In January 1857, at the Dum Arsenal near Calcutta, and Indian lascar (sailor) asked a Brahmin sepoy (infantryman) for a drink of water from his brass cup. The Brahmin refused to share his cup; to share his cup with a lascar would contaminate it because of the lascar’s lower caste. In anger, the lascar declared that the Brahmin would lose his caste anyway when he used his new Enfield Rifles because the cartridges contained animal fat from both pork and beef. This announcement alarmed the Brahmin who confided his fears to his fellow sepoys. Captain J. A. Wright, the sepoy’s European officer, considered the incident of sufficient magnitude to merit a report to the divisional commander, Major-General John B. Hearsey.
Major-General Hearsey, being part Indian on his father’s side, and married to a half-Indian, took the captain’s warning seriously. He sent his own recommendation to the Deputy- Adjutant General advising him to allow the sepoys to lubricate their cartridges with whatever substance they considered suitable. His recommendation eventually received acceptance, but by then incidents of unrest and disaffection had occurred throughout the Ganges Valley, culminating in the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. The purpose of this paper is to relate the progress of that rebellion and to examine some of its underlying causes, many of which can be traced back almost to the beginning of European involvement in India.
In 1613, the British East India Company (BEIC) received permission from the Mughal Sultan Jehangir (1605-1627) to establish a permanent trading station near Bombay. Almost from the outset, the BEIC reaped substantial financial benefits from its commercial activities in India. Company assets rose from 60,000 British pounds in 1607, to 370,000 to 2,000,000 in 1732. The size and rapid growth of the BEIC allowed it to maintain a very valuable patronage system in India- even a minor clerkship in the East offered a young Englishman the chance to become very wealthy. At home, in England, the BEIC not only conducted its eastern trade, it also ran a financial and banking institution that helped support the national credit, played an important role in the London money market and wielded considerable influence in local and national politics.
Initially, the British did not intend to make India a part of their empire. However, when Shah Jehan’s (1628-1666) health began to fail in 1657, a major civil war undermined the strength and vigor of the Mughal State. Because of this war, Shah Jehan’s son, Aurangzeb (1658-1707) gained control of the Mughal monarchy. Aurangzeb’s military ambitions involved him in campaigns that weakened the empire. In the last years of his reign, Aurangzeb faced constant rebellion. In the northwest, the Persians and Afghans captured his fortresses and in central India, in the mountains east of Bombay, the Hindu Marathas opposed him. Weakened by extravagance and war, the Mughal state slid into a long period of social disorder and political decline. In the power vacuum created by ineffectual leadership at Delhi, marauding Indian armies, power-hungry lordlings and oppressive petty officials drove India to the brink of anarchy. To preserve their growing wealth and influence in this atmosphere of political turmoil, Europeans, particularly the British and the French, began to play a greater role in Indian politics.
For more than a century, France and Britain struggled for supremacy in India via their respective trading companies. During the War of the Spanish Succession, the two companies, the BEIC and the Compagnie des Indes, maintained an unofficial truce in India. However, Francois Dupleix, the powerful French governor of Chandarnagar (1730-1741) and later Pondicherry (1741-1754) adopted a more war-like policy once he assumed power, lending military aid to his allies and adherents among the Indian princes. His interference in Indian politics eventually led to the War of the Carnatic, a long series of intrigues and skirmishes fought between the French and British over the thrones of Hyderabad and the Carnatic. In 1754, the British briefly gained the upper hand when the French recalled Dupleix.
Unfortunately, hostilities resumed in August 1756 when French adherent, Siraj ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal quarreled with the British over the issue of fortifying Calcutta. Siraj ud-Daula marched on the British with a small army. Overwhelmed by the surprise sepoy attack, the British soon lost control of Bengal state. Fearful of losing such a valuable region to French or Indian rule, the BEIC sent Robert Clive, a former clerk from the Madras office with an army of 2,500 soldiers to recapture the city. After restoring Calcutta to British rule, Clive supported Mir Jafar, one of the Nawab’s relatives, in a palace revolt against Siraj ud-Daula. On 23 June 1757, Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plassey. His victory, though militarily inconclusive, permanently altered the status of the BEIC in India. Thereafter, the company evolved from a commercial corporation with a monopoly on trade between India and England to a governmental power with political control over a substantial Indian population. This raised serious problems for the Indian people since the commercial interests of the BEIC generally conflicted with its governing duties.
Bengal, in particular, suffered under BEIC administration. While the company became a powerful banking and financial house in London, the government instituted by Clive plundered the Bengal treasury and assumed little, or no, responsibility for the welfare of the province. Prohibited from private trade and from receiving payments from the new Nawab, Mir Jafar, company agents over-charged and over-wrote civil and military expenses in Madras and the Carnatic and then used Bengal revenues to cover their debts. Inevitably, the rampant misuse of revenue-collecting privileges, the divided policies of the Court of Directors in London and the wars on the Bengal frontiers undermined the real profits of the BEIC. In 1771, a financial crisis forced the company directors to request a loan of 4,000,000 British pounds from the Bank of England. In less than two weeks, they applied for an additional loan of 3,000,000. The Bank of England would only advance 2,000,000. To compensate, the BEIC sought a loan of 1,000,000 from the British government. Prime Minister (1770-1782), Lord Frederick North, gave the BEIC a new loan to see it through its financial difficulties, but he could not prevent Parliament from appointing a Select Committee to investigate the company’s operations. The Select Committee eventually presented a list of its recommendations to Parliament. This list included, among other things, authorization for another loan to the BEIC, a reduction in the dividends paid to the company proprietors, and the establishment of a legitimate British governing body for Bengal. Parliament accepted these recommendations and incorporated them into the Regulating Act of 1772 which attempted unsuccessfully to separate the BEIC’s trading endeavors from its governing function.
What Britain needed in Bengal was a strong and incorruptible executive body capable of acting quickly. What it got under the new Regulation Act was a governor-general prevented from taking any sort of rapid and effective action by a quarrelsome four-member council and a supreme court with a vaguely defined jurisdiction. During his term as the first Governor-General (1772-1786) Lord Warren Hastings struggled mightily against his councilors to maintain control of the government. His efforts involved him in some activities that later brought him severe criticism. First, he interfered in a war between a company ally, the Nawab of Oudh, and his enemies, the Afghan Rohilla chieftains. Hastings then levied a fine so steep on Chait Singh, the Raja of Benares that the raja rose up in rebellion. The British then dethroned him. On still another occasion, when the Nawab of Oudh claimed that he could not make certain payments to the company because of a debt owed to him by his great-aunts, Hastings insulted the Nawab by sending troops to siege the treasury from the women.
In 1783, when the BEIC failed to make its annual payment of 400,000 British pounds on its government loan as stipulated in the 1772 agreement, Prime Minister Charles James Fox, took advantage of the situation to bring forth an India Bill aimed at transferring all power over British India to a group of London commissioners. The Prime Minister’s bill drew a firestorm of protest. In addition to a challenge from the BEIC, the Fox Bill faced opposition from King George III (1760-1820) because of its attempt to reduce certain royal prerogatives. Using his voting block within Parliament, George III defeated the bill and dismissed Fox. The Indian problem still needed a solution when William Pitt, the Younger became Prime Minister (1784-1801, 1804-1806) the following year. Pitt’s India Bill, formulated during his first year in office, succeeded to some extent where the Regulating Act failed. The Pitt India Bill increased the powers of the governor-general, reduced the size of his advisory council and gave him veto power over their decisions in emergencies. It also replaced the Board of Proprietors with a Board of Control and made the head of that board a member of the British Cabinet. While the Board of Directors remained in charge of commerce and patronage, the new Board of Control had final approval of all civil and military matters.
Armed with the increase in powers provided by the Pitt India Bill, Lord Cornwallis, Governor-General between 1786 and 1798, stamped out much of BEIC’s corruption. Unfortunately, Cornwallis did not have much success with relieving the company’s growing debt. Essentially, there were two ways the company could reduce it financial stress. It could increase its investments in India and use the receipts from Indian goods sold in Europe to reduce the debt transferred to Britain. Alternatively, the company could obtain a loan from Parliament. BEIC officers preferred the former to the latter. Unfortunately, Napoleon’s economic blockade made it impossible to reship Indian goods to Europe via Britain. In 1812, the rising debt forced the company to seek another loan from the government. In order to obtain the necessary financial assistance, the BEIC had to accept further parliamentary restrictions. These restrictions were set forth in the Charter Act of 1813. According to this new charter, the Board of Directors loss some of its powers to the Board of Control, including its right to appropriate the BEIC’s surplus commercial profits, its right to restore suspended or dismissed company employees and its right to veto the nominations of all high-ranking administrative officials in India. In addition, the BEIC accepted a clause that allowed licensed missionaries to “proceed to India for the purpose of enlightening or reforming Indians.”
In the early days, British officers tried to respect the obligations and restrictions that religion placed upon their Indian soldiers. The lack of British women in India and the difficulties of making frequent visits to England forced the British to adapt to the social customs of the Hindus and Muslims.
[British] officials had contributed to [religious] procession; they had administered Hindu temple funds and supervised pilgrimages to holy places; [British] officers had piled their swords next to their soldiers’ muskets round the altar at the Hindu festival of Dosehra to be blessed by the priests.
However, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, BEIC personnel, laboring under the oppressive strictures of British Victorianism, began to see service in India as a “bad bargain.” They considered Islam and Hinduism pagan and barbaric religions, and after the removal of the ban on missionaries, Indians found themselves victimized by sermonizing individuals who expounded upon the virtues of Christianity at every conceivable opportunity. Patients in hospitals and prisoners in jails suffered indignities under British administration that seemed–in their eyes–planned for the express purpose of destroying their religions.
Many observers saw the Christian missionaries and their work as the primary cause of the rebellion. In their efforts to convert the Indians, the missionaries aroused the enmity of both the Hindus and Muslims. When the passage of the Charter of 1813 removed the ban on missionaries, Indians suddenly found themselves the victims of sermonizing individuals who expounded the virtues of Christianity at every opportunity. The missionaries even went so far as to extol before the captive and unwilling prisoners in local jails. British jail keepers refused to permit Muslims to wear beards for supposedly sanitary reasons. Jail keepers also replaced the Hindus’ brass drinking cups with earthenware vessels that are much harder to clean by ritual prayer once polluted. British law also aided the missionary reformers. For instance, Hindu widows for centuries practiced self-emollition, in the ancient religious ceremony of suttee, by flinging themselves onto the funeral pyres of their husbands. British law prohibited this ceremony and allowed Hindu widows to remarry if they chose to do so. Although suttee was an odious practice and many Hindus recognized it as such, the Brahmins saw the law prohibiting the ceremony as an infringement on their religious authority. In other cases, individuals could circumvent the restraints of British law in the cause of “converting souls to the true faith.” For example, officials could abrogate the dreadful doctrine of lapse and permit an adopted son of an Indian raja to retain his inheritance if he converted to Christianity.
According to the Pitt India Bill, territorial expansion in India was “repugnant to the wish, the honor and policy of the British state.” Nevertheless, BEIC officers annexed Indian principalities at an alarming rate. For example, during his first term as Governor-General (1798-1805), Richard Colley, Lord Wellesley, pushed the British frontier far up the Ganges Valley, bringing most of southern India under BEIC authority. Through wars, annexations and treaties that placed independent Indian states under British subsidy Wellesley established control over Tanjore, Surat, the Carnatic and a large portion of Oudh. The crown recalled him in 1805 due to his excesses, but other governors pursued equally aggressive policies of territorial aggrandizement.
Under Lord Francis Rawdon, the Marquis of Hastings, who served as Governor-General between 1813-1822, the BEIC conquered Nepal, defeated the Marathas and their Pindari allies and annexed the rest of Oudh before seizing the Central Provinces. The rigorous policies of Governor-General (1848-1856) Lord James Andrew Dalhousie, in particular, disaffected the India population. When Dalhousie took office the misrule and neglect of certain Indian rulers, and the impermanence of the subsidiary system established by Wellesley prompted the new governor-general to “remove as many feudal states as he could, leaving only a few of the larger ones nominally independent, but actually under the control of the central government.” He annexed the Punjab in 1849 as a punishment for a Sikh rebellion, gained control of Cambhalpur after the Raja’s death, and seized Berar when the Nizam of Hyderabad could not pay the fifty lakhs necessary to maintain the British subsidiary force there. Using the law of lapse, Dalhousie annexed the principalities of Satara, Nagpur, Jhansi, Hyderabad, as well as the balance of independent Oudh. He also confiscated large tracts of land held by zemindars (landholders) for lack of a clear title and totally dispossessed many smaller property holders. In the Deccan alone, Dalhousie seized some 20,000 holdings.
In addition to disputes over land and religion that divided the British from their Indian subjects, there were also difficulties within the Bengal Army. Three out of every four soldiers in the Bengal Army were high caste Rajput and Brahmin Hindus, while the others were Muslims of considerable social standing. The company promoted these soldiers according to seniority, without regard to individual merits. For their services, they received seven rupees per month, and although this amounted to less than one-third of the pay collected by British troops, it was far more than they could have earned as civilians. Their positions in the Army gained them respect from the people of their villages.
However, there were also drawbacks to service in the Indian Army. For instance, at Vellore in 1806, a new dress order requiring the Muslims to alter their traditional headgear and Hindus to cease wearing their castes marks provoked a mutiny in which some 200 British soldier lost their lives. Duty on foreign shores evoked a whole series of additional problems. Since neither, Muslims or Hindus could forego their religious duties, by fact or implication, without suffering repercussions when they returned home, they refused to go to Burma in 1824 and in 1852 unless the Governor-General provided them with special transport to carry their own cooking utensils. In fact, the preparations demanded by those sepoys who did go in 1852 were so extensive and of such inconvenience that Governor-General Dalhousie issued the General Enlistment Act in 1856 prior to ordering the sepoys to Burma for a third time. This Enlistment Act required that all future recruits to the Bengal Army accept service on the same terms as the sepoys at Bombay and Madras, and that they agree to serve wherever the government sent them.
At Barrackpur, on 4 February 1857, the sepoys of the 2nd Native Infantry (N.I.) refused to use the new cartridges for their rifles. Two days later, a court of inquiry examined the insubordination charges against the sepoys and found that their motives were both fear of the cartridge lubricant and the paper used in its construction. Later, on the same evening, Captain A. S. Allen of the 34th N.I. received a warning from a sepoy and a jemindar concerning a plot to rebel developing among various sepoy regiments at Barrackpur. Major-General J. B. Hearsey forwarded these warnings to Calcutta along with the findings of the court of inquiry, and on the following day attempted to allay the fears of the sepoys in a speech he delivered to them. His efforts only partially dispelled the apprehensions of the sepoys. Later that month, the contagion of rebellion spread to Berhampur when a detachment of the 34th N.I. arrived there for special duty. The commander at Berhampur, Lieutenant-Colonel W. St. L. Mitchell, a hot-tempered, over-confident man refused to recognize the potentially explosive nature of the situation. Upon hearing that his men would not touch the new cartridges, Mitchell angrily harangued the sepoys for their reluctance to obey orders. Despite his strong speech, his men adamantly refused to use the cartridges.
Throughout February, the atmosphere remained tense in Berhampur and Barrackpur. By March, feelings of disquiet and foreboding spread across the entire region. European travelers reported feelings of uneasiness in Fatehpur, Kanpur, Gorakpur and Ambala. On 29 March 1857, another incident occurred at Barrackpur that added fuel to an already volatile situation. That Sunday, a sepoy, Mangal Pande, under the influence of some intoxicant, began rampaging about the parade ground with a loaded gun. He got into an altercation with the quarter-guard and nearly killed the Adjutant, Lieutenant Baugh. The British officers did not regain control of the rebellious sepoys until Major-General Hearsey and his son, John, came galloping onto the parade ground. The forceful and much-respected Hearseys took charge and demanded the sepoy’s arrest. Unfortunately, before the quarter-guard could carry out the order, Mangal Pande turned his gun upon himself and tried to commit suicide. Less than one week later, Mangal Pande, still suffering from his injuries, underwent court-martial. Despite the extenuating circumstances surrounding the incident, the court condemned him to death and ordered the 19th and 24th Native Regiments disbanded for failing to obey orders.
While several indication of growing mistrust and unrest developed within the ranks of the Indian Army in addition to those detailed above, the official outbreak of the mutiny occurred on 10 May 1857 at Meerut, a city some forty miles north of Delhi. At Meerut, the British maintained the 3rd Light Cavalry, the 11th and the 20th N.I., the First Battalion of the 60th Rifles, the 6th Dragoons, a Horse Artillery troop, a Foot Artillery company and a light field battery. The station possessed one of the strongest British forces in Bengal. It should have been capable of handling the developing crisis. The British authorities there knew of the occurrence at Berhampur and some of them recognized the imminent threat of rebellion. Regrettably, the commander, Colonel George Munro Carmichael-Smythe, believing that the sepoys would see reason once they understood that they did not need to bite the tops from the cartridges, approved a parade for 24 April to instruct them in the new rifle drill. John McNabb, a young cornet situation. In a letter to his mother, he wrote:
There was no necessity to have a parade at all or to make any fuss of the sort just now. No other Colonel thought of doing such a thing, as they knew at this unsettled time their men would refuse to be the first to fire these cartridges…. The men themselves humbly petitioned the Colonel to put the parade off until this disturbance in India had gone over, in fact, pointing out to him what he ought to have seen himself. He [Carmichael-Smythe]… sent for the [acting] Adjutant and asked what he advised. Fancy a Colonel asking his Adjutant. He ought to be able to make his own mind up… if he is fit to command a regiment.
The Acting Adjutant felt that canceling the parade would amount to admitting fear of the sepoys. Carmichael-Smythe agreed and on Friday, ninety skirmishers from the 3rd Light Cavalry marched out onto the parade ground. The Acting Adjutant ordered them to take three cartridges each. Five non-commissioned officers accepted the ammunition, but the others refused to obey the order. After they refused a second time, the Colonel removed them from duty and confined them to their cantonment lines. The next day, a court of inquiry convened to take evidence concerning the incident. Upon examining the court findings, the Judge Advocate recommended that all 85 men be court-martialed. The Commander-in Chief, General George Anson (1797-1857) approved the recommendation and at a subsequent trial, the sepoys each received a ten-year sentence of imprisonment with hard labor.
Two weeks later, on Saturday, 9 May, all troops at Meerut, including some 1,700 British, assembled on the British parade ground. They formed a square with three sides and the convicted sepoys marched through the open end and halted. Under a darkening sky, the Acting Adjutant stripped the sepoys of their rank, shackled them, read them out of the service and ordered them led away. When he returned to his bungalow after visiting the prisoners, he received a warning from an Indian officer in his regiment that increased his alarm. An officer informed Lieutenant Gough that the Indian troops planned to mutiny on the following day. The lieutenant immediately passed the information along to Carmichael-Smythe, but the Colonel treated his warning with contempt. Gough received the same response from Brigadier-General Archdale Wilson (1803-1874), the station commander, and Major General W. H. Hewitt, the divisional commander at Meerut.
On Sunday, 10 May, at around 6:00 PM., the first troubles began when sepoys broke into the jail to free the prisoners, they then scattered throughout the station to plunder and murder. Almost to a man, the Indian police force defected. By 10:00PM, some Hindu gujars from the surrounding villages had entered Meerut to participate in the violence and looting. Rebels cut the telegraph lines, and warning messages sent by horsemen failed to reach the authorities in Delhi or Agra. Before daybreak on Monday, the sepoys left for Delhi, and the British officer in charge, Brigadier-General Archdale Wilson, could do nothing to stop them. The British soldiers under his command were only half-trained, and he had no transport with which to pursue the rebels. In a letter he wrote to his wife on Tuesday, 12 May 1857, Wilson decried the lack of sufficient animal transport for his troops: “We have no power to move having no cattle except fifteen elephants and a few bullocks.”
The road from Meerut led directly to the Calcutta Gate at Delhi. On Monday, 11 May, the sepoys arrived there and demanded entry into the city. The Calcutta Gate remained closed to them, but they subsequently gained admittance through the Water Gate. Hopelessly unprepared, in a matter of hours the British lost control of Delhi to the rebels. The sepoys rampaged through the city slaughtering every European they laid eyes on. Lacking the assistance of even a single British company of troops, the officer in charge of the Delhi garrison, Lieutenant George Willoughby, had no choice but to blow up the main magazine, killing a handful of British soldiers along with several hundred mutineers. Although Willoughby destroyed the main arsenal, some 3,000 barrels of powder–a quantity sufficient to arm a large campaign–fell into the hands of the rebels. The mutineers incited the local sepoys to rebel before releasing prisoners from the jail and marching on the Red Fort, the royal palace of Bahadur Shah II (d. 1862).
Without permission, they entered the Diwani Khas, the Hall of Audience, and demanded that the King of Delhi see them. Bahadur Shah, a sick, enfeebled old pensioner of the BEIC did not immediately present himself to the rebels; the loud and disrespectful behavior of the sepoys alarmed him. After their initial entry into the royal palace, the King sent one of his attendants to the Lieutenant Governor at Agra informing him of the arrival of the rebels at Delhi. However, as the number of rebels in the palace increased, circumstances forced Bahadur Shah to announce his support of the sepoys.
The King…told his attendants…to call the Indian officers forward [a royal vakil later testified]. The officers of the cavalry came forward, mounted as they were, and explained that they had been required to bite the cartridges [which] were greased with beef and pork fat, that they had killed the Europeans at Meerut and had come to claim his protection. The King replied, “I did not call for you. You have acted and we must in that case just do what we can for ourselves.” The King then seated himself in a chair and soldiers–officers and men-came forward one by one and bowed their heads before him, asking him to place his hand on them. The King did so….
On 12 May, General Anson received news of the mutiny at Delhi from the station at Ambala. Unfortunately, the British could not easily relieve Delhi. In February 1856, the British military forces in India, including both Crown and BEIC troops, consisted of approximately 233,000 Indians and some 40,000 British. The Indians outnumbered the British by almost six to one. In addition, European reluctance to maintain a standing army in peacetime left General Anson without adequate supplies or transport. Anson lost crucial time forming a siege-train and gathering a force of 3,800 troops. He did not begin moving towards the capital until 17 May. Meanwhile, mutinies at Aligarh, Mainpuri, Etawah, Bulundshar, Bareilly, Moradabad, Nasirabad, Jhansi and Gwalior continued to swell the ranks of the sepoys gathering at Delhi. It is unclear whether or not Anson knew of these events, but in any case, he was in no condition to take any positive action to relieve the growing crisis. During the march from Ambala, in the fierce heat of summer, Anson contract cholera and died before the army could reach Karnal on 30 May.
Lieutenant General, Sir Henry Barnard (1799-1857), now in command of the troops from Ambala, left the siege-train and moved on with his troops to Delhi. From Meerut, General Wilson also began marching towards the capital. On 30-31May, Wilson confronted a small force of rebels on the Hindon River and captured five of their cannons before meeting up with Barnard’s forces at Baghpat. Six miles from Delhi, Barnard, now commanding both the Meerut and Ambala forces, led a brave attack on some 30,000 rebels entrenched at Badliki Serai. He routed the mutineers and seized nearly thirty guns before advancing on the capital where the combined force took up a position overlooking the Red Fort. While Barnard set up camp at Delhi, the unrest continued to spread.
At the Calcutta Government House, the new Governor-General (1856-1862), Lord Charles Canning received word via telegram of the rebellion at Meerut, as well as reports of Europeans murdered at Delhi. Lord Canning immediately took steps to regain control of the disaffected areas. He telegraphed Lord Monstuart Eliphinstone, the Governor of Bombay, requesting that he hasten the arrival of the troops due to return from Persia (Iran). In the Punjab, he gave Sir John Lawrence carte blanche; instructing Lawrence to take any action, he considered necessary to maintain control of the province. In another dispatch, Lord Canning countermanded an earlier order sending the 8th Regiment to Rangoon, Burma. He also wrote Lord Harris, the Governor of Madras, requesting that he send two regiments to Calcutta. After taking steps to obtain assistance from outside the immediate area in jeopardy, Canning examined the resources available to him inside the affected areas.
During July, the mutiny moved south; outbreaks occurred at Indore, Mhow and Sagar, extending the rebellion zone to the Narmada River and threatening the Deccan. By the end of July 1857, there were no more than 1,500 British infantrymen at Delhi, and less than 1,000 men in route to Lucknow. Lord Canning had four British regiments at his disposal and could spare none of them to relieve Delhi. Between Danapur and Calcutta, he had the 84th Regiment, the 53rd Regiment and the 10th Foot; at Banares, Allahabad and Kanpur he had a few gunners. At Lucknow, Sir Allahabad and throughout all of Oudh, but he could not depend on them to remain loyal. Strategically, the Governor-General was at a distinct disadvantage.
Aside from Delhi, the two most important revolts occurred in the province of Oudh at Kanpur and Lucknow. An important post along the Grand Trunk Road, Kanpur lay between Delhi and Banares on the western bank of the Ganges River. Developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a BEIC garrison, Kanpur maintained a population of nearly 60,000 inhabitants. A bridge of boats crossed the Ganges River at Kanpur bringing a ceaseless throng of merchants, religious mendicants, travelers, camels, horses and bullocks into Oudh. Company business made the garrison town a highly successful trading center, as well as a sanctuary for rascals and vagrants of all sorts. In the last weeks of May 1857, the garrison commander, Major General, Sir Hugh Massy Wheeler (1789-1857) still believed that he could maintain control. In the event of any real trouble at Kanpur, Wheeler intended to shelter the British civilians within the military barracks which consisted primarily of two buildings, a couple of incomplete structures and various out-houses. The barracks stood in an exposed position on a plain east of the city approximately one mile from the riverbank.
Despite reports on 20 May of “a good deal of excitement and alarm,” by 3 June, Wheeler considered the garrison secure enough to send two officers and fifty men to Lucknow after Sir Henry Lawrence “expressed some necessary to supply the compound with more that 25 days of provisions. Not everyone shared the Major-General’s confidence or optimism. Before the uprising, many civilians tried to hire boats to take them away from the garrison by river, others tried to escape via the road to Allahabad, while others went into hiding within the city. Daily tensions in the garrison town increased. All sorts of rumors flew through Kanpur. Every night, British officers left their families in the exposed barracks to return to their regiments with the deepest foreboding, each, no doubt, wondering how long the uncertainty would last, and what they would do, or could do if the worst happened. Finally, on 5 June, the sowars of the 2nd Cavalry broke into the Treasury and the jail before making for the garrison magazine. In the first few hours of fighting the First and 56th Indian Regiments joined the uprising. Under pressure from their British adjutants, the 53rd temporarily stood their ground. After they joined the rebellion, the mutineers called upon Dhondu Pant, the Maharaja of Bithur to lead them to Delhi.
Dhondu Pant, known as the Nan Sahib to the British, was one of the adopted sons of Marathan Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa of Bithur. After the BEIC removed Baji Rao II from the throne of Bithur, they supplied him with an ample pension that allowed him to live in a princely fashion. When he died in 1851, his annual pension of eight lakhs of rupees (80,000 British pounds) came to an abrupt end. Dhondu Pant appealed the decision to the Directors in London, unfortunately, for him, the company remained adamant in its refusal to continue its extensive financial support. Dhondu Pant’s perpetual irritation over the company’s termination of his father’s pension made him an excellent rallying figure once the rebellion began. The disgruntled Dhondu Pant accepted the invitation to lead the rebels and swore to remain faithful to their cause. On 6 June, the four rebellious regiments started down the road to Delhi. While the rebels moved towards the capital, Dhondu Pant’s advisors tried to counsel him against making the trip to Delhi where he would be subordinant to an aging Muslim Emperor. Instead, they advised him to remain in Kanpur and rally the regiments to his own name. Following their advice, Dhondu Pant ordered the rebels to return to the garrison town.
Three days later, Dhondu Pant took up a position near the military compound at Kanpur and began firing on Wheeler’s entrenchment at 10:00 AM on 9 June. Although Wheeler received news of the Maharaja’s impending attack on the very day that Dhondu Pant made the decision, he was in no position to resist a concerted rebel assault. The entrenchment contained less than 1,000 persons, including 400 women and children, 100 civilian men, 100 British officers, 300 British soldiers, the rest were Indian officers, sepoys and servants. Though well supplied with muskets and ammunition, the entrenchment contained only a few lights, nine-ponder guns. To have any effect, they needed to fire these guns from exposed positions to have any effect upon the rebel forces.
The siege took a tremendous toll upon the British. Life within the barracks assumed the aspect of a nightmare. For three long weeks, the British defended themselves in the blazing summer heat with no hope of immediate rescue. Under the sporadic, but deadly bombardment of Dhondu Pant’s guns, the British endured horrific, mutilating injuries. Finally, Dhondu Pant’s eagerness to begin instituting his plans to become the new Peshwa prompted him to offer the beleaguered defenders safe passage to Allahabad if they surrendered. Initially, Major-General Wheeler rejected the offer out of hand, but Captain Moore of the 32nd Regiment pointed out that once the overdue monsoon set in it would be impossible to hold their position. Persuaded by Moore’s argument, Wheeler reluctantly agreed to surrender, provided the defenders could retain their own weapons. He also stipulated that Dhondu Pant supply them with sufficient boats for the trip to Allahabad, and that the women, children and injured receive adequate transport to the river.
The Maharaja accepted Wheeler’s proviso and on 27 June, the rag-tag bunch of survivors, suffering from extreme thirst, hunger and wounds conceded defeat and staggered from the compound. After a weary procession through the city, the British boarded barges at the Satichaura Ghat, a dreary looking landing place at the mouth of a shallow ravine. Almost immediately, the rebels tossed burning coals onto the rooftops of the flimsy barges and set them ablaze. Grapeshot and bullets poured into the crowd stranded aboard the boats, while the rebels rode into the Ganges with swords drawn to cut down those desperate few still alive. When the firing stopped, the rebels separated the men from the women and shot them. They then took the survivors, some 125 women and children, to the Bibighar, a small dwelling built by a British officer for his mistress. Cholera and dysentery soon took their toll on the women and children crammed inside the house. In less than ten days, 25 of them fell victim to disease.
Meanwhile, Brigadier-General, Sir Henry Havelock (1795-1857) left Allahabad on 7 July accompanied by a pitiable force of 1,000 British soldiers, some 150 Sikhs, a detachment of sepoy irregulars, some 20 cavalry volunteers and 6 guns. In the high heat of summer, Havelock and his men traveled an average of 10.6 miles per day. Believing that Dhondu Pant held some 200 Europeans hostage, the army kept going in the oppressive heat, determined to rescue the “women and the tender infants in the power of those devils incarnate!” When news of Havelock’s approach reached Kanpur, the rebels, aware of the Brigadier-General’s adamant belief that every mutineer must be captured and his whole regiment summarily executed, decided to kill the remaining hostages and move south of the garrison to await further developments. Despite protestations from many of the women in the Maharaja’s household and some of the sepoys, Dhondu Pant found five unsavory characters whom “would not shrink from the necessary task of executing Christians.” By nightfall, not a single European hostage remained alive.
On 17 July, unaware of the massacre in the Bibigar, Havelock confronted Dhondu Pant and his army of 5,000 men of a crescent-shaped field outside Kanpur. Havelock approached the rebel force from its left flank. As though vying with each other to impress the Brigadier-general with their skill, the regiments gradually drove back the Maharaja’s forces. In a desperate charge, Havelock’s men broke through the rebel lines. In the ensuing melee Dhondu Pant escaped to Bithur, while hundreds of Indians, rebel and innocent alike, fled Kanpur into the surrounding countryside to avoid British vengeance. When the British troops entered the Bibighar after they arrived at Kanpur, they found a shocking spectacle. They found the clothing of women and children of all descriptions strewn about. Blood-covered petticoats, skirts, slippers, stays, straw hats and bonnets were everywhere.
[Outside,] all the way to the well was marked by a regular track along which the bodies had been dragged and the thorny bushes entangled in them scraps of clothing and long hairs. One of the large trees…had evidently had children’s brains dashed out against its trunk…and an eye, glazed and withered, could be plainly made out…smashed into the coarse bark.
The horrid scenes provoked extreme emotions in the men who viewed them; private soldier and officers alike swore revenge against the rebels. Recently promoted Brigadier-General James George Smith Neill (1807-1857) confessed that he could not control his feelings in the face of such tragedy. Left in command after Havelock moved on with the army to Lucknow, Neill exacted a savage punishment on those he considered responsible for the murder of the women and children in the Bibighar. Likewise, many of the men at Kanpur seemed so intent on hanging rebels that they appeared to forget that hostages at Lucknow faced a similar fate.
Made special general for the situation, John Nicholson arrived at Delhi on 25 August. Inside the Red Fort, new of Nicholson’s arrival and the imminent approach of the siege-train prompted the rebels to confront the British. With a force of some 2,000 men, Nikal Seyn, as Nicholson known to the sepoys, pursued some five to six thousand rebels away from the city and defeated them in less than two hours. By 4 September, when the siege-train arrived, some of the commanding officers, particularly Nicholson and Frederick Roberts (who would later become the commander-in-chief), were ready to assault the city. Unfortunately, since Barnard’s death from disease on 5 July, Wilson was once again in command. Ineffectual at best, Wilson delayed until 8 September and was still reluctant to go ahead when the First Battery divided into two sections and began its assault upon the Mori and Kashmir Bastions. By 11 September, the walls began to crumble and two days later, the commanding officers made plans to breach the walls and retake Delhi. On 14 September, Nicholson led the second assault on the two bastions and lost his life. However, in less than a week, on 20 September, Delhi was once again in British hands.
While the British recaptured Delhi, Havelock returned to Kanpur. Upon his arrival, he found that his decision not to risk his men in a heroic, but foolish gambit, met with disapproval. The authorities relieved him of his command and placed Sir James Outram in charge. However, in a magnanimous gesture, on 16 September, Outram declared that he would step down and leave the honor of relieving Lucknow to Havelock. On 25 September, the British stormed Lucknow, but it was soon very apparent that all Havelock could hope to do was reinforce the garrison at the residency. At the same time, Sir Colin Campbell, the new Commander-in Chief began raising fresh forces to relieve the sorely harassed defenders of Lucknow. The tine group at the Residency had seven long weeks to endure before help arrived in November 1857. After months of living with hunger and dread, suddenly, the survivors at Lucknow heard the distant sound on bagpipes playing “The Campbells Are Coming.” Finally, help had come. Campbell arrived with his favorite regiment, the 93rd Highlanders, and as the last assault took place, through the thick, black smoke the rescuers could see the British flag still fluttering from the Residency rooftop. Throughout the entire siege, and despite impossible odds, the British at Lucknow never surrendered.
Once Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow were again under British control, effectively the Rebellion ended. During the last months of 1857, the rebels degenerated into brigands. There were several reasons why the Sepoy Rebellion failed. First, it was never a national revolt. Cultural and religious differences kept the Indians from uniting against the British. The Sikhs in the Punjab preferred British rule under the able Sir John Lawrence to the Muslims in Delhi or the Marathan Hindus in southern India. Second, the rebels never developed any great leaders. Dhondu Pant hated the British enough to attempt a rebellion, but he lacked the self-control and, Bahadur Shah was more symbol than substance. Being a Muslim, he could never hope to gain the support of the Sikhs in the Punjab or the Marathan Hindus. Finally, the British in India were well trained and devoted. Men like John Nicholson and the Lawrence brothers, Henry and John, loved India and were willing to sacrifice their lives to keep India from descending into a state of anarchy.
Once the rebellion ended, it was abundantly obvious to everyone that the BEIC could no longer govern India. A government act made it official. On 2 August 1858, Queen Victoria assumed the government of India by Royal Assent. In the new government, a Secretary of State replaced the Board of Control and the Governor-General became Viceroy of India. The British government reformed the Indian Army, increasing the amount of British troops in proportion the Indian troops, and removing all Indians from artillery units. The British also abrogated the doctrine of lapse and thereafter took great pains to foster the native states. In the area of religion, the Queen in her India proclamation stated:
We declare it to be our royal will and pleasure that none be in any wise favored, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law; and we do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under us, that they abstain from all interference with the religious belief or worship of any of our subjects, on pain of our highest displeasure.
With India now directly under the control of the British government, and Bahadur Shah safely exiled to Rangoon, Burma, India entered into a period of relative peace and prosperity. However, beneath the surface calm the bitterness remained. The gulf between the British and the Indians widened as the Hindus and Muslims became more entrenched in their own cultures and religions, and the British became more aloof and less sympathetic to the people they governed.
Sir John Kaye (1814-1876), one of the most prolific writers on the history of British India, believed that the fear of the Brahmins of western innovations was the main cause of the 1857 rebellion. According to Kaye, the Brahmins, as traditional guardians of Hindu culture, perceived a threat to their religion and their social status in the increasing control the British exercised over India. The Brahmins naturally took the lead in instigating both the soldier and the civilians to rebel against British authority. In Kaye’s analysis, the rebellion became a last, desperate attempt by the Brahmin to defend themselves against the forces of modernity.
George Bruce Malleson, a cadet in the BEIC military service in 1842, and later a correspondent for the London Times, was one of the few historians to advance the theory of a conspiracy behind the war. He persuasively argued that a widespread and well-organized group of conspirators had been planning to overthrow the British. In his book, Malleson identified three individuals he considered chief conspirators: Dhondu Pant, the Maharaja of Bithur; the Maulavi, Ahmadallah of Oudh, a Muslim religious leader; and the Rani of Jhansi, the widow of a small state in Central India. In the spring of 1857, Ahmadallah began traveling the Northwest Provinces on what Malleson describes as an “unknown mission.” During his travels, the maulavi stayed in Delhi, Meerut, Patna, Agra and Calcutta. Malleson credits him with devising the Chapatti Movement, a scheme centered round the circulation of small, “dirty, little cakes of the coarsest flour about the size and thickness of a biscuit.” Indians baked these cakes, six at a time, and distributed them at night to neighboring villages.
There were rumors that lotus flowers, leaves of brinjal and bits of goat’s flesh were also being passed from hand to hand within the sepoy regiments, that an ominous slogan ‘Sub lol hogea hai’ (Everything will become red) was being whispered everywhere; that magical symbols…[were appearing] on the walls of many towns…[and that] fakirs and maulavis were moving about…gathering crowds…and warning them to stand firm…to fight for their faith….
The second conspirator, Dhondu pant harbored a great deal of resentment towards the British and the BEIC because of the way they had dealt with him after his father’s death. According to the doctrine of lapse, Dhondu Pant, an adopted son, had no right to his father’s estates and pension. Despite his adamant appeals, the British remained firm in their refusal to continue his father’s pension. The BEIC Court of Directors instructed Governor-General Dalhousie to inform the adopted son of the former Peshwa: that the pension of his adoptive father was not hereditary, that he [Dhondu Pant] has no claim whatever to it, and that his application is wholly inadmissible. The date of this insensitive reply was May 1853, just four years from the date of the mutiny.
Not very far from Kanpur, the third conspirator, the Rani of Jansi had a similar grievance against the British. Described as a woman of high character and great energy, the Rani enjoyed the respect of everyone in Jhansi. In 1854, her husband died without issue, and despite the services rendered to the British by the past rajas, Governor-General Dalhousie refused to recognize her claim to her husband’s estates. Therefore, Jhansi lapsed into British hands. Malleson believed that all three conspirators entered into negotiations before the rebellion. He based his arguments in support of his theory on after-the-fact circumstantial evidence and the assumption that Ahmadallah, Dhondu Pant and the Rani of Jhansi were in control of the rebellion. The sources do not support his conspiracy theory.
In the nineteenth century, British fear of Russia prompted both the Afghan Wars and the Crimean War. Therefore, it was not surprising that many British saw Russia’s handiwork in the rebellion. One of the most persistent advocates of the Russian involvement theory was David Urquardt, a Member of Parliament. Urquardt believed that Russian machinations caused Britain’s troubles in India. Foreshadowing McCarthyism and the Red Hunt, Urquardt declared that the chief agents of Russian policy were in the British Cabinet. In particular, Urquardt criticized Disraeli, denouncing the Prime Minister’s Indian speech in a pamphlet he published.