THE INDIAN MUTINY
In 1857 many Indian soldiers turned against their British officers. This event is known to some as the Indian Mutiny. Most in India prefer to call it the First War of Independence or the First War of Liberation.
In the 19th century most of India was either directly or indirectly under British rule. The East India Company had its capital at Calcutta. The Company owned huge amounts of farm land. It charged rents and collected taxes.
The EIC had its own army and navy. The EIC was licensed by the British Government. Every 20 years the UK Government passed a new regulating act. Each Regulating Act would require the EIC to do certain things and to refrain from doing others.
Some Britons in India called India ‘Company Land’ and jokingly said they were working for John Company.
The British Army was also in India but there were only a few regiments. This was in addition to the EIC’s army. Some Britons had made fortunes in the EIC and then sailed home to the British Isles. In Great Britain and Ireland some of these men forged political careers. That is why the UK Government took an increasing interest in Indian affairs.
Under the EIC India was divided into three mega provinces known as presidencies.. These were Bombay Presidency which everything from Mumbai north and included most of the western half of North India. Bombay Presidency stretched right to the border with Afghanistan. The capital was Bombay (Mumbai).
Bengal Presidency includes what is now West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Nagaland, Bangladesh, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. The capital was Calcutta (Kolkata). The name lives on in Presidency College in Kolkata.
Then there was Madras Presidency which was South India. Its capital was Madras (now called Chennai).
Strictly speaking each presidencies army was separate. But they were all EIC armies.
Within each presidency many districts were directly governed by district commissioners. A district commissioner was a white Briton. There were also princely states. A princely state was ruled by a rajah, maharajah, khan or whatever the title was of the Indian ruler. These princely states had a co-operative relationship with the EIC. The princely states had their own armies and in some cases navies. A prince ruled his fiefdom as he saw fit so long as he did not upset the EIC too much. He had to agree to only have diplomatic relations via the British and recognise the ultimate authority of the British. In return he would receive military assistance. Indian princley states had fought each other for centuries. The people were glad that this had been brought to an end. In the west India had been invaded by Afghanistan many times. In the east she had fought Burma (Myanmar). Pirates had plagued the seas.
The Mughal Empire was still theoretically extant. Its capital was at Delhi. However, the Mughal Empire was a shadow of its former self. At the apogee this empire had ruled from Afghanistan to the border of Burma. Its domain has stretched from the Tibetan frontier to Tamil Nadu. By 1857 the Mughal Emperor ruled little beyond his capital city. Therefore he was known as the King of Delhi. To call him an ’emperor’ seemed ludicrous.
Some Indians grumbled about excessive taxation. The EIC had a monopoly on the lucrative opium trade.
Christian missionaries were increasingly active in India. Only 1% of people in British India converted to the Christian faith. But some Indians resented Christian evangelisation.
EIC soldiers were obliged to listen to Christian sermons in a few cases. Many were suspicious that the British were plotting to deprive Indians of their religions. Most people were intensely religious in the 19th century.
Some Britons had a conceit of themselves. There were a few who looked down their noses at the people of India.
In the 18th century there were very few British women in India. British men marrying Indian women was commonplace. Those of mixed stock were called Anglo-Indians. Britons in India whether married to Indians or not tended to socialise with Indians and adopt some Indian customs and learn Indian languages. Some of them were attracted to Indian culture and a few were in awe of it.
In the 19th century more British women came to India. British men then overwhelmingly chose to marry women of their own nationality. There was no law against interracial marriage but it was very much disapproved of. There started to be a gulf between Britons and Indians. There started to be a critical mass of Britishers in India. They began to keep themselves to themselves. Some Britons expressed disdain for Indian culture. Some British soldiers declined to learn even a few words of any Indian tongue.
White supremacy was advanced as a theory in the 19th century. Some whites including Britons honestly thought they were better than non-whites. The white supremacists claimed that whites were lionhearted as well as clever which is why they were destined to rule other races. These racists forgot that not long before India had been much more advanced than Europe.
The EIC promulgated the doctrine of lapse. This stated that is a ruler died without a male heir then the crown lapsed. The princely state would come under direct British rule. In the 1850s some Indian princely stated started to be asborbed into the zone under direct British control. Some Indians resented this. They felt allegiance towards the princely dynasty.
The army of the EIC recruited Hindus of the Brahmin and Kshatriya castes. They did not wish to serve overseas. They said that to cross ”the dark waters” would cause them to lose caste. To traditional Hindus caste was all. The EIC had acquired land in Malaysia and Singapore. The Company wanted its soldiers to serve in these lands. Though it was possible to travel overland from India to Malaysia it was far faster by ship. Some Hindus dreaded the idea of being outcaste. A few suspected that this was a British plot to make them convert to Christianity.
EIC soldiers had been paid extra to serve in Burma. Then it was announced they would no longer receive an additional allowance for this. This caused discontent.
The Enfield Rifled Musket was invented in 1853. This was a new type of gun. It was called ‘Enfield’ after the London Borough where it was manufactured.
In 1857 a new cartridge was introduced. To use it the soldier had to bite open a greased paper cartridge to get the gunpowder out.
A rumour got around that the cartridge was greased with the fat of pigs of cows. No Muslim would touch pork. No Hindu would ever ingest beef. One EIC official circulated a memorandum saying that the new cartridge was bound to provoke a hugely adverse reaction therefore it should not be issued. His sage counsel was disregarded.
- What is the Indian Mutiny usually called in India?
- Which year did it take place?
- How many presidencies were there in India?
- Why did Britons start to distance themselves from Indian in the 19th century? five marks
- What is white supremacism? Five marks
- Which Hindu castes were allowed into the EIC Army?
- What was controversial about the Enfield Rifled Musket?
In March 1857 a soldier named Mangal Pandey told his comrades that he was fed up to the back teeth of the British Raj. He declared his intention to rebel against his British officers. Some Indians reported this to their officers. British officers arrived to arrest Pandey. He tried to shoot them. The Britons ordered their Indian sepoys to restrain Pandey. All but one refused to do so. But they did not intervene to help Pandey. Sepoy Pandey was arrested. He was found guilty of mutiny and attempted murder. He was hanged. Thereafter the British called all rebels ‘Pandey’.
A story did the rounds that the recent war against Russia had killed all but 100 000 Britons. The British were so few that they could easily be thrashed.
Trouble was brewing in Meerut. This town was home to the largest garrison in India. There were 4 000 Indian troops and 4 000 Britons there.
At Meerut cartridges were issued to sepoys. They refused to bite them. Some British officers offered a concession. They could tear the cartridges instead. This was also impermissible to a Hindu or a Muslim. For refusing to obey orders 85 soldiers were charged with insubordination. They were sentenced to 10 years hard labour.
As the 85 soldiers were dragged off to prison their cursed their comrades who had not come to their aid. The 85 has served the British valiantly for years. Some British officers were sympathetic. They felt guilty that their stalwart soldiers had been treated with undue harshness. They promised to intercede for their men and to seek the reduction of these sentences.
There was muttering in the ranks. Many sepoys were irate about what they felt were a collection of injustices. Some of the sepoys resolved to free their comrades from prison. Some sepoys were still faithful to the British. They informed the Britishers. However, the British officers took no action.
There had been a British garrison in Meerut for decades. British soldiers wandered around unarmed in their free time. They felt very safe and relaxed there.
On 10 May all hell broke loose – from a British perspective. British soldiers walking in the market were set upon and killed by Indian civilians with knives. Some sepoys stormed the prison and rescued their incarcerated comrades. They then attacked the barracks housing the British soldiers and slew some.
Some Indian sepoys honoured their oath to the EIC and fought against the mutineers. A few mutineers wanted to kill even British civilians. Some Indian valiantly hid their British friends. But if an Indian was caught concealing a Briton for the mutineers than that Indian was put to death. Indian Christians were killed in some cases as they were rightly perceived as being on the side of the EIC.
- Why was Mangal Pandey executed?
- What does EIC stand for?
- Why did rebels often kill Indian Christians?
- At which town was the first outbreak of mutiny?
- What is a sepoy?
Restoring the Mughal Empire
The mutineers then marched to Delhi some 40 miles south. They went to the King of Delhi: Bahadur Shah Zafar. The mutineers told the king what they had done. They called upon him to endorse it and to proclaim himself Mughal Emperor. He was very reluctant to do so. He was unsure whether to believe everything he was hearing. The mutiny might be a small local affair. The king’s writ did not run much further than Delhi’s city limits. Could this rebellion really succeed?
On May 16 Bahadur Shah Zafar was cajoled into signing a proclamation reasserting his title as Emperor of India. Many rallied to his banner. The British were staggered to see that he commanded loyalty. For decades they had treated him and his forbears as a powerless anachronism. Even some Hindus professed their allegiance to Bahadur Shah. He had coins minted. Distributing coinage with his name on it was an indication of sovereignty.
The British in Delhi and their Indian supporters were killed. Some Indians hid their British friends.
The mutineer commanders soon began squabbling. Bahadur Shah muttered. ”soon the British will be hanging me.”
Not all the mutineers wanted the Mughal Empire back. But even for those who disliked it the emperor was the only central authority other than the British. The mutineers had to have someone to rally around. The British liked to remind the Hindu majority that previous Mughal emperors had cruelly persecuted the Hindus. Babur, Auragnzeb and other Mughals dynasts had destroyed hundreds of Hindu temples building mosques in their place. By contrast British boasted that they had never demolished a single Hindu temple or a single mosque.
The news spread quickly to other EIC garrisons. Some British commanders knew that their regiments were disaffected. The unit would then be told to hand in its weapons. Once this was done the regiment would be disbanded. These men dispersed. But some later joined the rebels. In one place the EIC soldiers who had been disarmed were fired upon by the British soldiers.
Some British officers were convinced that their men were steadfast to them. In some cases British officers even moved into a barrack room with their men and slept in the same room to prove their utter trust in their subordinates. This trust was mostly repaid.
The princely stated of Oudh (pronounced Awadh) had been abolished on 4 years earlier. It had been absorbed into a province under direct British administration. Many people in Oudh disliked the dissolution of their state and yearned for its re-establishment. They therefore rose in revolt against the British interlopers.
Lieutenant Colonel Neill marched his men through the Ganges Plain. If his suspected civilians were aiding the rebels he had them hanged. Dozens of innocent people were put to death on his orders.
- What was the name of the King of Delhi?
- What title did he resume in 1857?
- Why were people in Oudh usually anti-British?
- Why was Bahadur Shah hesitant about proclaiming himself emperor? Five marks
- Why did the British do to EIC regiments of dubious loyalty?
There was a large British garrison at Kanpur. General Wheeler was in command. Unusually for the era Wheeler was married to an Indian. He had a close relationship with a local potentate named Nana Sahib. Wheeler was confident in the fidelity of his Indian soldiers. However, mutineers closed in and besieged Cawnpore in June 1857. The city is now spelt ‘Kanpur’. Wheeler was trapped in the city with thousands of people British soldiers and civilians as well as pro-British Indians. Nana Sahib took the side of the rebels.
On 27 June an agreement was reached with Nana Sahib. The rebels would allow safe passage to some of the people in the city. Wounded soldiers, women and children would be evacuated by boat to Allahabad. The defenders of the city were very low on food so agreed. Those being evacuated were allowed to take guns. The majority of defenders of the city remained in Kanpur.
As the evacuees approached the river the rebels demanded that the Indian soldiers among the British party be separated from the others. The pro-British Indian soldiers were duly separated from the rest. What was to happen to these pro-British soldiers? Were they going to be killed?
What happened next is a matter of dispute. Did some British soldier want to save his Indian comrade and so opened fire on the rebels? Or did the rebels start shooting? In the end the wounded British soldiers and their Indian allies were all killed.
The rebels took the women and children hostage. They were not allowed to proceed to Allahabad. The civilians were held hostage for a couple of weeks. Then the rebel commander ordered his men to kill the civilians. The rebels refused saying that it would be an act unworthy of an Indian solider. As no Indian solider would commit this crime the commander found some local butchers who agreed to do so.
The slaying of the civilians and of British and Indian soldiers despite the promise of safe passage incensed British opinion. Thereafter the British and their Indian confederates had a policy of giving no quarter to the enemy.
In September Kanpur was relieved. British arrived were marched past the remains of British civilians who had been killed. The British officers reasoned that this would rouse a fury in their troops who would then be willing and even eager to kill their enemies.
Rebels who were taken prisoner were taken the Bibighar – the house where the civilians had been slain. The unfortunate rebels were made to eat pork or beef. In some cases they were forced to lick human blood. They were then executed by being blown from cannon. Under the Mughals this was a punishment for rebellion. Some Hindus believed this deprived them of reincarnation.
Oudh had been annexed only in 1856. The people of Oudh disliked this and wanted their state back. Lucknow was a large city there and it was garrisoned with British troops and their Indian allies.
- Why did Wheeler think there would be no rebellion at Kanpur?
- What went wrong with the evacuation of wounded soldiers and civilians from Kanpur? Five marks
- How did the EIC and British execute rebels?
Sir John Lawrence and his men at Lucknow were besieged. With the hundreds of British soldiers were hundreds of Indians who remained true to them and 1 000 civilians. The defenders of Lucknow resisted for 3 months. Then a relief column came. Sir Henry Havelock reached Lucknow with his soldiers. But they were too few to break the siege. In the end they joined the defenders of the city.
It was not until November that a large relief column arrived. The rebels who had been investing the city withdrew.
Some princely states threw in their lot with the British at the outset. As the British notched up more and more victories then more princely stated declared their undying fidelity to the British Crown. They wanted to be on the winning side. They saw that the penalty for rebellion was severe indeed.
The Sikhs had been bested by the EIC only a few years earlier in the Second Anglo-Sikh War. The Punjab had been absorbed into the British Raj. Some of it was under direct British control but there were also some princely. No Sikh wished to see a revival of the Mughal Empire which had striven to extirpate the Sikh faith. Therefore the Sikhs backed the East India Company.
- Who was the British commander at Lucknow?
- Why did the Sikhs side with the British?
The Rani of Jhansi
In June 1857 the rebellion spread to Jhansi. This state had been annexed only in 1853. The Rana had died that year without a son. He had an adopted son but the British would not accept the adoptee as heir.
Some British civilians fled to Jhanshi Fort. The fort was stormed and the civilians were killed. The British held the Rani of Jhansi responsible for this even though she had not ordered it.
The Rani was the queen of her people. Lakshmibai is seen as a heroine to Indians to this day. In those times men and women had totally separate roles. Despite this she bravely assumed military command of her soldiers. She led them into battle.
The EIC Army retook Jhansi in 1858. The Rani was killed in a battle shortly afterwards.
- Why did Jhansi rise up against the British?
- Why is Lakshmibai exalted by many Indians today as a superlative womanhood?
The Siege of Delhi
There were British soldiers in Delhi when the rebellion broke out. The British managed to blow up some ammunition dumps to stop the ammo getting into rebel hands. British soldiers and civilians fled Delhi. Those who did not were killed.
On 1 July the British and their Indian allies approached Delhi to lay siege to it. As they did so the EIC forces hanged dozens of civilians they claimed had abetted the rebels. One man who was seized and interrogated was named Mr Nehru. He was the grandfather of Jawaharlal Nehru. Luckily for him Mr Nehru happened to speak a little English which was very rare in India back then. He managed to delay matters and talk them out of hanging him by many effusive expressions of pro-British sentiment. Many others were not so fortunate.
The defenders of Delhi were more numerous than the attackers. The British column approaching Delhi hanged many civilians whom it suspected of assisting the rebels. The British and EIC column was led by an Irishman named John Nicholson.
The attackers did not manage to surround the city for several weeks. The defenders gallantly counterattacked several times.
Finally British siege artillery arrived. It pummeled the city walls and knocked out the rebel artillery. At the end of August more reinforcement arrived for the British: Sikhs and Pakhtuns. Up until this point the defenders could have simply left the city. But by late August they were surrounded.
The assault on Delhi began. John Nicholson led from the front. He insisted on leading the charge to inspire his men with his valour. The British and their allies burst into the city at Kashmir Gate. Many of the attackers were killed including John Nicholson. The attackers were almost driven off. But they persisted and managed to get to the Red Fort.
The attackers deliberately killed hundreds of Indian civilians. The assailants pillaged freely. Bahadur Shah and his sons were taken prisoner at Humayun’s Tomb.
The British troops escorting the emperor’s sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khazir Sultan to the rear saw a group of enemy soldiers coming close. The British officer in charge was William Hodson. Hodson was loathe to kill prisoners of war (POWs). However, he feared that in a coming clash with the enemy his high value prisoners might escape or be rescued. Hodson ordered Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khazir Sultan to be shot dead. It was done. If these men had been freed it would have been a boost to rebel morale and provided them with leaders.
Shah Bahdur was sent into exile in Burma. Many Britishers said he should have been executed. He lived out his days composing mournful Urdu verses. His surviving son in India changed his name and lived in obscurity. Only in 2007 did a documentary identify who his descendants were. They were living modestly in South India.
Retaking Delhi was a huge psychological fillip for the British and their Indian adherents. It was a body blow to the morale of the rebels.
In November 1857 the British felt secure enough to offer amnesty to any rebel who had not killed a civilian. Not many trusted such assurances of mercy.
- Why did Britons in Delhi explode an ammunition store?
- Who was the British commander leading the assault on Delhi?
- Why were the emperor’s sons killed?
- What happened to the last emperor?
- How did the British and EIC armies behave in Delhi? Five marks
The next year
The Viceroy of India was Lord Canning the son of the late Prime Minister George Canning. Lord Canning urged his troops to be merciful. Some of the contemptuously called him ‘clemency Canning.’
When the year 1858 dawned it became plain that the British and their Indian supporters were winning. The King of Nepal threw in his lot with the British. With British agreement he dispatched his army to India to repress the rebellion. The Nepalese Army was very useful to their British allies in defeating the insurgency in Oudh.
The EIC had beaten Nepal in the 1814 Nepal War. The Ochterlony Monument in Kolkata commemorates this. Nepal used to be double its current size. Simla used to be part of Nepal for instance. After 1814 the British and Nepalese had a sympathetic relationship.
Some of the rebels fled to Nepal in 1814. The king ordered them to be arrested and handed over to the British authorities. The Britishers were grateful to the Nepalese for their endeavour in quelling the revolt. The British even returned some of the land they had seized from Nepal in 1814.
Some rebels continued to resist in the wilderness. The British and their Indian supporters find this difficult to mop up. The rebellion was not finally snuffed out until November 1858.
The EIC was dissolved in 1858. The UK Government started to assume control of India. Queen Victoria assured Indians that they could rise to any position in the administration.
In future the British authorities took care not to offend Indian religious sensibilities. They ended the doctrine of lapse. Regiments from ethnic groups that had rebelled were disbanded. In future the Indian Army relied more heavily on the Sikhs and the Gurkhas (Nepalese). The British did not let Indians have any artillery after 1857. They never entirely trusted their Indian allies.
Some Britons thought that the rebellion was more Muslim than Hindu. Delhi started to have a Hindu majority for the first time in centuries.
Much of India was completely placid. South India was almost entirely docile. In Bengal there was almost no fighting. In Gujarat there was very little fighting. The Punjab and North-West Frontier was supportive of the British. In Maharashtra and Sindh the situation was tranquil.
The British had a lucky escape in that the Afghans did not choose this most propitious moment to attack. If they had done so it would have spelt finis for the British Raj.
The rebellion only affected north central India. If every region had risen up then the British would have been scrambling for their ships.
There were 310 000 Indians in the EIC’s Army. There were 45 000 British troops in India. Only about a third of the EIC Army rebelled. There were armies of princely states that rebelled against the British. There were also ordinary men who were not part of any army who grabbed any weapon (even a farm tool) and fought against the British.
At least 100 000 Indian combatants were killed. Tens of thousands of Indian civilians were killed. Most of them were killed by the British and their Indian followers. A small number of Indian civilians were put to death by the rebels.
The rebellion failed due to a lack of co-ordination and leadership. There was no overall strategy and poor communication. Having launched one mutiny it was difficult for the rebels not to suffer another. Discipline broke down. The Rebel Army suffered from desertion. After May 1857 some rebels simply deserted their units and went home to their villages. This desertion accelerated in late 1857 when it looked like the rebels were being vanquished.
Rebels had radically different visions of a post-British India. Some cared only about their state. Some cared only about their religion. Some wanted the Mughal Empire back and others were dead against it.
No Briton or Indian loyalist was ever punished for killing a civilian in 1857.
- When did the rebellion end?
- What role did Nepal play? (Five marks)
- Which regions of India were peaceful?
- Why did some princely states fight on the British side?
- Why did the rebels lose? (Five marks)
From an Indian nationalist perspective the co-operation between Hindus and Muslims was most encouraging. But national identity was underdeveloped. Many Indians regarded themselves are primarily Hindu or primarily Muslim rather than Indian.
The telegraph and railways had only just started. These were to bring India together over the coming decades.
Local identity played a key role in the rebellion. People often rebelled because of local grievances such as the dissolution of a state. States with pro-British princes did not rebel.
The rebels are not usually called freedom fighters in India. Any Indian who took the side of the British is deprecated. He is regarded as having sold out his nation for a mess of potage.
Historians are unsure how planned the rebellion was. Was it spontaneous? It is hard to know because most people were illiterate in 1857. Many rebels were killed. Those who survived had to keep quiet about it for their own safety. Therefore there are few documents from the rebel side. If there was a plan it was naturally clandestine and therefore went unrecorded.
A key historiographical debate is how religiously inspired the rebellion was. Was it solely or mainly about animal fat on cartridges? To what extent did other political or economic issues play a role? There were some underlying discontents but it took sacrilege to catalyse this into open warfare.