruler of Jhansi.
She was ahead of her times in more than one way, having learned to ride and fight by her teenage years and refusing to abide by norms of purdah, in which women were veiled from public view. Instead, she spoke to British and Indian advisers alike face to face.
The Maharaja and Rani gave birth to one child, who died in infancy. Still keen for an heir, they adopted a 5-year-old son. When the Maharaja died, it seemed as though the kingdom of Jhansi was in good hands as the Rani was more than capable of ruling due to her progressive, self-styled education, and she had an heir to pass her skills onto.
However, the East India Company, hoping to consolidate their grip on Jhansi and expel traditional rulers (however effective Lakshmibai was) in favour of British officials, hailed the obscure Doctrine of Lapse, giving them the right to control any territory without a natural born male heir. They offered the Rani a generous sum of 60,000 rupees to give up her kingdom, but she remained resolute in the face of their political manoeuvring, speaking words which have become immortalised as poetic resonances of freedom in Indian history: Meri Jhansi nahi doongi (I will not give up my kingdom).
Soon after Lakshmibai refused to give up her kingdom under the Doctrine of Lapse, the violence of the Sepoy Mutiny began to sweep through her kingdom. Grouping her with the rebels, the British laid siege to her fortress at Jhansi and she was left with no choice but to fight back and eventually escape with her son. The British spared nobody over 16 in Jhansi, and the beloved Indian Rani was forced out.
Lakshmibai, realising she had no British allies and would be blamed for the mutiny at Jhansi, decided to take up the cause of freedom against the British empire from the neighbouring town of Gwalior. During the failed siege before this, the Rani had already demonstrated her commitment to egalitarianism; according to Rejected Princesses (2016) she had coats made for a thousand of the poorest soldiers and enlisted both men and women for the fight. When she escaped the siege with her son and fought in a number of battles against the British in Gwalior, she fought her last battle dressed like a man in a turban, and her fatal adversary, General Rose, paid tribute to her, saying that ‘the Indian mutiny produced one man, and that man was a woman’.
Rani Lakshmibai and her words ‘Meri Jhansi nahi doongi’, have become integral in teaching about her in modern-day India, as she is hailed as one of the country’s first and most courageous freedom fighters. If Rossetti is to be on the A-level English British curriculum, it is high time that narratives such as Lakshmibai’s begin to appear on the History syllabus. The implications of her narrative about working against institutional power and gender structures are vast: Rani Lakshmibai may not have been able to save Jhansi from the British East India Company, but her actions can still help save us from failing to engage with a complex imperial past where there are always two sides to a story too often portrayed as one dimensional.
Labelling her as Jezebel, homogenising her as one of a number of ‘wretches’ or, worst of all, forgetting her entirely, robs, not only Lakshimbai but, history of its richness. The Rani must be recognised as someone engaged in violence yet not for violence’s sake, a freedom fighter championing local over colonial power structures and a woman who often had to assume the guise of a man to do as she wished.
Artwork by Emma Hewlett