The End of the East India Company in India

The Indian ‘Mutiny’, or Rebellion, started on 10 May 1857 and lasted until about mid-June 1858. By then, the mutineers were a spent force. For the British, having brought in reinforcements from overseas, it remained only to launch a series of mop-up operations to quash every last pocket of resistance. Revenge was very much the motivating force. The Times demanded that, ‘every tree and gable end in the place should have its burden in the shape of a mutineer’s carcass’. The avengers needed no encouragement – thousands of Indians were killed indiscriminately, whether they had been involved in the rebellion or not; and whole villages set ablaze.

Two years and two months on from the initial outbreak in Meerut, Lord Canning, the first viceroy of India, who served from 1858 to 1862, was able to issue on 8 July 1859 a proclamation declaring: ‘War is at an end; [the] rebellion is put down.’ 11,000 Britons had died, 75 per cent from disease, while the number of Indian casualties, be it sepoy or civilian, remains unknown but numbered many thousands more.

Post-mutiny: the British Raj

East India Company coat of armsLord Canning then managed to quell the bloodthirsty British, earning the contemptuous name ‘Clemency Canning’ from his revenge-driven soldiers. The rebellion may have been dealt with but now the questions were asked – namely, how did it happen and how to ensure that such a catastrophe should never again occur. The East India Company, the de-facto rulers of India, blamed the British Christian evangelicals for having upset local religious sensibilities; while the evangelicals blamed the Company for hampering its efforts.

(Pictured: Coat of Arms of the East India Company).

The uprising may have been far-reaching across northern and central India but Britain’s success was ultimately down to the vast majority of Indian sepoys that had remained loyal to the British. Without their support, the conflict would have had an entirely different ending. Nevertheless, the British Army in India was reorganised so that the proportion of sepoy to British soldiers never exceeded two to one, and the handling of artillery was to be the exclusive responsibility of British-born soldiers. Local religious and linguistic groups were mixed up within regiments to avoid any one group dominating.

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Gandhi and Mandela: A Brief Comparison

The legacies of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi transcend time, in terms of the impacts they each had on civil rights and equality.  They were men of different times, yet they drew upon similar principles in their quests to help humanity.  While their causes were distinct to each of their homelands, they inspired similar reverence among followers, eventually standing as inspiration worldwide.

Commitment to Equality

Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela was born in 1918, losing his father at a young age.  As he grew, he gained inspiration from the ancestral tales shared by his caretakers and others familiar with the wars of resistance. As he secured formal education, Nelson Mandela became more outspoken for causes of the suppressed, eventually being expelled from school for protesting; only to return later to earn his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Africa.

Additional schooling allowed him to practice law, fortifying his ability to be heard addressing social issues.  In 1952, Mandela drew a nine-month jail sentence for his role organizing civil disobedience against South African racial policies.  The sentence was suspended.

Mohandas Karamchand GandhiMohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who earned the revered Mahatma designation later, in 1915, was born in 1869.  Raised in western India, he later studied law in London, before practicing in South Africa.  It was there, ironically in Nelson Mandela’s home country, where Gandhi first used civil disobedience to advocate for civil rights for the country’s resident Indian population.  Famously, in 1906, Gandhi was ejected from a first-class rail car in South Africa for not holding racial status to be allowed there. Upon returning to India in 1915, he began to formally mobilize the country’s oppressed residents, protesting discrimination and unjust taxation.

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The Vellore Mutiny – a summary

Fifty-one years before the outbreak of the year-long ‘Indian Mutiny’, took place another act of defiance against British rule in India. Lasting but a few hours, the Vellore Mutiny of 10 July 1806 was a mere foretaste of 1857. But the grievances that led to the brief uprising were very much the same as the ones half a century later.

Vellore MutinyMuch of India, at the time, was governed by the East India Company. The monolithic, monopolising commercial company with its own army had become the de facto rulers of the country on behalf of the British government. The town of Vellore, in south-east India, contained a large fort garrisoned by some 380 British soldiers and 1,500 sepoys. Incarcerated within the fort of Vellore, although in considerable comfort, were the sons, families and servants of Tipu Sultan, the former ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, who had been killed by the British in battle in 1799. (Pictured the Vellore Fort today)

Religious sensibilities

In 1806, as in 1857, the Indian soldiers, sepoys, feared the British were attempting to undermine their religions in order to convert them to Christianity. A new dress code, introduced in 1805 by the commander-in-chief of the Madras Army, General Sir John Craddock, forbade Hindu soldiers from sporting any caste marks on their foreheads, banned the wearing of earrings and proposed that turbans be replaced by a round hat. Muslim soldiers were to shave off their beards and trim their moustaches. Craddock, in issuing his directive, was going against advice from his Military Board who warned that local religious sensibilities be respected.

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The Black Hole of Calcutta – a summary

On 20 June 1756, 123 Britons perished in a tiny dungeon cell in the city of Calcutta. The incident, which soon became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta, illustrated only too well that the Indian race, when left without Britain’s civilising influence, was barbaric in the extreme.

Siraj ud-DaulahIn April 1756, the nawab (provincial governor) of Bengal died and the throne passed to his 23-year-old grandson, Siraj-ud-Daulah (pictured), a name that was soon to become infamous in Britain as the ultimate in perfidy and cruelty. The British had been hastily strengthening Fort William in Calcutta (Kolkata) against possible future French incursion into the city. When Siraj-ud-Daulah demanded that the British desist, the British refused – it was they, after all, that had, in 1690, established Calcutta in the first place. Siraj-ud-Daulah marched into the city with 50,000 men and 500 elephants and, imposing his authority, took it with relative ease.

Black Hole

The British fled – but not all managed to escape in time. On the 20 June 1756, those left behind, 146 soldiers and civilians, including two women, surrendered. Despite assurances that they would be protected, they were imprisoned on the apparent orders of Siraj-ud-Daulah in a tiny cell within Fort William measuring only 18 feet by 14 feet, 10 inches, with only two small windows. Screams and appeals for water were ignored. The prisoners were left to suffocate in the oppressive summer heat, sucking the perspiration from their shirts for liquid or drinking their own urine.

When, the following morning, the door was opened only 43 were still alive. The dead, with no room to fall, remained on their feet. One of the survivors was John Zephaniah Holwell, an Irish-born doctor and commander of the city and a future, albeit briefly, governor of Bengal. Returning to England eight months later, Holwell spent the five-month voyage writing up the tragedy of the Black Hole of Calcutta in his narrative, A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and others who were suffocated in the Black Hole. Holwell writes of ‘a night of horrors [which] I will not attempt to describe, as they bar all description’, and then proceeds to describe the night in detail.

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Indian Mutiny – a summary

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.*

Indian SepoyBy 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

Religious sensibilities

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.)

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Mangal Pandey – a summary

As schoolchildren in Britain, we’ve always used the term the ‘Indian Mutiny’ to describe the momentous and violent events of 1857 in India. But the ‘First War of Independence’ or the ‘First Nationalist Uprising’ is perhaps a more realistic name. The events that led to the uprising stemmed from decades of grievances and unrest but it was something quite mundane that sparked the rebellion and it was a single man, Mangal Pandey, that fired the first shots.

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, the monolithic, monopolising commercial company that conducted trade in India and had become the de facto rulers of India acting on behalf of the British government, made amends by substituting the forbidden fats with that of sheep or beeswax. Too late. The sepoys saw it as 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.

The first symptom of unrest came in January 1857, when the recently-opened telegraph office in Barrackpore (now Barrackpur, about 15 miles from Kolkata, or Calcutta) was burned down as a protest against the march of Westernization.

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The Amritsar Massacre – a summary

In February 2013, David Cameron, UK prime minister, paid his respects at the scene of the 1919 Amritsar massacre, one of the bloodiest massacres in British history. Rupert Colley offers a summary of the occasion:

On Sunday 13 April 1919, the occupants of the city of Amritsar, in the Punjab, were preparing to celebrate the Sikh New Year. Three days previously, six Britons had been indiscriminately killed by an Indian mob and the British, fearful of further violence during such a potentially volatile occasion, sent in a man ‘not afraid to act.’ That man was 54-year-old Reginald Dyer, and act he did.

Reginald DyerDyer (pictured) issued a proclamation banning any gatherings of four or more men and imposing an eight o’clock curfew. Those failing to comply risked being shot. Yet word reached Dyer that a gathering of about 5,000 men, women and children (Dyer’s estimate) had converged in a square at Jallianwala Bagh for a public meeting. The square was accessible only via a narrow gateway and otherwise was surrounded by walls. Dyer approached with a unit of about 90 soldiers, mainly Indians and Gurkhas. Although the gathering was unarmed and, it seemed, peaceful, Dyer feared that his small contingent of men would, if things got out of hand, soon be overwhelmed. Deciding attack was the best form of defence, he ordered, without warning, his men to open fire. Bedlam ensued.

With the only entrance blocked, there was no escape from the withering fire that lasted an entire quarter of an hour. People hid behind bodies, others were killed in the circling stampede. Dyer only ordered a stop when he feared his men would run out of ammunition. Without sanctioning any medical aid, Dyer ordered his men out. 379 were left dead, over 1,200 wounded. Dyer did not stop there; in the days that followed, Dyer subjected miscreants, as he saw them, to public flogging.

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Siege of Cawnpore – a summary

On 27 June 1857 in Cawnpore in India, a British garrison of men, women and children, under siege, were offered safe passage and sanctuary. Instead, they were betrayed and butchered, an atrocity that shocked Victorian Britain to its core. The surviving women and children were later hacked to death. Retribution, when it came, was unrelentingly severe. This is a gruesome story of the Siege of Cawnpore.


In 1857, the British, through the East India Company, directly ruled two thirds of India. The remaining third was overseen by Indian princes who paid tribute to the British. On 10 May, a group of sepoys (Indian soldiers) ran amok in the town of Meerut, killing several men and women of the British garrison based there, before heading to Delhi, 40 miles away. The Indian Mutiny had begun.

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. But independence was not the ultimate aim of the mutineers and, confined mainly to the north-west of the country, in particular Bengal, neither was it of a national character. It was an outbreak of violence without leader and without objective beyond being motivated by a string of grievances.

The Siege of Cawnpore

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