On May 10, 1857, Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army, drawn mostly from Muslim units from Bengal, mutinied in Meerut, a cantonment eighty kilometers northeast of Delhi. The rebels marched to Delhi to offer their services to the Mughal emperor, and soon much of north and central India was plunged into a year-long insurrection against the British. [Source: Library of Congress]

Astrologers had predicted the end of East India Company rule 100 years after the Battle of Plassey in 1758. They were only one year off and the sepoys briefly controlled much of Northern India. In the mid 19th century, the private army of the British East Indian Company consisted of 46,000 British and 223,000 sepoy soldiers. Nearly all of the officers and upper rank soldiers were British. Most of the lower ranked soldiers were sepoys. Sepoys are Indian soldiers who belonged to native regiments.

The Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 Indians say was the first serious Indian rebellion—some say war of independence—against the British. It began when sepoys were issued new Enfield rifles that used cartridges that had to be bit open to use. The sepoys took up arms against their British when a rumor was spread that sacred cow fat was being used in the cartridges of the Hindu soldiers. A similar rumor was spread among the Muslims, except it was pig fat, not beef fat. The cartridge were in fact greased with wax and vegetable oil. The rumor was reportedly started by an "untouchable" arsenal worker who was angry about being refused a drink by a higher-caste sepoy soldier. In any case, many sepoys refused to use the new rifles and this was viewed as insubordination by the British commanders.

The uprising, which seriously threatened British rule in India, has been called many names by historians, including the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny, and the Revolt of 1857; many people in South Asia, however, prefer to call it India's first war of independence. Undoubtedly, it was the culmination of mounting Indian resentment toward British economic and social policies over many decades. Until the rebellion, the British had succeeded in suppressing numerous riots and "tribal" wars or in accommodating them through concessions, but two events triggered the violent explosion of wrath in 1857. First, was the annexation in 1856 of Oudh, a wealthy princely state that generated huge revenue and represented a vestige of Mughal authority. The second was the British blunder in using cartridges for the Lee-Enfield rifle that were allegedly greased with animal fat.

Beginning of the Sepoy Mutiny

After enduring the humiliating retreat from Kabul in the First Afghan War in 1841, the British responded by annexing several Indian territories, including the Punjab. These annexations and a generally disregard for Indian rights and customs set the stage for the Sepoy rebellion. Indians were also upset by the dethronement of local leaders, seizure of property by the British East India Company, the prohibition of suttee (widow burning), suppression of the Thugs and proposals to end the caste system. Tensions between sepoys and their British commanders were inflamed by lack of advancement opportunities for the sepoys, and rumors that the sepoys were going to be forced to convert to Christianity or take up overseas assignments (Hindus worry that they will have to begin at the bottom of the caste ladder if they travel overseas).

The Sepoy Mutiny began when 85 sepoys were jailed in Meerut, near Delhi, for refusing to use the greased cartridges. An Indian mob that began rioting at a Meerut brothel stormed the prison and released the prisoners. Three sepoy regiments then mutinied. They then went on a rage, killing any European they could find. The mutineers then moved on to Delhi and captured the city. Britons unable to escape, including women and children, were massacred. Other sepoy regiments mutinied and within a few weeks most of the Ganges valley was in the hands of the mutineers. The British retreated to fortresses in other cities. Many Indian soldiers remained loyal to their British commanders. Near Armsitar, 237 Indian captives and another 45 suffocated to death in a "Black Hole"-like incident at small British police station.

The rebellion soon engulfed much of North India, including Oudh and various areas once under the control of Maratha princes. Isolated mutinies also occurred at military posts in the center of the subcontinent. Initially, the rebels, although divided and uncoordinated, gained the upper hand, while the unprepared British were terrified, and even paralyzed, without replacements for the casualties. The civil war inflicted havoc on both Indians and British as each vented its fury on the other; each community suffered humiliation and triumph in battle as well, although the final outcome was victory for the British.

Atrocities at Cawnpore During the Sepoy Mutiny

The most horrible atrocity of rebellion took place near Cawnpore, near a British fortress, where an entire garrison, including 200 British women and children surrendered with a promise that they would not be hurt—but then were hacked to death in a place known as the Bibigarh. According to a report by a British officer who arrived on the scene after the massacre: "I have never been so horrified. The place was one mass of blood...the soles of my boots were more than covered with the blood of these poor creatures. Portions of their dresses, collars, children’s socks, and ladies' round hats lay about, saturated with their blood...Their bodies were...thrown down a well outside the building where their limbs were to be seen sticking out in a mass of orgy confusion." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, 1987, Avon Books]

The British responded to the slaughter by bayoneting every sepoy they could find and staging mass hangings. Afterwards "Cawnpore" became a symbol of both Indian and British atrocities. General Henry Havelock wrote, "Whenever a rebel is caught he is immediately tried, and unless he can prove a defense he is sentenced to be hanged at once; but the chief rebels or ringleaders I make first clean up a certain portion of the pool of blood, still two inches deep...To touch blood is most abhorrent to high-caste natives, they think by doing so they doom their souls to preordination. Let them think so. My object is to inflict a fearful punishment for a revolting, cowardly, barbarous deed."

According to the report by officer: "The collector, who gave the order for their death, was taken prisoner the day before yesterday, and now hangs from a branch about 200 yards off the roadside. His death, was, accidently, a most painful one, for the rope was badly adjusted, and when he dropped, the noose closed over his jaw. His hands then got loose, and he caught hold of the rope and struggled to get free; but two men took hold of his legs, and jerked his body until his neck broke. This seems to me the just reward he should have got on earth for his barbarity."

Siege at Lucknow

Britain was caught by surprise by the mutiny. Forces were brought in from Persia, China and Burma to fight the mutineeers. A counterattack was mounted and after fierce street-to-street fighting Delhi was recaptured. Later Lucknow was rescued and Kanpur was retaken. During the a famous siege at Lucknow, some 4,000 British and local Indian troops withstood a siege by 10,000 mutineers. One British commander, Sir Henry Lawrence, dropped dead from exhaustion and captured British soldiers were fired out of cannons. Even so the British managed to hold on for four months.

Describing a typical day during the siege, one survivor wrote, "A good deal of shelling has been going on this morning, but it is mostly our own...It rained in the evening a good deal. A poor child next door to us died of cholera; it was only taken ill about one o'clock and it was dead before seven. The poor mother was in a dreadful state just before it died, and afterwards perfectly calm. While we were undressing she came and asked if we had an empty box we could give her to bury the poor little thing in. We had one not long enough." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, 1987, Avon Books]

A few days later, he wrote, "Colonel Inglish had a most merciful escape last night. He...saw the round host coming, and went down to avoid it, but hit Mr. Webb, and a native who was with him, killing them both instantaneously. It makes one shudder to how death is hovering about and around us all." Towards the end for the siege he wrote, "Today we have begun to restrict ourselves to two cuppatties each a day; and soon I fear, we shall have to eat horseflesh; but as yet we have beef and rice."

End and Legacy of the Sepoy Mutiny

The Sepoy Mutiny continued for five months before it was finally put down by the British and loyal Indian troops in a decisive battle at Jhasi in the winter of 1858. Small units of mutineers continued to harass British for another two years before the mutiny was crushed and order was restored in the countryside. The last major sepoy rebels surrendered on June 21, 1858, at Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh), one of the principal centers of the revolt. A final battle was fought at Sirwa Pass on May 21, 1859, and the defeated rebels fled into Nepal.

The British were merciless in their reprisals. Thousands of mutineers were executed. The last Mughal shah was ousted and sent to exile in Burma for his involvement in the mutiny even though his involvement was minimal. The Sepoy Mutiny also spelled the end for the East India Company, which was replaced by the British Raj—direct control by the British crown. The spontaneous and widespread rebellion later fired the imagination of the nationalists who would debate the most effective method of protest against British rule. For them, the rebellion represented the first Indian attempt at gaining independence.

The Sepoy Mutiny was a major turning point in the history of modern India. In May 1858, the British exiled Emperor Bahadur Shah II (1837-57) to Burma, thus formally liquidating the Mughal Empire. At the same time, they abolished the British East India Company and replaced it with direct rule under the British crown. In proclaiming the new direct-rule policy to "the Princes, Chiefs, and Peoples of India," Queen Victoria (who was given the title Empress of India in 1877) promised equal treatment under British law, but Indian mistrust of British rule had become a legacy of the 1857 rebellion. [Source: Library of Congress]

After the Sepoy Mutiny

After the East India Company was replaced by the British Raj in 1858 many existing economic and revenue policies remained virtually unchanged in the post-1857 period, but several administrative modifications were introduced, beginning with the creation in London of a cabinet post, the secretary of state for India. The governor-general (called viceroy when acting as the direct representative of the British crown), headquartered in Calcutta, ran the administration in India, assisted by executive and legislative councils. Beneath the governor-general were the provincial governors, who held power over the district officials, who formed the lower rungs of the Indian Civil Service. For decades the Indian Civil Service was the exclusive preserve of the British-born, as were the superior ranks in such other professions as law and medicine. The British administrators were imbued with a sense of duty in ruling India and were rewarded with good salaries, high status, and opportunities for promotion. Not until the 1910s did the British reluctantly permit a few Indians into their cadre as the number of English-educated Indians rose steadily. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The viceroy announced in 1858 that the government would honor former treaties with princely states and renounced the "doctrine of lapse," whereby the East India Company had annexed territories of rulers who died without male heirs. About 40 percent of Indian territory and between 20 and 25 percent of the population remained under the control of 562 princes notable for their religious (Islamic, Sikh, Hindu, and other) and ethnic diversity. Their propensity for pomp and ceremony became proverbial, while their domains, varying in size and wealth, lagged behind sociopolitical transformations that took place elsewhere in British-controlled India. A more thorough reorganization was effected in the constitution of army and government finances. Shocked by the extent of solidarity among Indian soldiers during the rebellion, the government separated the army into the three presidencies. *

British attitudes toward Indians shifted from relative openness to insularity and xenophobia, even against those with comparable background and achievement as well as loyalty. British families and their servants lived in cantonments at a distance from Indian settlements. Private clubs where the British gathered for social interaction became symbols of exclusivity and snobbery that refused to disappear decades after the British had left India. In 1883 the government of India attempted to remove race barriers in criminal jurisdictions by introducing a bill empowering Indian judges to adjudicate offenses committed by Europeans. Public protests and editorials in the British press, however, forced the viceroy, George Robinson, Marquis of Ripon (who served from 1880 to 1884), to capitulate and modify the bill drastically. The Bengali Hindu intelligentsia learned a valuable political lesson from this "white mutiny": the effectiveness of well-orchestrated agitation through demonstrations in the streets and publicity in the media when seeking redress for real and imagined grievances. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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