Lakshmibai was the queen of the state of Jhansi in northern India at the time of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as India’s First War for Independence. She was a leading figure in the rebellion and a symbol for her people of resistance to British rule in India. She was young and is remembered as fearless in battle. And, she made the list of Time’s Top 10 Bad-Ass Women in 2011.
Childhood and Marriage
Born into a Brahmin family, her given name was Manikarnika and she was nicknamed Manu. Her mother died when she was four, but she was well taken care of by her father and officials at the court of Peshwa Baji Rao II at Bithur where he worked. Educated at home and given more freedom than many girls her age, she trained in archery, horseback riding, and martial arts.
Manu’s birth year is given as various dates from 1827 to 1835, but sources agree that she married the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Rao in 1842. She was given the name Lakshmibai and as the Rani of Jhansi was called Rani Lakshmibai.
In 1851, she gave birth to a son named Damodar Rao. Unfortunately, he only lived to be four months old. After their son’s death, the Raja and Rani adopted a boy named Anand Rao, the son of Gangadhar Rao’s cousin. The adoption of Lakshmibai’s son took place in the presence of a British official. At the time he was given a letter from the Raja requesting that after his death the boy be treated with kindness as the heir, and Lakshmibai be appointed regent. The day before the Raja died in November 1853, Anand Rao was renamed Damodar Rao.
Annexation of Jhansi
Gangadhar’s grandfather had signed a treaty in 1817 with the British assuring his successors title to Jhansi and they had been pro-British since that time. But, in spite of the official precautions that the Raja took, and the long standing right of an Indian sovereign to choose his own successor, the British East India Company refused to abide by the agreement. Because Damodar Rao was adopted, they chose to apply the Doctrine of Lapse.
The Doctrine of Lapse stated that any territory under the power of the British East India Company would be automatically annexed if the ruler died without a direct heir. The policy had been used previously, but under the Governor General Lord Dalhousie between 1848 and 1856 the company took over eight different states. This contributed to a growing sense of discontent all over India.
Lakshmibai wrote at least three letters protesting the annexation and consulted British counsel John Lang, but was unsuccessful in getting it reversed. After her third appeal, April 22, 1854, an appeal was made to the Court of Directors in London. This also failed and she was given a monthly pension, the state jewels, and moved to the palace Rani Mahal.
Even though the government changed hands, Lakshmibai was still recognized by the people as Rani and was probably one of the wealthiest people in Jhansi. She still had responsibilities to her son and the people and was respected, although she may have annoyed the British officials with her petitions. She also continued her practice of daily exercise including horseback riding and shooting.
The Rebellion of 1857
In May of 1857, word reached Jhansi of mutiny among sepoys in the army at Meerut. Lakshmibai asked for permission to raise a small force as bodyguard for her own protection. British officials agreed, but failed to take the same precaution themselves. On June 5th, sepoys in the Jhansi garrison rebelled, looted, released prisoners from the local jail and took possession of one of the forts in the town.
At least two British officers were killed and the rest took refuge in the other fort with their families. Two days later, the fort was besieged and they surrendered. Although promised safe passage by the mutineers, once the British were out of town one of the rebel leaders ordered their deaths. They then turned their attention to Lakshmibai and demanded money.
There was little Lakshmibai could do at the time, she complied with the demands of the rebels for money under threat of violence and as soon as they left the area on June 11th she reported the situation to British authorities. At this point, there was no government, so she took steps to stabilize the situation and three days later sent another letter to a Major Erskine who encouraged her to take charge until another official could be sent.
Over the next six months, Lakshmibai worked to protect the town and keep the situation stable. She had to defend against a rival for the throne as well as attacks from neighboring towns taking advantage of the absence of troops, and in one case claiming to act on behalf of the British. Throughout this time, she made repeated requests for help from the British and got no response. She also found it necessary to deal with the rebels in order to obtain the weapons she needed to build up her fighting force.
After spending most of her money and doing all she could, Lakshmibai wrote one last time to the British authorities. She closed her letter dated January 1, 1858, with this statement: “I beg you will give me your support in the best way you can, and thus save myself and the people who are reduced to the last extremity and are not able to cope with the enemy.”
The Final Showdown
There are conflicting reports of when Lakshmibai decided to oppose the British. To protect herself and Jhansi, she had been forced to cooperate with those opposed to the British; they had taken her throne from her, and the people were opposed to many things about British rule. They also received reports from villages and towns where the British had regained control. Some commanders were lenient, but others executed anyone they suspected of being a rebel, looted the towns and left the wounded to die.
The British force which marched toward Jhansi on January 5, 1858 was led by Sir Hugh Rose. He was apparently of the opinion that no leniency should be offered. One of his subordinates wrote to his parents, “Sir Hugh knows no native language so pays little heed to what a prisoner says. His first question is ‘Was this man taken with arms in his hands?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, ‘Then shoot him’ says Sir Hugh.” Hearing reports from other towns, Lakshmibai had no other choice but to expect the worst. So she prepared.
The siege began on March 21, 1858. She was given a chance to surrender, but the Rani knew that many of her supporters would be executed, so with the support of the people she refused. The British were outnumbered, but had a distinct advantage in weapons and training. The fort was surrounded and bombarded until finally a breach was made in the wall on March 30th.
At the same time, a rebel force of 20,000 under the command of Tatya Tope arrived, forcing Rose to delay entering the fort. Even though Rose was forced to split his forces, he was able to keep continued bombardment on the breach to prevent escape while pursuing the newly arrived rebels to the Betwa river where he defeated them.
Although they were delayed, on the morning of April 3rd, the British entered the fort at Jhansi with orders to kill any male over sixteen. Vishnu Godse, a Hindu priest, wrote of the experience that it was four days of destruction of property and people “without distinction.” The fighting was intense and the Rani was in the middle of it, just as she had frequently been seen on the walls during the siege.
In spite of Rose’s precautions, sometime on April 3rd or 4th Lakshmibai was able to escape. There is a legend that says, once she knew her capture was inevitable, she tied her son to her back, mounted her horse and leapt over the cliff. The horse died, but she escaped and rode 100 miles to Kalpi. At Kalpi, she met with other rebels, but Rose pursued them and again forced them to retreat, this time to Gwalior.
The fort at Gwalior was considered impregnable and Maharaja Sindia had remained pro-British throughout the rebellion. The British expected them to disband, but instead about 11,000 rebels advanced on Gwalior. After the first few shots, most of the Maharaja’s army defected and he fled to safety. Another Maharaja, Rao Sahib, was crowned and Lakshmibai was given a priceless pearl necklace.
On June 17th, they faced the British in battle. Lakshmibai was given command of the eastern flank, supposedly the most difficult position to defend. There are several accounts of how she died. You can read several of them at Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi: Mutiny, but the one I like the best is from Saul David’s book Indian Mutiny 1857, and taken from the diary of Edward Grey, a veterinary surgeon with the 8th Hussars:
“The Rani was on horseback … when the British cavalry [8th Hussars] made their surprise appearance, causing her escort to scatter … she boldly ‘attacked one of the 8th in their advance, was unhorsed and wounded’, possibly by a sabre cut. A short while later as the British retired … she recognised her former assailant as she sat bleeding by the roadside and fired at him with her pistol. Unfortunately she missed and he ‘dispatched the young lady with his carbine’. But because she was ‘dressed as a sowar’, the trooper never realised ‘that he had cut off one of the mainstays of the mutiny, that there was a reward of a lac [lakh] on his victim’s head, or that at that moment she was wearing jewels worth a crore of rupees’.”