Indian rebellion of
The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was a period of armed uprising and rebellions in northern and central India, 1857–1858 and is widely acknowledged to be the first-ever united movement to counter British colonial rule. The rebellion caused the end of the British East India Company's rule in India, and led to a century of direct rule of India by Britain: the British Raj.
The events of this period are known to the Indians as the First War of Independence and the War of Independence of 1857 and to the British as the Indian Mutiny, the Sepoy Mutiny, the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857.
The history of the rebellion is, to this day, an ongoing battle between two competing narratives, the history claimed by the British, who won the war, and the history claimed by the Indians, who were defeated.
The British East India Company won the powers of Diwani in the Bengal after winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Their victory in the Battle of Buxar in 1764 won them the Nizamat of Bengal as well. After this the British East India Company started to expand its area of control in India.
In 1845 the British East India Company extended control over Sindh province. In 1848 the Second Sikh War took place and the British East India Company gained control of the Punjab as well. In 1853 the leader of the Marathas the Nana Sahib was denied his titles and his pension was stopped. In 1854 Berar was annexed into the Company's domains. In 1856 the state of Awadh/Oudh was also annexed by the British East India Company. Bahadur Shah Zafar was told that he would be the last Emperor and the Mughal Empire would end after him.
The rebellion had diverse religious, social, political and economic causes. The sepoys (native Indian soldiers) had their own list of grievances against the Company Raj, mainly caused by the ethnic gulf between the British officers and their Indian troops.
Due to missionary activity the Indians came to believe that the British intended to forcibly convert them to Christianity.
Indians were dissatisfied with the heavy-handed rule of the British East India Company who had embarked on a project of rather rapid westernization. This included the outlawing of many customs and religious rites of both Muslims and Hindus which caused outrage amongst the Indian populations. The British abolished child marriage, Sati (the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands), and hunted down the Thuggees.
It was repeatedly said that the justice system was unfair to the Indians. The official Blue Books — entitled "East India (Torture) 1855–1857" — that were laid before the House of Commons during the sessions of 1856 and 1857, revealed that British officers were allowed an extended series of appeals if convicted or accused of brutality or crimes against Indians.
The British policy of expansionism was greatly disliked by the Indians. In eight years James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India, had annexed a quarter of a million square miles of land to the British East India Company's territory.
If a landowner did not leave a male heir, the land became the property of the Company via the doctrine of lapse carried out by Lord Dalhousie and his successor, Charles John Canning, 1st Earl Canning. This applied to feudal lands as well as to the states.
The land was reorganised under the comparatively harsh Zamindari system to facilitate the collection of taxes. In certain areas farmers were forced to switch from subsistence farming to commercial crops such as indigo, jute, coffee and tea. This resulted in hardship to the farmers and increases in food prices.
British rule in India was unfair to the local industry which was subjected to much heavier tariffs than its British counterparts. So the local products cost more than the products imported from Britain and hence lost their competitive edge in the market.
The Indians felt that the British were levying very heavy taxation on the locals. This included an increase in the taxation on land.
Sepoys were native Indian soldiers serving in the army of the East India Company under British officers trained in the East India Company College, the company's own military school in England. The presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal maintained their own army each with its own commander-in-chief. They fielded more troops than the official army of the British Empire. In 1857 there were 257,000 sepoys.
The Company also recruited Indians of other castes than the Brahman and Rajputs; the latter is a traditional warrior caste in India. In 1856 sepoys were required to serve overseas which, to them, would have meant the loss of caste.
The sepoys were dissatisfied with various aspects of army life. Their pay was relatively low and after the British troops conquered Awadh and the Punjab, the soldiers no longer received extra pay for service there, because they were no longer considered "foreign missions". Sepoy soldiers found themselves constantly pitted against their countrymen in an army governed by what common soldiers came to feel were outside influences. In a colonial setting, this is the prime breeding ground for a conflagration.
The Pattern 1853 Enfield (P/53) rifle was introduced into India. Its cartridge was covered by a greased membrane which was supposed to be cut by the teeth before the cartridges were loaded into the rifles. There was a rumour that the membrane was greased by cow or pig fat. This was offensive to Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike, who considered tasting beef or pork to be against their respective religious tenets. The British claimed that they had replaced the cartridges with new ones not made from cow and pig fat and tried to get sepoys to make their own grease from beeswax and vegetable oils but the rumour persisted. The Commander in Chief in India, General the Honourable George Anson reacted to this crisis by saying, "I'll never give in to their beastly prejudices", and despite the pleas of his junior officers he did not compromise.
Start of the war
The preceding months held tensions and several serious events but they failed to cause as big a conflagration as those at Meerut. Fires broke out near Calcutta on 22 January 1857. On 25 February 1857 the 19th Regiment mutinied at Behrampore and the regiment allowed one of its men to advance with a loaded musket upon the parade-ground in front of a line and open fire on his superior officer; a battle ensued. On 31 March 1857 the 34th Regiment rebelled at Barrackpore. April saw fires at Agra, Allahabad and Ambala.
In March 1857, Mangal Pande of the 34th Native Infantry attacked his British sergeant and wounded an adjutant. General Hearsay, who says Pande was in some kind of "religious frenzy", ordered a jemadar to arrest him but the jemadar refused. Mangal Pande then turned the gun against himself and used his foot to try to pull the trigger to shoot himself. He failed and was captured, along with the jemadar he was hanged on 7 April. The whole regiment was dismissed as a collective punishment and because it was felt that they will harbour feelings against their superiors after this incident. The other sepoys thought of this as harsh punishment.
On 9 May, 85 troopers of the 3rd Light Cavalry at Meeruth refused to use their cartridges. They were imprisoned, sentenced to ten years of hard labour, and stripped of their uniforms in public. It has been said that the town prostitutes made fun of the manhood of the sepoys during the night and this is what goaded them.
When the 11th and 20th native cavalry of the Bengal Army assembled in Meerut on 10 May, they broke rank and turned on their commanding officers. They then liberated the 3rd Regiment and attacked the European cantonment where they killed all the Europeans and Indian Christians they could find, including women and children, and burned the houses. The rebelling forces were then engaged by the remaining British forces in Meerut. Meerut had the largest percentage of British troops of any station in India: 2,038 European troops with twelve field guns versus 2,357 sepoys lacking artillery. Some commentators believe that the British forces could have stopped the sepoys from marching on Delhi.
On 11 May the rebels reached Delhi, where they were joined by other Indians from the local bazaar, and attacked and captured the Red Fort (Lal Qila), killing five British, including a British officer and two women. Lal Qila was the residence of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II and the sepoys demanded that he reclaim his throne. At first he was reluctant but eventually he agreed to the demands and became the leader of the rebellion. The sepoys proceeded to kill every European and Christian in the city.
Supporters and non supporters
The rebellion now spread beyond the armed forces, but it did not result in a complete popular uprising as its leaders hoped. The Indian side was not completely unified. While Bahadur Shah Zafar was restored to the imperial throne there was a faction that wanted the Marhatta rulers to be enthroned as well, and the Awadhis wanted to retain the powers that their Nawab used to have.
The war was mainly centred in northern and central areas of India. Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Jhansi and Bareilly were the main centres of conflict. The Marhattas, Rohillas and the Awadhis supported Bahadur Shah Zafar and were against the British.
There were calls for jihad by some leaders including the millenarian Ahmedullah Shah, taken up by the Muslims, particularly Muslim artisans, which caused the British to think that the Muslims were the main force behind this event. In Awadh, Sunni Muslims did not want to see a return to Shiite rule, so they often refused to join what they perceived to be a Shia rebellion.
Many Indians supported the British, often not cherishing the idea of return of Mughal rule, and these very forces were crucial to the British re-conquest of the independent areas. The Sikhs and Pathans of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province supported the British and helped in the capture of Delhi. The Gurkhas of Nepal continued to support the British as well.
Most of southern India remained passive with only sporadic and haphazard outbreaks of violence. Most of the states did not take part in the war but by doing this they kept away from the cause of the Indian side a grievance still aired by some South Asians.
Bahadur Shah Zafar proclaimed himself the Emperor of the whole of India. The civilians, nobility and other dignitaries took the oath of allegiance to the Emperor. The Emperor issued coins in his name (In India this the way of asserting your Imperial status) and his name was added to the Khutbah (The acceptance by Muslims that he is their King).
Initially, the Indian soldiers were able to push back the British forces. This gave a boost to the independence movement. The Indian army captured the important towns in Haryana, Bihar, Central Provinces and the United Provinces. The British forces at Meerut and Ambala held out resolutely and held back the Indian Army for several months.
The British proved to be a formidable foe. They had the superior weapons and much better training and strategy. The freedom fighters lacked all of these things. Most of all they lacked a centralized command and control system.
The British were slow to strike back at first but eventually two columns left Meerut and Simla. They proceeded slowly towards Delhi and fought, killed, and hanged numerous Indians along the way. At the same time, the British moved regiments from the Crimean War, and diverted European regiments headed for China to India.
After a march lasting two months, the British fought the main army of the rebels near Delhi in Badl-ke-Serai and drove them back to Delhi. The British established a base on the Delhi ridge to the north of the city and the siege began. The siege of Delhi lasted roughly from the 1st of July to the 31st of August. However the encirclement was hardly complete—the rebels could easily receive resources and reinforcements. Later the British were joined by the Punjab Movable Column of Sikh soldiers and elements of Gurkha Brigade.
Eagerly-awaited heavy siege guns did not guarantee an easy victory against the numerical superiority of the sepoy. Eventually the British broke through the Kashmiri gate and began a week of street fighting. The Sikh troops left after the death of their commander. When the British reached the Red Fort, Bahadur Shah had already fled to Humayun's tomb. The British had retaken the city.
The British proceded to loot and pillage the city. A large number of the citizens were slaughtered to avenge the Europeans killed by the Indians. Artillery was set up in the main mosque in the city and the neighbourhoods within the range of artillery were shot down. These were the homes of the Muslim nobility from all over India. These houses contained innumerable cultural, artistic, literary and monetary riches. An example would be the loss of most of the works of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, thought of as the greatest south Asian poet of that era.
The British arrested Bahadur Shah later and the next day British officer William Hodson shot his sons Mirza Moghul, Mirza Khizr Sultan, and Mirza Abu Bakr under his own authority. Their heads were presented to their father the next day.
In June, sepoys under General Wheeler in Kanpur (Cawnpore) rebelled — apparently with tacit approval of Nana Sahib — and besieged the European entrenchment. The British lasted three weeks of siege with little water, suffering constant casualties. On the 25th of June Nana Sahib requested surrender and Wheeler had little choice but to accept. When the British boarded riverboats, their pilots fled, setting fire to the boats, and an exchange of fire ensued. The Indians fired at the boats with grapeshot and filled the river with corpses. Only one boat with 4 men escaped.
The surviving women and children were led to Bibi-Ghar (the house of the women) in Cawnpore. On the 15th of July, three men entered it and killed everyone with knives and hatchets and hacked them to pieces. Their bodies were thrown down a well.
The British were aghast and the pro-Indian proponents lost all their support. Cawnpore became a war cry for the British soldiers for the rest of the conflict. Nana Sahib disappeared.
When the British retook Cawnpore later, the soldiers took their sepoy prisoners to the Bibi-Ghar and forced them to lick the bloodstains from the walls and floor. Then they hanged all of the sepoy prisoners.
The state of Awadh (also known as Oudh, in modern-day Uttar Pradesh) went into rebellion very soon after events in Meerut. British commander of Lucknow, Henry Lawrence, had enough time to fortify his position inside the Residency compound. He had 1700 men, including loyal sepoys. The rebels initial assaults were not successful and they begun a barrage of artillery and musket fire into the compound. Lawrence was one of the first casualties. The rebels tried to breach the walls with explosives and bypass them via underground tunnels that led to underground close combat. After 90 days of siege, numbers of British were reduced to 300 loyal sepoys, 350 British soldiers and 550 non-combatants.
On the 25th of September a thousand soldiers of the Highlanders under General Sir Henry Havelock joined them, in what was known as 'The First Relief of Lucknow'. In October another Highlander unit under Sir Colin Campbell came to relieve them and on the 18th of November they evacuated the compound women and children first. They fled to now-retaken Cawnpore.
Jhansi was a Maratha-ruled princely state in Bundelkhand. When the Raja of Jhansi died without an male heir in 1853, Jhansi was annexed to the British Raj by the Governor-General of India under the Doctrine of Lapse. His widow, Rani Lakshmi Bai, protested the annexation on the grounds that she had not been allowed to adopt a successor, as per Indian custom.
When the Rebellion broke out, Jhansi quickly became a centre of the rebellion. A small group of British officials took refuge in Jhansi's fort, and the Rani negotiated their evacuation. When the British left the fort, they were massacred by the rebels. Although the massacre probably occurred without the Rani's consent and she protested both her innocence and her loyalty to Britain, she stood accused by the British.
In September and October 1857, the Rani led the successful defense of Jhansi from the invading armies of the neighbouring rajas of Datia and Orchha. In March 1858, the British Army advanced on Jhansi, and laid siege to the city. The British captured the city, but the Rani escaped the city in disguise.
On 1 June 1858, Rani Lakshmi Bai and a group of Maratha rebels captured the fortress city of Gwalior from the Sindhia rulers, who were British allies. The Rani died three weeks later at the start of the British assault, when she was hit by a spray of bullets while riding on the fortress ramparts. The British captured Gwalior three days later.
The Rohillas centred in Bareilly were also very active in the war and this area was amongst the last to be captured by the British.
Due to the bloody start of the rebellion, and the violence perpetrated upon the Europeans by the Indian forces especially after the apparent treachery of Nana Sahib and butchery in Cawnpore, the British believed that they were justified in using similar tactics. The British press and British government did not advocate clemency of any kind, though Governor General Canning tried to be sympathetic to native sensibilities, earning the scornful sobriquet "Clemency Canning". Soldiers took very few prisoners and often executed them later. Whole villages were wiped out for apparent pro-rebel sympathies. The Indians called it Devil's Wind.
The last rebels were defeated in Gwalior on 20 June 1858. By 1859, rebel leaders Bakht Khan and Nana Sahib had been slain in battle. The British adopted the old Mughal punishment for mutiny and sentenced rebels were lashed to the mouth of cannons and blown to pieces. It was a crude and brutal war, with both sides resorting to what can only be described as barbarism.
The rebellion also saw the end of the East India Company's rule in India. In August, by the Act for the Better Government of India, power was transferred to the British Crown. A secretary of state was entrusted with the authority of Indian affairs and the Crown's viceroy in India was to be the chief executive.
In the aftermath of the rebellion, the British government decided to take India under the direct control of Crown under the rule of British Raj. A Viceroy was appointed to represent the Crown. The British embarked on a program of reform, trying to integrate Indian higher castes and rulers into the government and abolishing the East India Company.
They stopped land grabs, decreed religious tolerance and admitted Indians into civil service, albeit mainly as subordinates. They also increased the number of British soldiers in relation to native ones and allowed only British soldiers to handle artillery. In 1877 Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India on the advice of her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Bahadur Shah was exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862, finally bringing the Mughal dynasty to an end.