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  • James Houser

May 10, 1857 - The Sepoy Rebellion

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 10, 1857. In the city of Meerut along the Ganges, over 2,000 Indian troops in British service, known as “sepoys”, break out into revolt and attack the barracks of their white fellow soldiers. The Sepoy Mutiny has begun, and India is about to fight its war for independence. Will the nations of India be rid of their Western overlords, or will they be subdued?

The history of British India is more complex than it appears at first. The British drive to control India was at first only for economic reasons, and the need for political and cultural dominance came later. The Europeans had first encountered India as a mass of warring kingdoms and empires, and were at first only minor players in the great power struggles between Mughal Emperors, Hindu Maharajas, and Afghan warlords. By the 1700s, though, the power balance had shifted, and the British became the dominant power on the enormous Indian subcontinent.

Ever since the 1600s, the British East India Company had expanded its economic foothold, but only with the Battle of Plassey in 1757 did the Company truly become a dominant power in the land. The East India Company was half corporation, half an arm of the British government. Over the next several decades it went to war with one Indian ruler after another, gradually gaining control of more and more territory. By 1857, the majority of India was under Company rule.

It’s important to note that this was not as straight as it sounds. From the start, the majority of the Company’s soldiers were Indian, and it also had many Indian allies on the subcontinent. These “princely states” were under the direction of the Company, but still exercised independence and maintained their laws and government. This was “Company Rule,” with an East India Company army made up mostly of the Indian soldiers – the famous “sepoys” – that had won them their Indian empire, and the allied princely states that maintained their own affairs. It was a loose, complicated system, but it had worked so far.

Britain could never have conquered India without significant Indian support and alliances.

Nevertheless, many Indians saw British influence steadily rising. There were more and more redcoats on the streets of British cities. The British governors forced reforms of Indian legal codes along Western styles, which eliminated old rights of property and communal ownership, resulting in widespread anger in many areas. British rule brought order and growth, railroads, administration and bureaucracy, but it also brought a cultural arrogance and Westernizing influence that threatened to erode Indians’ way of life.

The situation grew worse in the 1800s. In the old days, the Company men had been deferential to Indians, and treated their various cultures as worthy of respect and even admiration. While they would never regard the Indians as superior, the British agents in India expressed genuine acknowledgment of Indian ways and beliefs; some even took Indian wives. By the 1800s, new British ideas of cultural and religious superiority ended this relatively happy balance. The new Company agents were haughty and openly racist, regarding natives as their inferiors. A new evangelizing spirit in Christianity also alienated Hindu and Muslim Indians alike; the Company had never interfered in their faiths before, but now Protestant preachers were travelling the subcontinent and preaching. It threatened to destroy not just their religions, but also the caste system and social balance that were the building blocks of Indian society.

The Company also expressed a thirst for land that was becoming alarming to many independent Indian leaders. In 1856, the Company annexed the Kingdom of Oudh, a large stretch of Ganges territory in northern India that lay near Delhi. This unjust annexation deposed a legitimate Indian ruler and disbanded his army with no pay.

The Company’s Indian troops were growing restless, especially in the Bengal Army, based at Calcutta. As many as 75,000 of the Bengal Army troops came from Oudh, and their homes and families had been thrown into disarray by the annexation. Many of these men, especially the high-caste Hindus that typically volunteered for sepoy service, increasingly thought the recent British actions were deliberate attempts to subvert their culture and lifestyle. A storm was brewing, and those British people perceptive enough to notice it were dismissed. The East India Company’s leadership took the sepoys’ loyalty for granted.

The most famous incident came with the introduction of the Enfield Rifle. The East India Company introduced this new weapon, with a greater range and accuracy over the old musket, in 1856. The ammunition included a greased paper cartridge that had to be torn open with the teeth before loading. In January 1857, word got out to some of the Hindu sepoys that the grease contained a mixture of cow and pig fat – which made it mutually offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. This gave rise to the conspiracy theory that the British had done this on purpose in order to defile the sepoys and convince them to accept Christianity.

This conspiracy theory is one of the most famous facts of the Mutiny. While it is true that the grease contained animal fat, it was probably due to a function of cost rather than subversion – the tallow grease, which contained the fat, was cheaper than any other. When the government realized this, they decided to change the grease to a mixture of mutton fat and wax. Even though the animal-fat cartridges were never issued, this message was not effectively conveyed to the sepoys themselves. Again, the Company leaders took the sepoys’ mutiny for granted.

Once again, history hinged not on malice but on ignorance and stupidity. This is a good rule of thumb for most conspiracy theories. What mattered to the sepoys, though, was that this rumor fit the Company’s previous pattern of behavior.

The Mutiny erupted at Meerut, within the former lands of Oudh. On April 24, Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth ordered 90 men of his 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry to parade and perform their firing drills, but 85 of the men refused to accept the new style of cartridge. This resulted in a summary court-martial on May 9, where the men were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment at hard labor. The entire garrison was made to watch as these men were stripped of their uniforms, placed in chains, and dragged away to jail. The fuse was lit.

The next day, Sunday, May 10, 1857, violence swept the city of Meerut with angry protests and fires being started. That evening, as most of the white British soldiers were at church, the sepoys broke into open mutiny. The few European officers who tried to stop them were killed; European officers’ and civilians’ quarters were attacked and the inhabitants murdered – including multiple women and children. Crowds in the city fell on British residents and off-duty soldiers, and Indian servants to British officers also met their end. The goal appears to have been to free their 85 imprisoned comrades, but from that point on the situation went rapidly out of anyone’s control.

The sepoys converged on Delhi, where the Mughal Emperor lived. The Mughal Empire had once ruled almost all of India, but through military defeat and political intrigue the Emperor had been reduced to a powerless vassal of the East India Company. The sepoys stormed the city, which had no European garrison, and with their support the whole city rose up in revolt. European officials, Indian Christians (accused of conspiracy with the Europeans) and anyone who looked wrong were set upon by crowds. As Europeans fled or were massacred, the sepoys set up the Mughal Emperor as their new ruler.

As news spread, more mutinies sprang up across northern India, and in many cases British overreactions were the cause. Company administrators, along with their families and servants, tried to flee ahead of the news, and most of the upper Ganges Valley from Delhi down to Calcutta became a hotbed of rebellion. In Lucknow, the British forces were isolated in an epic siege; in Cawnpore, an agreement between sepoy attackers and British defenders was violated and every man, woman, and child died. Central India was in desperate chaos as the British military commanders tried and failed to gain control over the situation.

One of the more surprising things from a modern standpoint is how many Indians backed the British. Most of the large princely states did not join the rebellion, and the Sikh rulers of the Punjab gave active assistance to the British. Large regions of “Company India” such as Bengal itself, Bombay, and Madras saw no rebellions. Most Muslims did not ally with the Hindus to back the Mutiny because they feared the rise of a Hindu-dominated state, and most of the British reforms had not been nearly as offensive to them.

The Sepoy Rebellion was not a great Indian patriotic uprising. There was at the time no “India” as a unified entity to be patriotic *for.* Despite certain patriotic overtones in Oudh and the attempt to make the Mughal Emperor the “Emperor of Hindustan,” it was not, as some have claimed, and Indian “war of independence.” So my intro up above was a trick. The Sepoy Rebellion was not a struggle for India’s freedom or a “war of independence.”

That didn’t make the British feel any better. It took a year and a half for the outnumbered British redcoats and the loyal sepoys (who made up most of the British forces, might I remind you) to restore control over central India. Despite many failures, defeats, and massacres, the British managed to recapture Delhi in September 1857. It took the remainder of the year and most of 1858 for the Rebellion to finally be suppressed in Oudh and the Indian countryside.

The Sepoy Rebellion featured numerous atrocities on both sides, including rampant sexual violence by British soldiers against Indian women as response to rapes committed by mutineers. The general amnesty after the end of the Rebellion enraged many British citizens, but was necessary to avoid further bloodshed.

Even if the Sepoy Mutiny didn’t have a broad basis, it had a broad effect. The British decided that the “Company system” had lasted long enough. The British East India Company was dissolved as a result of the Sepoy Mutiny, and the entirety of India was brought under a new Imperial government known as the “British Raj.” On November 1, 1858, Queen Victoria proclaimed to the Indians that they would possess the same rights of other British subjects. This proved to be, well, a lie.

India would have to wait 90 years for its independence. Even if the Sepoy Mutiny had not been a “war of independence,” it resulted in the imperialist and colonial rule that did create true desires for freedom from British dominion. It is one of the more unusual turnarounds in military history that the failure of the violent revolution of 1857 would pave the way for the success of a peaceful revolution under Mohandas Gandhi in the 1940s.

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