Sepoy Mutiny

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The Sepoy Mutiny was a widespread and ultimately ineffective uprising against British imperial rule in India led by members of the Bengal army. Beginning in Meerut on 10 May 1857, the rebellion spread throughout north and central India to such cities as Delhi, Agra, Cawnpore, Gwalior, and Lucknow before the British reconquered these territories and officially declared peace on 8 July 1858. The Mutiny proved to be the greatest internal challenge to the British Empire in the nineteenth century and included the cooperation of civilians from many strata of Indian society.

Participation came mainly from the East India Company's army units, whose South Asian recruits were known as sepoys, an Anglo-Indian term derived from the Persian word sipahi (soldier). The vast majority of soldiers who served in the Indian army were native South Asians. This disparity existed in the eighteenth century but by 1856 the number of Europeans in the East India Company's army of 300,000 had fallen below 15 percent.

The East India Company's military forces were composed of the three armies raised from its separate presidencies, or administrative districts: Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. The Bengal army constituted the largest of the three and a significant portion of its regiments were stationed in north and central India as well as the Punjab. The Bombay and Madras armies remained loyal to the British, as did troops in Bengal and the Punjab. In addition, some 23,000 troops from the Queen's army were positioned in India at the time, providing additional support to beleaguered British garrisons. Above all, it was the support from the recently recruited Sikhs of the Punjab, carefully cultivated by the British since the end of the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s, which proved decisive to Britain's ultimate victory. So, too, was the disinclination of the Bengali intelligentsia to throw in their lot with what they considered a backward revolt by landowning gentry. Overall, mutineers suffered from a lack of cohesion and a viable vision for the future; they were not self-conscious nationalists.

Led primarily by the old nobility and petty landlords, the popular insurrection received support from the lower orders of Indian society. Peasants destroyed any property that represented the authority of the East India Company: prisons, factories, police posts, railway stations, European bungalows, and law courts. They also sought revenge upon indigenous moneylenders and local magnates who had purchased land at government auctions and were seen as benefiting from Company rule. The rebels appealed to bonds of local community and village solidarity, frequently invoking religious sentiments. They did not seek to upset traditional hierarchies of caste or religion and sought the support of higher authorities, such as that of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II (also known as Bahadur Shah Zafar, 1775–1862).


The Sepoy Mutiny erupted from a controversy surrounding the new Enfield rifles issued to Indian soldiers in January 1857 at Meerut. To load the rifle, the end of the cartridge containing the powder had to be bitten off so that the charge would ignite. To allow for easier passage in India's warm climate, the paper of which the cartridge was composed was heavily greased with tallow, rather than wax or vegetable oil. Rumors spread among soldiers that the grease used was derived from pig and cow fat, and therefore offensive to the religious tenets of Muslims and Hindus, respectively.

In April 1857, members of the 3rd Light Cavalry, a native regiment, refused to attend a firing drill with the new Enfield rifles. As a result, a court-martial convicted and sentenced eighty-five of these soldiers to imprisonment with hard labor for ten years. On 9 May 1857 all of the troops at Meerut were assembled on a parade ground to witness the 3rd Light Cavalry's humiliating march off to jail in shackles.

On Sunday, 10 May, during church services, the mutineers struck out in Meerut and killed about fifty European men, women, and children. Shocked European officers and troops, outnumbered by their South Asian counterparts, quickly found themselves powerless to stop the movement. Sufficient warning could not be sent to Delhi or Agra, as the newly laid telegraph lines from Meerut had been cut.

The Sepoy Mutiny's immediate trigger was the cartridge crisis, but it also grew out of a larger context of quietly mounting fears and grievances directed against the political, economic, social, and religious policies and practices of British rule. One of the most alarming of these to Indians was Governor-General Dalhousie's (1848–1856) Doctrine of Lapse. This policy applied to those parts of the subcontinent that were still governed by nominally autonomous Indian princes, who were often financially and militarily dependent upon their British ally. Dalhousie believed India's princely states were corrupt, an affront to English standards of justice and an impediment to the consolidation of British power. His policy enabled the company to annex territories whenever they could be shown to be misgoverned or if a government-sanctioned male heir was not produced.

Following the annexation of Satara (1848), the Doctrine of Lapse was then applied against the dynastic houses of Sambalpur (1849), Bithoor (1853), Jhansi (1853), Nagpur (1854), Carnatic (1854), and Tanjore (1855).

The most important and unpopular annexation of all, however, was that of Awadh (1856), ruled by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Dirges were recited and religious men rushed to Lucknow to denounce the annexation. The Bengal army's recruits were mainly high-caste Hindus from Awadh, and its dynasty's lapse was a great blow to them, not least because they had received extra pay (known as "batta") while serving outside the Company's territories. Now that it belonged to the Company, the extra pay was withheld. Sikhs from the Punjab also now enlisted in native regiments of the Bengal army, to the disgust and anger of many Awadh sepoys who saw Sikhs as unclean. Sepoys, whose loyalty was divided between the Company and the native states from which they were recruited, regarded recent British setbacks in the Afghan and Crimean Wars as proof that the Company was not invincible.

By the 1840s East India Company officials had come to view India's landed aristocracies as

anachronisms. The imperial government decided to collect taxes directly from peasants, displacing the landed nobles as intermediaries. Disarming the landed nobility threw the retainers and militia of the notables into unemployment. The Company's new system of land settlement dispossessed the old gentry and eroded peasant rights, enhancing the power of moneylenders. The Company also transferred judicial authority to an administration insulated from the indigenous social hierarchy.

With railways, the electric telegraph, and the steam-vessel, the Company used modern science and technology to make India easier to manage from a distance. The social effects of modernization and economic reform were often seen as a threat to religious tradition. The banning of the practice of sati (self-immolation by Hindu widows), permission of widows to remarry, and a law that enabled a son who had changed his religion to inherit his father's property all added to the sense of religious siege. Since evangelization had been made legal in India in 1813, missionaries spoke openly of the day when all men would embrace Christianity and turn against "heathen gods."

Fear of forcible conversion to Christianity became stronger than ever in the army in 1856 with the passing of the General Service Enlistment Act, which stipulated that all recruits to the Bengal army must agree to serve overseas if required to do so. Previously, only six battalions of the Bengal army had been available for foreign service. It was considered impossible for a faithful Hindu to go to sea as he could not, in a wooden ship, have his own fire to cook his food, which his faith obliged him to do himself; nor could he properly perform the prescribed rituals of daily ablution. The act supposedly applied only to new recruits, but it was feared these provisions might one day extend to cover all sepoys.


The Mutiny was countered with brutal vengeance. British forces and rebel militias had fought for nearly two years over several thousand square miles. Villages were captured and torched, while rebels were tied to cannons and blown to bits to teach Indians a lesson in power. Delhi fell to the British in September 1857; Lucknow in March 1858. After killing his sons and grandson in cold blood, the British exiled Emperor Bahadur Shah II to Burma, where he died in 1858. Most other rebel leaders were either killed in battle or executed.

The Queen's Proclamation, read by Governor-General Charles John Canning (1812–1862) at Allahabad on 1 November 1858, marked an official end of the rebellion. The speech made clear Britain's newly stated intention to respect, even embrace, traditional religious, social, and cultural practices on the subcontinent in the name of toleration. However, missionary activity increased after 1857, most of all in women's missions, which promoted English middle-class domestic ideals through extended house visitations. And despite official declarations, a hardening of attitudes against untrustworthy "orientals" had set in among most European colonialists.

The Mughal dynasty was not the only regime to end with the Mutiny. The East India Company was also dissolved, as the British crown took over direct rule of India for the first time. By making the Company the symbol of blame and the transgressor of the ideal of trusteeship in which India was to be held, the crown and British Parliament finally terminated the life of the merchant state that the philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729–1797) had criticized at the end of the eighteenth century.

The 1857 rebellion exposed the fundamental inadequacies of the information colonial authorities, evangelicals, and reformers had thus far relied upon. Enthusiastic modernizers now began to address with renewed urgency the demands for relevant and reliable local information. Traditional India and caste took on greater importance for colonialists as a way of understanding their Indian "others." This renewed need for practical knowledge was abetted by the rapid expansion of the communications network, the establishment of educational institutions, printing presses, and libraries by an English-educated elite. Yet these changes also promoted the development of indigenous forms of information that would help give rise to India's political independence movement.

See alsoColonies; East India Company; Great Britain; Imperialism; India.


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Stephen Vella