The Indian Mutiny of 1857 began today on May 10th.
As the sun began to set on Sunday 10th May 1857, a group of civilians and sepoy soldiers of the East India Company (EIC) revolted. Soon after 5pm, while the European officers and their families were at church, the rebels burst through the cantonment setting fire to buildings, looting weapons and slaughtering the Europeans and their families as they fled.
A few British officers rallied together to defend the town and to halt the revolt, but they were soon overwhelmed by the rebels’ numbers and by their tenacity. After setting free the prisoners at the military camp, the rebels fled Meerut, and headed for the old Mughal capital of Delhi.
This outburst was unprecedented and came as a shock to all, as the British who resided in India did not believe that a revolt against them would be likely or even possible, such was their confidence in their abilities and in their right to be in India.
The attack and the consequences of the resulting spread of mutiny shook the very foundations of the British involvement in India to its core and ultimately changed India’s fate, when the Mutiny was finally crushed.
The Mutiny, from Meerut spread to Delhi and then spread its fingers over the north of India, affecting lands from the Afghan border to Bengal. The speed with which the Mutiny spread was amazing and although it did not encompass the whole of the subcontinent, it had captured Bengal, the beating heart of the military might in India.
The trigger for the Mutiny occurred several days before, at the base of Meerut. 85 sepoy soldiers refused to use the new Enfield rifles that had been issued to them, during a training exercise. Like many rumours before it, the paper cartridges, which had to be bitten off, were rumoured to be covered with pig or cow grease as a waterproof coating, both these suggestions, albeit unsubstantiated, were deeply offensive to Muslims and Hindus, respectively, and they both saw it as a disregard for their religious beliefs. The sepoys refused and they were court-martialled by the British officers and sentenced to ten years hard labour. To add insult to injury the soldiers were stripped of the uniforms and shackled together under the watchful eyes of the rest of the troops of the 3rd Light Cavalry in the middle of their parade ground. The other sepoys were deeply incensed by the treatment of their comrades and it proved to be the final straw for them, and the Mutiny against the British began.
But, of course, it is never that simple and the issue of contamination from the Enfield rifle pushed the sepoys to breaking point. In reality, the situation was brought about due to the disgruntlements faced daily by Indian soldiers fighting in defence of an Empire whose headquarters were thousands of miles away. In short, many members of the Indian army were unhappy and most had genuine anxieties, from pensions, to lack of promotion opportunities (for the role of the officer was always reserved for the British or European soldier), and service overseas. Added to this were the anxieties over the presence of Christian missionaries in the subcontinent. What’s more rumours spread far and wide of the addition of cow’s blood (the cow is deeply sacred to Hindu’s), for example, into salt, or the grinding of pig and cow bones into the flour.
In time, what the British began to term as the Mutiny, which the Indians later regarded as the First War of Independence or the Indian Rebellion, was not particularly effective. It did show the potential of India’s military might of a subcontinent ruled of so many, ruled over by so few, but the Mutiny was not a wholly national movement.
Deep divisions within the subcontinent itself, with its many religions, the caste system of Hinduism, the many languages and dialects, not to mention the vast distances, all contributed to the prevention of the formation of a national rebellion. As Jeremy Paxman points out in his ‘Empire: What Ruling the World did to the British’, the uprising was an ‘incoherent expression of anger’, which in the long-term was ‘destined to fail’.
Britain would never forget the rebellion.
Despite the relative small number of rebel forces they fought with a determination that the British did not expect and did not prepare for. But the British would not be fooled again. When they managed to stamp out the Mutiny they did so ruthlessly.
And the Mutiny changed India too, dramatically. Before the Mutiny, India was controlled, almost as a trading station by the EIC, but when the rebellion spread as far and as wide as it did, the British decided to bring India under more direct rule, firmly bringing it under the umbrella of the Empire. They installed a Viceroy to rule on behalf of the Empire, as the British representative in India, and the official and administrative British Raj was consolidated.
The Mutiny was designed to expel British influence from India, but instead it achieved the opposite and it guaranteed full British administrative involvement, when India was brought under direct control.