The Sepoy Mutiny

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The storming of the Kashmir Gate in 1857 during the Siege of Delhi by British forces was one of the great feat-of-arms of the bloody conflict.

In 1818 the last of the Peshwa’s Maratha force was finally defeated by the company’s Sepoy army. The British Raj thereafter emerged as India’s “New Mughal” paramount power, virtually unchallenged by any indigenous competitors until the “Mutiny” of 1857. By the time India’s once powerful monarchs, its padishahs, maharajas, rajas, nizams, and nawābs, awoke to realize what had become of their vast continental domain-“stolen” from them by a Christian band of British merchants, reducing the greatest of them to suppliants and beggars in their own capitals-it was too late to recapture the powers they had lost. In desperation, an uneasy triple alliance of the last Mughal emperor’s Delhi courtiers and garrison, the “mutinied” Sepoy Bengal Muslim troops loyal to their ousted Muslim nawāb of Oudh, and Hindu dependents of the pensioner Peshwa of Pune living in a castle outside Cawnpore, sought with insufficient coordination to drive the foreign “usurpers” out of India. But by that time Britain was fully aware of India’s unique value to its global prestige and power.

What became known to the British as the “Sepoy Mutiny” started when the rumor spread that new guns issued to the Indian troops used bullets that were greased with cow and pig fat, a mixture contaminating to both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The soldiers believed this to be an attempt to pollute them so they would abandon their religions and accept Christianity. Whatever the causes, on 10 May 1857, soldiers at Meerut murdered their officers, marched to Delhi 30 miles (48 km) away, and proclaimed the aged Mughal emperor their leader. Indian nationalist historians later called these events the beginning of the “First War of Independence.” Whatever its name, the war was fought with tenacity and great brutality on both sides; in the end the British won because of superior military equipment and discipline, as well as unified leadership.

Also called the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny, and the First Indian War of Independence, this was an uprising against the British colonial regime in India begun by Indian troops-called sipahi, anglicized to sepoys-in service to the British East India Company.

By the middle of the 19th century, the East India Company controlled the region of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The Great Mogul emperor of India was now no more than a figurehead; the real government was contained within a British civil and military administration and the British controlled army numbering 160,000 men, of whom only 24,000 were British. The rest were native troops in the British service. Over the years, friction developed between the native troops and their East India Company employers. The British refused to respect Indian religious and cultural traditions. In an atmosphere of growing discontent there arose a rumor among the sepoys late in 1856 that the cartridges for the newly issued Lee-Enfield rifles were greased with the fat of cows and pigs. Cows are sacred to Hindus and must not be eaten, whereas pigs are regarded by Muslims as unclean-and must not be eaten. Prior to loading a rifle of the period, it was necessary to bite off the end of the paper cartridge; for the Hindu or Muslim soldier, doing so meant coming into contact with cow or pig and was, therefore, a grave pollution. In the Bengal army, some soldiers refused to use the new cartridges, but a full-scale mutiny broke out in Meerut, northeast of Delhi, where 85 men of the third light cavalry refused to use the cartridges on April 23, 1857. Convicted of mutiny, they were sentenced to imprisonment, publicly fettered, and ceremonially stripped of their military insignia. This served only to incite further rebellion. Members of the 11th and 20th infantry regiments revolted on May 10, freeing their imprisoned comrades-and many civilian prisoners as well. Following this, they rioted, killing 40 British officers and civilians in Meerut. From here, they marched to Delhi, where other Indian regiments joined the mutiny. In the city, the sepoys slaughtered many more British soldiers and civilians and restored to power the aged Mogul emperor, Muhammad Bahadur Shah (1775-1862).

News of the rebellion exploded throughout the subcontinent. Regiments throughout the Bengal army mutinied, and north and central India generally rose up against British rule. At first, the British were overwhelmed and at a loss for a response. In the Punjab, British commanders disarmed the sepoys and assembled a small army to advance on Delhi. The force took up a position outside the city. In Kolkata, the British contained the rebellion and managed to retain control of the Ganges River and communications lines as far upriver as Allahabad. In central India, several thousand British troops fought many pitched battles against the forces of local princes and Rani (Queen) Lakshmibai (c. 1830-58) of Jhansi, all of whom had joined the uprising.

In the central Ganges River valley, Oudh, recently annexed by the British, became an area of intense rebellion. On May 30, 1857, rebels besieged Europeans along with loyal Indians at the British Residency in Oudh’s capital, Lucknow. Shortly after this, the British garrison at Cawnpore (Kanpur) came under siege through June 27, when the survivors negotiated with the rebel leader, Nana Sahib (c. 1821-c. 1858), for safe passage. Despite this, they were attacked while evacuating to boats on the Ganges River. Most of the British soldiers were killed. Some 200 British women and children, captured, were subsequently slain in prison. In retaliation, the British forces authorized a brutal pogrom of similar atrocities directed against Indian combatants and noncombatants alike.

In the meantime, outside the walls of Delhi, inconclusive battles were fought until the British army was sufficiently reinforced to attack the city on September 15. After five days of bitter fighting, the British retook Delhi. On September 25, a relief column reached the Lucknow residency, but it was pinned down there through late November, when a second relief force arrived, broke the siege, and evacuated the survivors. When the British returned to Oudh in February 1858, it was with an army of more than 30,000 men, including Nepalese troops. Lucknow fell to the British on March 23, 1858, and the rebel forces in north India dispersed. The rebel fort at Jhansi capitulated in April, and the rani was subsequently killed in battle. With this, the mutiny, for all practical purposes, ended; however, sporadic fighting continued into the next year, as British forces engaged small rebel forces. Early in the year, rebel leader Nana Sahib’s leading general, Tantia Topi (1819-59), was captured, and, with his execution in April 1859, the revolt was completely ended.

The War of 1858 was won by British Crown troops, with the aid of sturdy Sikh soldiers of the Punjab, and Nepalese Gurkhas, who thereafter remained the most trusted “native” recruits to the army of Britain’s Crown Raj, which replaced the discredited old company Raj on 2 August 1858.

There were a number of results from the uprising that had long-range consequences. One was that most English rulers now believed that Indians were “disloyal” and could not be trusted. For many Indians, the success of the English in putting down the uprisings showed that the English were too powerful to be defeated by recourse to revolutionary violence. These points are debatable, but what is not debatable is the fate of the British East India Company as the ruler of India. In debates in the House of Commons in 1858 there was almost unanimity in blaming the uprisings on the mismanagement of the company, and its role as the government of India was abolished. Henceforth, government would be vested in the British Crown. Queen Victoria issued a proclamation declaring that she desired no extension of territory, promising freedom for all religions without any interference by government, and ensuring Indians the right to serve the government in all capacities. None of these promises were carried out completely, but the proclamation was received by educated Indians as a sign of hope for the future. After more than a century of involvement in ruling India, change and progress had made the company irrelevant.

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