Lakshmibai (1828-1858) was the Queen of Jhansi, a state in North India, and a key figure of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against British rule.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
In honor of the new year and new decade, this month we’re covering leaders from throughout history.
Today we’re talking about a woman who was a key figure of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against British rule. She was the queen of Jhansi, a state in North India. Meet Lakshmibai.
Manikarnika Tambe, nicknamed Manu, was born on November 19th, 1828, in a town called Varanasi. Her family was part of the upper class Brahmin caste.
Manu’s mother died when Manu was four years old. Her father worked for the Peshwa, basically the prime minister of the Bithoor district.
Manu was a playful and independent child. She was educated at home and learned how to shoot, ride horses, fence, and more.
In May 1842, Manu married the Maharaja of Jhansi. From that point on, she was called Lakshmibai. The name was in honor of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, good fortune, and beauty.
Lakshmibai and the Maharaja had a son in 1851, but he died just four months later. The Maharaja then adopted a son. During the adoption, the Maharaja wrote a letter to a British political officer of the region with instructions that the child was to be well treated and that the region of Jhansi, was to be ruled by Lakshmibai for the rest of her lifetime.
But when he died in 1853, the Maharaja’s wishes were not respected. The British East India Company annexed the region. When Lakshmibai heard what they were doing, she said, “I shall not surrender my Jhansi.”
In March 1854, about 5 months after her husband’s death, Lakshmibai was kicked out of the palace and given an annual pension of 60,000 rupees.
Three years later, on May 10, 1857, a widespread revolt against British colonial rule began in India. The skirmish was later called by many names including the Indian Rebellion, the First War of Independence, and the Indian Mutiny.
In June of 1857, a group of Indian rebels took over the Star Fort of Jhansi, a key building that held both treasure and arms. The British surrendered to the Indian fighters with the promise that they wouldn’t be harmed. But that promise wasn’t kept. The rebels killed around 50 British officers and their families.
Lakshmibai’s involvement in the Star Fort massacre is debated. The rebels also threatened to blow up the palace where Lakshmibai lived, but she gave them a sizeable sum of money not to do so and they left four days after the massacre.
In the aftermath, Lakshmibai took over rule of the region. She wrote to the British to tell them of her plans and was approved to rule until a new British Superintendent could arrive. But others caught wind of the power vacuum and tried to invade Jhansi . Lakshmibai’s troops beat back those of her husband’s nephew, who also claimed the throne.
When another group attempted to usurp Lakshmibai, she asked the British for help. They didn’t respond because by this point they had come to believe that Lakshmibai herself was responsible for the Star Fort massacre that had resulted in the deaths of British officers and their families.All alone, Lakshmibai’s troops defended the fort and beat the challengers back.
From August 1857 to January 1858, Lakshmibai ruled Jhansi peacefully. In theory, she was holding the city for the British. But the British never came to help or take over. Their tardiness strengthened the arguments of certain factions of Lakshmibai’s followers who wanted full independence from the colonizers.
When the British finally did return, Lakshmibai’s intentions were no longer to give over so easily. When a British commander demanded the surrender of the city, Lakshmibai responded with a proclamation that said, “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 shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation.”
The British put Jhansi under siege. Lakshmibai sent word to a childhood friend for help and more troops. Her friend, Tatya Tope, pulled through but got locked in battle with the British.
On April 3, 1858, the British attacked Jhansi once more and succeeded by taking advantage of breaches in the city’s defences. The fighting was brutal as the British fought through swaths of determined loyalists throughout the city..
When it became clear that the city had fallen, Lakshmibai escaped with with her adopted son to meet up with other rebel forces, including her friend Tatya Tope.
Lakshmibai continued to fight the British as a rebel leader, and eventually died in battle in 1858 . There are multiple accounts of her death -- In one version of the story, she donned a uniform, was wounded by a British soldier and then shot him on her deathbed. In another, she was severely wounded and asked a bystander to burn her body rather than be captured by the British.
Twenty years after her death, in “The History of the Indian Mutiny, Volume 3,” British Colonel Malleson wrote, “Whatever her faults in British eyes may have been, her countrymen will ever remember that she was driven by ill-treatment into rebellion, and that she lived and died for her country. We cannot forget her contribution for India.”
Tune in tomorrow for the story of another leader.
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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.
Talk to you tomorrow!