On 10 May 1857, the Indian Mutiny, as it became known, erupted in the town of Meerut in northern India. Discontent among the native Indian soldiers, the sepoys, had been simmering for months if not decades but the violence, when it came, took the British completely by surprise. History In An Hour looks at the causes of the Indian Mutiny.*
By 1857, the East India Company, the monolithic, monopolising commercial company that conducted trade in India and had become the de facto rulers of the country on behalf of the British government, ruled two thirds of India. The remaining third was overseen by Indian princes who paid tribute to the British. That the East India Company could maintain its authority was down to the might of its huge army, consisting of 45,000 Europeans and 230,000 Indian sepoys. While most sepoys were glad and even proud to serve in the army, their loyalty to it always took second place to their religion
Sepoys of all faiths were concerned for their respective religions. The prospect of being made to serve overseas, for example, alarmed Hindu sepoys as travelling over water was a compromise of caste. (Similar grievances led to a much smaller rebellion, the Vellore Mutiny, in 1806).
Their fears were not without foundation – there was among the British an evangelical element keen on converting the Indian masses to Christianity and to persuade them to turn their backs on the ‘monsters of lust, injustice, wickedness and cruelty’, to use William Wilberforce (1759-1833)’s phrase to describe Hindu divinities. In the early nineteenth century, the British had outlawed various religious traditions, and were now spreading their influence, building Christian schools and snatching orphaned Indian children to be brought up as Christians. (A Western education, the British believed, would eventually lead to greater responsibility and equip the Indian for eventual self-rule.)
The British were also rapidly expanding Indian infrastructure on Western lines – expanding the network of railways and roads. The Hindus, in adhering to their caste system, could not tolerate such an imposition on their tradition – Hindus of differing castes could not share the same road, let alone the same train. The British, they assumed, were trying to destroy the caste system.
The first symptom of unrest came in January 1857, when the recently-opened telegraph office in Barrackpore was burned down as a protest against the march of Westernized progress. Two months later, on 29 March 1857, a 29-year-old sepoy called Mangal Pandey (pictured), stoned with opium and brandishing a sword and a musket, urged his fellow sepoys to rebel. He wounded two officers by sword before turning the gun on himself, attempting to pull the trigger with his toe. He fired but managed only to wound himself. He was hanged for his efforts and was soon to become a martyr to the rebels’ cause.
But it was something rather mundane that sparked the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The sepoys had been issued with a new Enfield rifle. In order to use the rifle, the soldier had to bite off the end of a lubricated cartridge before inserting the powder into the weapon. The problem was that the grease used to seal the cartridge was made from animal fat – both cow, a sacred beast to Hindus, and pork, an insult to the Muslim soldiers. The East India Company made amends by substituting the forbidden fats with that of sheep or, instead, beeswax. Too late. The sepoys saw it as another example of a deliberate ploy to undermine their respective religions and to convert them, through this perfidious route, to Christianity. The fact this was not the case did nothing to squash the rumour.
On the evening of 9 May 1857, 85 Indian dissenters in Meerut, 40 miles from Delhi, who had been court-martialled for refusing to touch the new cartridges, were marched onto a parade ground, stripped of their uniforms, shackled with fetters and thrown into jail to serve sentences from five to ten years. Yet these were not recalcitrant men seething with anger but loyal subjects of the Company’s army who obeyed every order but simply could not defile their religion.
When, that evening, Lieutenant Hugh Gough (later a general and recipient of the Victoria Cross) was warned by a sepoy of the impending mutiny in Meerut, he rushed to tell his senior officers only to have his concerns brushed aside.
On the late afternoon of the following day, 10 May, as the British residents prepared to go to evening song, the Indian comrades of the imprisoned sepoys broke open the jail and together they revolted, dragging the British out and hacking them to death. The violence was swift and intense; civilians joining the sepoys in an orgy of killing and arson. (Pictured: a bungalow at Meerut being attacked).
None who came within sight of the enraged horde were spared – the sick, the pregnant and the very young were among the victims. Two particular atrocities inflamed the passions of the British – Mrs Chambers, a pregnant women whose unborn baby was ripped from her womb, and Mrs Dawson, recovering from smallpox, who was burnt to death. Fifty or more were left dead. Come late evening, the rebels took to their horses and made for Delhi forty miles away.
Put the English to death
Upon arriving in the capital, the rebels sought to restore the old Mughal Empire and have the 82-year-old Bahadur Shah II as their figurehead. Bahadur Shah had had to suffer a demotion in title, the British stripping him of the title emperor and proclaiming him ‘merely’ the King of Delhi. Having been pensioned off by the British, he was content to wile away his remaining years writing poetry and painting. When the rebels made their demands, he reluctantly gave them his support and issued a proclamation declaring a holy war and urging his ‘subjects’ to rise up and ‘put the English to death’.
It would take two years and two months before the British were able to proclaim: ‘War is at an end; [the] rebellion is put down.’
*The name ‘Indian Mutiny’, as it was taught to generations of British schoolchildren, has a very Eurocentric ring to it; Indians prefer to call it the First War of Independence or the First Nationalist Uprising.