Friday, April 28, 2017

In 2,000 Words: The Indian Mutiny of 1857

The Sepoy Revolt at Meerut - by London News 1857

The Indian Mutiny or Rebellion errupted from British westernization policies that threated India's way of life. In 2,000 words explore the Mutiny that almost ended British rule in the subcontinent.

Causes of the Rebellion

The rebellion flared up as a result of policies directed towards complete British control over India and threatened the fabric Indian tradition and society.

The rebels turned their frustration and anger towards a powerful entity (not a country) that engineered British expansion to the subcontinent – the British East India Company. The joint-stock company had the approval of London to negotiate treaties, command armies, and managed local administration of acquired lands.

In the years prior to the Mutiny, the Company’s administration under Lord Dalhousie started to consolidate power and to westernize India. Previously, the East India Company had allied with princely state and made them declare the British as their overlord. In the 1840’s, however, they began to subdue local prices by denying them pensions and titles and enactment of the Doctrine of Lapse. Under the Doctrine, it prohibited Indian rulers to adopt to be heirs in time of absence of an heir. In such case, upon the death of the Indian ruler British officials would take over the administration of the princely state.
Bahadur Shah II, 1858

Numerous Princes fell victim to the Doctrine including the heir to Maratha, Nana Sahib, and widow and regent of Jhansi, Lakshmibal. The Company also offended the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II who they informed that the dynasty would end upon his death.

Peasant Indians also resented British agrarian policies. Moreover, important traditions of India, like the Caste System and Hindu religion, faced threats from British imposition of Westernization. Number of missionaries increased along with conversions. Although some prohibitions on certain practice like Sati, the burning of widows and allowing them to remarry, improved the plight of widows, many Indians viewed Westernization as a threat to the fabric of Hindu society and culture.
2 Sepoy Officers and a Private, 1820s

Indian soldiers that served the British East India Company felt further dissatisfaction. Besides receiving low salary and being sent to fight in far-away lands, they disagreed with the Company’s policies that they interpreted as means to convert as Christians.

Strong homeland ties also played a role in the rebellion. Most of the troops that participated in the rebellion came from the princely state of Awadh. In 1856 Awadh lose its princely state status and fell to Company management which began to enact reforms that angered locals including the Sepoys from the region.

From Mutiny to Full Scale Rebellion

Anger over British treatment of Indians resulted to waves of mutiny within the ranks of native soldiers, especially the Bengal Army considered as an elite unit. In March 1857, a Sepoy, Mangal Pandey, attacked his British officer in Barrackpore.
Mangal Pandey

On April 24, Sepoys in Meerut refused to use their cartridges and as a result faced steeped imprisonment sentence. Adding insult to injury, their British officers had them publicly stripped of uniforms, cuffed with ball and chain, and made to work hard labor. The act infuriated their comrades.

On May 10, 1857, the Sepoys of Meerut rebelled and executed their British officers. They then marched to Delhi, captured the city, and proclaimed Bahadur Shah II as Emperor of India. The Sepoy aimed to use Bahadur Shah as a rallying point and moral symbol of mutiny. By declaring him Emperor of India meant to revive the independence, past glory, and might of the lost Mughal Empire. The unit gathered more support with the garrisoned Sepoys in the city as well as civilians willing to take up arms with them bolstering their number to thousands.

More mutinies followed escalating the situation to a large scale rebellion. Mutineers overran important cities killing British officers and murdering Europeans. Nana Sahib gained the support of the Sepoys and led them in capturing Cawnpore by June. Following Nana Sahib rose up in rebellion, Tantia Tope followed and rallied the Gwalior Contigent of native soldiers. The deprived widow ruler of Maratha Lakshmibal who became known as the fierce rhani of Jhansi also took up arms. Rebelling Sepoys besieged Lucknow leaving the British to defend themselves in the Governor’s residence. The whole of Northern India fell into chaos.
Lakshmibai, the rhani of Jhansi

Not all the native Indian troops, however, joined the rebellion. Gurkhas and Sikhs remained loyal to the British. The Punjab Sikhs hated the idea of reviving Hindu and Muslim Mughal Empire, while the Nepalese Gurkhas showed their known loyalty. The Kingdom of Nepal in the Himalayas also joined the British in July and its Prime Minister, Jung Bahadur, marched with a host of 10,000 Gurkhas against the mutineers.

The rebellion seemed to dominate Northern India, but the threat of British counter attacks directed by Charles Canning from Calcutta and John Lawrence from Punjab remained strong. Months after the rebellion spread, British and native Indian troops from Persia, Afghanistan, Burma, and China went to India. Firmer leadership of the British also threatened the rebellion’s success when London sent Sir Colin Campbell, a veteran of the Crimean War, to quell the rebellion.

Delhi faced the strongest threat from the British who perceived the city as the center of the rebellion. Sepoys resisted the British under General George Anson pushing to retake the city. Luckily for the mutineers, the advance slowed after cholera broke out claiming the life of General Anson. The task of taking Delhi then fell to Sir Henry Barnard. By late June, however, they failed to secure the outskirts of the city and a siege began that lasted until September.

The Sepoys showed courage but lacked the necessary organization, proper leadership, discipline, and better weaponry that turned the tide against them. Situation worsened when British reinforcement from Punjab led by General John Nicholson arrived and intensified the siege. In September 1857, the Sepoys met a huge massive artillery barrage and followed by a full scale assault on Delhi’s Kashmir Gate. Fighting lasted for 6 days and the Sepoys lose Delhi on September 21, 1857.
The Capture of Emperor Bahadur Shah II

Indian civilians, Sepoys, and Emperor Bahadur Shah II met British reprisals. Bahadur Shah’s sons were executed by British Captain William Hodson while he was tried and sentenced to exile to Burma leaving the country as the last Mogul Emperor. Besides the Emperor’s sons, many Sepoys and Indian civilian were by the British army.

While Sepoys in Delhi fought the British, another battle raged in Cawnpore. Sepoys led by Nana Sahib besieged a small British garrison in the city. It lasted from June 6 to 27, when the British, facing considerable odds including numerous women and children with them, surrendered. Nana Sahib promised safe passage for the besieged British that helped to convince the garrison to lay down their arms. In an act of cruelty, however, while the British boarded their boats for the safety of Allahabad in Satichaura Ghat, Sepoy mutineers open fired on them killing the boarding soldiers instantly. The women and children of Cawnpore remained in a house called Bibighar.
Massacre in the Boats off Cawnpore

Nana received news of a British army led by General Henry Havelock had begun to march towards Cawnpore and massacred Indians in villages along the way. The news resulted to retribution that led to the massacre of the women and children sheltering in Bibighar. Nana’s forces failed to stop the advancing British and Cawnpore fell. He escaped the British and successfully disappeared without a trace. Some said he died of malaria while others suggested he fled and hid.

In another theater in Lucknow, Sepoys had mutinied on May 30, 1857 and followed on June 4 by those in Sitapur, which was 51 miles from Lucknow. More Sepoys rose up in rebellion in Fyzabad, Daryabad, Sultanpur, and Salon. The Sepoys in Lucknow then besieged the residence of the Governor Sir Henry Lawrence who had felt the discontent of the Sepoys beforehand and warned the Company of potential mutiny. Sepoys attacked the residence in full force and on July 4, they stroked the British a mortal blow when they shot dead Sir Lawrence. They, however, still failed to overrun the residence and even faced a threat of a British relief force led by General Havelock who by then recaptured Cawnpore.

Sepoys from different areas then tried to thwart General Havelock’s advance in which they succeeded and slowed the British advance for 2 months. They, nevertheless, in the space of that 2 months, still had failed to take the residence and General Havelock along with the assistance of Sir James Outram arrived in the outskirts of the city on September 23. Fierce fighting ensued for the next 2 days with the British relief force reaching the residence.

Although the Sepoys failed to stop General Havelock’s relief, the fighting dragged on, and soon another siege of the residence restarted with General Havelock and Sir Outram inside. The threat that Sepoys faced was another relief force coming from then recaptured Delhi. Indeed, the threat of a relief force materialized when a British force of 2,790 troops under Col. Edward Greathed began their march for Lucknow on September 24. Rebels tried to stall the advance but all in vain when the British reached Agra on October 10 and Cawnpore by the 26th, then on November 3, Sir Colin Campbell assumed command of the relief force.
The Relief of Lucknow by Thomas Barker

Besides failing to stop Campbell, the Sepoys also failed to stop the escape of Thomas Henry Kavanagh from the Lucknow residence and interrupt his mission to guide Campbell’s forces to Lucknow. On November 14, a 4,500-man British army had stumbled the Sepoys outside Lucknow and the fight to reach the residence began. After 3 days, the Sepoys failed to stop Campbell from reaching the residence. On November 22 the British began to evacuate the city with all the relieved besieged troops, women, and children, and they reached the safety of Cawnpore on the 27th.

The Sepoys continued to occupy Lucknow, but soon it met the prospect of falling to the British who deemed the city as the new center of the rebellion after Delhi. Lucknow’s defense fought bravely against the British that started the siege operations on March 2, 1858. The fighting lasted until March 21, 1858 with a British victory and reprisals against the Sepoys.

With major cities recaptured, few resistance remained against the British, especially in the state of Jhansi, home of the Tantia Topi and the rhani of Jhansi. The Indian leaders resisted the advance of British force led by Sir Hugh Rose tasked to destroy the remaining rebels. The main battle for the rule of the Central India region was for the city of Gwalior where the rhani of Jhansi and Tantia Topi fortified themselves. By early June the fight over the city began, but on June 19 it ended with the death of the rhani of Jhansi and the capture of Tantia Topi who was later tried and sentenced to death. By July 1858, the rebellion that rocked India officially ended.
Tantia Tope's Soldiery

In all of the fighting countless of men, women, and children died. Stories of massacres and reprisals spread and remembered. Both Sepoys and British were guilty. Sepoys murdered Europeans, while the British executed Sepoys in the most gruesome way either by bayonet or cannon fire.
Execution of Mutineers at Peshuwar, Blowing from the Guns, etc.


The Indian Mutiny caused a review of the British East India Company. London issued reforms to prevent another violent and dangerous uprising. In 1858, parliament abolished the East India Company and placed the administration of India under the Crown. The abolition meant little change in the administration of India but it hoped to bring order by removing a hated institution.

Other reforms included the suspension of land expropriation, toleration of different religions, and positions of subordinate level for Indians in the new imperial administration of India, such as Indians in the Legislative Council starting in 1861.

The transportation network, such as railroads, in India improved as the British saw as vital to answer to crises and rebellions.

Reforms to prevent another mutiny within the military ranks were also pursued. London decreased the ratio between Indians and British soldiers in a unit, and they prohibited natives to be part of artillery units.

The failure of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the abolition of the East India Company allowed Britain to make India as its jewel in its imperial crown.

See also:

"Indian Mutiny." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., (April 14, 2017). URL:

“The Indian Mutiny.” The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. In Wikisource. Accessed April 28, 2017. URL:,_The

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Indian Mutiny.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on April 15, 2017. URL:

No comments:

Post a Comment