Heart Like a Fakir is a history of the final forty years of British East India Company rule in India as witnessed by General Sir James Abbott (1807–1896), the man for whom the Pakistani town of Abbottabad is named. Based on extensive research into primary source documents, the book uses the life of General Sir James Abbott as a narrative thread to explore the troubled period between William Dalrymple’s White Moghuls and the Indian Rebellion of 1857. General Sir James Abbott was one of the most remarkable characters in British colonial history, becoming Great Britain’s first guerilla leader, the first Briton to reach the fabled Central Asian city of Khiva, and a British Deputy Commissioner who became the King of Hazara. He may have also been the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and the character of Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.
This book chronicles the remarkable collapse of the social contract between Britons and the peoples of India in the first half of the nineteenth century, taking a fresh look at British perceptions of race, gender, and the nature of social and sexual relationships between them, leading up to the Great Rebellion of 1857— the cataclysm that ended British East India Company rule.
Chris Mason is professor of national security affairs and director of the Study of Internal Conflict (SOIC) at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he researches, writes, and teaches on civil wars, insurgencies, and modern and historical India. He has published extensively on South Asia, focusing on Afghanistan, India, and the nineteenth and twentieth century borderlands between the two countries. Dr. Mason is a retired foreign service officer with a PhD in imperial and colonial history from the George Washington University in Washington, DC.
List of Illustrations
Chapter 1: Beginnings, 1807–1824
Chapter 2: Baptism of Fire, 1824–1826
Chapter 3: Reform and Progress, 1826–1834
Chapter 4: D’Arcy Todd and the Revenue Survey, 1834–1838
Chapter 5: A Mission to Khiva, 1838–1843
Chapter 6: A New Beginning, 1843–1849
Chapter 7: The Man Who Was King, 1849–1853
Chapter 8: Endings, 1854–1896
Appendix: Abbott the Artist
About the Author
The timing and causes of the British East India Company's shift from a commercial to an imperial entity is a fundamental issue in world history given its broad repercussions. Mason explores this issue through a biographical lens. Postmodernist theory reduced the esteem of biography among many historians, but Mason shows the value of this approach. His study of Sir James Abbott (1807–96), a career officer in the East India Company, provides new insights into shifts in Anglo-Indian relationships at a critical time. Mason makes the case for a much later deterioration of interactions between the colonizer and the colonized, culminating in the many-named Great Mutiny, Sepoy Rebellion, Indian Mutiny, or First War of Independence in 1857. In addition to correspondence and published works, Abbott left frank diaries never intended for circulation. His posting to many South Asian regions of the British Empire gave him the opportunity to pen firsthand accounts of the Sikh kingdom in Sind (modern Pakistan) and the global frictions imperialism caused that later gave rise to the problems plaguing modern Afghanistan. This well-written account will engage both experts and casual readers. Recommended. General readers through faculty.
In Heart Like a Fakir, Chris Mason uses the voluminous papers of General Sir James Abbott—an explorer, soldier, and district officer who lived as a ‘native’ among the peoples of the Hazara district—to explore how relations, social and sexual, between Britons and Indians broke down in the last decades of British East India Company rule. This breakdown—which contributed to the mutiny uprising—is usually attributed to the arrival of Christian missionaries and British women in significant numbers in the early years of the nineteenth century. Mason’s work suggests that historians need to look much more closely at the twenty-five years before the mutiny uprising. This is essential reading for all those interested in the last years of East India Company rule.
Chris Mason has rescued from obscurity one of the most remarkable agents of British imperial rule in nineteenth-century India. James Abbott was an army officer, district commissioner, Central Asian explorer, and irrepressible romantic. This engaging and insightful study is at once an intimate portrait of the man himself and an illuminating examination of the social and cultural changes that led to the erosion of East India Company rule in India and the outbreak of the 1857 Indian Rebellion/Mutiny.
Chris Mason’s richly textured and elegant reconstruction of James Abbott’s varied career over the final decades of the East India Company’s rule in India persuasively and entertainingly illuminates the complex and frequently contradictory impulses and impressions shaping British interactions with India in the years before the cataclysmic rebellions of 1857–58. Drawing on Abbott’s remarkable legacy of more than ten thousand pages documenting his forty years in India, Heart Like a Fakir introduces us to a British officer—similar in so many ways to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness—whose deep knowledge and romantic idealization of India—but often willful blindness to the changes happening around him—personifies the increasingly brittle and unstable relationship between colonizer and colonized.
10/13/22, Choice Reviews: This book was featured in a roundup of forthcoming political science & economics titles.