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Revolutionary Springs: How Revolt Spread in an Age of Maritime Empire

Funded by the award of a Philip Leverhulme Prize to Dr Sujit Sivasundaram

 

This project summary was originally published in the Leverhulme Trust's Newsletter of January 2013

 

Revolt against authority has been a perennial feature of human history. Yet it was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that a truly global and interconnected set of revolts first engulfed the world. While scholars have studied the convergence between the revolutions of the Atlantic Ocean – encompassing the American, French and Haitian revolts and the stirrings of independence in Latin America – they have not as yet undertaken a sustained exploration of the arenas of revolt in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This gap has been authorised by a myth: the idea of the nation first took root in the Atlantic world only to diffuse to the rest of the world, coming to its full flowering much later in the age of decolonisation. To the contrary, revolutions of all kinds in the Indian and Pacific Oceans in the 18th and early 19th centuries document long histories of patriotic fervour and attachment to polity, religion and new knowledge which came into a constructive engagement with revolutionary discourses from elsewhere.

For instance, Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) of Mysore in South India – a name that personified despotic rule to the English public of the period – assembled a range of Frenchmen who set up a Jacobin club at his fort in Seringapatam. He donned the Cap of Liberty even as he went to his wars with the British, until he was killed for his jewels by an unknown British soldier. The Wahabbis took over parts of Arabia, sacking Medina and Mecca, destroying tombs that they thought to be idolatrous and outlawing minor pilgrimages in order to restore a pure authentic Islam as a basis for political rule. Some Maori in the North Island of New Zealand followed ‘Tikanga Hou’ or ‘The New Custom’, an indigenised kind of Christianity, according to which the members of the Trinity and apostle Paul and angel Gabriel were personified amongst them. At the heart of this Christianity was the quest for rights to land, and by the 1850s it became the fully-fledged Kingitanga movement – according to which the Maori self-identified as a nation with a flag and a king.

My Philip Leverhulme Prize will provide me with the space to put together my previous research in two separate geographical areas, namely the Pacific and Indian Oceans. I will test the thesis that the revolutionary age was itself the causal force behind the emergence of the modern world as a global system of nations and peoples. The significance of this period is borne out by a series of threads that runs through these revolts in the east: contrasting notions of liberty from despotism and reconsiderations of monarchism, varieties of enlightened knowledge set against assertions of superstition, and commitments to free trade and rights for labourers, slaves and masses. New forms of artistic, scientific and technological culture were hallmarks of this age. The modern citizen as a self- determining individual became recognisable even as there was a proliferation of constitutions and redefinitions of religion, on the part of Christians as well as Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.  

It is still common to think of revolt in the East as irrational violence, opening a door to fanaticism. But there was a tactical spring to these revolutions, and this was a reflexive engagement with global processes of change. Revolts arose because of the spread of new European empires which created a set of acute challenges and a physical sense of being uprooted. Set aside the stereotypes of raving holy men and ruthless warriors: these revolutions make deep sense when brought together as considered and conscious entry points to the modern world for vast numbers of Asians, Africans and Oceanic peoples.