Execution of Namdhari Sikh protesters by British cannons in 1872, a painting by Vasily Vereshchagin circa 1884
The Indian Mutiny (Sepoy Rebellion) is a strong focus for retrospective assessment. The original British reports are numerous. These reflect a colonial viewpoint dominated by Victorian ideas of cultural superiority. This angle was still dominant in Britain until the mid-twentieth century, and indeed continues to survive in some writings.
Revaluation of the Mutiny, in the West, is obliged to defer more substantially to the Indian side of events under discussion. The native concept of an “Indian war of independence” appeared in the early twentieth century. The implications were suppressed by British colonial rule. Indian analysts have themselves debated this theme since the termination of British rule in 1947. There is no commonly agreed verdict. The Mutiny is now often described as the Indian Rebellion, a sepoy rebellion, and also a civil war.
Analysis of this phenomenon is confronted by various ethnic and religious factions featuring in the civil war. The British side did not solely consist of Europeans, but also included Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, Pathans, Gurkhas, and some loyal Hindu sepoys (soldiers). However, Native officers in the army of the East India Company were completely subservient to both junior and senior British officers.
The composition of the opposing rebel side was complex. Both Hindus and Muslims fought in the rebel ranks. Not only soldiers, but also many civilians were drawn into the revolt against British colonial rule. The rebel force exhibited a strong degree of disorganisation, despite a nominal deference to the Mughal monarch in Delhi. Bahadur Shah II (1775-1862) had been relegated by the British to a mere titular role lacking any political clout. During the Mutiny, this octogenarian gained a sense of revivalist importance for only a few months prior to his capture in September 1857.
India was then ruled by the East India Company (EIC). For several generations, this organisation had established trading settlements at places like Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. The EIC colonial policy was ambitiously expansive, turning to war and annexation as a means of continued revenue. From this malady arose various factors which can be regarded as causes of the Indian Mutiny.
During the EIC administration of Lord Dalhousie, vast chunks of Indian territory were swallowed up between 1848 and 1856, culminating in the annexation of Oudh (Awadh, now in Uttar Pradesh), an event arousing strong resentment amongst the native population. The local ruler was deposed and exiled to Calcutta; widespread unemployment and rising costs resulted. Many of the rebel sepoys (soldiers) came from this territory, being upper class Hindus of a rural background. Numerous sepoys were brahmans (brahmins), a caste generally associated with priestly activity. In the absence of sufficient career opportunity for priests, many brahmans adopted secular roles. High caste sepoys were recruited by the Bengal Army, mainly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The EIC permitted a strong degree of Protestant Christian evangelism in India. This activity was furthered by some British military officers. Many Hindus and Muslims reacted to this ideological advance, cultivating a belief that the Company were trying to convert them en masse. This mood tended to be reinforced by the increasing aloofness of British military officers from native troops, the linguistic barrier being formidable. An underlying racial superiority complex was fostered by too many colonialists.
The EIC fatally alienated many Indian aristocrats, via the annexation programme and a denial of adoption rights for native princes. Substantial taxes were exacted from the Indian people. Land tax was often demanded before the crop was raised. The EIC is also associated with torture on the part of officers. These factors, and many more, combined in a widespread resentment of colonial rule. The resultant violence projected the anger of different social strata against the manipulative British administrators.
One of the triggers for rebellion comprised the well known cartridge issue. The new Enfield rifle cartridges were rumoured to be greased with animal fat, a factor evocative of religious aversion to cow and pork fat by Hindus and Muslims respectively. Despite precautions taken by the EIC in this respect, a belief became widespread that the new cartridges were part of a British plan to convert all Indians to Christianity. Some British military officers handled this matter very insensitively. The major reaction occurred at Meerut in May 1857, when 85 reluctant sepoys (averse to the cartridges) were imprisoned and afflicted with severe sentences. This injustice provoked dramatic violence.
The mutineers killed British officers and civilians, while freeing the jailed sepoys. The rebels quickly moved south from Meerut to Delhi, where other disaffected sepoys were converging. More violence against Europeans ensued. The revolt was very widespread, from Peshawar to Lucknow, and also areas further south. The term pan-Indian has been employed in one interpretation. Colonialism was now confronted by a civil war of extensive proportions, underlined by attacks on British property and personnel. The colonial elite lived in effective isolation from the native inhabitants; many military officers seem to have possessed little or no awareness that a strong resentment was in process.
The EIC made ruthless efforts to quell the mutiny in the Punjab zone, via agents like Brigadier John Nicholson. The colonial army resorted to the infamous “blowing from a gun,” meaning execution by cannon. Many rebellious sepoys were shot by rifles, hanged, or sabred. Both sides in this civil war exhibited a violence impossible to condone. The rebels at least had strong cause for grievance; the EIC were merely resorting to severe measures designed to regain colonial ascendancy.
The resulting siege of Delhi involved an EIC force of British and Indian soldiers pitted against a much larger number of rebel sepoys. The rebels invoked the auspices of the resident Mughal emperor, while in practice frequently acting on their own initiative, which at first included plunder of the city harbouring them. When the EIC army eventually gained entry into Delhi, they were savage in their agenda of vengeance, shooting and hanging many rebels, while indulging in activities of extensive looting.
The Mughal emperor was taken prisoner by Captain William Hodson in September 1857. That officer became a hero at this juncture. Hodson tarnished his reputation soon after, when he shot dead three Mughal princes in front of a resentful crowd outside the city. The vengeance drive was completely out of control.
Meanwhile, infamous massacres occurred at Kanpur (known to the British as Cawnpore). The episodes at Satichaura Ghat and the Bibighar became very well known in England, involving the tragic deaths of hundreds of British men, women, and children. A grim vengeance campaign was conducted by officers like General James Neill, who humiliated and executed numerous rebels and civilians who were not participants in the Bibighar massacre of British women and children (only five murderers were involved in that unpleasant event, after sepoys refused to participate). Neill, a Protestant Christian, tended to treat the situation as a religious war.
A major concentration of rebels occurred at Lucknow, a city in Awadh that the British found difficult to secure. In addition to rebel sepoys, large numbers of civilian supporters of the rebel cause were involved. When the army of General Colin Campbell attacked in November 1857, there occurred the episode of Secundra Bagh, when over 2,000 rebel sepoys were eliminated during the struggle in that compound. Lord Roberts left a testimony to the mound of dead and wounded rebels who found no escape.
Campbell returned to Lucknow a few months later, in March 1858, when the rebels were “cleared” from the city, a process involving many deaths. This campaign was pushed forward in Awadh, the rebel leaders retreating to Nepal, where they found haven. Those leaders had sustained the theme of unity between Muslim and Hindu. A distinctive Muslim rebel was Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah, whose skill in warfare became a problem for the EIC. The Company offered a huge reward for his capture; he was afterwards shot dead.
Meanwhile, the Rani of Jhansi was the focus of another regional struggle in Central India. This Maratha queen escaped from the siege of Jhansi, where the British force, under Sir Hugh Rose, achieved a massacre that is very much open to criticism as a colonial trespass. The Rani was afterwards killed in a battle, dressed as a man; she became a heroine of the “war of independence.”
The East India Company were deposed when Queen Victoria issued a proclamation in November 1858. This was intended as a reconciliation to the Indian people. The brutal counter-insurgency campaign was still occurring. The female rebel leader Begum Hazrat Mahal instigated a counter-proclamation. The British crown did not relinquish control of India; the Indian army was subsequently reconstituted. A recent analysis suggests that nearly ten million Indians died in the long-term repercussions of the Mutiny, a figure which has been contested in terms of several hundred thousand. Either way, a large number of people died as a consequence of colonial attitudes and practices.
Bibliography in main web article The Indian Mutiny and Civil War.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 60
Copyright © 2014 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.