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Sepoy Mutiny, 1857-59

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. 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.

Precisely what led to the great Mutiny will perhaps never be determined. Wise men differ. 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 several 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, which was offensive to the religious beliefs of Muslim and Hindu sepoys.

In the deposed King of Delhi, Bahadur Shah, there was an ever-festering canker of rebellion and center of disaffection which was rendered more dangerous than ever by Lord Dalhousie's (1848-56) threat of removing the Mogul's family from its old seat at Delhi.

Under Lord Dalhousie the Punjaub and Oude had been annexed, and it might well seem to an Indian mind that the English were bent on entirely subduing the whole of Hindostan, regardless of the dictates of faith or justice. So long as Oude was under Muhammadan rule, every complaint from an Oude sepoy, that his family or kindred were oppressed, was forwarded to the British Resident at Lukhnow, and promptly redressed. When, however, the country was brought under British administration the complainants were referred to the civil courts. This was resented by the sepoy as a grave indignity. He was no longer the great man of the family or village; he could no longer demand the special interference of the British Resident in their behalf. Accordingly he was exasperated at the introduction of British rule in Oude. Oudh was the only province in which the insurrection became general, and nearly every great landholder rebelled. The displeasure at the recent annexation had something to do with this fact, but much of the trouble in Oudh must be attributed to the lawless condition of the kingdom after a century of gross misgovernment.

The cause of the Mutiny, expressed in the most general terms and without regard to specific grievances, was the revolt of the old against the new, of Indian conservatism against European innovation. The spirit of revolt undoubtedly had been stimulated by the trend of Lord Dalhousie's policy, which alarmed men's minds. Every one of his actions was prompted by the highest motives, and each can be justified in detail, but the cumulative effect of them all was profound unrest. Railways, telegraphs, and other material and educational improvements, now matters of course, were in those days unorthodox, disturbing novelties, which contributed largely to unsettle the minds of the people and support the delusion that their religions were in danger. Mutiny in the army was nothing new ; several instances have been mentioned in the preceding pages, and there were others besides. The military organization had become rusty and antiquated, and discipline was lax. The Bengal army, thus ill organized and mutinous, seeing England engaged in distant wars, and the European garrison diminished, believed itself to be master. The Sepoy troops had learnt to know their own worth, and having fought battles and won victories under English generalship, conceived that their success was solely due to their own valour, and fancied that they held the destiny of India in their own hands.

The Enfield rifle was being introduced ; it required new cartridges, which in England were greased with the fat of beef or pork. The military authorities in India, with strange indifference to the prejudices of sepoys, ordered the cartridges to be prepared at Calcutta in like manner; forgetting that the fat of pigs was hateful to the Muhammadans, while the fat of cows was still more horrible in the eyes of the Hindus. A panic in the sepoy army was caused in January, 1857, by the discovery that the cartridges for the new Enfield rifle had been greased with animal fat, and that the purity of the sepoy's caste was consequently endangered. The authorities did their best to remedy the blunder ignorantly committed, but the alarm extended throughout the army, and was not to be allayed, the men believing that the Government intended to force them to become Christians.

The mutiny had become a revolt; the sepoys were on the way to Delhi to proclaim the old Moghul as sovereign of Hindustan; and there was no Gillespie to gallop after them and crush the revolt at its outset, as had been done at Vellore half a century before. 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.

Trouble began with incendiary fires at Barrackpore, followed in February and March by mutinies there and at Berhampore, the cantonment of Murshidabad. In distant Umballa, too, fires in the lines during March and April indicated the rebellious spirit of the troops. The decisive outbreak occurred at Meerut on May 10, when the native regiments broke out, burnt the station, murdered Christians, and set off for Delhi. The commanding officer at Meerut, an imbecile old man, did nothing with the 2,200 European troops at his disposal, but allowed the revolted regiments to escape and occupy the ancient capital, where the Christian population was slaughtered, and the sepoys tendered their allegiance to the titular emperor, Bahadur Shah, then more than eighty years of age. Within a month nearly every regiment between Allahabad and the Sutlaj had mutinied, and in most districts of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh civil government was at an end.

At the time of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the Afghans themselves, ever restless and unsettled, were throughout meditating an attack on the British frontier, and a rich harvest in Hindostan; and were alone deterred from the movement by the imposing attitude which had been assumed at Peshawur ; and thirty thousand Afghans had shod their horses at one time, ready to invade British territory. The subsidy, given by the British Commissioner to the Sirdar Dost Mahommed, no doubt had some effect in the mind of that monarch ; and to him, personally, a rupture, at that moment, with England, would have been attended with the loss of the lac of rupees per mensem, which he was receiving - a pecuniary benefit which he had appropriated solely to his own use, instead of to his troops, for the prosecution of the Persian war, and for which latter purpose it had been ceded to him. The Mutiny was nipped in the bud on the frontier. It was clear to all that discipline was upheld and maintained (notwithstanding the rumors to the contrary) among the troops, on the British frontier ; and the Afghans, keenly watching the turn of events, on finding that the supremacy of the British Government had prevailed, were deterred from an aggressive movement.

It was urged by the Punjab Government so early in the siege of Delhi, as the month of June, 1857, that it would be prudent to restore to Dost Mahommed, of Kabul, the Peshawur province, which the British Government held to the great annoyance of the Afghans; and the Government desired (ere it was too late) to confer a favor upon the Dost, by the voluntary restoration of that valuable portion of the British territory, with a view, in the first instance, to conciliate the Ruler of Afghanistan, his subjects, and the border tribes generally ; and by making an apparent merit of what was considered (although not admitted at the tune) a real necessity, to concentrate the British forces in the heart of the Punjab.

But had the British troops re-crossed the Indus at that critical period, the Sikhs, Punjabees, and other inhabitants of the countries Trans-Sutlej, who afterwards so materially aided in rescuing from destruction the tottering power of Great Britain in India, seeing the dilemma in which its Government was placed, when driven to the necessity (as all would then have certainly considered it) of retreating, would have risen with one accord upon the retiring forces.

The rebels did not agree in aiming at any one political object. The mutinous sepoys of the Bengal army tendered their allegiance to Bahadur Shah, and attempted the restoration of the Mughal monarchy, chiefly because the outbreak of the mutiny happened to occur at Meerut close to Delhi, which offered to them the only possible rallying point. 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. This interpretation, however, is open to serious question.

The siege of Delhi began on June 8th, just one month after the original outbreak at Meerut. Siege in the proper sense of the word it was not, for the British army, encamped on the historic ridge, never exceeded 8000 men, while the rebels within the walls were more than 30,000 strong. In the middle of August Nicholson arrived with a reinforcement from the Punjab, but his own encouraging presence was more valuable than any reinforcement he brought. On September 14th the assault was delivered, and after six days' desperate fighting in the streets Delhi was again won. Nicholson fell at the head of the storming party. Hodson, the intrepid leader of a corps of irregular horse, hunted down and brought in as prisoner the old Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah, and then in cold blood shot down the emperor's sons with his own hand. After the tall of Delhi and the final relief of Lucknow the war loses its dramatic interest, though fighting went on in various parts of the country for eighteen months longer. 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 civil war was a major turning point in the history of modern India. In January, 1858, the ex-king Bahadur Shah was tried by a military commission at Delhi, and found guilty of ordering the massacre of Christians, and of waging war against the British government. Sentence of death was recorded against him. In May 1858, the British exiled Emperor Bahadur Shah II (r. 1837-57) to Burma, thus formally liquidating the Mughal Empire. Ultimately he was sent to Rangoon, with his favorite wife and her son, and kept under surveillance as a state prisoner until his death five years afterwards.

On November 1, 1858, at a grand durbar held at Allahabad the royal proclamation was published which announced that the Queen had assumed the government of India. At the same time, the British 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.

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.

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.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:32 ZULU