Saturday, August 8, 2015



            The uprising of 1857 that British historians christened the Sepoy Mutiny or the Great Indian Mutiny was in fact not a mere rebellion but an Armageddon. Though it began as a mutiny by soldiers in the service of the East India Company, it soon turned into a conflict between two peoples, one enslaved by the other for over a hundred years. The objective of the insurrection being freedom from British bondage, Indian historians had good reason to name it the ‘first war of independence’. Whatever it’s appellation, there is little doubt that it was a watershed in the history of the sub-continent and a turning point in the Indo-British relations. For the first time since the beginning of British rule in India, the seeds of nationalism were germinated in the heart of every Indian, irrespective of his religion and caste. It would take ninety years for the plant to grow and bear fruit. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in India’s freedom struggle, many sacrificing their youth and their careers, some even their lives. But it is important to remember that in 1857, it was the common soldier who kindled the flame that finally lighted up the lives of all Indians.

            The Mutiny     lasted well over a year and ended only after the Proclamation by Queen Victoria on 1 November 1858 ending the rule of the East India Company in India, though sporadic revolts continued even after this. Though the major events took place in North-Western Provinces (Agra and Oudh), there were few parts of the sub continent that remained untouched. Much has been written about the Mutiny and it is therefore not intended to cover it in detail in this chapter. However, the principal events that occurred at important stations will be briefly mentioned, along with the principal causes of the Mutiny and its consequences. More importantly, the role that it played in the struggle for freedom from British rule will be examined. 

            Unlike their predecessors of foreign origin who ruled over India, the British did not invade the country. When they first arrived, it was not with the aim of conquest, but trade. In fact, of the several European nations which had a presence in the sub continent, the British were the only ones without any mandate or support from their government. The United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies, which later came to be known as the East India Company, saw in India, as they did in China and several other countries in the East, an opportunity to make huge profits. The British soldiers they employed to guard their factories and warehouses, proved to be inadequate, forcing them to recruit additional numbers from the local population. This gave birth to the Company’s Army, the forebears of the present day Indian Army. Even after the arrival of regular British troops of the King’s or Queen’s Army in later years, the Company’s Army retained its distinct identity, right up to 1857.
After gaining a foothold the British proceeded to subdue the local rulers by military force and acquire territory. In the initial years they had to compete with the French, Dutch and Portuguese who had similar designs. Displaying superior military prowess and political acumen, they soon defeated other European forces as well as local potentates and their power and influence increased rapidly. With territorial gains came added responsibilities and the Company soon found itself performing the role of the ruler that it had displaced. Motivated by a genuine desire to provide an efficient administration and improve the lot of the common people, social and economic reforms began to be introduced. With arrogance born of a firm belief in their superiority, they failed to consider the effects of these measures on a people who valued caste and religion above everything, including their lives. In spite of their foreign descent, the Mughals were aware of the role of religion and caste in India and took special care to avoid measures that hurt local sensibilities on this account. The only exception, Aurangzeb, proved to be the last of the Great Mughals. It was a lesson the British should have learned but did not.

Since the British professed to have come to India for trade, in the initial years they did not assume the mantle of rulers despite the fact that they had gained control of considerable tracts of territory. Even after become the virtual rulers of Carnatic and Bengal the Company did not assume sovereign powers. Clive approached the Emperor at Delhi for grant of Diwani (the right to collect revenue) in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Though they had become de facto rulers, the British continued to propagate the myth that they were acting as agents of the Emperor. It was only in the second or third decade of the 19th Century, when they were confident of their power that they began to assert their independence and authority. They encouraged the Nawab Wazir of Oudh to declare himself as the King; struck coins in the name of the Company and replaced Persian with English as the language in the Court. These measures caused alarm among the populace and local chieftains, who realized the real intentions of the British in India. With each new act that affirmed their status as rulers rather than agents, discontent and apprehension among the common people increased, culminating in the outburst of 1857.

            The first instance of a slight to the religious prejudices of the Indian soldier occurred in 1806, resulting in the mutiny at Vellore. This was followed by the unfortunate events in Barrackpore in 1824, where sepoys of the Bengal Army were fired upon merely for refusing to proceed for duty overseas, an act which would have resulted in loss of caste and social ostracization.  The brutal manner in which these mutinies were suppressed convinced the sepoys that their British masters were indifferent to their religious feelings. Shortly after the Barrackpore incident the British abolished the ancient Hindu practice of Sati (self immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands). Educated and enlightened Indians such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy welcomed the measure, but the common people saw in it another assault on their religion.

In 1939 the British invaded Afghanistan, marking the beginning of the First Afghan War that ended in 1942. It was an unmitigated disaster, in which hundreds of British soldiers and thousands of Indian sepoys lost their lives. Most of those who were captured were enslaved and converted to Islam. The lucky few who were rescued by a relief force returned to find that they had become outcasts in their own homes. According to Sardar Bahadur Hedayet Ali, a Subedar in Rattrays’ Sikhs, the Afghan War was the root cause of the Mutiny. It not only antagonized the Hindu sepoy, who found himself virtually excommunicated by his relatives and colleagues, but also the Muslim, who felt unhappy to fight against a co-religionist. Hedayet Ali says that ‘the Mahomedans always boasted among themselves how they had evaded the English order by never taking aim when they fired.’1

Subedar Hedayet Ali describes the trauma faced by Hindu sepoys who returned from the Afghan War in these words: ‘None of the Hindoos in Hindoostan would eat with their comrades who went to Afghanistan, nor would they even allow them to touch their cooking utensils; they looked upon them as outcasts, and treated them accordingly.’ A similar account is given by Sitaram, who served in Afghanistan as a Jemadar. ‘Great fears were felt by the sepoys at the idea of having to go across the Indus……..The sepoys dreaded passing the Indus, because it is out of Hindustan. This is forbidden in our religion: the very act is loss of caste. In consequence of this many sepoys obtained their discharge, and many deserted.’ 2

The enlargement of the Company’s dominions in India was accompanied by a corresponding increase in missionary activities. Several missionary schools were established, where students were not only taught basic subjects but also enlightened about the Christian faith. The missionaries believed that Christianity was the only true religion and considered it a sacred duty to convert those who followed other religions. Missionary activity was carried out not only in schools but also in jails, where prisoners were instructed in the Gospel by visiting Indian clergymen. Though the missionaries were not directly supported by the government, the fact that the functionaries of the Company belonged to the same faith and were frequently seen in their company gave to Indians the impression that both had a common aim – to make them Christians. The impression was reinforced by the introduction of common messing in jails in 1845, doing away with the system of food being cooked separately for each caste. This naturally caused considerable resentment among the higher castes, especially the Brahmins, who lost caste for eating food cooked by others.

Act XXI was enacted in 1850, which permitted converts to inherit ancestral property. Though it was applicable to all religions, in effect it benefitted only converts to Christianity. Hinduism did not permit conversion from other religions and the Muslim convert derived no advantage because Islam forbids inheriting the property of an infidel. The law was therefore seen as a measure intended to encourage conversion to Christianity. Hindus found the new law particularly offensive since it gave to those who left the religion rights to the property of their ancestors without the inherent obligations such as lighting the funeral pyre and performing rituals on death anniversaries. The Hindu, therefore, felt that the law inflicted on him a double loss, the loss of a son in his life and the loss of his religious services hereafter.3

In 1855 there was a serious incident at Bolarum near Hyderabad that should have acted as a warning to the British that the sepoy was quite capable of resorting to violence if severely provoked as regards his religion. Not realising that an important Muslim festival, Moharrum, also fell on that day, Brigadier General Colin Mackenzie commanding the Hyderabad Contingent issued an order on 21 September banning processions on 23 September, a Sunday. This enraged the Muslim troopers of the 3rd Cavalry, who felt that the Moharrum procession had been banned. Though the order was withdrawn next day, the damage had been done. On the fateful day, the Muslim troopers took out the procession along the forbidden route that ran past the Brigadiers’ bungalow. Mackenzie, who was then sitting on his lawn with some other officers and ladies, was annoyed when the processions neared his house, accompanied by loud music and lamentations, which are an integral part of the pageant. He came out of his house and ordered the men to disperse. When they refused, in a fit of rage he snatched some of the flags they were carrying. The angry men dispersed but shortly after wards made a murderous attack on Mackenzie who was left for dead but survived. Subsequently, all the Indian officers of 3rd Cavalry except two were dismissed. The Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, opined that Brigadier Mackenzie had acted indiscreetly: ‘the order was not only unusual, but objectionable in that it put forward the Moharrum in direct confrontation with the Christian Sabbath, and so introduced a religious element into the prohibition.’ Mackenzie was brought down to the rank of major and transferred to Murshidabad as Agent to the Governor General. He eventually retired as a lieutenant general. 4

In 1856 Lord Canning arrived in India as Governor-General. His predecessor, Lord Dalhousie had approved the draft of the Hindu Widows Re-marriage Act, which appeared to be a natural consequence of the abolition of Sati. The measure to permit widows to marry had been advocated by several Hindu scholars, particularly Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who argued that it was based on old scriptures. In effect, the practice was already in vogue among the lower castes, and it was only the higher castes such as the Brahmins who despised it. Though the measure was permissive and did not impose any compulsion, it was viewed as yet another attempt to interfere with ancient Hindu customs. So strong were social prejudices at that time that very few widows actually took advantage of the new law, in spite of the efforts of social reformers.5

Another unpopular measure introduced in 1856 concerned the terms of engagement of new recruits to the Bengal Army. Due to caste prejudices, sepoys of the Bengal Army were unwilling to serve overseas, and their terms of service specifically included a clause to this effect. The Madras Army, which had a fair proportion of Brahmins, had no such qualms and were frequently sent abroad, even when the area of operations fell in the jurisdiction of the Bengal Army. Wishing to put an end to this anomaly, Lord Canning decided that future recruitment to the Bengal Army would include a condition for overseas service. Though the sepoys already serving were not affected, they were alarmed by the new regulation, which would close the door to military service to future generations. The ill timed measure convinced the sepoy that the British had no regard for long service and loyalty, and neither could they be trusted to respect religion and caste. 6

The sepoys regarded the changes in the terms of recruitment of the Bengal Army a breach of faith by the British. Later, a British officer who had spent many years with the Bengal Army was to admit: ‘Almost all the mutinies in India, whether in Bengal or elsewhere, have been more or less produced, or least have had in some sort the initiative, from ourselves. There has usually been some departure from contract, some disregard of the feelings, health or convenience of the native soldiers, when at the same moment the utmost care was lavished on a European regiment; some interference with their pay or rights, or what they supposed to be their right’.7

Instances of breaches of promise regarding pay and allowances had caused trouble in the Bengal and Madras Armies in 1843 and 1844. The Indian sepoy had an insular outlook and disliked foreign service. To him, any place far away from home was foreign, and he expected to be compensated financially for the hardships that he had to endure in unfamiliar regions.  During the First Afghan War, General Pollock had paid the sepoys a special batta (allowance) when they crossed the Indus. In 1843 Sind was annexed and became a part of the British Empire. It was no longer a foreign land and hence batta ceased to be admissible. However, the sepoy could not comprehend these legal niceties, since the Indus had still to be crossed. In 1844 the 34th Bengal Infantry and 7th Bengal Cavalry had refused to march to Sind unless the Indus batta was paid. Their example was followed by the 69th and 4th Regiments, which refused to cross the Indus unless a special allowance was paid to them. A similar demand by the 64th was conceded by the Commander-in-Chief, who agreed to grant an increment in pay and certain other benefits such as family pension to the heirs of those who died from disease contracted on service. The commanding officer, Colonel Moseley, persuaded the regiment to cross the Indus, assuring the men that they would be getting the same batta as given to Pollock’s sepoys. However, on arrival at Shikarpur they refused their pay when they found that they were to be paid only eight rupees as batta, instead of the twelve that they had been promised. (The salary of a sepoy was seven rupees). It was only on the personal intervention of General George Hunter, whom the men loved and respected, that they finally agreed to receive their pay.  Holding the commanding officer responsible for the crisis, Hunter removed him from command. Moseley was tried by court martial and cashiered. Thirty eight of the mutineers were also tried and sentenced to death. Finally only six were awarded capital punishment, the sentences of the others being commuted to life imprisonment or hard labour for various terms. Considering that the entire regiment had mutinied, the sentences were regarded as lenient.  However, the bond of trust between the British officer and the sepoy had been broken. In 1857 when commanding officers tried to assure the sepoys that there was no animal fat in the grease used with the new cartridges, the men disbelieved them. 8

Instances of disaffection concerning pay and allowances were not confined to the Bengal Army alone. Towards the end of 1843, the 6th Madras Cavalry was ordered to move from Kamptee to Jubbulpore, which was outside the Madras Presidency. Unlike their colleagues in the Bengal Army who left their families in their villages, troops of the Madras Army kept their families with them. On the assumption that the move to Kamptee was temporary, the troopers of 6th Cavalry left their families behind before moving. On arrival at Jubbulpore they were surprised to learn that their stay at the new station was of a permanent nature and that too at lower allowances than they had expected. They now had to send for their families from Kamptee, incurring considerable expense from their pockets. They also learned that their next move would be to Arcot, 900 miles to the south. Incensed by this apparent breach of faith, for which they held their commanding officer Major Litchfield responsible, the troopers refused to obey his orders. The Brigadier commanding the station paraded the men and took their complaints. Fortunately, approval for paying higher allowances arrived before the situation got out of hand, and a major crisis was averted. 9

After the refusal of several regiments of the Bengal Army to serve in Sind, the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Charles Napier sent an urgent appeal to Bombay for help in garrisoning that province.  Bombay, being unable to comply with the request, passed it on to Madras, where the Marquis of Tweedale, holding the double office of Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Presidency, agreed to send two regiments of Native Infantry. One of these regiments had been earmarked for Burma, where higher allowances were admissible. Being unaware of the regulations of the Bengal Army, the Governor assured both regiments that they would be paid allowances in Sind at the same rate that they would have got in Burma. The regiments embarked at Madras for Bombay from where they were to proceed to Karachi. Incensed at the move of the Madras regiments without his approval, the Governor-General, Lord Ellenborough, countermanded the move and ordered that both regiments be disembarked at Bombay. When the men reached Bombay, they were informed that the higher allowances promised to them could not be paid to them. Since they had already drawn their salaries in advance, in order to make provision for their families which were left behind, they found themselves almost penniless in Bombay, with not enough money even for food. The sepoys demanded that they should be given rations, which was refused. The men broke out on parade and refused the orders of their officers. It was only after the General commanding the station intervened that order was restored, and the men agreed to accept an advance of pay. The sepoys were unable to appreciate the inability of the government to pay them the higher allowances. To them it was a clear case of breach of promise made by a person no less than the Governor himself. 10

Instances of refusal of pay continued to occur in 1849, especially in the Punjab. In July 1849 the 13th and 22nd Regiments of the Bengal Infantry at Rawalpindi refused their pay. The Commander-in-Chief, Sir Charles Napier, received reports that the four regiments at Wazirabad and two at Jhelum were likely to follow their example. Napier hurried from Calcutta to Simla, where Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General had moved to escape the heat of the plains. There were signs of the disaffection spreading to the whole of the Punjab if it was not curbed immediately.  After consulting Dalhousie, Napier decided to tour the affected areas himself. The sepoys at Rawalpindi and Wazirabad had been pacified by Colin Campbell and John Hearsey, who were destined to play even greater roles in 1857. But Napier knew that the trouble was far from over and made preparations to crush a general uprising if it occurred by using European troops. His fears were confirmed when the 66th Regiment at Govindgarh broke out into open mutiny. Fortunately, the 1st Native Cavalry was unaffected and with their help the mutiny was suppressed. The 66th Regiment was ordered to be disbanded and struck from the Army List.

Though the disaffection appeared to have been smothered, Napier felt that the sepoy had a genuine grievance that needed to be resolved. In 1844 Lord Ellenborough had approved the grant of compensation to troops when the cost of items of daily rations such as flour increased above a certain figure. His successor, Lord Hardinge had issued new regulations in 1845 which effectively reduced the amount of compensation. Napier felt that this was unfair and pending receipt of formal approval from the Governor-General, issued orders in January 1850 that the sepoys be paid the higher rate as given in the 1844 regulations. Dalhousie was then not in India, but on his return in May 1850, took strong exception to the action of the Commander-in-Chief. He did not agree with Napier’s view that ‘a mutinous spirit pervaded in the army in the Punjab, and that …….the Government of the country was placed in a position of “great peril”.’ Dalhousie went on to record: ‘the safety of India has never for one moment been imperiled by the partial insubordination in the ranks of its army.’ 11

The confrontation between Dalhousie and Napier ended with the resignation of the latter. Though Dalhousie was right in asserting that Napier had exceeded his authority in issuing the orders granting higher allowances to the sepoy, there were many who felt that the Governor-General should have supported his Commander-in-Chief, whose fears about disaffection among the sepoys were genuine, as was emphatically proved just seven years afterwards. To the sepoy, Napier’s resignation and the cancellation of his orders granting him higher allowances was another proof, if any was needed, that even the highest in the land could not be trusted, and the Company only wanted to use his services to extend its dominions, with least concern for his welfare. 

Between 1852 and 1856 the war in Crimea severely strained the resources of Britain, forcing her to reduce the number of British troops in India by almost 3,000. The majority of the available British regiments were concentrated in the Punjab, which had recently been annexed, denuding the rest of the country. As a result, the number of European troops available at most of the cantonments in the rest of the country was small. This proved to be a costly lapse when the mutiny broke out in 1857. Another fall out of the Crimean war was the manner in which it changed the impression about the British in the minds of the Indian public. Heavy losses in Crimea dealt a severe blow to the image of the English, and a proposal in the British Parliament to send troops from India to Crimea was dropped when it was realized that the measure would reveal to the subject race the weakness of the rulers. The Patriotic Fund, established in England to raise subscriptions for the Crimean War served to reinforce the impression among intelligent Indians that the British were as short of money as they were of men.12

 Along with social and economic reforms the British rulers introduced a legal system that treated all native subjects as equals, without regard to caste or rank. While the measure could be lauded as being fair and just, it did not take into account the age old caste equations in India and the privileged position enjoyed by persons ranking high in the feudal order. A well-born noble found that he could be summoned to the court of a magistrate like any common criminal, even on minor complaint by a money lender or a petty shop keeper. A situation such as this never occurred in a native kingdom, where caste and rank were always respected, even while dispensing justice. The British legal system was resented by all Indians, especially those of high rank and caste. It was unpopular even with the poor peasants, due to the complexities of the English legal procedure and rampant corruption in the lower judiciary. 13

Perhaps the most unpopular law enacted by the British was one that allowed the sale of land of a cultivator for failure to pay the rent. Traditionally, land rights in India were inalienable. A cultivator or debtor was usually imprisoned or held in bondage until his relatives paid off his dues to secure his release. The rent was usually paid in kind, the common method of recovery being a division of the standing crop before it was harvested. The system was complicated and time consuming, and with a view to simplify matters the Company decided to replace it with the new system of sale of land in cases of default. The system had its advantages and would have worked if the rents were fair and reasonable. However, not only were the rents fixed by the Company very high, there were no safeguards for bad harvests when the rains failed, a common occurrence in India. This led to many zamindars (land owners) losing land held by their families for several generations, and feudal overlords being turned into pensioners overnight. Since the land in question was usually bought by a money lender or bania (merchant), this led to a severe upheaval in the social order.  More than any other class, the zamindars who had been dispossessed of their lands nursed the greatest grudge against the Company’s rule, and waited for an opportunity to avenge the injustice and humiliation heaped on them. 14

The social reforms and changes in the legal system affected the people living in dominions under British rule, with the princely states remaining virtually unaffected. However, this was not to last long. As the power of the British grew, so did their appetite for territory. If a princely state could be annexed by force of arms, this was done. If not, subterfuge was resorted to, a classic example of the latter being Dalhousie’s infamous doctrine of lapse. The state of Punjab was annexed in 1849, though the ruler was a minor and in fact a ward of the British.  Yet he was blamed for the Multan rising leading to the Second Sikh War. Satara was annexed in 1850, after the death of the ruler without a male heir, though he had adopted one on his death bed, in accordance with the prevalent custom. In 1853, Nagpur and Jhansi were annexed for the same reason. The widows of the rulers of Satara and Jhansi sent emissaries to London to plead their case, without success. Both were to play an important role in the 1857 uprising, Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi being immortalized for her courage and fortitude in fighting the British. The annexation of Carnatic and Tanjore followed, even though the rulers had always been loyal to the Company. These measures not only alienated public opinion in India but were widely criticised in Britain. However, by far the most shocking example of British duplicity was the annexation of Oudh. 15

In 1856 Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Oudh was deposed and his kingdom made part of the British Empire. Unlike others Indian states that had been annexed under the doctrine of lapse for want of a male heir, Oudh was amalgamated with the Company’s dominions on grounds of maladministration, a charge that found few takers even among the British. The rulers of Oudh had always been faithful allies of the British and the measure shocked everyone. The administration of Oudh under the King was not of the best, but this could be said of most princely states. In 1853 there was a mutiny over arrears of pay in a regiment of the King of Oudh’s service at Faizabad under the command of Captain Barlow, who reportedly spent more time at the races in Cawnpore than in his regiment.  Colonel W.H. Sleeman, the Resident in Lucknow was one of the severest critics of the policy of annexation. With rare prescience, he wrote:  ‘The native states I consider to be breakwaters, and, when they are all swept away, we shall be left to the mercy of our native army, which may not be always sufficiently under our control.’ After the mutiny in Barlow’s regiment he recommended that the British should assume the administration as trustees of the Oudh royal family, and spend the entire revenue on the benefit of the people. In 1854 Sleeman had to go on leave to Britain due to ill health and died during the voyage. Lord Dalhousie forwarded Sleeman’s proposal to the Court of Directors in London, but did not recommend annexation. However, he received instructions that Oudh should be annexed. Dalhousie complied, and it is difficult to miss the touch of glee and avarice in the entry in his diary:  ‘So our gracious Queen had five million more subjects and 1,300,000 pounds more revenues than she had yesterday’.16   

The annexation of Oudh caused widespread anger among the local population as well as the sepoys. Oudh contributed the largest number of soldiers – almost two thirds - to the Bengal Army, with a fair number joining the armies of the other two presidencies. The Oudh sepoys, numbering about 60,000, enjoyed a privileged position by virtue of the system that permitted them to address petitions for legal redress through the British Resident in Lucknow, to the envy of others who were not in the Company’s service. After the annexation of Oudh the Resident was replaced by a Chief Commissioner, and the entire population became subjects of the Company. The Oudh soldiers ceased to enjoy the special privileges they had become accustomed to and their petitions no longer received the attention they had earlier taken for granted. The Oudh sepoy naturally blamed the British for the deprivation of this right, and this had an adverse effect on his devotion and allegiance. Another unfortunate sequel of the annexation of Oudh was the disbandment of the royal army of Oudh and of the armed guards of the Oudh taluqdars (nobles). About 15,000 of the discharged men were absorbed in the newly raised Oudh Irregular Force and the Military Police, but the remainder had to be discharged. This created a large body of disgruntled soldiers, of which many remained in Lucknow, with the others carrying their resentment to their villages. These erstwhile soldiers formed the backbone of the mobs that rampaged through Oudh when the mutiny broke out a year later, the immediate cause being the greased cartridge. .

            The Enfield rifle having proved its worth in Crimea, in 1856 it was decided to introduce it in India to replace the old-fashioned musket. To train sepoys in the use of the new weapon, depots were established at Dum Dum, Ambala and Sialkot. Cartridges for the rifle were manufactured at Fort William in Calcutta and supplied to the depots. The suspicion that the cartridges contained the fat of cows and pigs first came to light after a brief conversation between a Brahmin sepoy of the 2nd Regiment, Native (Grenadier) Infantry and a low caste khalasi (labourer) attached to the magazine at Dum Dum. The khalasi asked the sepoy for some water from his lota (vessel for carrying water), which the latter refused, since he was not aware of the caste of the khalasi. The labourer replied: ‘You will soon lose your caste, as before long you will have to bite cartridges covered with the fat of cows and pigs.’ The news spread like wild fire and soon came to the notice of Captain Wright, an artillery officer attached to the Rifle Instruction Depot at Dum Dum. Wright immediately brought this to the notice of the Major J. Bontein, commanding the Dum Dum Musketry Depot, as well as Major General John Hearsey, commanding the Presidency Division.

            The next day, Bontein also sent a report to General Hearsey.  On receipt of the letter from Captain Wright, Bontein had paraded all the sepoys and asked if any of them had a complaint. ‘At least two thirds of the detachment immediately stepped to the front, including all the native commissioned officers. In a manner perfectly respectful they very distinctly stated their objections to the present method of preparing cartridges for the new rifled musket. The mixture employed for greasing cartridges was opposed to their religious feeling, and as a remedy they begged to suggest the employment of wax and oil in such proportions as, in their opinion, would answer the purpose required.’ Acting with alacrity, General Hearsey forwarded the reports of Wright and Bontein to the government on 24 January, recommending that the sepoys be permitted to purchase the ingredients required to make the grease themselves from the market. Approval of the government was received within four days. 17

            However, news of the affair had reached other stations, thanks to the Dharma Sabha, a religious organisation in Calcutta, which propagated the view that it was the intention of the government to convert all soldiers to Christianity by force. One of the stations affected was Barrackpore, situated 16 miles form Calcutta on the banks of the Hoogly, where the headquarters of the Presidency Division was located. The station had four native regiments – the 2nd Grenadiers, the 34th and 70th Bengal Infantry and the 43rd Light Cavalry. The station commander was Brigadier Charles Grant, with General Hearsey in command of the Division. Soon after the Dum Dum incident, a company of the 34th arrived at Berhampore, near Murshidabad, where the 19th Bengal Infantry was located, bringing tales of the greased cartridge. On 26 February, Lieutenant Colonel M.W Mitchell, commanding the 19th regiment, ordered that a parade would be held next morning for a firing exercise using blank ammunition When the percussion caps for the morning parade were issued on 26 February, the men refused to accept them, fearing that they would have to use the cartridges during the parade. Mitchell called in the 11th Irregular Cavalry and threatened the 19th that he would send them to Burma or China. The Regiment then dispersed, and the Cavalry was withdrawn. It was decided that the Regiment would be marched to Barrackpore, where it would be disbanded in the presence of European troops. A steamer was promptly despatched to Rangoon to fetch the King’s 84th Regiment, which was sent to Chinsura near Barrackpore when it disembarked. The 19th was then ordered to march to Barrackpore, where it arrived on 30 March. En route, they were met by some emissaries from the 34th who asked them to join hands and kill their officers. However, the 19th refused, professing their loyalty and willingness to serve anywhere, as long as their religion was not interfered with. Keith Young, the Judge Advocate General was of the opinion that in view of the repentant attitude and good behaviour of the unit, it should be given the option of volunteering for service in China or Persia instead of being disbanded. But the Governor-General did not agree, opining that in the interest of discipline, an act of mutiny could not be condoned. On 31 March 1857, the 19th Bengal Infantry was disbanded with due ceremony, in the presence of the 84th Foot, a wing of the 53rd, two batteries of European Artillery, the Governor General’s Bodyguard and the Native Brigade. After the disbandment, General Hearsey addressed the men, announcing that as a reward for their penitence and good conduct, they would be permitted to retain their uniforms and paid the cost of conveyance to their homes. Touched by the kindliness shown to them, many of them broke down, saying that they had been misled by the sepoys of the 34th, against whom they vowed vengeance. 18

            Two days before the disbandment of the 19th, the most serious incident – the first attack on a British officer - had already occurred at Barrackpore. On 29 March Mangal Pandey, a young sepoy on quarter guard duty in the 34th Bengal Infantry ran amuck, probably under the influence of bhang (intoxicant).  He first fired at the Sergeant Major, and then at the Adjutant, Lieutenant Baugh, who came to the scene hearing of the attack. After Baugh’s horse was shot under him, he approached the mutinous sepoy with his drawn sword, with the Sergeant Major at his side. However, Mangal Pandey proved to be more than a match for them and wounded both Baugh and the Sergeant Major, who were saved from certain death by a Muslim sepoy who rushed to their aid, holding Mangal Pandey until they escaped. The other sepoys of the quarter guard did not intervene and Mangal Pandey continued to rant with a rifle in his hands.

            Meanwhile, news of the incident reached General Hearsey who got the impression that the entire brigade had mutinied. Without wasting a moment, Hearsey rode to the parade ground accompanied by his two sons and Major Ross, one his staff officers. Ordering the guard to follow him, General Hearsey and the three officers rode towards Mangal Pandey who shouted to the other sepoys to join him. Seeing that none of the sepoys were ready to come to his aid, Mangal Pandey turned his rifle on himself and fired. However, his wound was superficial and he was immediately taken into custody. He was later tried by a court martial consisting of 14 native officers who unanimously found him guilty, 11 of them voting for the death sentence. On 8 April Mangal Pandey was hanged in Barrackpore, in the presence of all native troops. A few days later, Jemadar Isuri Pandey, who had prevented the other sepoys of the guard from coming to the aid of the Sergeant Major and the Adjutant, was also hanged. On 6 May seven companies of the 34th Bengal Infantry that were present at Barrackpore during the mutiny were disbanded, after being stripped of their uniforms. (Three companies of the Regiment, stationed at Chittagong, which had disassociated themselves from the actions of Mangal Pandey and professed their loyalty, escaped disbandment).  This seemed to end the trouble caused by the greased cartridges. Two days after the disbandment of the 34th, General Hearsey reported that he had asked European troops to return to their barracks, since he did not think they would be needed again. Lord Canning was about to order the 84th back to Rangoon, when news came of the outbreak of the mutiny at Meerut. 19

The official date of the start of the Sepoy Mutiny is taken as 10 May 1857, when the 3rd Cavalry broke out into open mutiny at Meerut. Though a similar incident had occurred at Lucknow a week earlier, it was nipped in the bud. On 2 May a battalion of the Oudh Irregular Infantry at Lucknow refused the new cartridges. The following day, Henry Lawrence discreetly disarmed them. In order to prevent the disaffection from spreading and restore confidence among the men, he discharged a few of the ring leaders, announced some promotions and then re-armed about 200 personnel. Had similar discretion been displayed by Colonel Carmichael Smyth at Meerut, or either Major General William Hewett or Brigadier Archdale Wilson acted with alacrity and pursued the troopers of 3rd Cavalry who left for Delhi, the mutiny might never have taken place. John Lawrence was later to remark: ‘I do assure you that some of our commanders are worse enemies than the mutineers themselves.’20

Meerut was then one of the largest cantonments in India, with a large complement of European and Native troops. The European complement comprised the 1st Battalion of Her Majesty’s 60th Rifles; the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiners); a troop of Horse Artillery; a company of Foot Artillery and a light field battery. The three native corps were the 3rd Light Cavalry, the 11th and the 20th Bengal Infantry.  Reports of the events at Dum Dum and Barrackpore had reached Meerut and caused considerable excitement among the sepoys. Apart from the greased cartridges, it was rumoured that the Government was attempting to destroy the religion of the people by mixing ground bones in the flour being sold in the bazaars. The disaffection among the sepoys was palpable, and there were instances of the men not saluting their officers and some bungalows being burnt. It was in the midst of this unsettled state that on 23 April Lieutenant Colonel Carmichael Smyth, commanding the 3rd Light Cavalry, ordered a parade of 90 skirmishers to be held next morning in order to explain to the men the new mode by which they might load their carbines without biting the cartridges.

During the evening some of the officers came to know that the men would refuse the cartridges next day. The Adjutant informed the Commanding Officer and advised him to cancel the parade, but Colonel Smyth  refused. The parade was held on 24 April as ordered. Out of 90 troopers, 85 refused the cartridges, even after the Commanding Officer spoke to them. The parade was dismissed and the matter reported to Major General Hewett, commanding the Meerut Division. Hewett did not approve of Carmichael Smyth’s ill-advised decision to hold the parade, but could not avoid ordering a court an inquiry. The proceedings of the inquiry were submitted to the Commander-in-Chief, General George Anson, who ordered the mutinous soldiers to be tried by a native general court martial. By the votes of 14 out of the 15 native officers forming the court, all 85 were convicted and sentenced to ten years hard labour.21

On 9 May 1857, a parade was held in Meerut to announce the sentences awarded to the 85 troopers of the 3rd Light Cavalry. After announcing the sentence of ten years rigorous imprisonment, the men were stripped and put in fetters, in front of the entire garrison. Under a burning sun the men of the three native regiments - 3rd Light Cavalry, 11th and 20th Native Infantry – watched in sullen silence as blacksmiths put leg irons on the ankles of each prisoner. The men being shackled implored the Divisional Commander, Major General Hewitt, to have mercy, and when this failed, loudly called upon their comrades to come to their aid, heaping insults on their Commanding Officer, Colonel Carmichael Smyth, whose folly in holding the parade in April had triggered the crisis. To deter any untoward incident, two British regiments – 60th Rifles and 6th Dragoon Guards – had been placed behind the native troops, in addition to some artillery guns. After the parade, the prisoners were sent to jail, the troops being marched back to their lines. The British officers went back to their bungalows, remarking on the salutary effect the punishment must have had on the natives. As they went to bed that Saturday night, nothing was farther from their minds than a mutiny, in which most of them were to lose their lives. 

The mutiny started in the evening on 10 May, when members of the British community were getting ready to go to evening church service. As the 60th Rifles was assembling for the church parade, a cry was raised that the British soldiers were intending to descend on the Indian troops, disarm and put them in chains. This caused a panic, precipitating the outbreak. Some Indian troopers galloped to the jail and released their comrades who had been imprisoned the previous day. The whole of the 3rd Cavalry then joined the soldiers of the two native infantry regiments who had assembled on the parade ground. Lieutenant Colonel Finnis, commanding the 11th Native Infantry, rode to the parade ground as soon as he heard about the outbreak. He harangued the men, and asked them to return to their duty. His own men had been the last and most hesitant of the rebels; Finnis was confident hat his men loved him and would listen to him. But the men of the 20th had no such compunctions. They fired a volley and Colonel Finnis fell, riddled with bullets. He was the first victim of the Great Indian Mutiny.22

The soldiers were soon joined by a mob of civilians from the bazaar (market) who proceeded to murder Europeans and set fire to their houses. Though the troopers of 3rd Cavalry started the mutiny, they did not harm any of their officers. When they set free their colleagues from the jail, they did not release the other prisoners, who were later set free by the mob from the town. They also did not harm the British jailor. In fact, many of the British officers and their families escaped death only because of the help given by Indian soldiers and servants, some of whom risked their lives for this. Soon after the outbreak of the mutiny, the bulk of 3rd Cavalry, mainly Muslim, made off for Delhi to meet the Emperor, Bahadur Shah II.  Surprisingly, no effort was made to stop or intercept the troopers who rode towards Delhi, and neither was any attempt made at pursuit. Meerut had more European troops than most stations in India, who could easily have quelled the mutiny. Overwhelmed by events, the 70 year old General Hewett seemed to be gripped by mental paralysis, leaving everything in the hands of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who commanded the station. Unfortunately, Wilson proved unequal to the task and after a fruitless search of the native lines, ordered the European brigade to retire to the cantonment for the night. A resolute commander would have sent the dragoons in pursuit of the mutineers leaving only some infantry and artillery to defend the cantonment.  If they had reached Delhi even a few hours after the mutineers, the city could have been saved and the mutiny suppressed. As historians were later to record, far fewer men held the Residency at Lucknow against disciplined troops for many months. Fifty years earlier, Gillespie had crushed the mutiny at Vellore and saved the Southern Peninsula from universal revolt with a regiment of dragoons and some galloper guns. 23

After the outbreak on 19 May, an eerie silence descended on Meerut. Almost all the native troops had left, some for Delhi and the rest for their homes. The British garrison continued to stay in their barracks, with the women, children and unarmed civilians taking shelter in a walled enclosure called the Dumdama. The calm lasted five days, until some Bengal Sappers and Miners from Roorkee arrived on a routine tour of duty on 15 May. When orders were given for the unit magazine to be taken away from them, the sappers panicked, one of them shooting their commanding officer. Gripped by fear of reprisal, the mutineers fled, about fifty taking shelter in a grove, where they were destroyed by the artillery.

            The rebels from Meerut reached Delhi on 11 May and made their way to the Red Fort, where they appealed to Emperor Bahadur Shah to assume command, placing their services at his disposal. Pleading poverty – he was a King only in name, subsisting on a pension from the Company - Bahadur Shah vacillated, but ultimately agreed, after having sent a camel-borne messenger to Agra to inform John Russell Colvin, the Lieutenant Governor of the North-Western Provinces.   The Meerut troopers were joined by the sepoys of the 38th Native Infantry, which had lately refused to go to Burma. Since there were no European troops in Delhi, they had the entire city at their mercy. What followed was an orgy of violence, with several Europeans, including women and children being killed.  Delhi was to remain in the hands of the rebels until 20 September, when it was finally recaptured by British forces under Nicholson, who died at its gates. Bahadur Shah’s life was spared, but he was banished to Rangoon. Three of the princes were shot in cold blood, the remaining 21 being hanged. 24

            Situated on the banks of the River Ganges, Cawnpore was an important military station that commanded the Grand Trunk road and the one to Lucknow, the capital of Oudh. It had a strong garrison, comprising a European Artillery battery of six guns, three native infantry regiments – the 1st, 53rd and 56th – and the 2nd Light Cavalry. The commander was Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler, a distinguished soldier with over 50 years of service. News of the events at Meerut and Delhi reached Cawnpore on 14 May, but did not cause much alarm. The garrison was strengthened on 22 May by a contingent of 55 Europeans and 240 troopers of the Oudh Irregular Cavalry from Lucknow. Since their presence created some uneasiness Wheeler sent them back on 30 May. Responding to a call from Lucknow where open mutiny broke out there, and assured of reinforcements from Calcutta, Wheeler sent two officers and fifty men to Lucknow on 3 Jun, depleting his own strength.  By this time the situation had become tense after a cashiered officer who was drunk fired on a patrol of 2nd Cavalry on 2 Jun. He was tried next day but acquitted on the grounds that he was not in his senses. Fearing the worst, Wheeler ordered all non-combatants to go into an entrenchment, where a month’s provisions and one lakh rupees were also moved. This was the signal for the mutiny, which broke out on 4 Jun.

            The 2nd Cavalry led the mutiny, being joined by the 1st Regiment. After waiting for a day, the 56th also joined but the 53rd remained firm until they were fired upon by the artillery, under Wheeler’s orders. After looting the treasury and freeing the prisoners from the jail, the mutineers decided to march to Delhi, but were persuaded to return by emissaries of the Nana Sahib, the ruler of Bithur, the seat of the exiled Peshwas near Cawnpore. After a siege lasting 22 days, during which the women and children suffered the most, Wheeler agreed to evacuate the entrenchment, in return for a promise of safe passage for all Europeans by the Nana Sahib. On 27 June the garrison surrendered, and were escorted to the Sati Chaura Ghat on the Ganges, where boats had been provided. As soon as the Europeans had got into the boats, the boatmen jumped in the river and the mutineers opened fire with muskets and cannon that had been placed on the banks, hidden from view. Most of the party were killed by fire or drowned when they jumped into the water to save their lives. The few boats that got away were followed by musket fire till nightfall. The survivors were captured and sent back to Cawnpore where the men were shot, under orders of the Nana. Only four men who had boarded the boats escaped, being given shelter by a local chieftain who escorted them to a detachment that was going from Allahabad to join Havelock’s force. At Cawnpore, five men and 206 European women had been confined in the infamous Bibighar on 1 July. Shortly before Havelock entered the city on 17 July, the occupants of the Bibigarh were put to death, and their bodies thrown into a well. 25

While the garrison at Cawnpore was under siege, Neill was busy hanging innocent natives at Benares and Allahabad. In fact, Neill’s atrocities were the main reason for the massacres at Sati Chaura and the Bibighar. Lord Canning had summoned Colonel J.G. Neill from Madras as soon as news of the mutiny at Meerut reached him, and despatched him to reinforce Cawnpore and Lucknow as soon as he reached Calcutta. Arriving at Benares on 3 June, he decided to disarm the 37th Native Infantry, though Brigadier Ponsonby, who was in command, saw no sign of disaffection in the Regiment. At a parade the same evening, the 37th obediently surrendered their arms, when suddenly European troops appeared on the scene, with cartridges and grapeshot. Thinking that they were going to be killed by the European soldiers as had happened in the Punjab, the sepoys panicked and made a rush for their arms. The Europeans immediately opened fire, and in the confusion, Sikhs and Irregulars also started firing.  Neill took over command from Ponsonby and proceeded to hunt down rebels and suspects among the local population, ‘hanging them up with as little compunction as though they had been pariah dogs or jackals or vermin of a baser kind.’26

The news from Benares reached Allahabad next day, causing the 6th Native Infantry under Colonel Simpson to mutiny. However, 80 men from the Regiment and about 400 Sikhs who were in side the fort, remained steady under Captain Brasyer. After killing their officers the mutineers proceeded to plunder and burn the homes of Christians, many of whom were killed. After the looting and killing, most of the sepoys went away to their homes, never to be seen again. On 11 June Neill arrived at Allahabad and entered the fort. However, instead of hurrying to Cawnpore to relieve the beleaguered garrison under Wheeler, he proceeded to punish and terrorise the local population. Punitive expeditions sent by land and by river burned villages and hanged persons of all shades on the least suspicions of complicity or sympathy with the mutineers. These atrocities continued unabated until 30 June when Havelock arrived at Allahabad and took over command. The news of Wheeler’s capitulation at Cawnpore reached him soon afterwards. 27

At Lucknow, Henry Lawrence’s timely action had contained the disaffection in the Oudh Irregular Infantry after it refused the cartridges, but things were far from quiet. Lucknow then had only one British regiment – the 32nd – against four Native regiments - the 13th, 48th and 71st Native Infantry and the 7th Cavalry. As soon as Lawrence came to know of the disasters at Meerut and Lucknow, he asked the Governor General for plenary powers in Oudh. He was immediately promoted Brigadier and became the head of the Army as well as the civil administration. As a precautionary measure, he moved the women and children into the Residency and the Machhi Bhawan, which were organized for defence. The mutiny broke out on 30 May, but was subdued, with the help of the loyal elements of the 13th and 71st who joined the British regiment. Some of the arrested mutineers were tried next day and hanged while the rest marched to Delhi. Lawrence shifted his headquarters into the Residency, which he began to fortify against an attack from the rebels that he knew was inevitable. After General Wheeler’s capitulation at Cawnpore the rebel force made its way towards Lucknow.

Deciding to give battle before the rebels reached the city, Lawrence met them at Chinhut on 30 June but was defeated due to the defection of the Oudh gunners and the timidity of the Native cavalry. The 32nd Regiment suffered heavy casualties, with three British officers and 116 men killed in the days fighting. The remnants retired to the Residency along with about 500 sepoys, who remained with them throughout the famous siege. Tragedy struck the garrison when Lawrence was mortally wounded and breathed his last on 4 July. The garrison now came under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Inglis.  Since the telegraph wires had been cut, they had to rely on messengers to communicate with the relieving forces, many of them being caught and put to death. The garrison was constantly under attack by the besieging force of sepoys, and there was considerable loss of life not only from enemy fire but also disease and starvation. On 25 September, a force under Brigadier General Havelock and Sir James Outram fought its way into the Residency. During the 87 days the siege lasted, the strength of the garrison had fallen from 1692 to 982, which included many sick and wounded. 28

 The garrison in the Residency was reinforced, but the siege continued.  On 7 November a messenger arrived with the welcome news that a strong army led by the Commander-in-Chief himself was expected to reach Lucknow in the next few days.  On 12 November, Sir Colin Campbell reached Alam Bagh, just south of Lucknow.  A semaphore telegraph was established between Alam Bagh and the Residency to exchange messages.  Lucknow was relieved on 17 November but subsequently evacuated. Leaving a small force under Outram at Alam Bagh, the Commander-in-Chief returned to Cawnpore and established his headquarters there.  Preparations began for the reduction of Oudh, and the capture of Lucknow.  By the end of February 1858, the army had concentrated at Alam Bagh, and operations against Lucknow commenced on 2 March. The capture of the city by British forces on 22 March was followed by destruction and pillage on an unprecedented scale. In spite of most of the captured booty being misappropriated, the booty collected by the prize agents was worth a million and a quarter sterling. 29

After the mutiny at Lucknow, the disaffection soon spread to neighbouring stations. On 4 June the 41st Native Infantry at Sitapur shot their Commanding Officer and several others. The 9th and 10th Irregular Cavalry soon joined the 41st after shooting their officers. With the help of some loyal elements a few officers and their families were able to reach Lucknow, but the majority, including the Commissioner, J.G Christian, and his family were killed. At Azamgarh, the 17th Native Infantry looted the treasury on 3 Jun, and marched towards Oudh. The troops at Benares followed their example on 4 June, and the two groups of mutineers proceeded to Faizabad, where the garrison comprised a horse battery of Native artillery, the 22nd Native Infantry, the 6th Oudh Irregular Infantry and a squadron of the 15th Irregular Cavalry. Influenced by the mutineers from Azamgarh and Benares, the Faizabad garrison also rose. The troopers of the 15th Cavalry tried to induce the others to murder their British officers, but the infantry sepoys refused; they not only arranged for boats to allow the Europeans to get away, but also gave them some money from the treasury. Unfortunately, a number of them were attacked as they made their way down the River Gagra. Many were saved by local chieftains such as Raja Man Singh of Shahganj, who was in British custody for a revenue default, but was released at the instance of Captain Alexander Orr, the Assistant Commissioner at Faizabad. 30

Though the major events connected with the mutiny of 1857 occurred in Oudh, several other military stations held by the Bengal Army were affected in varying degrees. At Hoti Maidan the 55th Native Infantry fled when they were to be disarmed, leading to the Commanding Officer taking his own life. The regiment was pursued, 120 sepoys being killed and 150 captured, 40 of the latter being blown from guns. Nearly 500 escaped, but many were caught by the tribesmen and sold as slaves. The 124 who later surrendered were executed. At Gwalior the Subsidiary Force killed several British officers, non commissioned officers and a few women and children on 14 June. The Gwalior Contingent later joined Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, and took part in several engagements with British forces under Tantia Tope. The trouble soon spread to Indore, where the Holkar’s troops attacked the Residency on 1 July. The 23rd Native Infantry and the wing of 1st Cavalry at Mhow joined the Holkar’s forces, after killing their officers. At Nasirabad the 15th and 30th Native Infantry mutinied on 28 May, but the 1st Bombay Lancers did not join. However, the officers were not harmed and fled to Beawar. The mutineers made their way to Delhi where they later took part in the defence of the city against the attack by British forces. The Neemuch Brigade comprised the 72nd Native Infantry, the 7th Regiment of the Gwalior Contingent and a wing of the 1st Bengal Cavalry. When the troops rose on 3 June and left for Delhi, the officers fled to Udaipur. The Neemuch Brigade took part in the siege of Delhi, until it was defeated at Najafgarh on 25 August by Nicholson. 31

The news of the mutiny reached Lahore, on 12 May 1857. Sir John Lawrence, the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab was then at Rawalpindi, en route to the Murree Hills, to join his family. The senior civil officer present in Lahore was Robert Montgomery, the Judicial Commissioner. Receiving information from a spy that the sepoys at Lahore were about to rise, Montgomery rushed to the cantonment at Mian Mir and proposed to Brigadier Stuart Corbett, the commander of the Lahore garrison, that he should disarm the four native regiments at Lahore - the 16th Grenadiers, the 26th Native Infantry, the 49th Native Infantry and the 8th Light Cavalry. The European troops comprised the 81st Foot and some European horse artillery. The 2,500 Indian soldiers outnumbered the 600 Europeans more than four times. Early on the morning of 13 May, the four native regiments were paraded and disarmed in the presence of the European horse artillery and six companies of the 81st Foot. It was later discovered that the disarmed regiments were planning to march that night to Ferozepore and seize the magazine. 32

At Multan two regiments of native infantry were disarmed by a horse artillery troop, which was then itself disarmed. Due to paucity of British troops, it was decided that the disarmed sepoys should be sent home in small batches. Alarmed by a rumour that they would be massacred en route, the sepoys attacked the British and Sikh troops on 31 August, killing some officers and men. At Peshawar the 51st Native Infantry was disarmed on 22 May, after which many deserted. The local tribesmen were offered rewards to apprehend the deserters, and many were rounded up. On 29 May the Subedar Major and 12 sepoys were hanged. A few months later, after information was received that the sepoys were secretly buying arms, they were searched. They ran towards a field where the concealed arms were found. They were fired upon by the newly raised 18th Punjab Infantry, 50 falling at the first volley and many being bayoneted in the lines. Out of a total strength of 870 only 70 survived. 33

            Ferozepur had three native regiments – the 45th and 57th Infantry and the 10th Cavalry. The British element comprised the 61st Foot, a light field battery and two companies of foot artillery. Brigadier Innes, who had taken charge of the station just two days earlier, decided to disarm the native infantry, overruling the commanding officers. As they were being marched to the parade ground, the 45th discovered the presence of European troops, and about 200 men ran away. The 57th gave up their arms, but the rest of 47th  left the station, with the exception of 130 men. They were pursued and scattered, some finding their way to Patiala, where the ruler put them in prison, some being caught by villagers, and others joining the rebels at Delhi. The 10th Cavalry remained loyal and did not join the mutiny. At Jullunder the 36th and the 61st Native Infantry came to know that they were to be disarmed and mutinied on 7 June, marching to Ludhiana and thence to Delhi. The 41st Native Infantry at Kangra remained orderly and gave up their arms willingly. 34

            Like Oudh, the province of Bihar provided a large number of recruits for the Bengal Army. At the cantonment at Danapur near Patna were stationed three native infantry regiments – the 7th, 8th and 40th - in addition to a company of native artillery. The British element comprised the 10th Foot and a company of European artillery. News of the incident at Benares reached Danapur on 7 June, causing considerable excitement among the sepoys. Major General Lloyd, commanding the Danapur Division, did not consider it prudent to disarm them, and preferred to wait for the commotion to die down. However, William Tayler, the Commissioner, felt that strong measures were needed to reassure the large number of European planters, whose families had moved to Patna. Distrusting the native sepoys, Tayler summoned the Rattray’s Sikhs to Patna for the protection of the Europeans who had taken shelter in his house, which was converted into a stronghold. On 12 June a Muslim of the Wahabi sect found spreading sedition among the Rattray’s Sikhs was arrested, tried and hanged. Tayler then called the leaders of the Wahabi community for a meeting, at the end of which three were detained. Tayler then issued a proclamation demanding the surrender of weapons held by the citizens within 24 hours and imposed a curfew at night. These measures could not be enforced, and provoked a riot in the city on 3 July, during which Dr. Lyell, assistant to the Opium Agent was killed. After arresting 43 of the rioters, Tayler ordered them to be tried by a Commission, comprising himself and the Magistrate of Patna. After a quick trial, 19 were hanged, three acquitted and the rest sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment. Subsequently, the sentences of 19 of the 21 survivors were overturned by a superior court. The punishments, which were unjust, only increased the disaffection among the people. Lord Canning was later to record: ‘I believe that in the course of Mr. Tayler’s proceedings men were condemned and executed upon insufficient evidence’. 35

            General Lloyd was still not in favour of disarming the sepoys. On 15 July instructions came from Calcutta that if he felt it necessary to disarm the sepoys in the presence of European troops, he could disembark the Fifth Fusiliers who were on their way to Benares. These instructions leaked out and soon became known to everyone, including the sepoys. Still not willing to disarm the sepoys, on 24 July Lloyd decided to take away their percussion caps, reasoning that this would prevent them from using their weapons without humiliating them. The regiments were paraded and the percussion caps kept in the stores were collected and loaded in bullock carts. As these carts were returning they were detected by the men of the men of the 7th and 8th Native Infantry who raised an alarm and tried to stop the carts. However, the officers were able to restore order and the carts were allowed to pass. But each sepoy still had 15 caps that he carried on his person. The task of collecting these was assigned to native officers. The men refused to surrender the caps, even when asked by the officers. Matters escalated when some soldiers of the 10th Foot, joined by patients from the European hospital, fired on the sepoys.  The 40th Native Infantry did not at first join the mutiny, but when fired upon by the men of the 10th Foot, they went off and joined the mutineers. 36

            The mutineers proceeded to Arrah, where they joined the forces of Raja Kunwar Singh, of Shahabad. Then over 80 years old, Kunwar Singh was a true Rajput lord of the old school, held in high esteem by his tenants. Even the British admired him for his open heartedness and chivalry, and Tayler had earlier assisted him in managing his estates in order to reduce his debts. However, Tayler was later overruled by the Lieutenant Governor, and Kunwar Singh lapsed into further debt again. He was on the verge of losing his estates and was saved from ruin by the mutiny of the sepoys. Assuming command of the mutineers who swelled his ranks, he overthrew British authority in Shahabad and established his own government. When he came under pressure from the British he marched through Mirzapur to Rewa, hoping to persuade the ruler to join his cause. Failing in this venture, he proceeded to Banda and then to Kalpi to join the Nana Sahib for a joint attack on Cawnpore, which did not materialise. He then went to Lucknow where he was received with great honour. He marched to Azamgarh where he defeated the British forces under Colonel Milman and occupied the town. Colonel Dames, who had hurried from Ghazipur to Milman’s rescue was repulsed when he attacked the city. Stung by two defeats in succession, the British authorities raised the reward for Kunwar Singh’s apprehension from 10,000 rupees to 25,000. Lord Mark Kerr was sent from Allahabad to relieve Azamgarh and was soon joined by Sir Edward Lugard. In the face of overwhelming strength of the British, Kunwar Singh vacated the town and crossing the Ganges near Ghazipur, re-entered Bihar. His fought his last battle on 23 April 1858 near his home town of Jagdishpur where he inflicted a severe defeat on British forces under Captain Le Grande, killing almost 150 of the 300 men who opposed him. He did not live to savour his victory, dying of his wounds on 24 April 1858. Known as the Lion of Bihar, Kunwar Singh is still revered for his courage and fortitude.37

            Jhansi had been annexed by Lord Dalhousie in 1854 on the death of the ruler without a male heir. The fort was garrisoned by the 12th Native Infantry and the widowed Rani Laxmi Bai and her adopted son moved to a palace in the city with their retainers. News of the events at Meerut and other stations soon reached Jhansi and a wing of the 12th stationed in the cantonment outside the fort mutinied on 5 June. Most of the British and Christian population moved inside the fort, except for the British officers who stayed with the men in the lines.  On 6 Jun the mutineers shot the British officers and laid siege to the fort. Being promised safe passage, the British contingent inside the fort came out on 8 June, but were massacred. Rani Laxmi Bai played no part in the massacre but came under suspicion because the mutineers had approached her for help. After extorting a large sum of money from her, the mutineers left for Delhi. Rani Laxmi Bai sent letters to Major W.C Erskine, the Commissioner of Sagar Division, conveying news of the mutiny and the state of anarchy that prevailed in Jhansi. She also sent letters to British authorities at Agra, Indore, Jalaun Gwalior and Jubbulpore. Erskine forwarded her request to the Lieutenant Governor, asking her to look after the administration of Jhansi until British authority was restored.

            Emboldened by the collapse of British authority, the rulers of the neighbouring states of Orchha and Datia decided to capture Jhansi in September 1857, but were defeated by the soldiers and local chieftains who rallied around the Rani. Meanwhile, Sir Hugh Rose had arrived in Bombay and was appointed commander of the Central India Field Force that was to operate in Malwa, Bundelkhand, Rajputana and Central India. After reducing Garakhota near Sagar, he decided to attack Jhansi. The siege of Jhansi began on 22 March 1858, and the cannonade started three days later. On 31 March Tatya Tope arrived with 20,000 men but was defeated. The assault on the fort went in on 3 April and after a bitter house-to-house battle lasting over 24 hours, Jhansi fell on 4 April. The city was ransacked and its inmates put to the sword. The Rani escaped to Kalpi, where all rebel leaders had congregated under the leadership of Rao Sahib, a nephew of the Nana. Rose continued to Kalpi, which the rebel leaders were forced to evacuate on 23 May.  The Peshwa’s forces moved to Gwalior, whose ruler, the Scindia had once been a vassal of the Peshwa but was now an ally of the British. As soon as the Peshwa’s forces reached Gwalior, the Scindia fled and the city fell on 1 June without a shot being fired. Sir Hugh Rose did not give them much respite and arrived at Morar outside Gwalior on 16 June. After a hard fought battle Gwalior was captured on 20 June and the Scindia escorted back to his palace. Rani Laxmi Bai lost her life in the battle, dying a soldier’s death on 17 June 1858. The fall of Gwalior marked the end of the Mutiny of 1857, though sporadic incidents continued for another year. 38

            As already mentioned, the major events connected with the Mutiny occurred in units of the Bengal Army, with the armies of the other two Presidencies remaining virtually unaffected. In Bombay, risings occurred at Satara, Kolhapur, Belgaum and Dharwar. At the recently annexed state of Satara, a chaprasi (peon) gave the call to the 22nd Native Infantry to rise on 12 June. He was hanged, along with 16 other conspirators, including the son of Rangaji Bapaji, who had argued the case against the annexation of the state in London. The 27th, 28th and 29th Regiments of the Bombay Army at Kolhapur, Belgaum and Dharwar respectively had a high percentage of pardesis from Oudh.  On 31 July the pardesis of the 27th plundered the treasury and many fled to the Sawantwadi jungles. A detachment of European troops sent from Poona later disarmed the 27th Regiment. Next day, 21 were convicted, two hanged, 11 shot and eight blown from guns. At Belgaum a conspiracy of a mutiny in the 28th Regiment was discovered on 10 August. Two men were tried and executed.  In Bombay, where three regiments of the Bombay Army were garrisoned, it was discovered that a mutiny was planned during the Diwali festival in October. Eight men were arrested, of which two were executed, and six transported for life. In September, attempts to mutiny were detected at Hyderabad (Sind) and Ahmedabad, while at Karachi, a mutiny actually occurred. Kolhapur was again disaffected, and a group that seized the town was dislodged, with 36 being tried and executed. 39

            In the Madras Army there were a few incidents of disaffection due to the presence of the pardesi elements, who had their sympathies with the sepoys of the Bengal Army.  At Nagpur the 1st Cavalry of the Nagpur Subsidiary Force was disarmed when on the verge of mutiny and three ringleaders were hanged on 29 Jun 1857. At Madras the 8th Madras Cavalry refused to embark for Bengal and was disbanded. After a mutiny at Raipur 22 January 1858 during which a sergeant major was killed, two troopers from the 3rd Madras Cavalry and 15 men from the Madras Artillery were hanged. 40                     
            The principal reasons for the failure of the Mutiny were lack of a clear aim, poor planning and coordination, absence of central leadership, indifference of large sections of the civil population and non-involvement of the Bengal and Madras Armies. The British were able to offset their inferiority in numbers by enlisting the support of several Indian princely states, as well as the Sikhs and Gurkhas. After overcoming the initial shock and reverses in the early stages of the Mutiny, the East India Company was able to draw on the vast resources of the British Empire for reinforcements and material. The Mutiny had a good chance of ending British rule in India when it broke out, but with each passing day the probability decreased. More than a year elapsed before the disturbances ceased and normalcy returned. But things could never be the same again. The Mutiny was a cataclysm that left deep scars on the psyche of the British rulers and the natives of the country.

            The Mutiny of 1857 was not preplanned. Though the greased cartridges were the reason that triggered the outbreak at Meerut, two weeks elapsed from the time the men refused the cartridges to the actual outbreak on 10 May 1857. The incident at Barrackpore involving Mangal Pandey had occurred more than a month earlier, and another at Lucknow a week earlier. The garrison at Delhi mutinied on 16 May, though the rebel troopers from Meerut had arrived five days earlier. Thereafter, troops at several cantonments rose on different dates, right up to the end of the year. One can safely conclude that though the Mutiny was inevitable, it was not premeditated.  Commenting on the causes of the failure of the mutiny, an eminent historian, Dr. Tara Chand, writes:-

            The failure of the Revolt was a foregone conclusion. It was actuated by pure negations. It was not inspired by any positive creative idea; it did not entertain either the vision of a higher social order or of a higher political system. It was a transient intoxication and not a settled permanent transformation of the will of the people. As it was an almost spontaneous episodic outburst, there was no stable well-ordered organisation behind the movement as a whole. It lacked plan, programme and funds. The only thing that united the rebels was the desire to eliminate foreign rule.41

            At the outbreak of the Mutiny, native troops outnumbered their British counter parts more than five times. The number of European officers in the three Presidency Armies was 6,170 and that of European soldiers 39,352. Against this, the number of native sepoys was 232,224. However, the Mutiny failed because the number of sepoys that joined the uprising was much smaller. The sepoys of the Madras and Bombay Armies did not revolt. Even in the Bengal Army, only about 70,000 sepoys actually joined the Mutiny, with about 30,000 remaining loyal up to the end and an equal number deserting or being disarmed. It is safe to assume that the British would have been in dire straits if the whole of the Bengal Army had mutinied, and the sepoys in the armies of other presidencies joined them. 42

            Though the sepoys fought valiantly, they could not match European tactics and technology. No Indian held commissioned rank at that time, and the highest rank a native could achieve was that of subedar major. The artillery was almost entirely in the hands of Europeans, who also manned the electric telegraph, which played a crucial role. Not realising the value of the telegraph, the rebels made no efforts to disrupt it, except at a few places such as Lucknow and Delhi. Consequently, the Governor General in Calcutta was able to obtain information and pass instructions without hindrance to almost every British official in the sub continent. Writing to C. Raikes, ICS, in Agra on 18 August 1857, Robert Montgomery, the Judicial Commissioner of the Punjab remarked: ‘Under Providence, the electric telegraph has saved us.’ 43

            Historians differ on the nature of the mutiny and its political significance. Some feel that it was purely a military uprising with little popular support from the masses, which was the most important reason for its failure. Others believe that it was a political revolt spurred by an upsurge of nationalism in the common people who wanted to break free from the bondage of British rule. The latter opinion conforms to the views of those who describe the uprising of 1857 as the first war of Indian independence. According to Surendra Nath Sen:
…it would be wrong to dismiss it as a mere military rising. The Mutiny became a revolt and assumed a political character when the mutineers of Meerut placed themselves under the King of Delhi and a section of the landed aristocracy and civil population declared in his favour. What began as a fight for religion ended as a war of independence for there is not the slightest doubt that the rebels wanted to get rid of the alien government  and restore the old order of which the King of Delhi was the rightful representative. 44

            The end of the mutiny also saw the end of the rule of the East India Company. In November 1858 Queen Victoria issued a proclamation taking over the responsibility for governing India. A Royal Commission, presided over by Major General Jonathan Peel was set up to enquire into the events of 1857 and recommend changes to avoid recurrence of similar incidents. Based on the report of the Peel Commission, sweeping changes were carried out. The number of British troops in India was increased from 38,000 to 62,000, while the native component was reduced from 230,000 to 135,000. The native component in the artillery was done away with, and it was now manned entirely by Europeans. The recruitment pattern of the Bengal Army was changed, with the recruitment of Brahmins and Rajputs from Oudh, the North-Western Provinces and Bihar being severely curtailed. The number of irregular cavalry units on the ‘silladar’ system was increased, since experience had shown that most of them had not been disaffected.

            The mutiny of 1857 was an important landmark in the history of India. This was the first instance when large sections of the populace came together with the common aim of throwing out an alien power. Though India was not unified as a country, this was the first occasion when a nationalistic feeling was seen among the people. The sepoys who started the uprising and the people who joined them were from all religions and castes, and from every social and economic group, which was an exceptional occurrence in the sub continent. Since the fight was for freedom from British vassalage, the mutiny of 1857 can rightfully lay claim to the title of the first war of Indian independence. The leading role of the sepoy in the uprising cannot be disputed. In the Foreword to S. N. Sen’s book Eighteen Fifty Seven, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad wrote: ‘There would have been no revolt in India in 1857 had not he initiative been taken by the disaffected sepoys.’45



This chapter is largely based on J.W Kaye’s A History of the Sepoy War in India, (London, 1877); G.W. Forrest’s A History of the Indian Mutiny, (London, 1904); S.N. Sen’s Eighteen Fifty - Seven, (New Delhi, 1957); Lt Gen. S.L. Menezes’ Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993); and Dr. Tara Chand’s History of the Freedom Movement in India (New Delhi, 1967) Specific references are given below:-

1.         S.N. Sen, Eighteen Fifty - Seven, (New Delhi, 1957), p.6, quoting Gubbins’ The Mutinies in Oudh, 3rd Edition, Appendix 12.

2.         Sitaram, From Sepoy to Subadar: being the Life and Adventures of a Native Officer of the Bengal Army, translated by Lieutenant Colonel Norgate, edited by Lieutenant Colonel D.C. Phillot, p.60

3.         Sen, p. 12

4.         Lt. Gen S.L. Menezes, Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993), p. 120.

5.         Sen, p. 15

6.         Sen, p. 16

7.         Menezes, p.121, quoting A Retired Officer, Mutiny in the Bengal Army, (London: 1857), p. 4

8.         J.W. Kaye, A History of the Sepoy War in India 1857-1858, (3 vols, London, 1877), i, pp.278-89

9.         Kaye, i, pp. 291-3

10.       Kaye, i, pp. 294-6

11.       Kaye, i, p. 318

12.       Kaye, i, pp. 342-5

13.       Sen, p. 31

14.       Sen, p. 33

15.       Sen, pp. 35-7

16.       Menezes, p. 151, quoting J.G.A. Baird, The Private Letters of the Marquess of Dalhousie, (Shannon, 1972), p. 369.

17.       G.W. Forrest, A History of the Indian Mutiny, (3 vols, London, 1904), i, pp. 1-3

18.       Forrest, i, pp. 22-4

19.       Forrest, i, pp. 25-9

20.       Menezes, p. 160         

21.       Forrest, i, p. 33

22.       Captain N.T. Parker, Memoirs of the Indian Mutiny in Meerut, (Meerut, 1914), p.31.

23.       Forrest, i, p. 38

24.       Sen, p. 106

25.       Forrest, i, pp. 474-9

26        Kaye, ii, pp. 216-26

27.       Sen, p.152

28.       Forrest, i, p. 333

29.       Sen, p. 239

30.       Forrest, i, pp. 207-13

31.       Menezes, p. 169         

32.       Sen, p. 328

33.       Menezes, p. 170         

34.       Sen, p. 330

35.       Sen, pp. 242-8

36.       Kaye, iii, pp. 93-4

37.       Tara Chand, History of the Freedom Movement in India, (3 vols, New Delhi, 1967), ii, p. 102 and Sen, pp. 260-1

38.       Tara Chand, ii, p. 103 and Sen, pp. 264-93

39.       Menezes, pp. 180-81, quoting T. Rice Holmes, A History of the Indian Mutiny, (London 1898), pp.467-70.

40.       Menezes, p. 182

41.       Tara Chand, ii, p. 106

42.       Kaye, i, p. 626 and Sen, p. 408

43.       Brigadier T. Barreto, History of the Corps of Signals, Volume 1, p.34, quoting ‘Records of the Intelligence Department of the Government of the North West Province during the Mutiny of 1857, p. 491.

44.       Sen, p. 413

45.       Sen, p. xiii

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