The Sepoy Uprising (1857-1858)

“In India one is always sitting on a volcano.”

—Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India, 1848 (Peers 66)

Historians still do not agree on the name: The Sepoy Rebellion, The Sepoy Mutiny, The Great Mutiny, The Indian Uprising, or The First War of Indian Independence. Historians do agree, however, that it came extremely close to suddenly and permanently ending British imperialism in India. It started when a small group of sepoys refused an order by their British officers. So it was definitely a mutiny. Some peasants and landlords also joined the uprising, so it was more wide spread than a mutiny. Yet, the majority of the Indian population did not join the uprising. More still, the majority of soldiers who put down the rebellion were Indians themselves. Historians do agree that the fighting was brutal. Both sides committed atrocities, often with thinly veiled racial and sectarian overtones. Of the 40,000 Europeans living in India, approximately one in seven perished. On the Indian side, at least 800,000 died in the uprising and the ensuing famine (Peers 64). The war also marked the end of the East India Company altogether. After the uprising, the British government ruled India directly and formally as a colony.

In the 19th century, the British increasingly unveiled ethnocentric attitudes and laws that belittled Indian culture. For example, one administrator famously unpacked his cultural arrogance declaring, “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” (Dalrymple 69). Indians resented such disparaging attitudes. In 1837 the British made English the official language of the Indian government and offered it along with Christian Bible classes in colleges (Dalrymple 69). The 1813 Regulatory Act legalized Christian missionaries in India. Though the missions were largely unsuccessful in converting Indians, Muslims and Hindus felt threatened by this new religious challenge. Many people also resented laws that intervened in Indian culture, such as the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 (Peers 67). Hindu women were traditionally expected to honor their families and show loyalty to their deceased husbands by refusing to remarry and choosing a life of poverty and self-denial. The new law allowed and encouraged Indian widows to remarry, a direct affront to Hindu traditions. Many Indians, including the sepoys, felt there culture was under siege.

Though they secured the British Empire against foreign and domestic threats, sepoys felt increasingly insecure in their homeland. British policies disrupted morale, attacked traditional customs, and threatened the livelihood of the Indian soldiers. Officers in the Indian Army were exclusively British. No matter how competent or experienced, sepoys faced a racial glass ceiling that prevented them from rising to higher positions in the army. Furthermore, the General Service Enlistment Act of 1856 required sepoys to serve outside of India whenever the Empire so demanded (Dalrymple 128, Fremont-Barnes 27, Peers 66). For the high caste Hindus who made up many of the sepoys, travelling across the ocean would deprive them of their caste. Also, the British governor-general in India implemented new ways to appropriate the property of Indian nobles. Any prince who died without a direct heir forfeited his land to the British (Fremont-Barnes 25). The province of Avadh in Bengal—home to a majority of the sepoys in the Indian Army—was annexed in 1856 on questionable grounds (Dalrymple 118, Peers 67, Fremont-Barnes 25). In retrospect, it seems unsurprising that this area of Bengal became the origin of the sepoy mutiny. In 1857, there were 311,000 sepoys, more than 7 times the number of European soldiers (Fremont-Barnes 20-21). One spark could ignite the growing frustrations into an uprising.

All these tensions exploded during a spontaneous sepoy mutiny that started with a rumor. Word spread that the bullet cartridges issued to soldiers for the new Enfield rifles would be greased in cow and pig fat. Soldiers would be instructed to bite off greased paper from a cartridge, resulting in Hindus and Muslims coming into direct contact with religious dietary taboos that would spiritually defile them (Dalrymple 125-126, Fremont-Barnes 28). Muslims do not eat pigs and for Hindus cows are sacred. To many Indians, this was yet another arrogant policy designed to degrade Indians and increase Christian converts. In fact, the new cartridges were never given to the troops and the army quickly ordered a change so that the bullets could be lubricated with spiritually clean mutton fat and wax (Fremont-Barnes 28). But the damaging rumor spread too fast and far to stop it.

The mutiny started on April 24, 1857 in the town of Meerut in Bengal, 40 miles from Delhi. Eighty-five sepoys—afraid to touch contaminated grease—refused an order to assemble for shooting practice. The army sentenced them to ten years in prison with hard labor. The extremely harsh penalty exacerbated the tension among the troops. The next day, sepoys, spurned by a local mob, shot a British colonel in the back as he tried to manage a crowd in the marketplace. The mutineers released the prisoners from jail, plundered British homes, and murdered British officers along with their families. (Fremont-Barnes 30-31). The mutineers and the civilian mob marched immediately to Delhi, where they declared a rebellion in the name of the Mughal Emperor, known as Zafar, who lived on a British pension and had no real political authority. The mutiny quickly spread east throughout Bengal.

In June, in the town of Cawnpore, also in Bengal, rebels laid siege to a British army encampment. With no food, water, or ammunition left, the commanding officer surrendered to the sepoy rebels. Despite promising safe passage, the mutineers ambushed the unarmed British prisoners as they boarded a riverboat to leave. Then, the sepoys and the town mob massacred two hundred British women and children left back at the fort. Their bodies were thrown down a well (Peers 68). A British soldier who arrived soon after, described the remains of the Massacre at Cawnpore.

“I was never more horrified! The place was one of mass blood. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the soles of my boots were more than covered with the blood of these poor wretched creatures. [I found] quantities of dresses, clogged thickly with blood, children’s frocks, frills, and ladies’ under clothing of all kinds, also boys’ trousers, leaves of Bibles . . . and hair, early a yard long; bonnets all bloody, and one or two shoes . . . All the way to the well was marked by a regular track along which the bodies had been dragged, and the thorny bushes had entangle in them scraps of clothing and long hairs. I have looked upon death in every form, but I could not look down that well again” (Fremont-Barnes 53).

The British soldiers and public responded to the Massacre at Cawnpore in much the same way they responded to the “Black Hole” of Calcutta during the conquest of Bengal a hundred years earlier. The British soldiers no longer fought to secure imperial rule but rather to avenge the brutal murder of women and children. A sergeant wrote, “The men are mad, and oh, how they go about swearing and vowing to avenge this atrocity. They are wrought up to the highest pitches of madness, and are burning to go at these murdering monsters” (Peers 69). A popular magazine in England captured the public mood: “Our house in India is on fire. We are not insured. To lose that house would be to lose power, prestige, and character—to descend in the rank of nations, and take a position more in accordance with our size on the map of Europe than with the greatness of our past glory and present ambition” (Peers 64)

The rebel mob stormed into the old Mughal capital of Delhi, plundered the homes of wealthy citizens, massacred Christians, and co-opted the reluctant support of the eighty-two year-old Emperor. The slaughter of civilians took on a religious tone as the mob murdered European Christians but left European converts to Islam untouched. The Mughal Emperor, Zafar, tried and failed to convince the mutinous leaders to stop the execution of British prisoners, including diplomats and their families. A court reporter recorded the dramatic scene: “The king wept and besought the mutineers not to take the lives of helpless women and children, saying to them, ‘Take care—for if you commit such a deed the vengeance and angel of God will fall on us all. Why slay the innocent?’ But the Mutineers refused to listen” (Dalrymple 207).

The mood of many British settlers in India turned grim. The editor of the English language Delhi Gazette called for an avenging massacre in Delhi:

“The storm of revolutionary atrocity and fiendish crime have swept over the British occupants of Bengal, leaving behind it a wreck of horror and devastation, only equaled by the ingratitude and crime displayed by the Hell hounds who have originated and executed thus far their diabolical scheme of raising once again the standard of the lascivious Prophet, in opposition to the new dispensation offered to mankind, in the man Christ Jesus, the son of God”.

Hindoo and Moslem have proclaimed their caste and their religion to the world in a mass of fiendish cruelty that stands as unparalleled in the world’s history. The punishment about to be inflicted will likewise be equivalent: Justice is Mercy—‘blood for blood’ will be the watchword throughout the storm pending over the doomed city; the British soldier must hurry: the Avenging Angel uses you in the massacre that awaits your advance on Delhi.” (Dalrymple 280).

Using new technology of telegraphs to communicate and railroads to move troops, the British concentrated on the main rebel force in Delhi. Surrounded by seven miles of thick, high walls, the old Mughal capital seemed impenetrable (Fremont-Barnes 37). But conditions inside Delhi deteriorated over the course of a 3-month siege. The rebels suffered from a lack of water, military order, and a unified political vision. Enormous British artillery, brought by train, blew breaches into the old fort walls. Still, the British suffered heavy losses as they stormed the city. At one point the British general considered retreat. But, with the help of Sikh soldiers, the British just narrowly succeeded in recapturing the city after days of brutal street fighting (Dalrymple 342). The British exiled the Emperor to the colony of Burma. Almost all of his sons and successors were executed. He had spent his life preparing for a Mughal court from a bygone era—he spoke and wrote poetry in Urdu, Arabic, Persian, and Punjabi. He was the royal descendent of the great Genghis Kahn. Zafar (1775-1862), the last Mughal Emperor, soon died at the age of 87 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Burma.

The British army plundered Delhi for days and massacred many civilians just as the rebels had done. A 19 year old British soldier took part in the mayhem and described it:

“The orders were to shoot every soul. I think I must have seen about 30 or 40 defenseless people shot down before me. It was literally murder and I was perfectly horrified. . . and a few yards further on still some of our own drunken soldiers would reel past, exciting your pity not unmixed with disgust. Wherever you go, you see some unfortunate man or other being dragged out of his hiding place, and barbarously put to death” (Dalrymple 357).

The fear of spiritual debasement came full circle for the mutineers. The British deliberately defiled rebel sepoys that were caught. Some were blown from cannon. Some Hindus were smeared with cow fat before they were hanged. Some Muslim rebels were forced to chew pig fat (Peers 71).

There were many reasons why the spontaneous uprising failed. From the beginning, it lacked organization and coordination to spread it further afield. Because the rebellion occurred mostly in the North, the small British army moved its troops from quieter parts of India and concentrated them on the static rebel stronghold of Delhi. Though sepoy morale and motivation was usually high, the rebels lacked military leadership and discipline. Looting by rebel forces and a general lack of order scared off civilian support. As a result, few princes and local rulers backed the rebellion (Fremont-Barnes 86). Most importantly, the majority of troops in the imperial army were loyal Indians. Had they been less reliable, British rule would surely have come to an end. For example, Sikhs in the Punjab had only recently been conquered in 1848 but did not rebel. Instead, they became highly reliable imperial soldiers willing to volunteer to fight against the mostly Hindu Sepoy rebels (Peers 71).

The Sepoy Uprising left a lasting legacy. Neither side in the conflict conducted themselves honorably. The brutality of the war resulted in a climate of fear and distrust. The British no longer recruited sepoys from high caste Hindus in Bengal. Instead, the groups that proved their loyalty during the rebellion—such as the Sikhs from the Punjab—were given preferential access to the Indian Army. The British Empire would lean heavily on this Indian Army to keep the peace in India and abroad.

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton