Alfred Lyall: A Writer of the Known and the Knowable

  • Alex Padamsee


The next two chapters will concern themselves principally with the ‘Mutiny’ correspondence of Alfred Lyall. In this chapter, it will be argued not only that Lyall’s perception of the question of Muslim ‘conspiracy’ during the events of 1857–59 was a typical product of his generation of ICS officers. But that the development from the intemperate language of the besieged young official of the correspondence to the judicious prose of the senior elder statesman may be taken, in regard to his descriptions of Indian Muslims, as symptomatic of that generation. In this respect, Lyall’s later reputation for reasonable analyses of Indian society casts a useful retrospective light on his characterisations of Indian Muslims in 1857. Since his views formed on this subject during the ‘Mutiny’ ‘remained with him to the end of his life’, the lurid rhetoric of the correspondence may well conceal a fundamental framework for his own mature considerations on the Muslim constituency of Indian society.1 But they would also seem to indicate a similar consistency of investments and assumptions by his later, approving contemporaries as well. Following on from the reflections made here on his later reputation, this point will be taken up again in detail in Chapter 11 through situating those essays as part of a broader progression in Anglo-Indian discourse from ‘Mutiny’ to ‘Wahabi conspiracy’. In order to further argue their relevance to a wider spectrum of Anglo-Indian opinion in 1857, Chapters 7 and 8 will carry forward some of the conclusions derived from Lyall’s ‘Mutiny’ correspondence into other official accounts of the period.


Asiatic Study Indian Society Colonial Government East India Company Communal Consensus 
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  1. 1.
    Mortimer Durand, The Life of the Right Honourable Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall (London: William Blackwood & Son, 1913), p. 68.Google Scholar
  2. 21.
    K K Aziz, Britain and Muslim India: A Study of British Public Opinion Vis-à-vis the Development of Muslim Nationalism in India, 1857–1947 (London: Heineman, 1963), p. 27.Google Scholar
  3. 27.
    Mark Thornhill, Personal Adventures and Experiences of a Magistrate during the Rise, Progress and Suppression of the Mutiny (London: John Murray, 1884), pp. 185–6, 266–8, 283, 287, 301–2, 318–20.Google Scholar
  4. 29.
    We can see the partial submission to such parameters by modern historiography in its own catechistic recitation of the incidence of ‘ghazis’, without trying to analyse the local applications of the word. This word is a commonplace in most popular accounts of the ‘Mutiny’ today, and remains similarly without further explanation or interrogation (see for example, Christopher Hibbert, The Great Mutiny: India, 1857 (London: Penguin, 1978), p. 162). More surprising, however, is its unproblematised repetition by many academic discussions of this period. See for instance, Eric Stokes in his chapter on Bulandshahr District, Peasant, pp. 140–58. Stokes’ failure here to subject the term to some form of textual interrogation does not only occur when he draws it from British sources; he seems to adopt the expression from communications with the Delhi court as well, but equally without attempting to explain the nature and contextualised meaning of terms such as ‘infidel’ and ‘ghazi’ when they routinely crop up in court correspondence (see for instance, p. 147). More recently, in Bayly’s excellent analysis of the modes of rebel communication in 1857–59, the use of the term ‘Muslim holy warriors’ by the Delhi newswriters remains comparatively free of critical interpretation, despite his brilliant re-contextualisation of other forms of terminology in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Persian newsletters (C A Bayly, Empire, p. 329). This lack of analysis of the language of rebel communications and propaganda across the range of ‘Mutiny’ historiography has left the field open to some dangerously polemical appropriations.Google Scholar
  5. For recent examples, see Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2003), in which the ‘Mutiny’ is reduced to a ‘war in the cause of religion’ — a generalisation Ferguson feels free to make on the ‘scant Indian testimony which has survived’ (p. 147).Google Scholar
  6. 39.
    C A Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion 1770–1870 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, repr. 1992; 1983), p. 364.Google Scholar

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© Alex Padamsee 2005

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  • Alex Padamsee

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