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From the Great Rebellion to the Great Game: playing for India

From the Great Rebellion to the Great Game: playing for India

Cartographic games – often using a map as the board (like Risk) - are a genre in their own right, and one which has attracted ever increasing amounts of scholarly interest. Take Jill Shefrin’s detailed study of a particular publisher of juvenilia, published last year: The Dartons. Publishers of Educational Aids, Pastimes & Juvenile Ephemera, 1787-1876 (Graaf, 2010). But it would be a mistake to assume that all games were aimed at children, and every now and again something comes along which throws a light on that. So I was delighted to be offered a previously unknown board game of the Great Rebellion, or Mutiny, complete with its fragile lithographed rule sheet, and published at the time. It was brought in by a proper old-school runner I know (not an easy thing to be in this internet age), and it’s already found an excellent home. My wife* still wants to play it - wish I’d kept a scan!

It’s a controversial subject for a game - difficult enough to write about dispassionately even now. The Indian Mutiny or Rebellion of 1857-58 rocked the comfortable assumptions of the mid Victorian world; it probably had a more profound impact on the Victorian psyche than any other comparable event of the era, including the Crimean War. Politically speaking it was the final nail in the coffin of the East India Company - which had long been in a ludicrously anomalous position for a trading company - and it ushered in direct rule by the British Crown: the Raj. In more general terms the atrocities committed by individuals on both sides soured Anglo-Indian relations. Most of the policies of the Raj (often fundamentally and bizarrely contradictory) can be traced to this period – and to the desire to prevent anything like it from happening again.You’ll have gathered that I find it extraordinary that a game was devised so close to events! As it’s a very rare thing – no copies were recorded in institutional holdings when I acquired it – perhaps contemporaries thought as I do, and the game never caught on. But given the general rarity of ephemeral material of this nature, it’s impossible to say with certainty.

The game is simply titled “The Game of Empire”, printed by F.J. Whiteman for an individual identified only as “Cochrane”. The board is a diagrammatic folding map, representing India - dissected into 16 sheets and laid on linen for durability - which folds into cloth covers; there is a printed paper label on the upper cover, repeating an extract from the verso of the rules sheet, and showing how counters should be set up to commence the game. The rules sheet, printed on both sides, describes Victoria as “Queen of India, Empress of Hindostan”. Disraeli created the strikingly similar title “Empress of India” for her in 1876 – Cochrane was slightly ahead of the times. We don’t have a printed date though, so some detective work was in order.

The printer, F.J. Whiteman of 19 Little Queen Street, was established by 1851 when he published a poem by one Thomas Colsey, “A Record of the Great Exhibition”. I haven’t read it, but at a guess the firm was no stranger to “vanity” publishing. We have the following information from the rules, which links us specifically to the events of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58: “the Pink represent the Queen’s Troops, the Blue the Troops of the late East India Company, and Orange the Rebel Sepoys.” ‘Late’ gives us a clue - we can deduce that the game was printed after the Government of India Act of August 1858. And what of Mr Cochrane, whose name crops up repeatedly? “The author and publisher, Cochrane, 283, Strand, gives instructions gratis, and offers a Guinea Board to any person beating him two games”. Unfortunately, apart from this delightful image (a nineteenth century version of Lord Monckton’s Eternity game!) there isn’t much to go on. No initials or anything handy like that. 283 The Strand was something of a black hole in this period, used as offices by a number of small agencies. At one time it was the address of a Newspaper Advertising Agency and it is the address given for a number of publications such as The Age. A number of other offices were based there, including that of ‘Le Grand of the Strand’, the private detective hired by the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee in the wake of the Ripper murders. By the 1880s, certainly, the address was rather run down. One can only speculate as to whether anyone ever won a ‘Guinea Board’, or if Cochrane’s hypothetical Sepoys drove the British from India as often as not in the course of play. What is clear from the details of Cochrane’s arrangements at the Strand office - and his offer of prize money – is that this game was intended for an adult market (an aspect of cartographic games which still needs to be explored further), and not for children, but even so it’s remarkable that the game was made at the time, and more remarkable still that one could take the part of either side. It’s difficult to convey the level of public horror (hysteria, even) which greeted the publication of documented events such as the Cawnpore massacre (and bear in mind that these could not immediately be disentangled from numerous atrocity stories which had sprung from the fevered imaginations of unreliable authorities). I’m going to try, but putting it into a modern context is tricky. I’m not a gamer myself (I’m stepping onto thin ice when I only know what I read in the papers) but in the last decade several games have caused outrage by allowing players to hijack airliners or fight alongside the Taliban. Might one be coming close to understanding the reaction of the average reader of ‘the Thunderer’ c. 1858? Did Mr Cochrane even recoup the printing costs? This seems to be his only foray into the world of games manufacture …

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