British commentators on the events of 1857–8 sometimes imagined the rebellion was driven by the rage of recently dispossessed kings and aristocrats, whether Maratha princes or Awadhi taluqdars (landlords). It is easy to misunderstand the impact of these evictions and annexations. As the ‘loyalist’ Indian Muslim leader Sayyid Ahmad Khan argued, it was ‘the governed not the governing class’ who rebelled. Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s perspective is worth paying attention to. From a Pathan family of Mughal officials, he grew up around the Mughal court and was employed as a government officer from 1838. He lived through the rebellion itself in rebel-held Bijnor. A historian and poet, Sayyid Ahmed’s writings before 1857 barely acknowledged the British. It was possible to live as a member of the northern Indian gentry without paying much attention to British power. The insurrection changed that, making Sayyid Ahmed believe he had no choice but to deal with the British. His pamphlet The Causes of the Indian Revolt, published in Urdu from Agra in 1858, was the first Indian account of the rebellion. Sayyid Ahmed went on to become an advocate of Indian Muslim engagement with western science and a supporter of British rule, for which he received a knighthood, becoming Sir Sayyid. His loyalty, though, was complicated and partial. It was a strategy for coping with the defeat of Muslim power in India rather than a decision born from active love for British rule. Some of his relatives joined the insurgency, as many of his colleagues in the Company’s service did. But Sayyid Ahmad thought rebellion was the work of a disorderly mob who could not create a stable regime. Perhaps he also recognized that though rebel victory would not dent his chances of continuing in government service, joining the insurgency would end his career if the British won. ‘The mutineers were for the most part men who had nothing to lose,’ he wrote, and Sayyid Ahmed himself had a lot.
Sayyid Ahmed argued that the insurrection was not a campaign by feudal magnates to restore their lost principalities. After all, the King of Awadh thought that appealing to Queen Victoria was a better way to restore his control of Awadh than a full-scale revolt. Most large landholders equivocated before joining the insurrection. Some of the greatest rebel leaders, Rani Lakshmibhai of Jhansi, for example, only turned into rebels very later in the revolt, when their loyalty was challenged by the British. The insurrection was led by north India’s dislocated lower middle classes. The proclamations of rebel leaders particularly called upon soldiers, clerics, artisans, petty officers, minor landlords and merchants to join the revolt. These were not the Mughal elite, but men who benefited from the institutions the Mughal regime and its successors sustained. Before 1857 they flourished in the spaces which India’s pre-colonial regimes left open for self-rule. Few had been hostile to the British to begin with. As Sayyid Ahmed argued, the revolt was not an effort ‘to throw off the yoke of foreigners’.
In the northern Indian provinces where the revolt was eventually fiercest, the British had begun their rule by promising to be impartial, not taxing too much, offering security for trade during troubled times and providing a major source of employment for soldiers and officials. They did not introduce peace and stability and were too arrogant to listen to their subjects well enough, but north India’s middle classes imagined the British might be taught how better to exercise their power. But as the Company’s sway expanded across the whole of the subcontinent, British paranoia grew and power was asserted with ever-greater force. Lord Dalhousie’s annexations and wars of conquest made belief in British benevolence impossible to sustain. As the historian F. W. Buckler argued almost a century ago, the insurgents of 1857 believed the British, not they, had overturned legitimate political order.
Soldiers faced the power of the British most directly. That is why they were the first to revolt. According to Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the pride of Indian troops had grown as the Company acquired more and more land. ‘It is we’, an early soldiers’ proclamation declared, ‘who have conquered the whole territory extending from Calcutta to Kabul for the English, because they did not bring any English army with them from England.’ But these soldiers felt humiliated just as their pride grew. As British territory expanded so pay shrank, as troops had less opportunity to earn the allowance for working in foreign territory they had previously been entitled to. Army discipline became more severe. And since January 1857, a rumour had started to circulate that the cartridges used to fill their rifles contained cow and pig fat. In fact, animal grease was quickly withdrawn. Soldiers were allowed to buy their own grease and test the paper in water to ensure it did not contain oil. As Kim Wagner notes, ‘not a single greased cartridge was ever distributed to the sepoys’. But the soldiers saw the British response to their anxieties as irrationally violent, proof perhaps that there was a conspiracy to undermine their way of life. Protests in Bengal in April led to the hanging of isolated rebels, and the disbanding of regiments. On 4 May, fires began to be lit at the cantonment in Ambala in Punjab, and the regiment there was instantly disarmed. When a section of the Meerut garrison refused to use the new cartridges at the end of April, eighty-five of them were court-martialled and sentenced to ten years’ hard labour. On 9 May, their comrades were forced to watch as the reluctant soldiers were stripped, shackled and marched off in chains to begin their sentences. Prostitutes in the marketplace taunted those soldiers still under British orders: ‘If you had an atom of manhood in you, go and release them,’ they are reported to have said. In another story, respectable women asked the soldiers for their arms: ‘we shall fight and liberate the brave officers [instead]’, they said. The cowardly troops were asked to ‘keep inside the home and put on bangles’. Humiliation of this kind could not be borne for long.
On the morning of 10 May, rumours circulated that the garrison at Meerut would mutiny. Indian servants insisted their European masters stay at home. At dusk a cavalry regiment rode out to free imprisoned comrades. One of the infantry regiments followed. A third regiment was agitated but wavered. Colonel Finnis, their British commander, implored them to put down their arms. A shot, perhaps fired by accident, went off, which injured his horse. Finnis was then blasted at close range by a soldier from one of the regiments that had already mutinied. Frightened they would be hanged for murder, the rest of the garrison believed they had no choice but to join the rebellion. Finnis’s death was followed by the killing of three other British officers, eight women and eight children. Mutineers on horseback rode to Delhi. Others rode into the countryside, spreading violence into the villages around Meerut. Soldiers had talked for weeks beforehand about resisting the cartridges. But the first spark of rebellion was not the product of a long-term plan. It was sparked by soldiers’ fears about the brutal consequences of British power.
For eleven days Meerut and Delhi were the only garrisons that mutinied, creating a short-lived belief among the British that the uprising would quickly be quelled. After all, plenty of similar mutinies had been suppressed quickly in the past. The difference now was that thousands of civilians in the surrounding towns and countryside quickly took up arms. At Meerut, the kotwal, or head of the city police, sided with the rebels, and quickly freed a small number of prisoners in the gaol before fleeing himself. The remaining 839 prisoners were liberated later by the crowd, ‘yelling and shouting, and vociferating savage denunciations of vengeance on all Europeans’, as one observer put it. Those Britons who could barricaded themselves into the garrison’s ammunition storehouse, but forty Europeans were killed at Meerut in a night of violence and panic. The mutinying soldiers were mostly Brahmins, but urban celebrations involved large numbers of Muslims, particularly Shia, as groups roamed the streets chanting ‘Ali, Ali, our religion has revived’. This was an uprising of butchers and weavers, cooks and grass cutters, aided by the almost instant defection of the police to the mutineers’ side, with a large number of liberated prisoners joining in, too. The same social groups participated in the revolt once it reached Delhi. Rebel cavalrymen arrived from Meerut early in the morning of 11 May, burning the city’s eastern toll-house and the telegraph office. Within hours, crowds of lower-middle-class Delhi residents had formed a mob. Delhi’s elite had a disdainful attitude to this band of badmashes, or ruffians. ‘No person from a decent family was a part of this crowd of rioters,’ one Mughal courtier wrote. ‘[T]he respectable people were all locked inside their houses.’
The mutiny of 1857 quickly turned into a peasants’ revolt as well. As Eric Stokes wrote, ‘rural disturbance at first outpaced military mutiny’. At Meerut most of the police were Gujars, belonging to a community of cattle herders who had a reputation for their warlike behaviour but particularly suffered from the Company’s high taxation. Gujar leaders organized bands of men to attack centres of prosperity and power, creating what British observers described as ‘anarchy’. The British presence at Sikrandabad, forty miles south of Meerut, was attacked on 12 May. By that date, Sayyid Ahmad Khan reported that it was impossible to travel on the roads of Bijnor, forty-five miles north-west of the rebellion’s epicentre, without being attacked.
Amid this growing insurgency of soldiers, peasants and artisans, the revolt did have one very significant noble backer. Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar had long felt humiliated by the British effort to limit his power and to snuff out the last traces of Mughal authority. When the mutineers arrived in Delhi, they sought Bahadur Shah Zafar’s support, which was quickly offered. In doing so Zafar did not seek political power as we would normally understand it. A philosopher and poet rather than a political leader, Zafar saw the insurrection as an opportunity to restore a Mughal system of government and exact retribution for the dishonourable way he had been treated by the British. His purpose was not to augment his own capacity to command. Bahadur Shah Zafar shaped the rebel government, making sure sepoy leaders were not displaced by nobles, but he did not direct it. Instead, he provided moral sanction for the new regime, then tried to use his authority to direct it away from excessive violence.
With Zafar’s support, the circulation of insurgents between towns in northern India intensified. A second wave of garrison uprisings occurred in late May and early June. On 20 May part of the army rebelled at Agra, the capital of the North Western Provinces, but was quickly disarmed by European soldiers. Soldiers in the cantonments of Lucknow and Muttra rose up on 30 May. The garrison at Bareilly, capital of the Afghan-dominated region of Rohilkhand, revolted the following day. Kanpur (called Cawnpore by the British at the time) mutinied on 5 June, and British soldiers took refuge in an entrenchment at the north of the town. Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the last Maratha Peshwa, lived at Bithoor, fifteen miles away. The day after the Kanpur mutiny he declared his support for the uprising and sought the backing of the Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.
After two weeks of sustained bombardment, Nana Sahib offered safe passage to the British at Kanpur on 25 June, but the British men were massacred as they boarded boats onto the Ganges two days later, probably because the sepoys had become increasingly frightened about being attacked themselves. On 15 July, 200 British women and children were shot and butchered as a British army led by General Henry Havelock approached in an effort to recapture Kanpur. It was this ‘Cawnpore massacre’ that defined the horror of 1857 for generations of Britons afterwards. ‘Remember Cawnpore!’ became the cry during the war of reconquest. The massacres occurred at the lowest point of British power. With the exception of a few besieged residencies and cantonments, the East India Company’s authority had been extinguished from a vast swathe of territory between Patna in the east and Patiala in the west. Beyond that territory, British survival relied on embattled garrisons surrounded by people happy to submit to a rebel regime.
These massacres show that 1857 was far more than a political conflict for the insurgents. It was a struggle for survival. As historian Faisal Devji argues, the rebels were concerned above all to protect the distinctions that constituted Indian social life. At the core of Indians’ sense of self in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was their membership of groups which distinguished them from their neighbours. These groups were defined in different ways, by caste, occupation, gender and geography. For many of the rebels, though, religion provided a common denominator, a way to articulate the sense an individual had of belonging to a particular way of life they would fight to protect. Religious belonging depended on shared practices rather than beliefs. Friendship across community divisions depended on respect for different customs. Culinary habits were particularly important. North Indian society held together because everyone respected that Brahmins refused to eat food that was not cooked by other Brahmins, Hindus refused beef and Muslims rejected pork. Forcing everyone to eat the same foodstuffs would annihilate the distinctions that each individual’s status and honour relied on, and in doing so erode the very fabric of Indian social life.
The one element that cut through all rebel statements was the fear that the Company was making everyone eat the same food together, and so corrode the most fundamental character of Indian life. Joint messing, in prison or the army, was a particular target of criticism in rebel proclamations. The rebels rose up seeking autonomy from a domineering power which they thought wanted to turn them into an undifferentiated, statusless mass. This was certainly a war fought for independence, but it was fought in fervent opposition to the idea that Indians shared a common culture or nationality. Against the supposed British attempt to flatten difference and create unity, rebel proclamations emphasized Indian plurality, in the name of ‘the Hindus and Musalmans of Hindustan’.
British officers thought the concern about animal fat was ridiculous. But Indian fears reflected an accurate understanding of British desires, if not the practical realities of Company rule. Take religion, for example. Among Britons in India, evangelical Christianity was on the rise in the 1840s and 1850s. Most British officers probably did think India’s Muslims and Hindus were infidels who would suffer eternal damnation if they did not convert. Proselytizing pamphlets had been circulated with greater frequency, even in cantonments. European religion and the British government seemed to occupy the same space, as the 1830s and 1840s saw new churches built in cantonments, often bringing the centres of British worship and British power within a few yards of each other. The British did talk about subjugating the whole of India to a single, unitary form of power, even if they saw the East India Company as a decidedly secular kind of authority. The Company wanted to introduce a single set of laws and create a system of communications, steamships, telegraph, roads and railways which would make their government more secure by annihilating distance and difference.
The British did not try to convert Indians to one religion. Most officials were extremely anxious about any hint of official support for evangelism. A story circulated that the Governor-General, Dalhousie contributed money to missionary organizations in India. Lord Ellenborough, President of the Board of Control, described the news as ‘one of the most dangerous things which could have happened to the security of our government in India’, a rumour that could be the cause of ‘the most bloody revolution which has at any time occurred in India’. In the minds of most Britons, the conquest of territory or imposition of new laws was a separate matter from the conversion of Indians to Christianity. But with no place for conversation with Europeans, lower middle-class Indians did not know that.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan knew there was no government plan to Christianize India, but his account of the revolt was a damning indictment of a regime whose way of working allowed such misunderstandings to grow. The British, he said, had no regard for the ‘characteristics’ or ‘daily habits’ of the people they ruled. ‘Our Government never knew what troubles each succeeding sun might bring with it to its subjects, or what sorrow might fall upon them with the night.’ The consequence was that ‘Hindustanees fell into the habit of thinking that all laws were passed with a view to degrade and ruin them, and to deprive them and their fellows of their religion.’ The ‘real cause’ of the revolt was the absence of conversation between the Company and its subjects. In particular, Sayyid Ahmed blamed the fact that the ‘people do not have a voice in Government’s councils’.
Sayyid Ahmed was not talking about the flow of abstract information through official inquiries and surveys, nor did he think a free press made any difference. For him, politics was personal. Good government relied on face-to-face conversation between people who were not afraid of each other. It depended on the existence of ‘common friendship . . . which springs from the heart’ between ruler and ruled. Sayyid Ahmed repeated the complaint that men and women familiar with Mughal idioms of government had made against the Company for a long time. The British did not cultivate the friendship of Indians. They kept themselves apart. They refused to live among the people they ruled. They spoke with contempt and ill temper to their subjects. Even the most senior Indian officials were abused. It was ‘well-known to Government [that] even natives of the highest rank never come into the presence of officials, but with an inward fear and trembling’. The disastrous result of this was that Indians connected law, religion and conquest with a single image of British force intent on subjugating every distinction of Indian society under British power. As one Muslim in Sayyid Ahmed’s town of Bijnor asked, ‘what ease have we, they are always inventing new laws to trouble us, and to overturn our religion’. If British rule continued, ‘there would be no difference between Mahomedans and Hindoos, and whatever they said, we should have to do’.