June 17th in (Feminist) History

rani_of_jhansiOn this day in 1858 was the death of Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, a queen of the Jhansi State in India, and one of the leading figures in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Born in November of 1828, she was named Manikarnika and nicknamed Manu. Educated at home and raised to be independent, she was also trained in horsemanship, fencing, and shooting. In May of 1842, she was married to Raja Gangadhar, the Maharaja of Jhansi, after which she was called Lakshmibai in honor of Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess. In 1851, Lakshmibai gave birth to a son, but he died at only four months of age. She and her husband adopted a child (the son of her husband’s cousin), but the next day the Maharaja died, and despite a letter he wrote stating that his wife Lakshmibai should have the government of Jhansi for her lifetime, his wishes were not obeyed. With their son adopted and not theirs by birth, the British East India Company applied the “Doctrine of Lapse”, rejected their claim to the throne, and annexed the state. That following Marsh, Lakshmibai was given money and an annual pension, and ordered to leave the fort and the palace. Nothing Lakshmibai did could accomplish the reversal of the annexation, and frustration and anger was rising as the Doctrine had been used to take over eight different states between 1848-1856.

On May 10, 1857, the Indian Rebellion began in Meerut. Hearing word, Lakshmibai asked for permission to create a small force of soldiers to protect herself. In June of 1857, men of the 12th Bengal Native Infantry seized the fort, convinced the British to lay down their arms, and then broke their promise of safety and killed them all, along with their wives and children. Still unsure whether to support the rebellion, Lakshmibai was pressured and threatened into giving money to the soldiers. After, with no government left in the city, she took over the administration with permission of the British Government. Over the next few months she and her soldiers protecting the town and kept it safe; first from a rival for her throne and then from attacks from neighboring towns. Through her time in control, she continued to reach out to the British for assistance, only to receive no response, and no help.

In order to protect herself and Jhansi, she had reduced her fortune and most of her options without help, and she was also privy to the reports from towns that had been taken back under British control, where anyone suspected of being a rebel was executed, and the towns were then looted. In January of 1858, a British force began to march on Jhansi, and Lakshmibai had to expect the worst– and also prepare for it. When the troops arrived in March, they offered her the chance to surrender. Knowing her people would be executed if she did, Lakshmibai refused and began to lead her people to fight back and defend their fort. Throughout the siege she was seen on the walls along with her soldiers, and on April 3rd when the British finally entered the fort (with orders to kill all men over the age of sixteen), she was right in the middle of the fight, too.

Eventually, knowing her capture was inevitable, Lakshmibai took her son and escaped– one legend claims that she strapped her son to her back and leaped her horse over the cliff; the horse died, but she escaped and traveled 100 miles to Kali, where she met other rebels and was forced to continue retreating. This time they fled to Gwalior, an ‘impregnable’ fort held by a pro-British Maharaja. Around 11,000 rebels, including Lakshmibai, advanced on the fort; after only a few shots, Maharaja Sindia’s army defected and he fled; a new Maharaja named Rao Sahib was crowned and Lakshmibai was given a pearl necklace for her part in the fight.

They then faced the British in battle on June 17th, where Lakshmibai was given command of the eastern flank of the rebel force. It was in this battle that Lakshmibai died. There are numerous stories of her death, though the general basics are somewhat the same, and usually involve Lakshmibai dressed as a sowar (a cavalry soldier). Lakshmibai was on horseback when the British cavalry appeared by surprise, causing her soldiers to scatter. She didn’t flee, but instead attacked and was unhorsed and possibly wounded by a sabre. On the ground, bleeding at the side of the road, she looked up and saw the man that had unhorsed her, raised her pistol and fired. But she missed, and the soldier killed her with his carbine; since she was dressed as a soldier, he didn’t even realize who he had killed. Her tomb is located in Gwalior. Statues of her (usually on horseback with her son at her back) can be found in numerous locations in India, and she has a University and a National Park named after her. In addition, a women’s unit in the Indian National Army was named the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

Two decades after her death, Colonol Malleson of the British army wrote in his History of the Indian Mutiny: “Whatever her faults in British eyes may have been, her countrymen will ever remember that she was driven by ill-treatment into rebellion, and that she lived and died for her country.”

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