The Course of the Insurrection

By its nature, the East India Company's rule was a military occupation. The company was staffed by military men holding military titles. Military bases, or cantonments, were positioned so as to overawe the principal towns and cities, and sepoy units were based in all of the Princely States, as well as in the coastal trading zones. Because the Company's rule was a military regime, the state itself was imperilled as soon as the military mutinied. As Karl Marx had commented: ‘it is evident that the allegiance of the Indian people rests on the fidelity of the native army, in creating which the British rule   simultaneously organised the first general centre of resistance… [to colonial rule]'. [i]

The events at Meerut demonstrated that the cartridge issue, emotive as it may have been, was still merely an excuse for revolt. Many have argued that it had indeed been planned for some time, citing evidence that for months before, lotus flowers and chapatis (flat breads) were mysteriously circulating around the villages of north India, it being rumoured that the planned date for insurrection was the 31 st of May. However, Ranajit Guha has put a slightly different twist on these events, arguing that, rather than an orgnaised conspiracy, this was merely evidence of widespread rural unrest. He traces the exchange of chapatis to the traditional technique of disease prevention through transference, a practice in northern India described in   detail by William Crooke, which involved 'the symbolic use of a ritually consecrated object or animal to act as the carrier of an epidemic which had broken out in a locality or was about to do so, and push it beyond its boundaries' . Amongst the transmitters that could be used for the transfer of cholera were ‘images of the cholera goddess, doles of rice collected from the local residents, filth and sweepings picked up from the affected villages, domestic animals such as goats, buffaloes and fowl, or in the case of an exceptionally cruel custom reported from Punjab, Chamars “branded on the buttocks and turned out of the village”.' The circulating chapati was thus a transference sign of this type which acquired new meaning, becoming the predictive sign or omen of an imminent upheaval [Guha, 1983: 243-5] Whatever the circumstances, it must have been very obvious to the earliest mutineers that Meerut had to be involved as it was one of the strongest cantonments in the north, but by imprisoning soldiers on the 10 th of May, the British seem to have forced the hands of those involved at Meerut into an early commencement of the revolt. According to eye witnesses, the Meerut regiments were clearly expected when they arrived at the gates of Delhi, as they were greeted with lotus flowers and chapatis and urged to clear Delhi of the British, which they did, slaughtering not only British soldiers and officers but all Christians converts wherever the could be found. Immediately afterwards they sought an audience with the Emperor and King of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, whom they urged to lead them. To this the frail and aged Emperor (he was 82 years of age) reluctantly and hesitatingly agreed. [ii] Thereafter, mutinous sepoy regiments steadily flowed into the capital (the ultimate destination of some 100,000 out of the 139,000 who mutinied), and proclamations were circulated calling for Muslim and Hindu to unite in a struggle for din (Islamic faith) and dharma : a central characteristic of the revolt [Ray 2003; Dalrymple 2006]. Many of these proclamations were written by Mirza Mughal (Zafar's fifth son), who endeavoured to take charge and unite the chaotic rebel force in Delhi. Others were written by outlying mansabdhars and supporters of the revolt who endeavoured to rally supplies and troops by invoking the authority and name of the emperor. The document known as the Azamgarh proclamation (reproduced under 'Texts') calls for support from all classes and lists the very specific and practical grievances of the rebels. It is interesting to read, not least for its clarity of purpose. [See Azamgarh Proclamation]

Whilst the mutinous sepoys and a growing number of self-proclaimed volunteer jihadis who joined them consolidated their hold on Delhi, preparations went ahead for revolt in Awadh. In the capital Lucknow, the commanding British officer, Sir Henry Lawrence, was warned that a shot would be the signal for the commencement of insurrection on the 30 th May. The story has it that whilst dining that evening he commented on the inactivity of the supposed mutineers, saying ‘your friends are not punctual!', at which point a shot rang out. The next day, 34 miles west of Agra, Indian troops at Bharatpur in eastern Rajasthan revolted, and at Shahjahanpur, in north-central U.P. the British were attacked whilst attending morning service. At this point the insurrection might still have been contained, but responsibility for its escalation must lie partly in the hands of General James George Neill, commanding the 1 st Madras Fusiliers. Upon hearing of the events in Awadh, Neill marched to Varanasi, on what he thought was a pre-emptive mission. As soon as he arrived, he disbanded the local native regiment, lined up the sepoys, and shot them. Upon seeing this, a regiment of Sikhs stationed at Varanasi, normally considered ‘loyal', revolted and were also shot. General Neill then embarked upon a general campaign of terrorism, hanging every able-bodied man he could lay his hands on who aroused the least suspicion. News of these atrocities caused two native regiments at Kanpur, hitherto loyal, to revolt, and march to Bithur, where they met up with Nana Saheb, the deposed Maratha Peshwa, whom they persuaded to lead them to Delhi.

The British garrison at Kanpur was commanded by General Wheeler, who moved his men to the entrenchment surrounding the residency, from where they fired on the 53 rd and 56 th native infantry battalions who had not up until then mutinied, thus immediately prompting them to do so. At this point Nana Saheb's forces turned back to Kanpur and laid siege to the entrenchment. General Neill was ordered by telegraph from Calcutta to move to Allahabad and Kanpur, but he delayed, claiming that he was too busy with operations to ‘pacify' the country around Benares, which mostly involved burning villages. However, in terror at the prospect of his approach, the 6 th Native infantry at Allahabad mutinied on the 6 th of June, killing their officer and six cadets. Meanwhile, further north, troops under Generals Wilson and Barnard attempted to relieve Delhi.   Meeting up on the 7 th of June, after fierce fighting they managed to regain control of the ridge overlooking Delhi. This they then clung on to for the next three and a half months, despite some 22 attacks by rebel forces from Delhi and an outbreak of cholera.

On the 8 th of June, native troops of the formerly independent princely state of Jhansi rebelled and attacked the Europeans in the fort. General Neill reached Allahabad on June 11 th , but this was too late for General Wheeler and the residents at Kanpur who surrendered to the forces of Nana Saheb and Tatya Tope in exchange for an offer of safe passage to Calcutta. In the now infamous massacre, as they were embarking on boats on the Ganges on June 27 th at Satichaura Ghat, they were set upon by sepoys and city residents, angered (according to Mukherjee [1990]) at news of General Neill's outrages and by rumours that the daughter of Nana Saheb had been captured and burnt alive by the British. When he heard what was happening, Nana Saheb gave orders that the women and children be spared. Seventy British officers in all survived, but they were imprisoned at a house called Bibighar, where they were massacred the next day. The bodies were thrown down a well, where a British memorial was subsequently erected. This was replaced after independence by a statue of Tatya Tope, widely regarded today as a great Indian hero.

At Lucknow, the British retreated to the residency. Foolishly, Sir Henry Lawrence then decided to attack the rebels amassing just outside the city at a small village called Chinhut. There they found themselves out manoeuvred and outnumbered, and retreated in a panic, blowing up their ammunition dump at Machchi Bhavan on the way back into the residency. The siege of Lucknow continued for many months thereafter. The strength of support for the rebels was due to the involvement of the mass of the population of Awadh at an early stage, as revealed in the following proclamation, seized by the British, and which reads like a fiery, populist rendition of the Azamgarh proclamation.

It has become the bounden duty of all the people, whether women or men, slave girls or slaves, to come forward and put the English to death. …. by firing guns, carbines and pistols, from the terraces, shooting arrows and pelting them with stones, bricks…and all other things which may come into their hands. … The sepoys, the nobles, the shopkeepers, the oil men etc. and all other people of the city, being of one accord, should make a simultaneous attack upon them . [iii]

Such was the popularity of the revolt in Awadh, that whilst the Europeans in the residency died at the rate of ten per day, the rebel forces surrounding them grew in number to more than 10,000. [iv]

General Neill delayed advancing from Allahabad, claiming he was too busy ‘mopping up', which meant a continuation of his policy of indiscriminate hanging. Soon there was not a single able-bodied man to be found capable of assisting in the transport of military equipment. A force under General Havelock was sent up from Calcutta   on July 7 th to aid in the relief of Kanpur, arriving too late to be of assistance, although they were able to defeat Nana Sahib's forces in an engagement on July 27 th . Soon after this Havelock's forces won a decisive victory at Bithur, forcing Nana Saheb to retreat to Gwalior.

At about this time Bakht Khan, a former gunner from Bareili and a devout Muslim, arrived at Delhi with a large force and treasure and was made Commander in Chief of the rebel forces by the Emperor (despite Bakht Khan's disdain for him) displacing Mirza Mughal who was made Adjutant General and therefore effective head of the administration. Bakht Khan did an effective job of rallying the rebel forces and attacking the British on the ridge. On August 14 th , however, John Nicholson finally arrived at Delhi with a large column of troops, consisting of north-west frontier tribesmen and Sikhs from the Punjab. Soon after this, perhaps sensing the danger, renewed proclamations were published in the Emperor's name calling for supplies and support from the Delhi hinterland.


[i]   Karl Marx in the New York Daily Tribune, 1857, reprinted in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The First Indian War of Independence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), p. 36. Marx went further, stating his belief that the wars in Persia, India and China were connected events.  

[ii] The scenes in Delhi, and particularly the role of the Mughal court during the course of the Mutiny are brilliantly evoked in William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal (Penguin: 2006). Chapter five describes Bhahdur Shah Zafar reluctant acquiescence to the demands of his effective captors – the sepoy mutineers

[iii]   Proclamation enclosed with a translation of a pamphlet entitled Fateh Islam: For. Dept. Political Proc., 30 Dec. 1859, Suppl. No. 1135-1139: cited in R. Mukherjee (1984), p. 148.

[iv] This and many other aspects of the siege are effectively parodied in J.G. Farrell's comic historical novel The Siege of Krishnapur (London, 1978).   A detailed blow-by-blow account of the Uprising is available in P.J.O. Taylor (1997).

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