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10-08-2015, 16:41

Traditional Resistance: A Precursor to Nationalism

If we view the concept of nationalism as a process by which people in a given society gradually become aware of themselves as members of a particular nation, with its own culture and aspirations, then it is reasonable to seek the beginnings of modern nationalism in the initial resistance by the indigenous peoples to the colonial conquest itself. Although essentially motivated by the desire to defend traditional institutions, such movements reflected a primitive concept of nationhood in that they sought to protect the homeland from the invader. Thus traditional resistance to colonial conquest may logically be viewed as the first stage in the development of modern nationalism. Such resistance took various forms. For the most part, it was led by the existing ruling class. In the Ashanti kingdom in West Africa and in Burma and Vietnam in Southeast Asia, the resistance to Western domination was initially directed by the imperial courts. In some cases, however, traditionalist elements continued to oppose foreign conquest even after resistance had collapsed at the center. In Japan, conservative elements opposed the decision of the Tokugawa shogunate in Tokyo to accommodate the Western presence and launched an abortive movement to defeat the foreigners and restore Japan to its previous policy of isolation (see Chapter 3). In India, Tipu Sultan resisted the British in the Deccan after the collapse of the Mughal dynasty. Similarly, after the decrepit monarchy in Vietnam had bowed to French pressure and agreed to the concession of territory in the south and the establishment of a protectorate over the remainder of the country, a number of civilian and military officials set up an organization called Can Vuong (literally, “Save the King”) and continued their resistance without imperial sanction. Sometimes traditional resistance had a religious basis, as in the Sudan, where a revolt against the growing British presence had strong Islamic overtones, although it was initially provoked by Turkish misrule in Egypt. More significant was the famous Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in India. The sepoys (derived from the Turkish word for “horseman” or “soldier”) were native troops hired by the East India Company to protect British interests in the region. Unrest within Indian units of the colonial army had been common since early in the century, when it had been sparked by economic issues, religious sensitivities, or nascent anticolonial sentiment. Such attitudes intensified in the mid-1850s when the British instituted a new policy of shipping Indian troops abroad—a practice that exposed Hindus to pollution by foreign cultures. In 1857, tension erupted when the British adopted the new Enfield rifle for use by sepoy infantrymen. The new weapon was a muzzleloader that used paper cartridges covered with animal fat and lard; because the cartridge had to be bitten off, doing so violated strictures against high-caste Hindus’ eating animal products and Muslim prohibitions against eating pork. Protests among sepoy units in northern India turned into a full-scale mutiny, supported by uprisings in rural districts in various parts of the country. But the revolt lacked clear goals, and rivalries between Hindus and Muslims and discord among leaders within each community prevented coordination of operations. Although Indian troops often fought bravely and outnumbered the British by 240,000 to 40,000, they were poorly organized, and the British forces (supplemented in many cases by sepoy troops) suppressed the rebellion. Still, the revolt frightened the British and led to a number of major reforms. The proportion of native troops relative to those from Great Britain was reduced, and precedence was given to ethnic groups likely to be loyal to the British, such as the Sikhs of Punjab and the Gurkhas, an upland people from Nepal in the Himalaya Mountains. To avoid religious conflicts, ethnic groups were spread throughout the service rather than assigned to special units. The British also decided to suppress the final remnants of the hapless Mughal dynasty, which had supported the mutiny. As noted earlier, such forms of resistance cannot properly be called nationalist because they were essentially attempts to protect or restore traditional society and its institutions and were not motivated by the desire to create a nation in the modern sense of the word. In any event, such movements rarely met with success. Peasants armed with pikes and spears were no match for Western armies possessing the most terrifying weapons then known to human society, including the Gatling gun, the first rapid-fire weapon and the precursor of the modern machine gun.

 

 

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