BRIA 18 2 a The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India

Bill of Right in Action
Spring 2002 (18:2)


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The Great Rebellion of 1857 in India

In 1857, mutiny, rebellion, and terror threatened British colonial rule in India.

Hinduism is the religion of most Indian people. It originated in India thousands of years ago. As part of their culture and religion, Indians developed a rigid caste system. Individuals were born into specific social and occupational groups and were bound to follow the strict rules of their caste throughout their lives.

The Islamic religion entered India about A.D. 700, when Muslim peoples began a series of invasions from West and Central Asia. The Muslims attempted to impose Islam on the Indian people. They succeeded in creating several strong Muslim kingdoms and empires, but the Muslims always ruled as a religious minority in Hindu India.

In the early 1700s, Hindu revolts and a breakdown in law and order ended the last Muslim empire in India. After that, Hindu and Muslim nobles ruled many small independent kingdoms throughout the country.

The East India Company

By the 1600s, the British and other European Christian nations were making their own inroads into this ancient land. The lucrative spice trade first attracted the Europeans. The Portuguese took control of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, seizing and confiscating Muslim ships. The Dutch and British soon followed. Queen Elizabeth chartered the British East India Company, a private company of British merchants, giving it a monopoly in trading with India. In 1613, the Muslim emperor of India granted the company the right to establish trading stations in the Bengal region of northeast India. In addition to spices, the company shipped raw materials (such as cotton) to England and imported English manufactured goods (such as clothing) to sell to the Indian people.


By making treaties with local Indian princes and warlords, the East India Company rapidly controlled more and more Indian territory. By 1849, it had subdued all of India, but allowed Indian kings to rule some areas. Company officials in India made fabulous fortunes, living in huge houses attended by scores of Indian servants.

At first, the East India Company directly ruled British-controlled areas of India, such as Bengal. In 1784, however, the British Parliament put the company under its authority. Even so, the day-to-day administration of law in British India remained in the hands of the company.

The East India Company used three large private armies to protect its property and to expand its control over Indian territory. By 1856, the company employed 300,000 native Indian troops. Most were infantrymen called sepoys. Three-fourths of the sepoys were Hindus, and the rest were Muslims.

The company hired British officers and soldiers to command the sepoy regiments. For the most part, these British military men had as little contact with their sepoy troops as possible. Most of the British considered them racially inferior.

The sepoys had a reputation as fierce fighters. In general, they were taller, stronger, and healthier than the British, who tended to wilt in the Indian heat. The Hindu sepoys carefully observed their duty to their caste and religion, which forbade them to eat beef. The Muslims equally followed their faith, which prohibited them from eating pork.

Discontent among the Bengal sepoys grew as the Indian people became restless over British rule. Many Indians resisted when the British tried to abolish ancient Hindu customs and caste rules. They resented that the British also encouraged Christian missionaries. Most Hindus and Muslims believed that the British wanted to destroy their religions.

Appointed by the British government in 1848, the governor-general of the East India Company, Lord James Dalhousie, imposed "reforms" that overturned many Indian traditions. Dalhousie never consulted with Indian leaders. He proceeded on the assumption that Western civilization far surpassed that of India. He replaced justice by village elders with a British court system. He introduced the British method of schooling and made English the official language of the government.

For centuries, large landowners owned India's villages and the lands worked by tenant farmers. Lord Dalhousie broke up these large estates and distributed the land to the tenant farmers. Then the British required them to pay land taxes. With their estates gone, the large landowners were ruined. But so were many of the small farmers, who soon lost their farms due to back taxes.

Dalhousie also pursued a policy of annexing more Indian territory for the East India Company. For example, in 1856, Dalhousie used the threat of military force to remove the Hindu king of Oudh and take over his kingdom. Oudh, located in north-central India near Nepal, was the homeland of many Bengal sepoys.

Dalhousie's reforms and annexations, together with increasing rumors of rebellion, unsettled the 130,000 Bengal Army sepoys stationed throughout northern India. The vastly outnumbered British, however, refused to believe that "their" sepoys would ever revolt.

From Mutiny to Uprising

Early in 1857, the British issued a new rifle to the sepoy regiments. The rifle fired a paper cartridge that combined the gunpowder and the bullet. The rifleman had to bite off the end of the cartridge before pushing it down the barrel of the gun. To ease its passage down the gun barrel, each cartridge was heavily greased with beef or pork fat. This horrified the Hindu and Muslim sepoys. They would have to bite into beef or pork fat to use the new cartridges. This act, they believed, would violate their religions.

The British quickly realized their mistake and tried to assure the sepoys that they would not have to use cartridges greased with beef or pork fat. But the sepoys distrusted their British officers. Rumors quickly spread from one regiment to another that the British were insulting the Hindu and Muslim religions by issuing the new greased cartridges.

In April 1857 at a military post near Delhi, 85 sepoy cavalrymen refused to use the new cartridges when ordered to do so. The British court-martialed and sentenced them to prison. After the sentencing, the British humiliated them by stripping off their uniforms and shackling their ankles in front of 4,000 sepoy troops. Shocked by what they had seen, the troops mutinied. They quickly overwhelmed the British and released the sepoy prisoners. They then began shooting every British man, woman, and child in sight. When the slaughter ended, the mutineers marched off to Delhi to seek the help of an elderly Muslim king who had stepped down from power many years before.

As the sepoys entered Delhi, the people of the city joined them in seeking out the old Muslim king. Both Hindus and Muslims respected him as a symbol of the traditional way of life.

At first reluctant, Bahadur Shah II, "King of Delhi," finally agreed to take up the sepoy cause. He called for all Hindus and Muslims to unite. "May all the enemies of the Faith be killed today," he said, "and the [foreigners] be destroyed root and branch!"

Shocked by the capture of Delhi by sepoy mutineers, the British began to disarm the East India Company sepoy regiments. When the sepoy mutiny first erupted, the British had only 23,000 regular British army troops in India to restore order. Eventually, the British had to bring in troops from all over their empire to fight the rebels.

Civilian rebels soon outnumbered the sepoys. The mutiny grew into a general uprising against the British across northern and central India. Sepoy regiments, together with farmers, villagers, government workers, dispossessed estate owners, and bands of robbers, looted and burned British homes, churches, missions, and East India Company property. They also hunted down and killed any British people they found.

British army units began their own war of vengeance. On their way to recapture Delhi, British soldiers randomly tortured, shot, and hanged hundreds of Indian people. The British executed many sepoy mutineers they captured by lashing the victim to the muzzle of a cannon and blasting him to pieces.

The Cawnpore Massacres

Cawnpore was an East India Company trading center on the upper Ganges River. On June 5, the Cawnpore sepoy garrison mutinied. The panicked British soldiers and civilians fled to the army officers' barracks.

Just then, a local Hindu noble, Nana Sahib, arrived at Cawnpore with 300 men. He held a bitter grudge against the British. They had granted his father a pension for giving up his right to rule a nearby kingdom. Instead of continuing to pay this pension to Nana Sahib after his father died, as they had promised, the British cut him off. Nana Sahib joined with the Cawnpore mutineers and agreed to lead them.

For more than 20 days, about 800 soldiers and civilians, half of them women and children, defended themselves as best they could. Finally, the British commander surrendered and arranged with Nana Sahib for the besieged soldiers and civilians to evacuate Cawnpore on small riverboats.

On June 27, the exhausted evacuees headed to the Ganges to board the boats. But before all of them had gotten aboard, the Indian boatmen set several of the boats afire. Then hundreds of sepoys along the riverbank began shooting at the terrified men, women, and children. Cavalrymen rode into the river on their horses, slashing at the survivors with their swords.

From his headquarters a few miles away, Nana Sahib ordered his men to spare and take captive any surviving women and children. At the end of the day, he declared that the "white faces" had "entered hell." He proclaimed himself the new emperor of India.

Over the next few days, the mutineers rounded up other British women and children and confined them in a house. For a few weeks, Nana Sahib provided them with food, clothing, and medical care. But when a British army rescue force approached, Nana Sahib's followers convinced him that no witnesses should be left alive.

On July 15, after Nana Sahib had left Cawnpore, sepoys shot into the house that imprisoned 73 women and 124 children. Most of them died immediately. Swordsmen entered the house and hacked the survivors to death.

British army troops fought their way into Cawnpore, but were too late. Enraged, they got drunk, looted the town, and raped and murdered many townspeople. They hanged any sepoys they found. The soldiers often forced beef or pork down their throats before hanging them. The British commanding general devised a "blood-lick law," which forced the condemned sepoys to lick the blood-covered floors and walls of the house where the women and children had been slaughtered.

End of the Uprising

For more than a year, the sepoys and their civilian allies desperately fought the British army. The British recaptured Delhi only after several days of bloody hand-to-hand street fighting. The uprising spread to central India, where the widow of a Hindu ruler joined the sepoys. She shouted "We fight for independence!" She was killed in battle while swinging her sword on horseback.

By the end of 1858, the British had finally restored order. Queen Victoria pardoned all rebels except those who had murdered British subjects. British troops, however, continued to execute thousands of sepoys and other Indians. The British recognized that Nana Sahib had been an effective military leader against them. They offered a large reward for his capture. But he escaped into Nepal and disappeared.

After the uprising, the British began a new policy of respect for Indian religions and traditions. Most importantly, Parliament abolished the East India Company and placed the governing of India directly in the hands of the British government. Thus India continued as a British colony until it achieved independence nearly 100 years later, after a non-violent struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. The British gradually took over India. How do you think the British justified this takeover? Do you think it was justified? Why or why not?

  2. What do you think was the main cause of the uprising against British rule in India?

  3. The atrocities committed by both sides during the uprising were horrifying. Why do you think they happened?

  4. If Nana Sahib had been captured by the British, what do you think should have been done with him? Why?

    a. immediate military execution

    b. trial in a British military court

    c. trial in a British civilian court

    d. trial in an international court

    e. trial in a traditional Indian tribunal

For Further Information

History of India A short history of India with a section on the Great Rebellion

Chronology—Modern India 1757-1947 A timeline.

The East India Company By Vinay Lal, Associate Professor of History, UCLA.

The Epic of the Race: India 1857 From the Victorian Web.

The Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858: Its Causes and Consequences A brief overview by Tara Fallon

The 1857 Indian Mutiny Summary by George P.Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University.

The Sepoy Mutiny — India, 1857 Gives a Western and Indian view of the mutiny. From the Atheneum Scientific History and Biography.Books.

British History Before and After the Great Rebellion of 1857 By Professor Peter Marshall for the BBC.

Dowling Awarded Victoria Cross Background on the mutiny and the story of a British soldier awarded the Victoria Cross.

Sepoy Rebellion Bibliography A list of books and articles on the rebellion.

Main Incidents of the Indian Mutiny 1857 A summary of five incidents. By Helen Goethals, Associate Professor Université Lumière Lyon 2.

The 1857 War of Indian Independence From Kamat's Potpourri.

The Sepoy War of 1857: Mutiny or First Indian War of Independence? By Nilesh Patel.

Sepoy Rebellion or First War of Independence? By Philip V. Allingham, Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The Revolutionary Upheaval of 1857 From the History of the Freedom Struggle in India.

Internet Indian History Sourcebook From Fordham University.

The British Press & the Indian Mutiny How the press covered the mutiny. By Kevin Hobson.

An Account of the Opening of the Indian Mutiny in Meerot, 1857 A letter from Eliza Greathed, wife of the commissioner of Meerot. From the Modern History Sourcebook.

Two accounts of the rebellion in the Atlantic Monthly of 1857:

British India

The Indian Revolt

Three articles from The Living Age of 1857:

The Mind of the Mutiny and Its Present Attitude

Misgovernment of India

Reconquest of India

A memorial of the Futtehgurh mission and her martyred missionaries: with some remarks on the mutiny in India. A book written in 1858 by the Rev. J. Johnston Walsh.

Sepoy Rebellion Bibliography

Contemporary Perspectives of the Sepoy Mutiny A look at the changing historical viewpoints on the event.


Patriot or Outlaw?

Taking into account all the evidence presented in the article, do you think Nana Sahib was an Indian patriot or an outlaw?

  1. Form the class into groups of three.

  2. Each group will consist of one debater who will argue that Nana Sahib was an Indian patriot, one debater will argue that he was an outlaw, and one debate judge.

  3. Before beginning the debating rounds in the groups of three, students should prepare by meeting with others with the same role in the debate. Those arguing the outlaw side should meet in one corner of the room; those arguing the patriot side, in another corner; and the judges, in another. The debaters should develop arguments and the judges should prepare questions to ask both sides.

  4. In round one, the debater in each group arguing the outlaw side will present his or her evidence to the judge.

  5. In round two, the debater in each group arguing the patriot side will present his or her case to the judge.

  6. During rounds one and two, the judge should be prepared to ask questions to clarify and probe the debater's arguments.

  7. In round three, both debaters in each group meet with their judge to argue against each other.

  8. In round four, all the judges meet in a circle to discuss the debate question before the rest of the class.

  9. After discussion, each judge announces his or her vote on the question along with reasons for it.



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