The events of 1857 Part II



“Attack of the Mutineers on the Redan Battery at Lucknow”, 30 July 1857

To the insurgents too, Lucknow was important. The siege of the Residency provided a sustained focus for the revolt in Awadh. The longer it lasted, the more committed became both Hindu and Muslim participants and the more persuaded became the great rural taluqdars. Lucknow flourished again as a source of power and authority. A supposed son of the last nawab was enthroned, and a skeleton administration set up in his name. It lasted until March 1858 when the city finally fell to the largest British army, as opposed to Sepoy army, ever mustered in India. Suppressing the insurgency in the rest of Awadh took another year, plus a complete reversal of the 1856 land settlement. But with the fall of Lucknow and the ruthless sacking of this ‘Babylon of India’ the Great Rebellion lost all momentum.

The final scenes of defiance occurred to the south of the Jamuna in the wilder territory, mostly under princely rule, between the Chambal and Betwa rivers. This was Bundelkhand and amongst its states was that of Jhansi, a small Maratha principality south of Scindhia’s Gwalior which had been annexed under Dalhousie’s ‘doctrine of lapse’. Lakshmi Bai, the last raja’s widow, made a strong impression on those British who took over her state. She was ‘of high character [and] much respected by everyone’; she was also comparatively young and possessed of ‘many charms’ and ‘a remarkably fine figure’. Although, like the Mughal and the Nana Sahib, she had a strong grievance against the British, she too seems to have played no part in the mutiny of the Bengal troops stationed in Jhansi. There, in a carbon copy of events in Kanpur, the small British community had sought refuge in the local fort but soon accepted proposals for its evacuation. They then straggled out under what they thought was a safe-conduct and were promptly massacred. Again Lakshmi Bai may have been innocent. She blamed the mutinous troops and insisted that she too had been their victim, having been forced to part with funds and her few guns. The mutineers then marched off to Agra and Delhi leaving her implicated and defenceless.

No British troops were available to deal with this comparatively minor affair, but the rani soon found herself challenged both by a rival claimant to her husband’s defunct title and by the neighbouring rajput rajas of Datia and Orchha. When the latter invaded Jhansi, supposedly on behalf of the British, she began raising troops and herself led them in repulsing the assault. This was in September and October 1857. It is notable that the rani’s considerable military reputation was first acquired fighting not the British but local rivals and that, though her forces were drawn largely from elements who had aligned themselves with the Rebellion, in her correspondence she continued to protest her fidelity to the British. In effect old dynastic scores were being settled and new opportunities exploited under cover of the Rebellion.

The situation changed in early 1858 with the northward advance of a section of the British Bombay army. Having received no encouragement from her various letters to the British, the rani and her advisers rightly assumed that her reassertion of Jhansi’s sovereignty was threatened and her own safety in danger. Now, if not earlier, she definitely became reconciled to rebellion and established contact with Tatya Topi, the Nana Sahib’s protégé who had established himself at Kalpi on the Jamuna. When the British laid siege to Jhansi in March, Tatya came to her aid but was repulsed. After a ferocious resistance led by Lakshmi Bai herself, Jhansi fell; but of its fearless commander, ‘the Jezebel of India’ as a fanciful British writer called her, there was no sign. In one of those hair’s-breadth escapes so dear to Maratha folklore, she slipped out in disguise with a trusty band of followers and rode hard for Kalpi.

Thereabouts the combined insurgents were again worsted, but on 1 June 1858 they responded with the boldest move of the whole Rebellion. Just when the British thought they had finally dislodged them from Bundelkhand, Lakshmi Bai and Tatya Topi seized Gwalior. As Scindia’s capital and still the greatest natural stronghold in India, Gwalior was well-chosen for a final stand. Scindia himself, while remaining loyal to the British, had been pretending sympathy for the insurgents as a way of detaining the large body of mutinous troops based in Gwalior. An appeal in the name of the peshwa, Scindia’s one-time superior in the Maratha hierarchy, failed to sway him; but it did serve to disabuse his troops. With their collaboration, Tatya Topi and the rani entered the city, paid their forces from its accumulated riches, and duly ensconced themselves on central India’s ‘Heights of Abraham’.

This tableau, so dear to nationalist lore, lasted barely three weeks. It ended when Lakshmi Bai died the death of the heroine she undoubtedly was. While riding round the ramparts, she was hit by a spray of bullets as the British launched their first assault. She was cremated nearby, ‘the only man among the rebels’ according to one of her British adversaries. Three days later the citadel fell and with it the last attempt at concerted action by the insurgents. Tatya and his followers would roam through Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh for another year of improbable and much-embellished escapades before he was betrayed, captured and executed. Meanwhile the Nana Sahib and the rump of the Awadh insurgents were penned ever closer to the Nepalese border. By 1860 even these ‘embers’ had been doused or dispersed. Their cause was anyway hopeless, not least because many of the grievances on which it rested had by then been addressed.

Measured in terms of concessions the Great Rebellion was far from being a disaster for the insurgents. Obviously the British made sure that military vulnerability would never again be the undoing of the Raj. By 1863 the Indian component in the Bengal, Bombay and Madras armies had been reduced by about 40 per cent and the British component increased by nearly 50 per cent. This gave an Indian–British ratio of less than 3:1, which was henceforth considered the bare minimum; in 1857 it had been more like 9:1. No Indian troops were now given artillery training; recruitment was increasingly switched from Awadh and Bihar to the Panjab and marginal hill regions whose supposedly ‘martial peoples’ were deemed more reliable and less paranoid about caste-loss; at the same time deployment was so organised as to avoid a concentration anywhere of units with the same composition. Rapid expansion of the railway system and of the telegraph further precluded the danger of mutiny. The 250 kilometres of track laid by 1856 had become 6400 by 1870 and sixteen thousand by 1880. Moreover in 1869 the opening of the Suez Canal slashed journey times between Europe and India, while the 1870 completion of an overland telegraph link brought closer co-ordination of imperial policies and more supervision from London.

The issue of the offending cartridges had, of course, long since been resolved. The troops now greased them themselves with whatever lubricant they preferred; moreover in 1867 the whole procedure became unnecessary when the breech-loading rifle made its Indian debut. Other concessions which addressed the underlying causes of the ‘mutiny’ were much more significant. In recognition of the fact that the mutineers had genuinely feared conversion to Christianity, missionary activity was curtailed and the public funding of mission schools reduced. Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1858 specifically disclaimed any ‘desire to impose Our convictions on any of Our subjects’ and ordered British officials to abstain from interfering with Indian beliefs and rituals ‘on the pain of Our highest displeasure’.

The reforming zeal of the Bentinck era was also repudiated. Already out of fashion in Britain, the presumed omniscience of Utilitarians and Benthamites was recognised as particularly inappropriate in India and the attempt to legislate away discriminatory traditions and eccentric practices was largely abandoned. An exception was made in respect of education; more schools were part-funded by government and the English language continued to be promoted. But the idea that extending the benefits of British rule to all Indians was a moral imperative lost favour. In particular the process of absorbing the Indian states and of eliminating hereditary revenue farmers was reversed. The taluqdars of Awadh, stigmatised as parasites in 1856 and rebels in 1857, had only to clear themselves of shedding British blood to emerge as faithful allies in 1858. Recognised as having a genuine hold on the loyalties as well as the remittances of their cultivating subordinates, they were confirmed in the hereditary possession of their rights and also co-opted into the British administration as local magistrates. Like Bengal’s zamindars and other rural aristocracies they joined the British Indian hierarchy as rajas and rais and became some of its most stalwart supporters.

Likewise their princely brethren of the Indian states. Although annexed states like Awadh were not restored, there were to be no further annexations. Existing treaties with India’s five hundred princes were now to be ‘scrupulously maintained’ while the detested ‘doctrine of lapse’ did just that; it lapsed. With few exceptions, the princes had remained loyal during the rebellion; in British eyes such loyalty now commanded a higher premium than enlightened rule.

The status of the princes was further enhanced by a new constitutional relationship between Britain and India. The royal proclamation of 1858 announced a decision of the British Parliament that all rights previously enjoyed by the East India Company in India were being resumed by the British Crown. Victoria thereby became Queen of India as well as of the United Kingdom, and India’s governor-general became her viceroy as well as the British government’s chief executive in India. The fiction of Company rule thus finally ended. Long as irrelevant as the Mughal, the Company now shared his fate as a casualty of the Rebellion. Instead of pining away in Rangoon, it would linger on for a few more years in a London office ‘unhonoured and unsung, but maybe not altogether unwept’.


1400-1590: Ottoman weapons I



Once connected, the two pieces created a cylinder 5.2 metres wide – a colossal size, at the time! The set weighed about 19 tons and had a 75 cm calibre, which means it could project rocks with that diametre, weighing around 600 Kg, at a distance of over 2 Km. They had to test it and, first of all, take it out from where it was built, though.

With the help of 60 oxen and 400 men, half of which prepared a floor able to support such an immense weight, the cannon was moved to a testing area. There, it was loaded with gunpowder and a huge spherical rock that was projected over 1500 metres away and buried almost 2 metres deep! Not very precise, but hugely devastating, nonetheless. Several of these cannons were then assembled and placed in front of the wall of Constantinople. A few hours of attack were enough to ravish the defenses and take over the mythical capital of the Byzantine Empire.


The earliest Ottoman weapon of which there is a record was the Turkish bow, fired from horseback. This was a weapon which continued to play an important role in both land and sea battles into the sixteenth century, even if later warriors lost the skill of firing it from a galloping horse. At some stage, too, the Ottomans adopted the crossbow, perhaps mainly for use in fortresses. As late as the early seventeenth century, the `Laws of the Janissaries’ notes that the Janissary Corps still maintained a stock of these weapons.

In addition to bows, Ottoman troops carried a variety of weapons. Spandounes, for example, describes the Azabs as carrying `bows, swords, shields and some [kind of] small axe'; the Raiders he describes as using `swords, small shields and nothing else’. In the mid-sixteenth century, however, the Hungarian Bartholomaeus Georgevits equips them with `lances, javelins, arrows and iron cudgels’. The timar-holding cavalrymen seem to have been, and to have remained until the eighteenth century, adept in the use of the short sword. These troops probably, in fact, used a great variety of weapons, since the law required them to bring their own equipment to battle. They would have had, therefore, to rely on what local craftsmen could produce, and what was available in local markets. A Law Book of 1502, which regulates trading practices in the Rumelian capital, Edirne, lists bowmakers, arrow makers, and sword and dagger makers among the craftsmen of the city. It also, in specifying the minimum quality for categories of saddle, refers to a type called the `Raider’s saddle’. These clauses suggest that Raiders and timar holders bought their equipment in the city market. The law also required timar-holding cavalrymen to provide their own armour, in the form, it seems, of a helmet and light chain mail covering the upper body. A document of November, 1515, ordering a review of troops in the following spring, threatens with decapitation or amputation of an arm, any soldier without a helmet or armlet respectively. The law also required the cavalrymen to provide their own horse-armour.

The Janissaries and the cavalrymen of the Six Divisions, however, received their weapons and armour from a central supply. The manufacture and maintenance of these was the responsibility of the Corps of Armourers, a body of men which the sultan recruited through the Collection. The corps probably originated in the fifteenth century, and its numbers expanded to reflect the number of Janissaries and household cavalrymen. There were, it seems, about 500 armourers in the mid-sixteenth century, and almost 6000 in 1630. They maintained the supply of all kinds of equipment, including handguns and trenching tools for sieges. The most important military development during the period of the rise of the Ottoman Empire was, however, the introduction of cannon and other firearms. These weapons came into use in western Europe during the course of the fourteenth century and, from there spread to the Balkan peninsula. By 1378, cannon were in position on the city walls of Dubrovnik and, during the next decade, came into regular use in the Kingdom of Bosnia and also, one may surmise, in Serbia. Ottoman troops may therefore have encountered them for the first time during raids and campaigns in the western Balkans during the 1380s. However, the Ottomans themselves did not adopt cannon on a large scale until the following century. References to their use of gunpowder weapons during the reign of Bayezid I are untrustworthy. By the 1420s, however, they had begun to use cannon in sieges. Kananos, for example, in his account of the siege of Constantinople in 1422, refers to `large bombards’, which he reports as having had no effect. There are other isolated references to the Ottoman use of cannon in the first three decades of the fifteenth century, but they were not as yet an important factor in warfare.

This changed with the Hungarian wars of the 1440s. During the campaigns of 1443-4, the Sultan’s army had no field artillery. The Hungarians, by contrast, had developed battle tactics which they based on the wagenburg. This was a mobile fortress, consisting of carts chained together to provide a protective wall for troops carrying handguns, with cannon placed on the carts themselves or in the embrasures between the vehicles. The inability of the Ottoman cavalry to overwhelm these fortifications almost lost them the war. The effectiveness of this tactic is clear from the Holy Wars of Sultan Murad, an anonymous but contemporary Turkish account of the campaign. Here, the author makes Turahan advise the Sultan: `My Padishah, command the troops of Islam to withdraw from the wagenburg, because if they do not, these . . . infidels will fire their cannon and arquebuses and the army of Islam will be defeated.’ In another passage, where he describes the bravado of a Turkish captive, the author has him say to the King of Hungary: `You rely on your carts and hope that the House of Osman will attack them, and that you will repel them with cannon and arquebus. But you don’t know that they have understood your trick . . . They will not attack your carts. No, they will surround you at a distance the guns cannot reach.’ The use of the wagenburg brought the Hungarians very close to victory. In 1443, it was the winter weather and the constriction of the army at the Zlatitsa Pass that prevented their further advance. At Varna in 1444, it was the stupidity of the King of Hungary in breaking loose from his army that led to the defeat.

It was, however, a tactic which the Ottomans themselves were very quick to adopt. When the Hungarians again encountered the Ottomans at the second battle of Kosovo in 1448, they found that the sultan had drawn up his ranks behind a `castle-like’ fortification of carts and spiked shields, which the Janissaries defended with guns. Once the Ottoman army had begun to use this tactic, the Hungarians no longer enjoyed a strategic advantage, and the outcome of the battle was a decisive Ottoman victory.

During the Varna campaign, it was artillery that gave the city fell because Mehmed II’s cannon were able to open a breach in the wall. It also exemplifies the type of gun that the Ottomans favoured. What struck contemporary observers about these weapons was their size. The largest, according to the Florentine Tedaldi, threw `a stone of eleven spans and three fingers in circumference, weighing nineteen hundred pounds’, and required, according to the Greek chronicler, Doukas, a team of 60 oxen and 200 men to transport from Edirne to Istanbul. Doukas also reports that it was the work of the Hungarian cannon founder, Urban, who had left the service of the Emperor when the Sultan offered better pay. It was this cannon that destroyed the wall and allowed Ottoman troops to enter the city.

The effectiveness of this gun was clear to all observers, and it was perhaps this experience that encouraged the Ottomans to concentrate on the production of very large cannon for the rest of the century. After the failed siege of Jajce in 1464, for example, the Venetian Malipiero, reported that, before their retreat, the Ottoman besiegers threw five siege cannon, `each seventeen feet long’, into the river Vrbas to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy. It was probably, too, the difficulty of transporting such large guns in one piece that led the Ottomans to continue the practice of casting cannon, apparently from scrap bronze, in the field. The monster gun for knocking down walls and terrorising the enemy was not, however, the only form of Ottoman artillery at this period. Descriptions of sieges record other types of artillery, notably mortars for firing into the air over fortress or city walls. It seems, too, that the Ottomans used field artillery which, by its nature, must be portable. It was, Ottoman sources convincingly claim, 32 artillery and arquebuses that secured the victory over Uzun Hasan in 1473. The use of large siege cannons was, however, a characteristic of Ottoman warfare.

By 1500, these huge guns were obsolescent. Although capable of inflicting great damage, they had two major disadvantages. First, the heat which a single shot generated limited the number of firings possible in a day. Second, the size and weight made it impossible, once it was in place, to move the cannon to a different section of the defences. These were problems which, in Europe, French artillerymen were to solve in the second half of the fifteenth century. Their solution was to use, instead of single large cannon, batteries of smaller guns. These could not deliver the huge projectiles of the monsters, but instead, by firing rapidly and in succession, could fling the same weight of shot against a defensive wall. Furthermore, this light artillery was easier to move, and so could be used against any point in the defence. The effectiveness of this new technique became clear when the French King, Charles VIII, invaded Italy in 1494.