Indian Rebellion of 1857

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General history

Indian Rebellion of 1857
Part of Indian independence movement

An engraving titled Sepoy Indian troops dividing the spoils after their mutiny against East India Company rule
Location India (cf. 1857)
Result Rebellion Suppressed,
End of Company Rule in India
Control taken by the British Crown
Indian Empire created out of former- East India Company territory, some land returned to native rulers, other land confiscated by the Crown.
Rebellious East India Company Sepoys,
7 Indian princely states,
deposed rulers of the independent states of Oudh, Jhansi
Some Indian civilians.
Flag of the United Kingdom British Army
East India Company's Sepoys Native Irregulars and British regulars, British civilian volunteer's raised in Bengal presidency
20 Princely states aiding the British including the independent states of Nepal, Kashmir as well as smaller states in region
Nana Sahib
Mirza Mughal
Bakht Khan
Rani Lakshmi Bai
Tantya Tope
Commander-in-Chief, India:
George Anson (to May 1857)
Sir Patrick Grant
Sir Colin Campbell from (August 1857)
Jang Bahadur

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The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was both a military mutiny and a rural civilian rebellion against the British East India Company. Confined mainly to north-central India (present-day Uttar Pradesh, northern Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi), it began in Meerut on 10 May 1857 and largely ended with the fall of Gwalior on 20 June 1858. The rebellion is also known as the First War of Independence (the official and popular name in India), Indian Mutiny, Sepoy Mutiny, and the Revolt of 1857.

Although there had been earlier mutinies by the Company's Indian troops, for example in Vellore in 1806, the 1857 uprising was notable for its larger scale, for the nexus between the civilian and the military revolts, and for "the threat it posed for British power throughout northern India." The rebels soon captured large swaths of the Northwest Provinces and Oudh, including Delhi, where they installed the Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar, as Emperor of Hindustan. However, the British response came rapidly as well: by September 1857, with help from fresh British reinforcements, Delhi had been retaken. It then took the better part of 1858 for the rebellion to be completely suppressed in Oudh.

Throughout this time, other regions of British India— Bengal, the Bombay Presidency, and the Madras Presidency—remained calm. In Punjab, only recently annexed by the East India Company, the Sikh princes collaborated with the British to provide both soldiers and support. The large princely states, Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, and Kashmir, as well as the smaller ones of Rajputana, by not joining the rebellion, served, in the Governor General Lord Canning's words, as "breakwaters in a storm" for the British.

The rebellion was notable in several ways: although the fighting was marked by great violence on the part of both warring parties, the rebel soldiers, both Hindu and Muslim, as well as their rural supporters displayed unusual religious amity towards each other; although the rebel leaders, especially the Rani of Jhansi, became folk heroes in the burgeoning nationalist movement half a century later, they themselves "generated no coherent ideology or programme on which to build a new order;" the rebellion ended the East India Company's rule, and led the British to rethink their enterprise in India. Company rule was replaced in 1858 with direct rule by the British Crown in the new British Raj, a system of governance which was to last the next 90 years, until 1947.

Brief history of British expansion in India

The British East India Company won the power of Diwani in Bengal after winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757, under Robert Clive. Their victory in the Battle of Buxar in 1764 won them the Nizamat of Bengal as well. Following the Permanent Settlement of Bengal shortly thereafter, the Company began to vigorously expand its area of control in India.

In 1845 the Company managed to extend its control over Sindh province after the gruelling and bloody campaign of Charles Napier (of 'Peccavi' fame). In 1848 the Second Anglo-Sikh War took place and the Company gained control of the Punjab as well in 1849, after the British Indian Army won a hard-fought victory against the Khalsa Army. In 1853 Nana Sahib, the adopted son of Baji Rao, the last Maratha Peshwa, was denied his father's titles and HEIC pension; which, according to Indian custom, some felt, should have been passed on to him.

In 1854 Berar was annexed as was the state of Awadh/Oudh two years later.


The rebellion or the war for independence had diverse political, economic, military, religious,and social causes.

Much of the resistance to the British came from the old aristocracy, who were seeing their power steadily eroded under the British. The British had annexed several states under the Doctrine of Lapse, according to which land belonging to a feudal ruler became the property of the East India Company if on his death, the ruler did not leave a male heir through natural process. It had long been the custom for a childless landowner to adopt an heir, but the East India Company ignored this tradition. Nobility, feudal landholders, and royal armies found themselves unemployed and humiliated due to British expansionism. Even the jewels of the royal family of Nagpur were publicly auctioned in Calcutta, a move that was seen as a sign of abject disrespect by the remnants of the Indian aristocracy. Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India, had asked the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and his successors to leave the Red Fort, the palace in Delhi. Later, Lord Canning, the next governor-general of India, announced in 1856 that Bahadur Shah's successors would not even be allowed to use the title of 'king'. Such discourtesies were resented by the deposed Indian rulers.

Some Indians were unhappy with the rule of the British and perceived a project of westernisation to be taking place, that, however well-meaning they may have been, they believed were imposed without any regard for Indian tradition or culture. The outlawing of Sati (self-immolation by widows) and child marriage, which to some appeared to be a precursor to an imposition of Christianity, has also been put forward as a reason for the revolt.

The justice system was considered to be inherently unfair to the Indians. The official Blue Books — entitled East India (Torture) 1855–1857 — that were laid before the House of Commons during the sessions of 1856 and 1857 revealed that Company officers were allowed an extended series of appeals if convicted or accused of brutality or crimes against Indians.

The economic policies of the East India Company were also resented by the Indians. Some of the gold, jewels, silver and silk had been shipped off to Britain as tax and sometimes sold in open auctions, ridding India of its once abundant wealth in precious stones. The land was reorganised under the comparatively harsh Zamindari system to facilitate the collection of taxes. In certain areas farmers were forced to switch from subsistence farming to commercial crops such as indigo, jute, coffee and tea. This resulted in hardship to the farmers and increases in food prices. Local industry, specifically the famous weavers of Bengal and elsewhere, also suffered under British rule. Import tariffs were kept low, according to traditional British free-market sentiments, and thus the Indian consumer could purchase cheap clothing from Britain. Indigenous industry simply could not compete, and therefore adjusted according to principles of comparative advantage: where once India had produced much of England's luxury cloth, the country was now reduced to growing cotton which was shipped to Britain to be manufactured into clothing, which was subsequently shipped back to India to be purchased by Indians. The extraordinary quantity of wealth thus collected by the British was absolutely critical in expanding public and private infrastructure in Britain and in financing British expansion elsewhere in Asia and Africa.

The Bengal Army

Each of the three "Presidencies" into which the East India Company divided India for administrative purposes, maintained their own armies. Of these, the Army of the Bengal Presidency was the largest. Unlike the other two, it recruited heavily from among high-caste Hindus (and comparatively wealthy Muslims). The Muslims formed a larger percentage of the Irregular units within the Bengal army, whilst Hindus were mainly to be found in the regular units. The sepoys (the native Indian soldiers) were therefore affected to a large degree by the concerns of the landholding and traditional members of Indian society. In the early years of the Company rule, the British tolerated and even encouraged the caste privileges and customs within the Bengal Army, which recruited its regular soldiers almost exclusively amongst the landowning Bhumihar Brahmins and Rajputs of the Ganges Valley. By the time these customs and privileges came to be threatened by modernizing regimes in Calcutta from the 1840s onwards, the sepoys had become accustomed to very high ritual status, and were extremely sensitive to suggestions that their caste might be polluted..

The sepoys also gradually became dissatisfied with various other aspects of army life. Their pay was relatively low and after Awadh and the Punjab were annexed, the soldiers no longer received extra pay (batta or bhatta) for service there, because they were no longer considered "foreign missions". The junior British officers were increasingly estranged from their soldiers, in many cases treating them as their racial inferiors. Officers of an evangelical persuasion in the Company's Army (such as Herbert Edwardes and Colonel S.G. Wheler of the 34th Bengal Infantry) had taken to preaching to their Sepoys in the hope of converting them to Christianity. In 1856, a new Enlistment Act was introduced by the Company, which in theory made every unit in the Bengal Army liable to service overseas. (Although it was intended to apply to new recruits only, the Sepoys feared that the Act might be applied retrospectively to them also. It was argued that a high-caste Hindu who travelled in the cramped, squalid conditions of a troopship would find it impossible to avoid losing caste through ritual pollution.)

In 1857, the controversy over the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle, in the eyes of many Sepoys, added substance to the alarming rumours circulating about their imminent forced conversion to Christianity. To load the new rifle, the sepoys had to bite the cartridge open. It was believed that the cartridges that were standard issue with the rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as sacred to Hindus..

British officers first became aware of the impending trouble over the cartridges in January, when they received reports of an altercation between a high-caste sepoy and a low-caste labourer at Dum Dum. The labourer had taunted the sepoy that by biting the cartridge, he had himself lost caste, although at this time the Dum-Dum arsenal had not actually started to produce the new round, nor had a single practice shot fired. On January 27 Colonel Richard Birch (the Military Secretary) ordered that all cartridges issued from depots were to be free from grease, and that Sepoys could grease them themselves using whatever mixture ‘they may prefer’. This however, merely caused many Sepoys to be convinced that the rumours were true and that their fears were justified. Around the same time a rumour circulated that the British were contaminating the flour issued to sepoys with ground down cow and pig bone..

Onset of the Rebellion

Several months of increasing tension and inflammatory incidents preceded the actual rebellion. Fires, possibly the result of arson, broke out near Calcutta on 24 January 1857. On February 26, 1857 the 19th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI) regiment came to know about new cartridges and refused to use them. Their Colonel confronted them angrily with artillery and cavalry on the parade ground, but then accepted their demand to withdraw the artillery, and cancel the next morning's parade.

Mangal Pandey

Mangal Pandey
Mangal Pandey

On March 29, 1857 at the Barrackpore (now Barrackpur) parade ground, near Calcutta, 29-year-old Mangal Pandey of the 34th BNI, angered by the recent actions by the British, declared that he would rebel against his commanders. When his adjutant Lt. Baugh came out to investigate the unrest, Pandey opened fire but hit his horse instead.

General John Hearsey came out to see him on the parade ground, and claimed later that Mangal Pandey was in some kind of "religious frenzy". He ordered a Jemadar Ishwari Prasad to arrest Mangal Pandey, but the Jemadar refused. The whole regiment with the single exception of a soldier called Shaikh Paltu drew back from restraining or arresting Mangal Pandey. Shaikh Paltu restrained Pandey from continuing his attack.

Mangal Pandey, after failing to incite his comrades into an open and active rebellion, tried to take his own life by placing his musket to his chest, and pulling the trigger with his toe. He only managed to wound himself, and was court-martialled on April 6. He was hanged on April 8.

The Jemadar Ishwari Prasad too was sentenced to death and hanged on April 22. The whole regiment was disbanded -- stripped of their uniforms because it was felt that they harboured ill-feelings towards their superiors, particularly after this incident. Shaikh Paltu was, however, promoted to the rank of Jemadar in the Bengal Army.

Sepoys in other regiments thought this a very harsh punishment. The show of disgrace while disbanding contributed to the extent of the rebellion in view of some historians, as disgruntled ex-sepoys returned home to Awadh with a desire to inflict revenge, as and when the opportunity arose.

April saw fires at Agra, Allahabad and Ambala. At Ambala in particular, which was a large military cantonment where several units had been collected for their annual musketry practice, it was clear to General Anson, Commander-in-Chief of the Bengal Army, that some sort of riot over the cartridges was imminent. Despite the objections of the Governor-General's staff, he agreed to postpone the musketry practice, and allow the new drill by which the soldiers tore the cartridges with their fingers rather than their teeth. Rather than remain at Ambala to defuse or overawe potential trouble, Anson then proceeded to Simla, the cool "hill station" where many high officials spent the summer.

Although there was no open revolt at Ambala, there was widespread incendiarism during late April. Barrack buildings (especially those belonging to soldiers who had used the Enfield cartridges) and European officers' bungalows were set on fire.

Meerut and Delhi

At Meerut was another large military cantonment. Stationed there were 2,357 Indian sepoys and 2,038 British troops with 12 British-manned guns. Although the state of unrest within the Bengal Army was well known, on April 24, the unsympathetic commanding officer of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry ordered 90 of his men to parade and perform firing drills. All but 5 of the men on parade refused to accept their cartridges. On May 9, the remaining 85 men were court martialled, and most were sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment with hard labour. Eleven comparatively young soldiers were given 5 years' imprisonment. The entire garrison was paraded and watched as the condemned men were stripped of their uniforms and placed in shackles. As they were marched off to jail, the condemned soldiers berated their comrades for failing to support them.

The next day was Sunday. Some Indian soldiers warned junior British officers that plans were afoot to release the imprisoned soldiers by force, but the senior officers took no action. There was also unrest in the city of Meerut itself, with angry protests in the bazaar and some buildings being set on fire.. In the evening, most British officers were preparing to attend Church, while many of the British soldiers were off duty and had gone into canteens or into the bazaar in Meerut. The Indian troops, led by the 3rd Cavalry, broke into revolt. British junior officers who attempted to quell the first outbreaks were killed by their own men. British officers' and civilians' quarters were attacked, and 4 civilian men, 8 women and 8 children died. Crowds in the bazaar also attacked the off-duty soldiers there. The sepoys freed their 85 imprisoned comrades from the jail, along with 800 other prisoners (debtors and criminals).

Some sepoys (especially from the 11th Bengal Native Infantry) escorted trusted British officers and women and children to safety before joining the revolt. Some officers and their families escaped to Rampur, where they found refuge with the Nawab. About 50 Indian civilians (some of whom were officers' servants who tried to defend or conceal their employers) were also killed by the sepoys.. Exaggerated tales of the number and manner of death of British who died during the uprising at Meerut were later to provide a pretext for British forces to commit extremely violent reprisals against innocent Indian civilians and rebellious sepoys alike during the later suppression of the Revolt.

The senior British officers, in particular Major General Hewitt, the commander of the division (who was nearly seventy years old and in poor health), were slow to react. The British troops (mainly the 1st Battalion of the 60th Rifles and two European-manned batteries of the Bengal Artillery) rallied, but received no orders to engage the rebels and could only guard their own headquarters and armouries. When, on the morning of May 11 they prepared to attack, they found Meerut was quiet and the rebels had marched off to Delhi.

That same morning, the first parties of the 3rd Cavalry reached Delhi. From beneath the windows of the King's apartments in the palace, they called on him to acknowledge and lead them. Bahadur Shah did nothing at this point, but others in the palace were quick to join the revolt. During the day, the revolt spread. British officials and dependents, Indian christians and shop keepers within the city were attacked, some by sepoys and others by crowds of rioters. Up to fifty were said to have been killed by some of the King's servants under a peepul tree in a courtyard outside the palace..

There were three battalions of Bengal Native Infantry stationed in or near the city. Some detachments quickly joined the rebellion, while others held back but also refused to obey orders to take action against the rebels. In the afternoon, a violent explosion in the city was heard for several miles. Fearing that the arsenal, which contained large stocks of arms and ammunition, would fall intact into rebel hands, the nine British Ordnance officers there had opened fire on the sepoys, including the men of their own guard. When resistance appeared hopeless, they blew up the arsenal. Although six of the nine officers survived, the blast killed many in the streets and nearby houses and other buildings. The news of these events finally tipped the sepoys stationed around Delhi into open rebellion. The sepoys were later able to salvage at least some arms from the arsenal, and a magazine two miles outside Delhi, containing up to 3,000 barrels of gunpowder, was captured without resistance.

Many fugitive British officers and civilians had congregated at the Flagstaff Tower on the ridge north of Delhi, where telegraph operators were sending news of the events to other British stations. When it became clear that no help could arrive, they made their way in carriages to Karnal. Those who became separated from the main body or who could not reach the Flagstaff Tower also set out for Karnal on foot. Some were helped by villagers on the way, others were robbed or murdered.

The next day, Bahadur Shah held his first formal court for many years. It was attended by many excited or unruly sepoys. The King was alarmed by the turn events had taken, but eventually accepted the sepoys' allegiance and agreed to give his countenance to the rebellion.

Support and opposition

States during the rebellion
States during the rebellion

The rebellion now spread beyond the armed forces, but it did not result in a complete popular uprising across India. The Indian side was not completely unified. While Bahadur Shah Zafar was restored to the imperial throne there was a faction that wanted the Maratha rulers to be enthroned as well, and the Awadhis wanted to retain the powers that their Nawab used to have.

The war was mainly centred in northern and central areas of India. Delhi, Lucknow, Cawnpore, Jhansi, Bareilly, Arrah and Jagdishpur were the main centres of conflict. The Bhojpurias of Arrah and Jagdishpur supported the Marathas. The Marathas, Rohillas and the Awadhis supported Bahadur Shah Zafar and were against the British.

There were calls for jihad by Muslim leaders like Maulana Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi including the millenarian Ahmedullah Shah, taken up by the Muslims, particularly Muslim artisans, which caused the British to think that the Muslims were the main force behind this event. In Awadh, Sunni Muslims did not want to see a return to Shiite rule, so they often refused to join what they perceived to be a Shia rebellion. However, some Muslims like the Aga Khan supported the British. The British rewarded him by formally recognizing his title. The Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah, resisted these calls because, it has been suggested, he feared outbreaks of communal violence.

In Thana Bhawan, the Sunnis declared Haji Imdadullah their Ameer. In May 1857 the Battle of Shamli took place between the forces of Haji Imdadullah and the British.

The Sikhs and Pathans of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province supported the British and helped in the capture of Delhi. Some historians have suggested that the Sikhs wanted to avenge the annexation of Punjab 8 years earlier by the British with the help of Purbhais (Bengalis and Marathis - Easterner) who helped the British.

In 1857, the Bengal Army had 12,000 British, 16,000 Punjabi and 1,500 Gurkha soldiers (Out of a total of (for the three Indian armies) 311,000 native troops (of which a total of 86,000 men were in the Bengal army) and 40,160 European troops (as well as 5,362 Officers) . Fifty-four of the Bengal Army's seventy-five regular Native Infantry Regiments rebelled, although some were immediately destroyed or broke up with their sepoys drifting away to their homes. Almost all the remainder were disarmed or disbanded to prevent or forestall rebellions. All ten of the Bengal Light Cavalry regiments rebelled.

The Bengal Army also included twenty-nine Irregular Cavalry and forty-two Irregular Infantry regiments. These included a substantial contingent from the recently annexed state of Awadh, which rebelled en masse. Another large contingent from Gwalior also rebelled, even though that state's ruler remained allied to the British. The remainder of the Irregular units were raised from a wide variety of sources and were less affected by the concerns of mainstream Indian society. Three bodies in particular actively supported the British; three Gurkha and five (of six) Sikh infantry units, and the six infantry and six cavalry units of the recently-raised Punjab Irregular Force.

On April 1, 1858, the number of Indian soldiers loyal (within the Bengal army) to the British was 80,053. This total however, included a large number of soldiers hastily raised in the Punjab and North-West Frontier after the outbreak of the Rebellion.

The Bombay army had three mutinies in its 29 regiments whilst the Madras army had no mutinies though elements of one of its 52 regiments refused to volunteer for service in Bengal.

Most of southern India remained passive with only sporadic and haphazard outbreaks of violence. Most of the states did not take part in the war as many parts of the region were ruled by the Nizams or the Mysore royalty and were thus not directly under British rule.

The Revolt

Initial stages

Bahadur Shah Zafar proclaimed himself the Emperor of the whole of India. Most contemporary and modern accounts however suggest that he was coerced by the sepoys and his courtiers - against his own will - to sign the proclamation. The civilians, nobility and other dignitaries took the oath of allegiance to the Emperor. The Emperor issued coins in his name, one of the oldest ways of asserting Imperial status, and his name was added to the Khutbah, the acceptance by Muslims that he is their King. This proclamation, however, turned the Sikhs of Punjab away from the rebellion, as they did not want to return to Islamic rule, having fought many wars against the Mughal rulers.

The province of Bengal was quiet throughout the entire period. At that time, Bengal was the province where the British had implemented many of their 'modernizing' concepts, and it had many intellectuals who were well educated and aware of what was going on around the world.

Initially, the Indian soldiers were able to significantly push back Company forces, and captured several important towns in Haryana, Bihar, Central Provinces and the United Provinces. When the British were reinforced and began to counterattack, the sepoys who mutinied were especially handicapped by their lack of a centralised command and control system. Although they produced some natural leaders such as Bakht Khan (whom the Emperor later nominated as commander-in-chief after his son Mirza Mughal proved ineffectual), for the most part they were forced to look for leadership to rajahs and princes. Some of these were to prove dedicated leaders, but others were self-interested or inept.

Rao Tularam of Haryana along with Pran Sukh Yadav fought with the British Army at Nasibpur and then went to collect arms from Russia which had just been in a war with the British in the Crimea, but he died on the way. When a tribal leader from Peshawar sent a letter offering help, the king replied that he should not come to Delhi because the treasury was empty and the army had become uncontrollable.


The British were slow to strike back at first. It would take time for troops stationed in Britain to make their way to India by sea, although some regiments moved overland through Persia from the Crimean War, and some regiments already en route for China were diverted to India.

It took time to organise the British troops already in India into field forces, but eventually two columns left Meerut and Simla. They proceeded slowly towards Delhi and fought, killed, and hanged numerous Indians along the way. Eventually, two months after the first outbreak of rebellion at Meerut, the two forces met near Karnal. The combined force (which included two Gurkha units serving in the Bengal Army under contract from the Kingdom of Nepal), fought the main army of the rebels at Badli-ke-Serai and drove them back to Delhi.

The British established a base on the Delhi ridge to the north of the city and the Siege of Delhi began. The siege lasted roughly from July 1 to September 21. However, the encirclement was hardly complete, and for much of the siege the British were outnumbered and it often seemed that it was the British and not Delhi that was under siege, and the rebels could easily receive resources and reinforcements. For several weeks, it seemed that disease, exhaustion and continuous sorties by rebels from Delhi would force the British to withdraw, but the outbreaks of rebellion in the Punjab were forestalled or suppressed, allowing the Punjab Movable Column of British, Sikh and Pakhtun soldiers under John Nicholson to reinforce the besiegers on the Ridge on August 14.

An eagerly-awaited heavy siege train also joined the besieging force, and from September 7, the siege guns battered breaches in the walls and silenced the rebels' artillery. An attempt to storm the city through the breaches and the Kashmiri gate was launched on September 14. The attackers gained a foothold within the city but suffered heavy casualties, including John Nicholson. The British commander wished to withdraw, but was persuaded to hold on by his junior officers. After a week of street fighting, the British reached the Red Fort. Bahadur Shah had already fled to Humayun's tomb. The British had retaken the city.

The troops of the besieging force proceeded to loot and pillage the city. A large number of the citizens were butchered in retaliation for the Europeans and Indian 'collaborators' that had been slaughtered by the rebel sepoys. Artillery was set up in the main mosque in the city and the neighbourhoods within the range of artillery were bombarded. These included the homes of the Muslim nobility from all over India, and contained innumerable cultural, artistic, literary and monetary riches. An example would be the loss of most of the works of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, thought of as the greatest Indian poet of that era.

The British soon arrested Bahadur Shah, and the next day British officer William Hodson shot his sons Mirza Mughal, Mirza Khizr Sultan, and grandson Mirza Abu Bakr under his own authority at the Khooni Darwaza (the bloody gate) near Delhi Gate. Their heads were reportedly presented to Bahadur Shah the next day.

Shortly after the fall of Delhi, the victorious attackers organised a column which relieved another besieged British force in Agra, and then pressed on to Cawnpore, which had also recently been recaptured. This gave the British a continuous, although still tenuous, line of communication from the east to west of India.

Cawnpore (Kanpur)

A memorial erected (circa 1860) by the British after the Mutiny was crushed at the Bibi Ghar Well. After India's independence the statue was moved to the Memorial Church, Cawnpore. Albumen silver print by Samuel Bourne, 1860.
A memorial erected (circa 1860) by the British after the Mutiny was crushed at the Bibi Ghar Well. After India's independence the statue was moved to the Memorial Church, Cawnpore. Albumen silver print by Samuel Bourne, 1860.

In June, sepoys under General Wheeler in Cawnpore, (now known as Kanpur) rebelled and besieged the European entrenchment. Wheeler was not only a veteran and respected soldier, but also married to a high-caste Indian lady. He had relied on his own prestige, and his cordial relations with the Nana Sahib to thwart rebellion, and took comparatively few measures to prepare fortifications and lay in supplies and ammunition.

The British endured three weeks of the Siege of Cawnpore with little water or food, suffering continuous casualties to men, women and children. On June 25 Nana Sahib offered fairly generous surrender terms, and Wheeler had little choice but to accept. The Nana Sahib agreed to let them have safe passage to Allahabad but on June 27 when the British left their fortified barrack buildings to board the promised riverboats, firing broke out. Who fired first has remained a matter of debate.

The Indians claim that the British had already boarded the boats and Tatya Tope raised his right hand to signal their departure. That very moment someone from the crowd blew a loud bugle which created disorder and in the ongoing bewilderment, the boatmen jumped off the boats. British soldiers and officers still had their arms and ammunition and they fired shots at these boatmen. The rebels lost all patience and started shooting indiscriminately. Nana Sahib, who was momentarily staying in Savada Kothi ( Bungalow) nearby, got the message and immediately came to stop it. The remaining men were, however, killed to ensure no further unrest.

The British claim that during the march to the boats, loyal sepoys were removed by the mutineers and lynched along with any British officer or soldier that attempted to help them, although these attacks were ignored in an attempt to reach the boats safely. After firing began the boats' pilots fled, setting fire to the boats, and the rebellious sepoys opened fire on the British soldiers and civilians. One boat with over a dozen wounded men initially escaped, but later grounded, was caught by mutineers and pushed back down the river towards the carnage at Cawnpore. The female occupants were removed and taken away as hostages and the men, including the wounded and elderly, were hastily put against a wall and shot. Only four men eventually escaped alive from Cawnpore on one of the boats: two privates (both of whom died later during the Rebellion), a Lieutenant, and Captain Mowbray Thomson, who wrote a firsthand account of his experiences entitled The Story of Cawnpore (London) 1859.

The surviving women and children from the massacre by the river were led to the Bibi-Ghar (the House of the Ladies) in Cawnpore. On the July 15, with British forces approaching Cawnpore and some believing that they would not advance if there were no hostages to save, their murders were ordered. Another motive for these killings was to ensure that no information was leaked to the British after the fall of Cawnpore. Other historians have suggested that the killings were an attempt to undermine Nana Sahib's relationship with the British. After the sepoys refused to carry out this order, Two Muslim Butchers, Two Hindu Peasants and one of Nana body guards went into the Bibi-Ghar where they proceeded to kill the hostages with Tulwars . The dead and the dying were then thrown down a nearby well.

The killing of the women and children proved to be a mistake. The British public was aghast and the pro-Indian proponents lost all their support. Cawnpore became a war cry for the British and their allies for the rest of the conflict. The Nana Sahib disappeared near the end of the Rebellion and it is not known what happened to him.

Other British accounts state that indiscriminate punitive measures were taken in early June, two weeks before the murders at the Bibi-Ghar (but after those at both Merrut and Delhi), specifically by Lieutenant Colonel James George Smith Neill of the Madras Fusiliers (a European unit), commanding at Allahabad while moving towards Cawnpore. At the nearby town of Fatehpur, it was alleged that a mob had murdered the local British population. On this pretext, Neill explicitly ordered all villages beside the Grand Trunk Road to be burned, and their inhabitants to be hanged. Neill's methods were "ruthless and horrible" and may well have induced previously undecided sepoys and communities to revolt.

Neill was killed in action at Lucknow on September 26 and was never called to account for his punitive measures, though contemporary British sources lionised Neill and his "gallant blue caps". By contrast with the actions of soldiers under Neill, the behaviour of most rebel soldiers was creditable. "Our creed does not permit us to kill a bound prisoner", one of the matchlockmen explained, "though we can slay our enemy in battle."

When the British retook Cawnpore later, the soldiers took their sepoy prisoners to the Bibi-Ghar and forced them to lick the bloodstains from the walls and floor. They then hanged or "blew from the cannon" the majority of the sepoy prisoners. Although some claimed the sepoys took no actual part in the killings themselves, they did not act to stop it and this was acknowledged by Captain Thompson after the British departed Cawnpore for a second time.


Secundra Bagh after the slaughter of 2,000 Rebels by the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Regiment. Albumen silver print by Felice Beato, 1858.
Secundra Bagh after the slaughter of 2,000 Rebels by the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Regiment. Albumen silver print by Felice Beato, 1858.

Very soon after the events in Meerut, rebellion erupted in the state of Awadh (also known as Oudh, in modern-day Uttar Pradesh), which had been annexed barely a year before. The British Commissioner resident at Lucknow, Sir Henry Lawrence, had enough time to fortify his position inside the Residency compound. The British forces numbered some 1700 men, including loyal sepoys. The rebels' initial assaults were unsuccessful, and so they began a barrage of artillery and musket fire into the compound. Lawrence was one of the first casualties. The rebels tried to breach the walls with explosives and bypass them via underground tunnels that led to underground close combat. After 90 days of siege, numbers of British were reduced to 300 loyal sepoys, 350 British soldiers and 550 non-combatants.

On September 25 a relief column under the command of Sir Henry Havelock and accompanied by Sir James Outram (who in theory was his superior) fought its way from Cawnpore to Lucknow in a brief campaign in which the numerically small column defeated rebel forces in a series of increasingly large battles. This became known as 'The First Relief of Lucknow', as this force was not strong enough to break the siege or extricate themselves, and so was forced to join the garrison. In October another, larger, army under the new Commander-in-Chief, Sir Colin Campbell, was finally able to relieve the garrison and on the November 18, they evacuated the defended enclave within the city, the women and children leaving first. They then conducted an orderly withdrawal to Cawnpore, where they defeated an attempt by Tatya Tope to recapture the city in the Second Battle of Cawnpore.

Early in 1858, Campbell once again advanced on Lucknow with a large army, this time seeking to suppress the rebellion in Awadh. He was aided by a large Nepalese contingent advancing from the north under Jang Bahadur, who decided to side with the British in December 1857. Campbell's advance was slow and methodical, and drove the large but disorganised rebel army from Lucknow with few casualties to his own troops. This nevertheless allowed large numbers of the rebels to disperse into Awadh, and Campbell was forced to spend the summer and autumn dealing with scattered pockets of resistance while losing men to heat, disease and guerilla actions.


Jhansi was a Maratha-ruled princely state in Bundelkhand. When the Raja of Jhansi died without a male heir in 1853, it was annexed to the British Raj by the Governor-General of India under the Doctrine of lapse. His widow, Rani Lakshmi Bai, protested that she had not been allowed to adopt a successor, as per Indian custom.

When war broke out, Jhansi quickly became a centre of the rebellion. A small group of British officials and their families took refuge in Jhansi's fort, and the Rani negotiated their evacuation. However, when they left the fort, they were massacred by the rebels. Although the treachery might have occurred without the Rani's consent, the British suspected her of complicity, despite her protestations of innocence.

By the end of June 1857, the British had entirely lost control of much of Bundelkhand and eastern Rajastan. The Bengal Army units in the area, having rebelled, marched to take part in the battles for Delhi and Cawnpore. The many princely states which made up this area began warring amongst themselves. In September and October 1857, the Rani led the successful defence of Jhansi against the invading armies of the neighbouring rajas of Datia and Orchha.

In March 1858, the Central India Field Force, led by Sir Hugh Rose, advanced on and laid siege to Jhansi. The British captured the city, but the Rani fled in disguise.

After being driven from Jhansi and Kalpi, on June 1, 1858 Rani Lakshmi Bai and a group of Maratha rebels captured the fortress city of Gwalior from the Scindia rulers, who were British allies. This might have reinvigorated the rebellion but the Central India Field Force very quickly advanced against the city. The Rani died on June 17, the second day of the Battle of Gwalior probably killed by a carbine shot from the 8th Hussars, according to the account of three independent Indian representatives. The British recaptured Gwalior within the next three days. In descriptions of the scene of her last battle, she was compared to Joan Of Arc by some commentators.


What was then referred to by the British as the Punjab was in fact a very large administrative division, centred on Lahore. It included not only the present-day Indian and Pakistani Punjabi regions but also the North West Frontier districts bordering Afghanistan.

Much of the region had been the Sikh kingdom, ruled by Ranjit Singh until his death in 1839. The kingdom had then fallen into disorder, with court factions and the Khalsa (the Sikh army) contending for power at the Lahore Durbar (court). After two Anglo-Sikh Wars, the entire region was annexed by the East India Company in 1849. In 1857, the region still contained the highest numbers of both British and Indian troops.

The inhabitants of the Punjab were not as sympathetic to the sepoys as they were the areas from which many of them were raised, which limited many of the outbreaks to disjointed uprisings by regiments of sepoys isolated from each other. In some garrisons, notably Ferozepore, indecision on the part of the senior British officers allowed the sepoys to rebel, but the sepoys then left the area, mostly heading for Delhi. At the most important garrison, that of Peshawar close to the Afghan frontier, many comparatively junior officers ignored their nominal commander (the elderly General Reed) and took decisive action. They intercepted the sepoys' mail, thus preventing their coordinating an uprising, and formed a force known as the "Punjab Movable Column" to move rapidly to suppress any revolts as they occurred. When it became clear from the intercepted correspondence that some of the sepoys at Peshawar were on the point of open revolt, the four most disaffected Bengal Native regiments were disarmed by the two British infantry regiments in the cantonment, backed by artillery, on May 22. This decisive act induced many local chieftains to side with the British.

Some regiments in frontier garrisons subsequently rebelled, but became isolated among hostile Pakhtun villages and tribes. There were several mass executions, amounting to several hundred, of sepoys from units which rebelled or who deserted in the Punjab and North West Frontier provinces during June and July. The British had been recruiting irregular units from Sikh and Pakhtun communities even before the first unrest among the Bengal units, and the numbers of these were greatly increased during the Rebellion.

At one stage, faced with the need to send troops to reinforce the besiegers of Delhi, the Commissioner of the Punjab suggested handing the coveted prize of Peshawar to Dost Mohammed Khan of Afghanistan in return for a pledge of friendship. The British Agents in Peshawar and the adjacent districts were horrified. Referring to the massacre of a retreating British army in 1840, Herbert Edwardes wrote, "Dost Mahomed would not be a mortal Afghan ... if he did not assume our day to be gone in India and follow after us as an enemy. Europeans cannot retreat - Kabul would come again." In the event, Lord Canning insisted on Peshawar being held, and Dost Mohammed, whose relations with Britain had been equivocal for over twenty years, remained neutral.

The final large-scale military uprising in the Punjab took place on July 9, when most of a brigade of sepoys at Sialkot rebelled and began to move to Delhi. They were intercepted by John Nicholson with an equal British force as they tried to cross the Ravi River. After fighting steadily but unsuccessfully for several hours, the sepoys tried to fall back across the river but became trapped on an island. Three days later, Nicholson annihilated the 1100 trapped sepoys in the Battle of Trimmu Ghat.

In the countryside of the Punjab, Mohar Singh, a Khalsa army veteran, declared openly in Bahadur Shah Zafar's favour, going so far as to declare a Khalsa-Mughal Raj in Ropar. It has been argued by some Indian historians that only the cis-Sutlej Sikhs (from the area east of the River Chenab, outside the original Sikh kingdom) supported the British; but even so, in 1858 at Dera Ismail Khan in present-day Pakistan, the 10th Sikh Infantry revolted -- British officers and Patiala, Nabha, Jind rulers state on record that they could not trust their soldiers, and that even cis-Sutlej Sikhs were 'getting excited by news from Awadh and the Hindustani areas.'

Marble Lectern in memory of 35 British soldiers in Jhelum
Marble Lectern in memory of 35 British soldiers in Jhelum

Jhelum in Punjab was also a centre of resistance against the British. Here 35 British soldiers of HM XXIV regiment died on 7 July 1857. To commemorate this victory St. John's Church Jhelum was built and the names of those 35 British soldiers are carved on a marble lectern present in that church.

Murree and Hazara

The War against the British reached Murree and the Southern Areas of Hazara part of which is now known as Circle Bakote in July 1857 when the Dhond Abbasi leader Sardar Sherbaz Khan planned to attack the British. Sardar Khan had managed to obtain the backing of the following important tribal leaders.

  1. Satti leader Sardar Borha Khan
  2. Karhal leader Sardar Hasan Ali Khan
  3. Sardar Lalli Khan and Mian Abdul Aziz of Birote
  4. Sardar Resham Khan of Ponch Kashmir

However the revolt did not succeed. The rebels were betrayed and as punishment, all of Sardar Sherbaz Khan's eight sons were blasted (by cannon fire) in Murree while Sardar Khan himself was hanged. The masterminds of this plan of independence were two Seyed brothers from Dhoke Syedan of Dewal Sharif. Not everyone had been against British rule, before British rule had been established in this area, the tribes had fought against the Sikh army. Under the command of the Pir of Plasi they had fought against the Sikh Army in Balakot - the troops here were commanded by Seyed Shah Ismail Shahid and Syed Ahmad Shaheed (known as the martyrs). Pir of Dewal Sharif late Abdul Majid Ahmed grandfather had also embraced martyrdom in Dewal fighting against Sikhs army chief Hari Singh Nalwa. Nalwa's troops had brutally crushed the tribes of Circle Bakote and beheaded many of them. The British, after battling in Rawalpindi in 1845 had captured Rani Jindan, the widow of Ranjit Singh (the former Ruler of Punjab) - this then caused the collapse of Sikh rule, when the British marched into the Murree area all the local tribes initially welcomed them with roses. Within a short space of time, many of the tribes then felt they had exchanged one form occupation for another one, and it was events elsewhere in India which encouraged the uprising. However the British had recruited many of the tribes in this area into their army, for example in this area large numbers of the Satti Tribe were recruited as Sepoys into the British Army and the British commanders (like elsewhere across Colonial India) won this war largely by the use of native infantry.

Rest of India

The Rohillas centred in Bareilly were also very active in the war and this area was amongst the last to be recaptured by the British, after Campbell had finally quelled resistance in Awadh.

The rebellion in [Bihar] and the districts around Benares was also finally overcome about the same time. In the early days of the rebellion, British control was quickly lost, but the Bengal Army units stationed in the area broke up and dispersed to their homes. The area was largely bypassed by the British as they concentrated on Awadh. Eventually, following the recapture of Lucknow, the scattered bands of rebels were suppressed and British authority reimposed.

Within the Bombay Presidency, there were uprisings among Bombay army units in Kolhapur, Satara, Karachi, Bombay, Aurangabad, Nasirabad, and Ahmedabad, and the Maharashtra-Gujarat-Karnataka risings. One Hindu and one Muslim sepoys were blown apart from a cannon's mouth, in what today stands as Mumbai's Azad Maidan. The mutinies in the Bombay Army were nevertheless quickly put down, and two two regiments were disbanded.

During the 1858 Konkan-West Coast guerrilla fight, which stretched from Raigad and Ratnagiri to Savantwadi, and then onto Udupi and Mangalore, Mahar, Maratha, Kannada and Tulu warriors fought shoulder to shoulder. Nearly every Indian district, whether in the UP-Bihar-MP belt, or Orissa, or Assam-Bengal, or West India, also shows a pattern of 'one Hindu, one Muslim' martyr.

In Maharashtra, Pathans and Arabs figure prominently in the 1857 Khandesh (Nasik-Jalgaon-Dhule) struggles launched by Bhils and Kolis. In Karnataka, the Gulbarga, Dharwar, Raichur risings saw Lingayat-Ramoshi-Maratha-Muslim participation.

In Ayodhya, at the site where the Babri Masjid was demolished, Mahant Ramdas and Maulavi Amir Ali, as well as Shambhu Prasad Shukla and Achchan Khan, two religious Hindus and two religious Muslims, were hanged side by side.

It is commonly states that the Madras army and the Madras Presidency was bereft of risings, yet in Madras, at a place called Vaniyambadi, full of Labbai Muslims, the 8th Madras Cavalry rose. Elsewhere, led by Thevar-Vellala sepoys. Then in Vellore, in 1858, Madras army sepoys killed their British officers.

In the Andhra-Telangana country, Girijan tribes of the coastal-Godavery belt rose under a Reddi leader and a Muslim-Pathan ex-soldier; in Adibalad and Warangal, and Cuddapah and Nellore in Rayalseema, Pathans and Sheikhs formed a small army with Gond and Kapu help.

In Kerala, Moplah agitators, helped by Ezhavas, the Kerala scheduled castes, and Namboodri Brahmins, staged risings in the Malabar region.


The Crown awarded 182 of the newly instituted Victoria Cross to soldiers who had fought in India during the period of the rebellion; the Crimean War gained 111 in a similar period.

Retaliation — "The Devil's Wind"

British soldiers looting Qaisar Bagh, Lucknow, after its recapture (steel engraving, late 1850s)
British soldiers looting Qaisar Bagh, Lucknow, after its recapture (steel engraving, late 1850s)

From the end of 1857, the British had begun to gain ground again. Lucknow was retaken in March 1858. On 8 July 1858, a peace treaty was signed and the war ended. The last rebels were defeated in Gwalior on 20 June 1858. By 1859, rebel leaders Bakht Khan and Nana Sahib had either been slain or had fled. As well as hanging mutineers, the British had some "blown from cannon"; an old Mughal (also "Mogul" in English) punishment adopted many years before in India. A method of execution midway between firing squad and hanging but more demonstrative; sentenced rebels were set before the mouth of cannons and blown to pieces. It was a crude and brutal war, with both sides resorting to what would now be described as war crimes. In the end, however, in terms of sheer numbers, the casualties were significantly higher on the Indian side. A letter published after the fall of Delhi in the "Bombay Telegraph" and subsequently reproduced in the British press testified to the scale and nature of the retaliation:

.... All the city people found within the walls (of the city of Delhi) when our troops entered were bayoneted on the spot, and the number was considerable, as you may suppose, when I tell you that in some houses forty and fifty people were hiding. These were not mutineers but residents of the city, who trusted to our well-known mild rule for pardon. I am glad to say they were disappointed.

Another brief letter from General Montgomery to Captain Hodson, the conqueror of Delhi exposes how the British military high command approved of the cold blooded massacre of Delhites: "All honour to you for catching the king and slaying his sons. I hope you will bag many more!"

Another comment on the conduct of the British soldiers after the fall of Delhi is of Captain Hodson himself in his book, Twelve years in India: "With all my love for the army, I must confess, the conduct of professed Christians, on this occasion, was one of the most humiliating facts connected with the siege." (Hodson was killed during the recapture of Lucknow in early 1858).

Edward Vibart, a nineteen year-old officer, also recorded his experience:

It was literally murder... I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful... Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man's heart I think who can look on with indifference...

The British adopted a policy of "no prisoners", a policy which was enforced by means of massacre and mass executions. One officer, Thomas Lowe, later remembered how on one occasion his unit had taken 76 prisoners (they were just too tired to carry on killing and needed a rest, he recalled). Later, after a quick trial, the prisoners were all lined up with a British soldier standing a couple of yards in front of them. On the order "fire", they were all simultaneously shot, "swept... from their earthly existence". This was not the only mass execution Lowe participated in. On another occasion his unit took 149 prisoners, and once again they were lined up and all simultaneously shot.

As a result, the end of the war was followed by the execution of a vast majority of combatants from the Indian side as well as large numbers of civilians perceived to be sympathetic to the rebel cause. The British press and British government did not advocate clemency of any kind, though Governor General Canning tried to be sympathetic to native sensibilities, earning the scornful sobriquet " Clemency Canning". Soldiers took very few prisoners and often executed them later. Whole villages were wiped out for apparent pro-rebel sympathies. The Indians called this retaliation "the Devil's Wind."

To the steady beat of drums, the captured rebels were first stripped of their uniforms and then tied to cannons, their bellies pushed hard against the gaping mouths of the big guns. The order to fire was given. With an enormous roar, all the cannons burst into life at once, generating a cloud of black smoke that snaked into the summer sky. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing left of the rebels' bodies except their arms, still tied to the cannons, and their blackened heads, which landed with a soft thud on the baking parade ground. It was a terrible way to die and a terrible sight to witness.

British historian Saul David, author of The Indian Mutiny, reckoned that the death toll ran into "hundreds of thousands".


Image:BahadurShah Zafar.jpg
Bahadur Shah Zafar exiled in Rangoon. Photograph by Robert Tytler and Charles Shepherd, May 1858.

Bahadur Shah was tried for treason by a military commission assembled at Delhi, and exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862, finally bringing the Mughal dynasty to an end. In 1877 Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India on the advice of her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.

The rebellion saw the end of the British East India Company's rule in India. In August, by the Government of India Act 1858, the company was formally dissolved and its ruling powers over India were transferred to the British Crown. A new British government department, the India Office, was created to handle the governance of India, and its head, the Secretary of State for India, was entrusted with formulating Indian policy. The Governor-General of India gained a new title ( Viceroy of India), and implemented the policies devised by the India Office. The British colonial administration embarked on a program of reform, trying to integrate Indian higher castes and rulers into the government and abolishing attempts at Westernization. The Viceroy stopped land grabs, decreed religious tolerance and admitted Indians into civil service, albeit mainly as subordinates.

Essentially the old East India Company bureaucracy remained, though there was a major shift in attitudes. In looking for the causes of the Mutiny the authorities alighted on two things: religion and the economy. On religion it was felt that there had been too much interference with indigenous traditions, both Hindu and Muslim. On the economy it was now believed that the previous attempts by the Company to introduce free market competition had undermined traditional power structures and bonds of loyalty, placing the peasantry at the mercy of merchants and money-lenders. In consequence the new British Raj was constructed in part around a conservative agenda, based on a preservation of tradition and hierarchy.

On a political level it was also felt that the previous lack of consultation between rulers and ruled had been yet another significant factor in contributing to the uprising. In consequence, Indians were drawn into government at a local level. Though this was on a limited scale a crucial precedent had been set, with the creation of a new 'white collar' Indian elite, further stimulated by the opening of universities at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, a result of the Indian Universities Act. So, alongside the values of traditional and ancient India, a new professional middle class was starting to arise, in no way bound by the values of the past. Their ambition can only have been stimulated by Victoria's Proclamation of November 1858, in which it is expressly stated that "We hold ourselves bound to the natives of our Indian territories by the same obligations of duty which bind us to our other is our further will that... our subjects of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to offices in our service, the duties of which they may be qualified by their education, ability and integrity, duly to discharge."

Acting on these sentiments, Lord Ripon, vice-roy from 1880 to 1885, extended the powers of local self-government and sought to remove racial practices in the law courts by the Ilbert Bill. But a policy at once liberal and progressive at one turn was reactionary and backward at the next, creating new elites and confirming old attitudes. The Ilbert Bill only had the effect of causing a White Mutiny, and the end of the prospect of perfect equality before the law. In 1886 measures were adopted, moreover, to restrict Indian entry into the civil service.

Militarily, the rebellion transformed both the "native" and European armies of British India. The British increased the ratio of British to Indian soldiers. Regiments which had remained loyal to the British were retained, and the number of Gurkha units, which had been crucial in the Delhi campaign, was increased. The inefficiencies of the old organisation, which had estranged sepoys from their British officers, were addressed, and the post-1857 units were mainly organised on the "irregular" system. (Before the rebellion, Bengal Infantry units had 26 British officers, who held every position of authority down to the second-in-command of each company. In irregular units, there were only six or seven or even fewer British officers, who associated themselves far more closely with their soldiers, while more trust and responsibility was given to the Indian officers.) Most new units were raised from among the so-called " Martial Races", which were not part of mainstream Indian culture. Sepoy artillery was abolished also, leaving all artillery (except some small detachments of mountain guns) in British hands. The post-rebellion changes formed the basis of the military organisation of British India until the early twentieth century.

Debate about name

There is no agreed name for the events of this period,

  • In India it has often been termed as the "War of Independence of 1857" or "First War of Independence" but it is not uncommon for people to continue to use terms such as the Sepoy Mutiny.
  • In the UK, it is commonly called the "Indian Mutiny", but other terms such as "Great Indian Mutiny", the "Sepoy Mutiny", the "Sepoy Rebellion", the "Sepoy War", the "Great Mutiny", the "Rebellion of 1857", the "Mahomedan Rebellion" and the "Revolt of 1857" have also been used.


A number of dispossessed dynasts, both Hindu and Muslim, exploited the well-founded caste-suspicions of the sepoys and made these simple folk their cat's paw in gamble for recovering their thrones. The last scions of the Delhi Mughals or the Oudh Nawabs and the Peshwa, can by no ingenuity be called fighters for Indian freedom
In the light of the available evidence, we are forced to the conclusion that the uprising of 1857 was not the result of careful planning, nor were there any master-minds behind it. As I read about the events of 1857, I am forced to the conclusion that the Indian national character had sunk very low. The leaders of the revolt could never agree. They were mutually jealous and continually intrigued against one another. ... In fact these personal jealousies and intrigues were largely responsible for the Indian defeat.
— Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

William Dalrymple, in his recent work on the event, The Last Mughal, refers to it as "the Uprising".

The use of the term "Indian Mutiny" is considered by some historians and Indian politicians as unacceptable and offensive, as it is perceived to belittle what they see as a "First War of Independence" and therefore reflecting a biased, imperialistic attitude of the erstwhile colonists.

For example, in October, 2006, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament said:

The War of 1857 was undoubtedly an epoch-making event in India’s struggle for freedom. For what the British sought to deride as a mere sepoy mutiny was India’s First War of Independence in a very true sense, when people from all walks of life, irrespective of their caste, creed, religion and language, rose against the British rule.
— Chaterjee, Somnath - Office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha

Some politicians from Punjab however doubt this interpretation of events. A recent complication has emerged in that some Sikhs claim that the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845) should be called the first war of Indian independence.

Debate about character

Historians remain divided on whether the rebellion can properly be considered a war of Indian independence or not, although it is popularly considered to be one in India. Arguments against include:

  • A united India did not exist at that time in political terms;
  • The rebellion was put down with the help of other Indian soldiers drawn from the Madras Army, the Bombay Army and the Sikh regiments, 80% of the British forces were Indian ;
  • Many of the local rulers fought amongst themselves rather than uniting against the British, and in one or two cases revolts occurred in areas not under British rule as a result of local politics;
  • Many rebel Sepoy regiments disbanded and went home rather than fight;
  • Not all of the rebles accepted the return of the Moghuls.
  • The revolt was fractured along religious, ethnic and regional lines.
"the demon of communalism also raised its head. The Muslims spat over the Hindus and openly defiled their houses by sprinkling them with cows' blood and placing cows' bones within the compounds. Concrete instances are given where Hindu Sepoy came into clash with Muslim hooligans and a complete riot ensued. The Hindus, oppressed by the Muslims, were depressed at the success of the Mutiny, and daily offered prayers to God for the return of "the English."

A second school of thought while acknowledging the validity of the above-mentioned arguments opines that this rebellion may indeed be called a war of India's independence. The reasons advanced are:

  • Even though the rebellion had various causes (e.g. Sepoy grievances, British high-handedness, the Doctrine of Lapse etc.), most of the rebel sepoys set out to revive the old Mughal empire, that signified a national symbol for them, instead of heading home or joining services of their regional principalities, which would not have been unreasonable if their revolt were only inspired by grievances;
    The hanging of two participants in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Albumen silver print by Felice Beato, 1858
    The hanging of two participants in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Albumen silver print by Felice Beato, 1858
  • There was a widespread popular revolt in many areas such as Awadh, Bundelkhand and Rohilkhand. The rebellion was therefore more than just a military rebellion, and it spanned more than one region;
  • The sepoys did not seek to revive small kingdoms in their regions, instead they repeatedly proclaimed a "country-wide rule" of the Moghuls and vowed to drive out the British from "India", as they knew it then. (The sepoys ignored local princes and proclaimed in cities they took over: Khalq Khuda Ki, Mulk Badshah Ka, Hukm Subahdar Sipahi Bahadur Ka - i.e. the world belongs to God, the country to the Emperor and executive powers to the Sepoy Commandant in the city). The objective of driving out "foreigners" from not only one's own area but from their conception of the entirety of "India", signifies a nationalist sentiment;
  • The troops of the Bengal Army were used extensively in warfare by the British and had therefore travelled extensively across the Indian subcontinent, leading them perhaps to develop some notion of a nation-state called India. They displayed for the first time in this rebellion, some contemporary British accounts (Malleson) suggest, patriotic sentiments in the modern sense.

Besides this, a contemporary British chronicler, Thomas Lowe, in Central India during the rebellion, wrote in 1860: "To live in India, now, was like standing on the verge of a volcanic crater, the sides of which were fast crumbling away from our feet, while the boiling lava was ready to erupt and consume us." Further, he exclaimed: "The infanticide Rajput, the bigoted Brahmin, the fanatic Mussalman, had joined together in the cause; cow-killer and the cow-worshipper, the pig-hater and the pig-eater… had revolted together."

In short, we may summarise the discussion in following terms.

  1. If the criterion of a National War of Independence is set as "a war (or numerous conflicts) spread all over the nation cutting across regional lines", the rebellion in that case does not qualify as a war of India's independence.
  2. If the criterion for a National War of Independence is set as "a war, which even if geographically confined to certain regions, is waged with the intention of driving out from the complete national area a power perceived to be foreign", then it was a war of national independence.

This discussion shows that the term "national war" is subject to individual opinions and cannot be answered decisively.

In popular culture

The Government of India celebrated 2007 as the 150th anniversary of what Indians term as "India's First War of Independence". In the Union Budget of 2007, an amount of Rs. 10 crore was set aside for the celebration. The (British) National Army Museum in London mounted a display to mark the 150th anniversary on 10 May, 2007 and also has an ongoing online exhibition called "India Rising".

  • The 2005 Bollywood film Mangal Pandey: The Rising is set immediately prior to the outbreak of the Rebellion.
  • The 1981 Bollywood film Kranti is set during these times.
  • The 1978 Bollywood film Junoon was set in 1857.
  • In the 1984 Hollywood film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the Rebellion is referenced by Captain Philip Blumburtt while discussing the Thuggees at a dinner hosted by the Maharajah of the fictitious princely state of Pankot
  • The film King of the Khyber Rifles is set during this time (although the book is set during World War I).
  • The book Flashman in the Great Game (5th book in the Flashman series) is a historical novel by George MacDonald Fraser set in India during the rebellion and involves many of the locations and persons involved.
  • The episode of the ITV TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes The Sign of Four is set in (in a flash back) but mainly after the Mutiny and revolves around the fate of loot from the conflict.
  • The novel Nightrunners of Bengal by John Masters is set during the rebellion.
  • The novel The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell shows three facets of the rebellion - the British, the Sepoys and the Indian princes.
  • The game Age of Empires 3: The Asian Dynasties uses the rebellion as basis for one of its campaigns.
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