Few Indians may know that the British, who fought the plucky Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi during the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, also admired her greatly. Her enemies on the battlefield and the political bigwigs of that time, openly acknowledged that she was a rare combination of bravery, intelligence and administrative ability. And interestingly, many were in raptures over her personal charm and beauty.
She was a "man among mutineers," wrote Sir Hugh Rose, who led the British forces against her. "She used to dress like a man (with a turban) and rode like one. Not pretty and pock marked with small pox, but beautiful eyes and figure," noted Lord Canning, India's first Viceroy, in his private papers.
"She was a good looking woman, rather stout but not too stout," wrote John Lang in Wanderings in India (1859). "Her face must have been very handsome when she was younger. Even now it has many charms," Long, who knew her, said. According to him, the expression was very intelligent, the eyes were particularly fine, and the nose very delicately shaped. She was not fair though she was far from dark.
"Her dress was plain white muslin, so fine in texture and drawn about her in such a way that the outline of her figure was plainly discernible – a remarkably fine figure she had. What spoilt her was her voice(!)," Lang noted.
There is some doubt about Lakshmi Bai's age at the time of the mutiny. Christopher Hibbert in his Great Mutiny (Penguin, 1978) says that she was in her early thirties, but others put her age at 23 (born in 1835).
Quoting JH Sylvester's Recollections of the Campaign in Malwa and Central India (Bombay 1860), Hibbert says that the Rani was to acquire amongst British officers an "undeserved reputation for excessive lasciviousness." But in the opinion of Sir Robert Hamilton, Resident in Central India, she was a "civil, polite and clever young lady," who had all the qualities to be a good ruler.
Reluctant first but committed later
Hibbert says that at first, the Rani was not interested in joining the rebels, even though Governor General Lord Dalhousie had refused to accept her adopted son as heir to the Jhansi throne and denied her claim to Jhansi as well. This had come as a shock to the Rani as she had been on good terms with the local British Political Agent Capt Alexander Skene thanks to the "force and charm of her personality and with her evident wish to remain on friendly terms with her British masters."
When the mutineers from outside Jhansi entered the town and massacred European civil and military officers, the Rani was appalled, but had no means to stop them. She told the British about this, but the Governor General did not believe her and decided to teach her a lesson, which at that time meant death and annihilation. An army under Sir Hugh Rose arrived at Jhansi in March 1958. Overwhelmed, the Rani quit the city, and the invaders slaughtered 5,000 civilians in unprecedented revenge.
Now determined to take on the British unreservedly, the Rani issued a proclamation saying: "We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will, if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory. If defeated and killed on the field of battle, we will surely earn eternal glory and salvation".
The British pursued her doggedly. Although most of her men were killed in the many skirmishes, she managed to get away every time. "She is a wonderful woman, very brave and determined. It is fortunate for us that the men (her men) are not at all like her," wrote Cornet Combe of the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry.
But on June 17, the Rani was cornered at Kotah-ki Sarai. She fought fiercely holding her sword with both her hands while holding the reins of her horse with her mouth. Eventually, she was shot in the back by a trooper of the 8 th Hussars. The Rani turned back and fired at him, but this was of no use as the man ran through her with his sword.
The ill-informed British press had dubbed her "The Jezebel of India" or a shameless and immoral woman ( after Jezebel, wife of Ahab in the Old Testament). But others were fulsome in their praise. "She was the bravest and best military leader of the rebels. A man among mutineers," wrote Sir Hugh Rose. And Lord Cumberland said: "The Rani is remarkable for her bravery, cleverness and perseverance; her generosity to her subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders."