The events of 1857 Part I

Lucknow Relief 9-25-1857

Bailey Guard Gate at the Lucknow Residency. The relieving forces shown are from the 1st Madras Fusiliers.


Nana Sahib was a dispossessed Mahratta adoptee of Baji Rao. For a while the British defenders assumed that he was supporting them until he threw in his lot with the mutineers.

‘The events of 1857 … have provoked more impassioned literature than any other single event in Indian history.’ They generated much contemporary documentation and they have since often been taken to mark a watershed in both British rule and the Indian response to it. But the interpretation of these events remains controversial, and so does their title. Known to the British as ‘the Sepoy’, ‘Bengal’ or ‘Indian Mutiny’, to Indians as ‘the National Uprising’ or ‘the First War of Independence’, and to the less partisan of both nations simply as ‘the Great Rebellion’, what happened in 1857 defies simplistic analysis.

For example, equating the rebellion with a traditional, even ‘feudal’, form of reaction whose failure would usher in the new age of nationalism and politically organised protest is no longer completely acceptable. Many different groups with as many different grievances became aligned with either side in the Great Rebellion. The rights and wrongs of British rule were not always a decisive factor and the frontier between the two sides sliced through both agrarian and urban communities, both settled and nomadic peoples, both high caste and low, landlord and tenant, Muslim and Hindu. Paradoxically there was thus something of a national character in the composition of those who opposed the rebellion as well as in that of those who supported it.

Of the insurgents’ various grievances, many were long-standing and had provoked earlier protests and mutinies. Some of these grievances had been, and continued to be, articulated in nationalist terms. But they lacked a pan-Indian dimension, and this mirrored the lack of overall cohesion in the British government of India itself, with each presidency (Calcutta/Bengal, Madras, Bombay) still having its own army and its own administration. Thus, although the Rebellion commanded support amongst most communities in much of northern India, and although recognisably nationalist rhetoric contributed to it, large parts of the future nation, together with the most important centres of British rule, were quite unaffected. Moreover, if ‘historians of the future will begin to define the content of nationalism much more widely and to date its origins much earlier’, no less surely will traditional forms of resistance based on hereditary leaders and local grievances be discerned long after 1857. The great ‘watershed’ of British–Indian relations, in other words, proves to be a broad plateau where the run of the rivulets is often contradictory.

But at least there is agreement that the Great Rebellion began as a rising within the Company’s Bengal army. It was not the first. On the eve of Baksar, nearly a century earlier, the Company’s Indian sepoys had refused orders and been horribly executed by Hector Munro. In 1806 at Vellore in Tamil Nadu new regulations about uniforms and the wearing of a cap-badge of leather (always repugnant to Hindus) had prompted a violent mutiny in the Madras army. And, as noted, during the Burmese, Sind and Panjab wars sepoys had staged several mutinies when denied compensation for the loss of caste involved in serving ‘overseas’.

In 1857, soon after Dalhousie had fanned this still simmering discontent about ‘overseas’ service, the Bengal sepoys became aware of another development which would compromise their beliefs. A new rifle was being issued for which the cartridges, which had to be rammed down the barrel, were being greased with a tallow probably containing both pigs’ fat and cows’ fat. Moreover, the cartridges had first to be bitten open with the teeth. To cow-reverencing Hindus as to pig-paranoid Muslims the new ammunition could not have been more disgusting had it been smeared with excrement; nor, had it been dipped in hemlock, could it have been more deadly to their religious prospects.

Although the offending cartridges were quickly withdrawn, all existing cartridges immediately became suspect. So did other official issues like those of flour and cooking oil. Detected in such an underhand attempt, the British were deemed capable of adulterating anything whereby they might compromise the sepoy’s religion and so advance his conversion to Christianity. In Bengal itself a serious mutiny over the cartridges was easily suppressed in February 1857, but as the rumours and the rancour spread upcountry they multiplied and were magnified.

The evidence for any organised incitement is unconvincing. Shared distrust was sufficient to concert action, British arrogance sufficient to incite it. At Meerut (Mirat), an important garrison town about sixty kilometres from Delhi, a particularly insensitive British command court-martialled eighty-five troopers for refusing suspect cartridges and then publicly humiliated them in front of the entire garrison. Next day their comrades-in-arms at Meerut rose as one to free them. They also broke into the armoury and began massacring the local European community. It was early May, a hot month in a parched province. Tinder-dry, the wattle huts of the garrison and the thatched roofs of the officers’ lines ignited at the kiss of a torch.

As a metaphor, spark and tinder would feature widely in contemporary British accounts. Meerut lit the ‘conflagration’ which then ‘spread like wildfire’ across the parched Gangetic plain and deep into the forest scrub of central India. There was no knowing where or when the ‘flames of rebellion’ would break out next; even when extinguished, they often ‘flared up’ again. By perceiving the mutiny as a natural disaster the British tried to come to terms with it. How else to explain an indiscriminate ferocity, their own as well as the enemy’s, whereby innocents and onlookers, women and children, were routinely killed to no obvious purpose?

To the mutineers, however, the conflagration was not without purpose. From Meerut, the first insurgents headed immediately for Delhi, there to seek out the higher authority of the Mughal emperor. Bahadur Shah Zafar (or Bahadur Shah II) was eighty-two and had reigned from Shah Jahan’s Red Fort for the past twenty years, a king with neither subjects nor troops. The sudden accession of both scarcely improved his position. With his local British sponsors outwitted, outnumbered and quickly evicted from the city, and with their sepoys joining the men from Meerut, he had little choice but to endorse the insurgents’ cause. But if the insurgents did the Mughal no favours, the Mughal’s co-option transformed the insurgency. Within hours of its outbreak, a regimental mutiny had acquired the character of a political revolt whose legitimacy arguably transcended that of the regime it challenged. ‘For there is not the slightest doubt that the rebels wanted to get rid of the alien government and restore the old order of which the King of Delhi was the rightful representative.’

If the example of Meerut prompted a host of other military mutinies, the sanction of the Mughal invited a swarm of civilian adherents. To all who sought redress for past grievances or reassurance over future fears the rebellion now provided a lawful focus. It was the British and their local allies, principally Sikhs, Gurkhas and others from beyond the margins of arya-varta (the Aryan homeland), who were regarded as the subversives. The Sikhs in particular, long hostile to Mughal rule and lately worsted by the now mutinous Bengal army, rallied to the British cause. Meanwhile in the Panjab and elsewhere hasty British disarmament and disbandment of suspect Bengal units contributed to the sense of a faith that had been broken and an authority transferred. The enemy was no longer the British government but the entire British presence plus all those who, unless they proved otherwise, had supported it or benefited by it. The old order was being restored, the clock set back; Bahadur Shah was appointing a governing council; Awadh had erupted; Kanpur had fallen; Agra, Allahabad, Varanasi and Gwalior seethed with dissent. Instead of a dry-season conflagration, to the insurgents their uprising partook of the green renewal heralded by the god-given monsoon which in late June duly blessed their struggle.

By then a force comprised of British, Sikh and Gurkha units had returned to the Ridge just north of Delhi. Although neither the British on the Ridge nor the insurgents in the city were actually besieged, for two months both sides engaged in the sallies, bombardments and reinforcements typical of a siege situation. Within the city, attempts to set up an administration floundered on the unruliness of the sepoys and the incompetence of the Mughal court. Many of the insurgents had dispersed elsewhere when in September the city finally fell to a British assault. The British, nevertheless, suffered heavy casualties which left them thirsting for revenge. Another indiscriminate massacre, another orgy of looting was added to Delhi’s record of woe. Two of Bahadur Shah’s sons and a grandson were shot while in custody, supposedly to thwart an escape. The emperor himself traded trial and ignominy for a few more months of an already wretched existence. Exiled to Rangoon, the last Mughal died ‘a plaything of fortune, in a foreign land, far from the country of his ancestors, unhonoured and unsung, but maybe not altogether unwept’.

Delhi, like the Mughal, had served its purpose. To the insurgents its loss was less disastrous than it had been to the British. Poorly armed compared to the British forces, lacking a command structure and hampered by weak communications, the rebels were ill-equipped to hold prestigious strongpoints or defend strategic frontiers. Their capabilities and their composition, now heavily diluted by irregular local militias, unruly bands of aggrieved cultivators and the firebrands of various religious and agrarian movements, were better suited to wide-ranging tactics of mobility, concentration and dispersal.

By September 1857 it was clear that south of the Narmada River the rebellion enjoyed little support; the Madras and Bombay armies remained loyal to the British. To the north-west Sind was indifferent, Kashmir’s new maharaja supported the British, and the Panjab provided a steady stream of Sikh and Pathan recruits. In the east, Bengal itself and most of Bihar were neutralised by the prompt arrival of British troops redirected from imperial duties in China and the Persian Gulf. The rebellion thus became largely confined to the vast mid-Gangetic region which now comprises the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh together with adjacent areas of Rajasthan and Bihar.

In the midst of this region Awadh – the recruiting ground whence a third of the mutinous Bengal army had traditionally been drawn, the erstwhile kingdom whose free-spending nawab had so recently been dispossessed, and the now-British province whose revenue system had just been so disastrously reorganised – became the main arena of revolt. Indeed in Awadh the rebellion transcended both its origin as an army mutiny and its transformation into a political revolt. It became, indeed, a genuinely populist uprising rooted in rural support. Amongst the Awadh insurgents armed retainers and rural militias outnumbered the Bengal mutineers. Lucknow now eclipsed Delhi as the military focus of the rising; and the Nana Sahib, the adopted heir of the last peshwa, emerged to replace the Mughal as its figurehead.

Amongst the British community in Kanpur the portly Nana Sahib had once been a popular figure. Although the loss of the peshwa’s pension gave him a grudge against the British government, his support for the insurgents seems, like that of the Mughal, to have been given with some reluctance, and his authority over the mutineers remains doubtful. He nevertheless assumed the defunct peshwa-ship and took the surrender, after a three-week siege, of the four hundred British in Kanpur. For their massacre as they boarded boats to take them downriver to Allahabad, he was technically guilty as the guarantor of their safe-conduct. But at the time passions were running high. Reports of draconian British reprisals at Varanasi were followed by news of an avenue of gibbets along the road thence to Allahabad. Retribution was advancing up the Ganga; on the riverbank at Kanpur mercy must have seemed out of place. The first shots were probably mischievous. The Nana Sahib, far from ordering the massacre, organised the rescue of some British women who were abducted during the ensuing chaos.

They, along with other surviving women and children, perhaps two hundred in all, were then lodged under the Nana Sahib’s protection. With the avenging British forces now fast approaching from Allahabad, the intention seems to have been to use these captives as hostages. But if that was indeed the plan, it was never put into operation. Instead, as the insurgent commanders debated escape, orders were issued for the captives’ extermination. The task, so objectionable to trained soldiers, was eventually undertaken by five bazaar recruits. Two were actually butchers by trade. Their slaughterhouse methods, clumsy rather than sadistic, constituted an atrocity which would haunt the British till the end of their Indian days. For sheer barbarity this ‘massacre of the innocents’ was rivalled only by the disgusting deaths devised for dozens of equally innocent Indians by way of British reprisal.

The Nana Sahib claimed to have been as ignorant of the second massacre as he was of the first. Along with his ablest commander, a fellow Maratha known as Tatya Topi (Tantia Topi), he escaped from Kanpur, was later reported at Lucknow, and would continue with the insurgents until he disappeared in Nepal. But, noted mainly for a louche lifestyle, he owed his celebrity less to his exploits and more to the British need for scapegoats plus Indian nationalism’s later need for heroes. Like the emperor Bahadur Shah, his importance was largely symbolic.

Meanwhile the recapture of Kanpur had given the British a forward base from which to attempt the relief of their fellow-countrymen in Luck-now. Awadh’s spectacularly endowed capital had fallen to the insurgents at the end of June (1857), at which time about 750 European combatants, as many British Indian sepoys, and about 1400 servants, women and children had taken refuge in a fortified area around the British Residency on the outskirts of the city. Here they made a defiant stand which developed into a remarkable siege. With the first relief effort in late September serving merely to reinforce the defence, the siege lasted nearly five months. It captured the imagination of India’s entire British community, for whom Lucknow became a microcosm of the ‘mutiny’, and its saga of brave deeds, shattered hopes and ultimate redemption an enduring reminder.

The little band in the Residency did more than make history. In a sense they made scripture, for their refuge became one of the holy places of British Imperialism and their struggle, reiterated in verse and prose, re-enacted on the stage and refought in spirit, summarised the Imperial ethos and furnished the Imperial dogma with all the apparatus of miracles and martyrs.

The massacre at Kanpur, or rather ‘Cawnpore’ as it was known to the British, was too shocking for polite English mention; it was banished to the sweat-soaked realm of nightmares and high fevers. But Lucknow was a soaring triumph of the spirit, eminently worth mythologising, and defiantly as many British Indian sepoys, and about 1400 servants, women and children commemorated by the Union Jack which would fly, night and day, above the ravaged Residency for the remaining ninety years of British rule.

1 thought on “The events of 1857 Part I

  1. Good post, but your caption is wrong. That is the Bailey Guard Gate at the Lucknow Residency. There wasn’t really anyone left to relieve in Kanpur.


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