Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi: the heroic queen dubbed India’s ‘Joan of Arc’

Who was Rani Lakshmibai, the heroic queen depicted in the hit Bollywood period drama film Manikarnika (2019)? Here, Jaishree Misra explores the true story of the queen of Jhansi – who lost her life when she was barely 30 – and reveals how she became a folk hero when she took on the British East India Company in 1858

Colour painting showing Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi on a horse.

Two years after Queen Victoria married Albert, another young woman was crowned a queen in a distant part of the British Empire: the teenaged Manikarnika, who was renamed Lakshmibai after her marriage to Raja Gangadhar, the ruler of a small, independent kingdom in northern India named Jhansi.

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The fortunes of these two queens could not, however, have been more different. Unlike Victoria, who gave birth to nine children, Rani Lakshmibai had only one child – a boy named Damodar Rao whom she and her husband adopted in 1853, two years after the early death of their own baby. Eleven years into her marriage, Lakshmibai was widowed and, following a series of events over which she had little control, ended up raising an army in order to fight the mighty British forces when they laid siege to her kingdom. Just a few weeks later, Lakshmibai led her army into an unequal battle against the British, losing her life when she was barely 30.

Pen portraits of this young woman astride a horse, her young son strapped to her back as she brandishes a sword, are a common sight in Indian primary school history books, and Lakshmibai’s story served as a source of inspiration for nationalist writers when India’s freedom movement started many years later. But her name is one now little known in Britain, despite the fact that her fate was dictated at almost every stage by the British government of the time. In yet another twist of tragic irony, it was in all probability never Lakshmibai’s intention to fight the British. The kingdom of Jhansi had historically maintained cordial relations with the East India Company – the powerful corporation that dominated global trade between Europe, South Asia and the Far East, and which, by 1818, had direct control over two thirds of the Indian subcontinent, with indirect control over the rest (see box on opposite page).

Bad company

When Lakshmibai’s husband died in 1853, India’s Governor-General, James Ramsay, the Marquess of Dalhousie, announced that Jhansi was to be annexed to British India under the ‘doctrine of lapse’, a policy by which the East India Company rejected adopted Hindu heirs as legitimate rulers. Jhansi would therefore pass into company ownership by default.

Lasksmibai’s fate was dictated by the British at almost every turn

Deeply unhappy with Ramsay’s decision, Lakshmibai – who, unusually for girls at the time, had been educated as a child – wrote a number of letters to Government House in Calcutta, pleading for her son’s adoption to be recognised and for her to rule Jhansi as its regent. Her pleas were largely ignored by Dalhousie, even though Lakshmibai’s submission was supported by Major Ellis and Major Malcolm, the British Political Agents of Jhansi at the time of its annexation, both of whom recognised and wrote about Lakshmibai’s capabilities and administrative skills.

Dalhousie, however, overlooked these suggestions, as well as Jhansi’s history of loyalty and cooperation with the British. Undeterred, Lakshmibai invited to her court an Australian barrister, who had successfully represented an Agra banker against the East India Company. She also sent an emissary to London to plead her case at Westminster.

These peaceable, diplomatic and legal efforts would all come to naught and Lakshmibai was further cowed by Dalhousie’s insistence that she repay her husband’s debts before receiving any payments she was due. It would have seemed at that point that she had no other recourse than to retire to a quiet life of widowhood as had, in all likelihood, been intended by Dalhousie he had already pensioned off a number of Indian royals.

Trigger warning

The summer of 1857 brought an unrelated series of uprisings against British rule that would engulf Jhansi’s fortunes once again. The reasons for the disaffection that swept across India were multiple and complex, and Jhansi’s annexation is only one example of a widely felt growing sense of injustice. The final trigger was provided by rumours that new musket cartridges that required their tips to be bitten off had been greased by cow and pig fat, anathema to both Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the British army who had already grown suspicious that efforts were being made to convert them to Christianity. The first soldiers to mutiny were in the busy garrison town of Meerut in May 1857. Within days, the insurgency had spread to many other North Indian towns to become a mass rebellion that came to be referred to by the British as the Great Mutiny – and the First War of Independence by many Indians.

Jhansi remained in a state of uneasy calm for several weeks as the reports of unrest elsewhere trickled in – in some places, British regiments and cantonments (military quarters) were being attacked, while in others there were massacres of officers and civilians. Then, on 4 June, some soldiers of the Twelfth Bengal Native Infantry and the Fourteenth Irregular Cavalry stationed in Jhansi mutinied and invaded the Star Fort, home to both the city’s armoury and treasury.

Ironically, the only possibility of a safe haven for the British in Jhansi now lay with the kingdom’s deposed Queen, who had continued to maintain a reasonable relationship with the local European community despite her own strained circumstances. Lakshmibai was approached by Captain Gordon, commander of the British forces at Jhansi, with a request that she take charge of her state until the mutiny had been put down, and also provide sanctuary to a group of around 60 British men, women and children at Jhansi Fort, a large hilltop stronghold.

Lakshmibai acquiesced but, on 7 July, Jhansi fort was besieged by mutineering soldiers and Captain Gordon was killed. The British surrendered and were offered a safe passage from Jhansi to the neighbouring kingdom of Datia if they laid down their arms. They did so, yet as the defenceless British contingent filed out, they were set upon just outside the walls of the fort and massacred.

The exact part played by Lakshmibai in this horrific act remains mired by numerous contradictory accounts. It may have been that she too had been taken unawares, or was in genuine fear of the mutinying soldiers who had, reportedly, threatened to execute her if she did not comply. But, in the wake of the bloodbath, there were many – including Thornton, the Deputy-Collector of Jhansi (a taxman) – who claimed that the slaughter had taken place “wholly at the instigation” of Lakshmibai.

This opinion was incorporated into the official British report of the incident and was used in attempts to prove Lakshmibai’s culpability in the massacre – despite contradictory reports suggesting that Lakshmibai’s hand had been forced by the rebels. One Jhansi resident later wrote to Lakshmibai’s adopted son: “Your poor mother was very unjustly and cruelly dealt with – no one knows her true case as I do.”

Lakshmibai herself wrote an account of the massacre to Major Erskine, the commander at Sagar, condemning the “faithlessness, cruelty and violence” shown by the rebelling troops to the British contingent and regretting that she had not had sufficient soldiers and ammunition of her own to help.

The stray reports that the Rani had aided the rebels had not been forgotten

Erskine forwarded Lakshmibai’s letters to central government with a comment that their content “agrees with what I have heard from other sources” and, in the absence of a local British presence, he immediately requested Lakshmibai take charge of the administration of Jhansi, calming and bringing order, including collecting revenues and recruiting police.

Guilt by association

For a few months, Lakshmibai ruled Jhansi as she had always wanted, while the British set about putting down the rebellion in the rest of the country, gradually reclaiming Delhi and Oudh, and exacting merciless and well-documented vengeance in those areas that had shown the most insurgency.

However, those stray reports of Lakshmibai aiding rebel activity in Jhansi had not been forgotten. Added to that was deemed ‘guilt by association’ with her childhood friend Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the last Peshwa (ruler) of the Maratha Empire. Nana Sahib is thought by many to have been the perpetrator of gruesome riverside massacres that had taken place at Kanpur during the rebellion.

Within months, Lakshmibai had been officially implicated in the 1857 Jhansi uprising and declared (by Dr Thomas Lowe, the Medical Officer of the Madras Sappers and Miners) to be “the Jezebel of India … the young, energetic, proud, unbending, uncompromising Ranee … upon her head rested the blood of the slain, and a punishment as awful awaited her”.

What was the East India Company?

Founded in 1600 by royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I, the East India Company (EIC) held a monopoly on all English trade to and from Asia. When it became clear that the company would benefit from a foothold on the Indian mainland, its owners persuaded James VI and I to let them send an envoy to Jahangir, the mighty emperor of the Mughal Empire.

Sir Thomas Roe arrived in India in 1615, laden with gifts, yet all he could manage after three years of diplomacy was a trading station at Surat with limited privileges. However, by 1626, the EIC had its first fortifications, and in 1688 Madras became the first English municipality with its own civil administration. Bombay came into British hands as Charles II’s dowry when he married the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza.

The Company’s fortunes burgeoned after the death of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, whose expansionist wars had weakened the Mughal Empire. The EIC developed an army that fought successful battles in Plassey and Buxar under generals Robert Clive and Hector Munro, taking control of large swathes of Bengal by the middle of the 18th century. This growing power led the British government to pass two East India Company Acts to control affairs in India but it was only after the uprising in 1857 that the Company was finally wound up, with India passing officially into the British Empire.

That punishment was to come in early 1858, when General Hugh Rose started to march towards Jhansi with an army that clearly sought vengeance. When this news reached Lakshmibai, she knew the die was cast. The time for writing letters and pleading her case was long over and so she set about raising an army and training her own troops instead. Recruiting 14,000 volunteers – women among them – she also began to strengthen the defences of Jhansi Fort.

The British Army’s siege of Jhansi began on 21 March 1858. Numerous eyewitness reports place Lakshmibai as being constantly on the ramparts, encouraging her soldiers and never far from the thick of battle. In the historical records of the 14th Light Dragoons, she is described as “a perfect Amazon in bravery … just the sort of daredevil woman soldiers admire”. But Jhansi was unable to withstand the ferocity of the attack and, on 3 April, the fort was breached. Sometime later that night, Lakshmibai made a daring escape on horseback with her son and a small band of followers.

The lost queen

After Jhansi had been ransacked, its palace and library burnt and around 5,000 of its citizens killed, General Rose’s army followed Lakshmibai first to Kalpi and then Gwalior, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where she joined forces with Tatya Tope, another of the uprising’s notable leaders. A series of battles followed and Lakshmibai finally lost her life at Kotah-ki-Serai on 17 June, shot down from her horse by a trooper of the 8th Hussars.

General Rose later wrote to the commander of the British Army that Lakshmibai had been “a sort of Indian Joan of Arc”, while the 8th Hussars own regimental history records that with her death “the rebels lost their bravest and best military leader”. Despite this, for many years Indian people felt able to keep Lakshmibai’s memory alive only through ballads and song – it would have been too dangerous to openly support her in the wake of the 1857 uprising, which was eventually crushed by the British.

The rebellion’s effect, however, was far-reaching, and on 1 November 1858 Queen Victoria issued a proclamation. Along with India’s new Governor-General Lord Canning, she pleaded for clemency to be shown to those who had risen up against British rule and explicitly renounced “the right and the desire to impose Our convictions on any of Our subjects”. The practice of Indian royals adopting their heirs was reinstated at the healing Delhi Durbar (court) of 1877 and Queen Victoria declared Empress of India, the East India Company having been dissolved in 1874.

Lakshmibai’s legacy remains complex: most contemporary British sources vilify her while Indian ones deify her. Each approach is probably as unjustifiable as the other.

Begum Hazrat Mahal: India’s other warrior queen

Less well remembered than Rani Lakshmibai is another queen-turned-warrior, Begum Hazrat Mahal, the youngest wife of the last Nawab of Oudh who started her life in the harem as a concubine.

It is almost certainly the case that Hazrat Mahal’s fight against the British was mostly on behalf of her son, Birjis Qadr, whom she wanted to see crowned as the next Nawab of Oudh. But this was not to be as Oudh was annexed to British India in 1856, its vast riches impounded by the British and Hazrat Mahal’s husband exiled to Calcutta.

When the mutiny broke out, the opportunity to regain the throne on behalf of her son was one that Hazrat Mahal was quick to grasp. She sold her jewellery in order to raise an army and enthusiastically joined the rebellion. The Times war correspondent William Howard Russell wrote of her in his ‘My Indian Mutiny Diary’ that “This Begam exhibits great energy and ability. She has excited all Oudh to take up the interests of her son, and the chiefs have sworn to be faithful to him. The Begum declares undying war against us.” When the British were besieged in their fortified residency, Hazrat Mahal took control of Oudh, ruling for a few brief months as regent.

With the arrival of the British Army, the rebels defeat became gradually inevitable. Hazrat Mahal slipped out of Lucknow and made her way to the Himalayan forests in the north, finally seeking refuge in Nepal. For 16 years she lived in Kathmandu. When she died on 7 April 1879, she had been reduced to such a state of penury that there was reportedly not even money left for a grave.

Jaishree Misra is a bestselling author. Her works include a fictionalised biography of Rani Lakshmibai

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This article was first published in the December 2019 edition of BBC History Revealed