Unravelling the events of the Uprising in 1857

Most of the accounts of 1857 that have survived are unreliable as historical sources. To begin with, it is always the victor's version of events that tends to take precedence, and since the British ultimately overwhelmed the insurrectionists, it is the British view that has generally held sway. The uprising was a clear sign that the East India Company had seriously misruled the Indo-gangetic plain but they were reluctant to admit this, which is why in many subsequent British accounts, 1857 is usually referred to as the 'mutiny'. By this it is implied that the insurrection was simply an act of treason by a group of soldiers which was dealt with appropriately. British descriptions of the 'mutiny' were also typically accompanied by accounts of various barbarities and horrors committed by the Indians as if to justify the violent means by which the restoration of colonial rule was accomplished. But this is not, of course, how Indians regarded the matter, then or now. Neither was the insurrection of that year confined to the ranks of the military, nor the atrocities committed as one-sided as the British implied.

Reacting against British misrepresentations many Indian authors, most famously the radical nationalist V.D. Savarkar writing in 1908 [i] , have described the events of 1857 as 'the first national war of Indian Independence'. However, this is clearly a misnomer since, as one historian, R. C. Majumdar [1963], has commented, 'on the whole, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the so-called First National War of Independence of 1857 is neither first, nor national, nor a war of independence'. More detailed assessments published following the centenary commemoration of 1857 have tended to focus less on the activities of the Bengal sepoys, and more on the associated uprisings of the civil population in urban and rural areas. Some authors, such as Eric Stokes [1978], have argued that the rebels of 1857 were fighting for not one, but a variety of causes and nationalisms.

There remains a problem with source materials, which exacerbates the difficulties of interpretation. The Urdu records of the Lucknow and Delhi courts are preserved in the Allahabad and National Archives, but they are written in shekastah, a very difficult form of Persian calligraphy. By contrast, there are extremely voluminous English-language historical records of 1857 that have survived, but they are largely derived from the subsequent attempts made by the British to pacify the country.   They are thus part of a project to restore order, rather than a dispassionate, legal investigation into what occurred. Essays by E.I. Brodkin [1972] and Ranajit Guha [1983] have explained why it is so difficult to deduce what really happened from such sources.   A great many of these are the accounts of soldiers who were engaged in pacification exercises, and the trial documents of those they believed, often mistakenly, to be responsible for the uprising. The authors and protagonists were keen to convince themselves that they were in control of the situation and that this was not a popular insurrection. They sought to identify and punish alleged agitators and ringleaders who had misled the supposedly naive masses into insurrection: a more realistic exercise than attempting to punish the population as a whole. The documents are thus filled with fabricated conspiracy theories, and attempts to pin the blame for what had happened on somebody, anybody in fact other than the colonial regime itself.

Grievances of the Military

The 19th Native Infantry, stationed at Barrackpore just west of Calcutta, was the first regiment to rebel against its officers, following the now notorious distribution of greased cartridges to be used with newly issued Lee Enfield rifles. These cartridges were greased with fat alleged to be that of cows, revered by Hindus, or of pigs, which was defiling for Muslims, and were believed to be part of an attempt to forcibly convert the Sepoys to Christianity. Those involved in the rebellion were arrested and a Court of Inquiry recommended that the regiment be disbanded. On the day following the initial rebellion - March 29 th 1857 - Mangal Pande of the 34th regiment, which had been barracked alongside the 19th, fired at his commanding officer Sir John Hearsey but was overpowered. He and another sepoy, Iswar Pande, were tried and executed. The name ‘Pande' was thereafter immortalised as the nickname given by the British to the rebel sepoys. [ii] . After the 34th was also disbanded, rumours about the greased cartridges rapidly spread. Six weeks later, a thousand miles away, a native regiment at Meerut was publicly humiliated for refusing to use the cartridges by being marched in shackles to the jail. The next evening, on Sunday 10 th May, the duty officer at Meerut was shot, and the sepoys rallied around the guns of the regiment, forced open the armoury to seize supplies of the supposed polluting cartridges, and attacked and killed their British officers. The next day they marched to Delhi behind their regimental flag.

Given the unanticipated nature of the military mutiny, and keen to avert blame from themselves, officials made much of the sepoys' objections to the distribution of cartridges for use with the Lee Enfield rifle.   However, although the cartridges may have provided a rallying point for a few of the mutineers, it was only one of the issues that concerned them. And interestingly, once they had rebelled, the mutinous regiments showed no compunction at all about using these same rifles and cartridges against the British. The cartridge issue nonetheless underscored the weakness of the military's control over the lower ranks of the Bengal army, highlighting the very small number of British officers, and their poor relationship with the troops. Above all, it symbolised the widespread resentment and distrust of the East India Company's policies. This mistrust revolved, among other things, around a perceived threat to Indian religion. Missionary activities had been permitted in India since 1813 lending credence to the fear that the principal reason why the British were in India was to in order to Christianise the population. Such fears had exhibited themselves on previous occasions, as in 1806, when a sepoy regiment at Vellore in the Madras Presidency had mutinied after the issue of a new form of leather headgear, also considered polluting. [iii] There were other fears of course, but British historiographies have tended to stress the cartridge issue because it could be used to demonstrate the irrationality and fanaticism of the natives, and the unreasonableness of their conduct. That they should take up arms over an issue as trivial and superstitious as the greasing of a cartridge, neatly diverted attention from other aspects of the Company's maladministration that provided more contingent and pressing causes for rebellion.

The other concerns of the military were more specific [Stokes 1986]. Indian troops were at that time organised into armies based in the three Presidencies of Madras, Bombay and Bengal. If these armies fought beyond their frontiers they received an additional allowance. In 1856 the Governor General decided that since the British controlled two thirds of the subcontinent, these additional allowances were no longer legitimate, and they were removed. The troops of the Bengal army based in Awadh at this time thus immediately received a cut in pay. The General Service Enlistment Act of 1856 also committed the sepoys to sign a declaration that they would be willing to fight overseas if necessary in the service of the East India Company, and this was resented by the majority who had no desire to travel so far. Another cause of resentment was the British policy of garnering recruits from a wide cross section of the population. Until 1856 a large proportion of soldiers in the Bengal Army were Brahmins and Rajputs from the north-west of Bengal. Villagers in this region were becoming accustomed to the income derived from sending recruits to the army. The kingdom of Awadh, independent but allied to the British by treaty since the late eighteenth century, had also become an important source of recruits to the army. The Company offended these groups by stating their intention to recruit more widely across the subcontinent. The sense of grievance had therefore spread to the main army recruiting villages, and a further discordant note was added to this when the disbanded Meerut mutineers returned home.

The decision by the British to seize control of the kingdom of Awadh had also fostered resentment. Awadh had been a loyal ally of the British. Under the notorious policy of lapse, announced in 1850 by the Viceroy Dalhousie, the British stated their intention to seize control of any princely state in which there might be a disputed succession. This they did, rapidly taking over the Nagpur kingdom in 1854 (the largest of all), along with Jhansi, Satara, Udaipur, Balaghat, Sambalpur, Jaitpur, Carnatic and Tanjore. They justified their actions by claiming that 'Indian despotism' was thereby ended, frontiers were consolidated, that it was administratively convenient, and that it was expressly desired by the people themselves [Fisher 1993]. In the case of Awadh, they did not trouble to wait for a disputed succession. The British Resident (the Company's representative at court) alleged that the Rajah was misruling his country, and this alone was used as a pretext to seize control of the kingdom in 1856 [Fisher 1987; Mukherjee 1984].

Arguably therefore it was not the peasants and sepoys who were the rebels in 1857, but the British themselves. In the view of many Muslim political commentators, since the British were merely the revenue collectors of Bengal, they were vastly exceeding their authority, and since the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was the Vizier, or guardian, of the Mughal Empire, the seizure of his kingdom was an attack on Mughal sovereignty itself.   Following annexation, the Nawab was taken to Calcutta along with members of his family, and the British then made matters worse by sending in a highhanded settlement officer, Martin Gubbins, who in the process of fixing the revenue demand dispossessed a great many local aristocrats, known as taluqdars, from their ancestral estates. These taluqdars , led by the Rajah of Mahmudabad, were among the first aristocratic leaders to raise arms against the British and were strongly supported by their rural populations.

Other factors played a part in the Uprising of 1857. The Sikh regiments of Ranjit Singh who had been defeated in 1840, had been incorporated into the British army. There were some 15,000 of these troops and they were the first and largest force available to the British to move into the Northern plains and retake the areas which had risen in revolt.   One of the major failings of the British prior to 1857 was that when they had taken over the kingdom of Awadh they did not recruit the army of the king in a similar manner.   They disbanded all 50,000 of the king's troops, effectively dispersing large numbers of aggrieved trained soldiers over the entire region. Once similarly large numbers of men serving in the Bengal army had been alienated the basis was laid for what became a widespread civil as well as military insurrection.


[i] Vinaya k Damodar (commonly Veer) Savarkar's The Indian War of Independence, 1857 was originally written in Marathi, published in 1908, and immediately banned by the British. The author, having taken part in terrorist conspiracies in London and Nasik was later sentenced to transporation to the Andaman islands (where he wrote about the concept of Hindutva or 'Hinduness'). He returned following a personal amnesty and was president of the Hindu Mahasabha for seven years in the 1930s and 40s. Savarkar's Indian War of Independence was finally published (in English) and distributed for the first time in 1947.

[ii] This name Pandey was in turn inherited by an English children's toy – a stuffed doll wearing pyjama pants – known as ‘Andy Pandey'.

[iii] Maya Gupta, ‘The Vellore Mutiny' in M.&A.K. Gupta (eds.), Defying Death: struggles against imperialism and feudalism (New Delhi: Tulika Press, 2001): 18-38.

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