Manubai Tambe was a woman of formidable spirit, long before she was lost to a nationalistic fog of myth and legend. Arriving soon at your nearest movie theatre with her more elaborate name, Manikarnika, she was, for instance, a sharp judge of horses. She wrote official letters in Persian and during the rebellion of 1857 famously led men—and women—into battle. Round of face, she was taller than most of her peers, and is said to have favoured simplicity, unlike the bejewelled depiction chosen by today’s film directors. “She bore," an Englishman later recorded, “all the outward signs of a powerful intellect and an unconquerable resolution." But if there was one thing that ruined the impression she left, it was her voice: as her legal adviser bemoaned, when the Rani of Jhansi began to speak, substance of great intelligence was conveyed in a sound that could only be described as “something between a whine and a croak".
Lakshmibai, a name bestowed after her marriage (and one which she would make famous), was not born royal. Her father, Moropant, was a retainer of the Peshwas of Pune, serving the latter even after they were deposed by the British. It was in Varanasi that the future rani was born to this Brahmin, though the auspiciousness of the setting was dulled somewhat by the loss of her mother. But Moropant gave her both affection and the confidence born of education: she read, she rode, she fenced, and saw to it that her male playmates treated her as an equal. Many are the tales woven around her fascinating personality: once, it is said in a story that survives in multiple iterations, the Peshwa’s adopted son refused to take her along on his elephant. Years later, when she was granted three wishes on her wedding, she expended one of them to courier to this old friend the present of a particularly mighty elephant.
It was as a child-bride that the heroine of 1857 first arrived in Jhansi. The Newalkar family in power here were minor royalty of recent vintage. A late 18th century creation of the Peshwas, their loyalties were ceded in the early 19th century to the East India Company. “Maharajadhiraj Fidvi Badshah Jamjah Inglistan" (Devoted Servant of the Glorious King of England) was a title Lord Bentinck bestowed upon them in 1832, transforming this line from subedars to maharajas. And it was when Lord Dalhousie withdrew favour in 1853 that their fortunes were reversed. In 1851, meanwhile, young Manubai had given her husband an heir, but the baby did not survive. Two years later when the raja followed his child to the grave, there was nobody to occupy his place. With that the stage was set for the drama that now cements Lakshmibai’s memory: as the “Jezebel of India" in unkind Victorian eyes and as a patriot in the Indian imagination.
The annexation of Jhansi, as is well known, was opposed by the rani. It so happened that from his deathbed, her husband—a bibliophile whose love of drama sometimes saw him also appear personally on stage, according to scholar Joyce Lebra-Chapman—had adopted a relation as his heir. The British, of course, decided there was no compelling reason to recognize any of these proceedings: they had upgraded provincial officers into princelings, and they reserved the right to demote them now. Interestingly, this was despite popular sentiment: their own local representative had expressed confidence in the young widow (she was “highly respected and esteemed" and “fully capable" of ruling in her husband’s place), while another argued that since adoption had been recognized in a neighbouring state, there was no reason to deny the privilege to the Newalkars as well. The rani herself, meanwhile, petitioned the governor-general, arguing her case logically, highlighting portions from assorted treaties to show the latest British decision to be what it truly was: an injustice.
In an April 1854 letter, Lakshmibai appealed to Dalhousie to remember “How loyal the Rajas of Jhansi have ever been; how loyal are their representatives; how strong are the inducements that they should continue to be loyal in the future." Her husband had not, she pointed out, any warlike characteristics, and Jhansi’s military capabilities were limited to “five thousand rusty swords worn by people called the army". “Helpless and prostrate," she ended, “I once more entreat Your Lordship to grant me a hearing." Of course, she was exaggerating her helplessness and the impotence of her armies, but at this stage she was willing to plead with Dalhousie—if only he had relented, in 1857, she might even have stayed loyal, like other princes, to the British. Instead, however, the governor-general dug his heels in, leaving Lakshmibai to protest the “gross violation" of previous understandings, warning that this would cause “great disquietude" among India’s nobility, with lasting repercussions on the future of the Company and its designs.
Dispossessed, at first the rani declined the British offer of ₹ 60,000 per annum but was soon persuaded to accept the settlement. In the years that followed, however, there was much bickering and haggling—over the late raja’s debts, which were deducted from her allowance; over the continuation of the pension to Lakshmibai’s adopted son, which the British were against; over a temple; and even such issues as cow slaughter. When the rebellion broke out, at first the rani was undecided—in a letter dated June 1857, she hoped the rebels would go “straight to hell". Even months later, by which time the local British presence was destroyed through a massacre, Lakshmibai was uncertain. It was only early in 1858, when many of her old friends, including the aforementioned Peshwa’s adopted son, became confirmed leaders of the rebellion and she herself was being viewed with suspicion, that she made her final choice: a choice that saw her ride out bravely on horseback towards tragedy, and enshrined her in India’s national history.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @UnamPillai