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. Although, their influence over the Indian religions was minimal, it was still seen as a ploy to undermine the religions of India. Furthermore, there were constant rumours, only accentuated by the presence of the missionaries, of the British attempt to undermine Indian religion. 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.
But like the background causes to the First World War, with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the catalyst to the Indian Mutiny was the refusal to use the Enfield rifle and the subsequent court-martial and humiliation of the sepoys in the parade ground that sparked the beginning of the Mutiny in India, in May 1857.
On top of all this was the Brahmin prophecy that the EIC would collapse 100 years after the Battle of Plassey of 1757, in which the EIC, and consequently Britain, garnered control of India, bringing an end to the Mughal Empire.
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 of so many, ruled over by so few, but the Mutiny was not a wholly national movement and the majority of the Indian sepoy soldiers, it must be strenuously noted, remained loyal to their British officers in defeating the Mutiny.
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 against the British at the time of the Mutiny. 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’.
As far as the deep divisions within India are concerned, Paxman’s assessment is correct, however it is the legacy of the Mutiny that changed both Britain and India.
Britain would never forget the rebellion. They were taken off guard. There was no real precedent for this and they were taken aback at the enormity and merciless energy of the rebel sepoys and it took longer than the British officers would care to admit to finally quell the uprising.
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 during the retaliation atrocities were committed, in order to lay down the heavy hand of punishment. Any trust that the British may have held for the Indian soldiers under their command before the Mutiny broke out, was lost and would be difficult to recover.
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.
It began with a rumour.
The effect of which no one in India had ever seen before.
The day had begun like any other; the sun had risen as it had the day before, and it showed no sign that it would not set at the end of the day.
A large box sat in the middle of the parade ground and the sepoy soldiers in their clean and crisply pressed uniforms eyed it suspiciously as they stood tall and straight-backed to attention, waiting for the British officers to give them their orders for their morning drills.
The British Major stood before them, nodded to his subordinate, who turned briskly, clipping his heels in half salute and walked over to the box, keys twirling on his finger.
The keys rattled in the lock as he opened the heavy lid. Unconsciously, the sepoys leaned forward to see what mysteries it held inside.
“This is the Enfield rifle,” the Major said.
“It is a .577 calibre, muzzle-loading rifle-musket,” the Major continued as his lower officers handed them out amongst the sepoys, “it is 55 inches in length, it weighs 9.5 pounds, unloaded, with a maximum range of 2,000 yards, if you can learn to shoot it straight.”
The sepoys held them in their hands, gripping them tightly to hide their shakes, as the rage burned within them. The line began to waiver. The sepoys whispered to each other and the Major shouted an order for quiet and to prepare their rifles to fire.
The men slowly and nervously began to shake their heads. Never before had they refused an order so defiantly. They rejected their order, putting the rifles on the ground at their feet and then stared straight ahead.
The red-faced Major grew even more so, and deep red-purple veins pulsated at his temples, threatening to burst. All the blood seemed to rush towards his face and neck, leaving his stomach light in his anger. Beads of sweat burst forth from his skin and rolled down his face. He shouted at them to pick up their weapons, he threatened them with court-martial and with pain, he called them every filthy name that his imagination could muster, but still they refused. And at last he had no other option.
The sepoy soldiers were court-martialled and stripped of the uniforms in the parade ground where they stood. Their dignity was robbed from them under the watchful eyes of their comrades. But even as shackles were placed around their ankles, the determination on their faces remained absolute. No indignity could sway them from their pride or from their convictions of upholding and protecting their religious customs, that they held passionately in their hearts.
But it was the commotion that followed that shook India, but all that was to come.
In a house, an ordinary house, in Agra, sat an ordinary family; two sisters awaiting the return of their parents from a trip to England. They all had their own problems, simple ordinary problems, nothing to compare with what was to befall them or India.
“When will they be here?”
“Calm yourself Julia! They will get here when they get here”, her sister replied, “and stop flinging yourself around!”
Julia responded by sticking out her tongue and exhaling loudly.
Georgina, the elder and more reserved of the two sisters sat trying desperately to ignore the groaning coming from Julia across the room, attempting to engross herself in the needlework that lay before her.
At the slightest noise from outside, Julia leapt to her feet and dashed across to the window almost sending the table and chair flying as she did so. She crouched at the window and peered outside, squinting against the glare from the sunlight. Several minutes went by and still Julia remained bowed low with a sense of longing.
“Well…?”, inquired Georgina, her eyes remaining on her needlework, with a subtle smile on her face as she imagined her sister’s feelings of some amount of shame for so foolishly bounding across the room for no apparent reason.
“It was only Jasper.” Julia sighed.
Georgina raised her eyes towards Julia to find her no longer at the window, but back at her chair from which she had so readily vacated. “So you made all this commotion,” gesturing the disarrayed furniture and spilt tea cups, “for the dog?”. A peal of laughter came from Georgina, a wonderful melodic laugh, the kind of laugh which is a pleasure to hear if the object of the laughter was not directed at you.
Julia spun round in her chair presenting her back to her sister, arms folded, her bottom lip quivering.
The two sisters remained in silence, for which Georgina was thankful. For six weeks their parents had been away in England. They had travelled back to London, for business (on the father’s side) and pleasure (on both). Julia longed for the gossips and delights of London. Despite the two sisters being grown up and married, they had agreed to stay in the family home while their mother and father were away, this meant of course that once again sibling tensions were beginning to increase, and the sisters were fighting again and up to their old tricks, at the others expense, as they did when they were children. On top of this they had their brothers to contend with.
The distant sound of horses made both the sisters look up towards the window. A sound which grew and soon horses and a carriage came towards the house.
They both leapt to their feet and scurried out of the house in readiness to greet the long-awaited return of their parents.
As the carriage pulled up outside the front door, warm greetings were exchanged and George Greene dismounted his horse and went towards his daughters arms wide in expectation of an embrace. The girls rushed towards him leaping into his outstretched arms causing him to stumble back. George kissed each of them of the forehead. “Oh boy have we missed you…, haven’t we darling?”, George cried out over his shoulder in the direction of his wife.
“Yes Sir,…. you have both been sorely missed”, Anne exhaled as she stared at her daughters, feeling tears gathering at the corners of her eyes, for not a day went by in London when she did not think of them and of her life in India. Anne glanced around her, feeling the warm early morning rays bathe her skin and she breathed in the pleasant air that India possessed and whispered, “I am home.”
Her reverie was brutally cut short by Julia clasping her hands together announcing, “You must tell me everything, Mama! Absolutely everything! Is London as wonderful as I have imagined? Did you go to many balls? Oh, wasn’t it lovely?”
“One question at a time, my dear”, George chortled, and after giving orders to various servants for luggage to be taken into the house and horses to the stables, with a mere wave of the hand, he led the family, arms linked, into the house.
“So Mama! Tell me everything!” Julia pleaded.
“In a moment Julia, I have only just stepped into the house,” Anne explained, her hand gracing Julia’s pink, flustered cheek. “Once I am settled with a cup of tea I’ll be ready to tell you all”.
Anne sat herself down, and ordered a fresh pot of tea.
“Ah that’s better”, Anne sighed, draining her cup, “there’s nothing worse than travelling cooped up inside a bumpy carriage for miles on end, I can tell you.”
“Well England was England, and London was London, both overrated in my view. So… it looks as if I don’t have that much to say. Aunt Susan was very hospitable and it was a pleasure to see her again, although Freddie, seems a little too spoilt in my opinion. It seems the delights and pleasures of London are too much for a child to be brought up in. Don’t you agree George?” Anne continued.
“Hmmm… yes dear”, George agreed barely registering what he was agreeing to, concentrating on appearing absentminded and out of the conversation, by continually pretending to relight his pipe and read the mornings newspaper, giving it a thoughtful crinkle every now and then.
“Never mind,” Anne sighed with a roll of the eye towards George’s direction, “Thank you for your input,” Anne quietly remarked, causing Georgina, Julia and herself to fight back laughter.
‘Anyway, as I was saying. Life in London and in England for that matter does not differ that much from here in India. Apart from the weather of course, over in England now it’s still frightfully chilly, and you have to wear coat, gloves and scarves to keep warm, absurd when you think about the weather here!’.
“Aunt Susan is well then, I presume?” Georgina questioned.
Anne, putting back down her second cup of tea, from which she had taken several sips, nodded whilst replying, “Oh yes, Aunt Susan is very well indeed, Georgina. She asked of the two of you, and I said you were both well. And we had a lovely chuckle over whether, by the time I came back home, either one of you was going to announce that you had made me and your father grandparents yet again!” Anne paused allowing time for any news of this nature to arise, with an eyebrow raised in joyful expectation; after several seconds had gone by she drew in breath, ‘So yes, Aunt Susan is well and is desperately trying to marry off her youngest Isabella. Oh she is putting herself under far too much stress over the matter, for Isabella is still young, and I did try to persuade her that in time she will be married. But I remember these times well, fretting whether you two will be married, but alas you were, and happily and you have gone on to mother children of your own.’
“Does Aunt Susan have anyone in mind for Isabella?” said Julia.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. A very handsome young man by the name of Gregory, I think Isabella is rather fond of him; it’s just a matter of time before he asks for her hand. However, if the marriage does go ahead between Isabella and Gregory, then poor Isabella will be inheriting such a ghastly woman of a mother-in-law. Gregory will be so fortunate to have Aunt Susan as a mother-in-law, such a lovely, gentle woman that she is.” Anne shuddered aghast at the prospect of joining a family containing a woman like Gregory’s mother, and her thoughts turned to her own sister-in-law, George’s sister.
“I am lucky to have a mother-in-law such as you then! I am truly blessed,” a playful voice sounded from the doorway, which startled everyone – bar George who had now become engrossed in his newspaper and had succeeded in drowning out in his view, the trivial nonsensical female gossiping which surrounded him. Anne leapt to her feet at the sight of James striding over to her ready for an embrace.
“Oh, James! You too have been sorely missed. Do come join us.” Anne remarked, flustered from male attention. ‘Darling?………. darling?….. George! Do pay attention George.’
George folded his newspaper closed, a finger remaining in between the pages from where he was reading, and looked up at Anne, who was by now fully refreshed from the journey and in a tizzy of excitement of being home and seeing her family again. George loved Anne for her spirit, but sometimes ached at the thought that Anne often expected George to have a spirit that matched hers. George pushed himself to his feet using the chair arms for leverage and took James by the hand and shook it, muttering softly that he too was happy to see him and hoped that all was well. George, although a pleasant man, was not really one for trivial conversations and inane greetings.
James strolled over to the chair where Georgina was sat, and greeted his wife with the cordiality and respect befitting being in front of a family audience and kissing Georgina softly on the back of her hand, he asked after her welfare. Upon hearing she was pleased that the family was once again reunited, he span round and sat upon a nearby chair rearranging the silk cushion so he could rest his back upon it. When James was seated and settled he pleaded that the conversation that they were having, to continue, by asking the question, “Tell us of this ghastly woman then? She really must have been such a horror to have come so low in your opinions Mother.”
“Hush, you do flatter me James. Your husband is a flatter Georgina!” Anne smiled, her face brimming with happiness.
James waved his hand and shook his head, pushing his reddish hair back from his brow.
Anne said, “Well, where do I begin? From the first meeting with her it was an utter embarrassment. Aunt Susan and I were out in the town shopping, and we were in one particular store, I forget the name, but it was so small and humble, and altogether quite unfitting to be on the main street of London town. It was a little charming place where Susan and I were looking at these beautiful cloths, of all different colours, truly beautiful. The shop contained shelf upon shelf of different cloths and nettings. It was bursting with people and having made some purchases, we turned and started to meander our way out. All of a sudden, we walked directly into the path of a largish woman, wearing some outrageous coloured clothing for her age, and a truly enormous hat with an even bigger feather protruding out of it. I hurriedly apologised for bumping into her, when she suddenly screeched at the top of her lungs, causing the entire shop, including the shop keeper to stop what they were doing at look in the direction of the outrageous sound from this outrageous woman. After the high-pitch squeal had ended she immediately brushed me aside and descended upon poor Aunt Susan and with apish arms which jangled from an impossible amount of bracelets, threw her arms around Susan’s torso giving her a gargantuan embrace. Poor Susan was nearly squeezed to death bless her, with the strength that this woman had. “Ah! Susan, Susan, Susan my dear! What brings you out this far my darling?” her voice echoing around the store. Oh Susan nearly died of shame; the entire shop was still looking in the direction of the hideous woman and had been tutting and muttering disbeliefs under their breaths, mutterings which were now being directed at Susan’s direction for the mere association. We tried to feign that we were in a hurry and were already late for a dinner date, but this merely encouraged her and she invited herself along. Well! What could we do? We scuttled out of the store heads down, hurrying as quickly as our feet could carry us and as quickly as the crowds would let us. This ghastly woman followed us round for the rest of the afternoon, apparently unaware of the spectacle she was making of herself, and in turn, of us. She seemed to have no idea of how to control her manners and the volume of her voice, or indeed the contents of her conversations. She asked of course who I was and upon learning that I was Susan’s sister she immediately asked if I had any daughters, unmarried, living in India? For she told me, “I have a son you see. A splendid fellow, such a catch for daughters of people like yourselves,” she boomed, gesturing in mine and Susan’s direction, the cheek of it, honestly, “And I want him to marry! So do you have any daughters!?” she said.’
‘Well, naturally, I told the truth relieving that I had two daughters, at which point her eyes lit up, but when she learnt of the news that you were both already married, she simply replied, and I do not exaggerate, “Hmm, shame, anyway it’s probably for the best!” I asked her to clarify what she meant by this comment, trying best to control the hurt in my voice, sensing her as a woman who thrives on social victories such as these, she merely mumbled something about ‘incompatible differences’, and changed the subject.’
‘Incompatible differences? Can you believe that? By this point both myself and Aunt Susan had had enough of being belittled and berated by this woman, that we quickly made of excuses and left.’
“What an unspeakably disgusting woman, oh if I ever meet her, I’ll give her a piece of my mind! Honestly, who is she to turn her nose down on our family? I turn my nose down on her!” Julia exclaimed.
“Julia dear!” Anne responded trying but failing miserably to suppress a laugh, “Julia…, my love, you cannot say that about people. It is not lady-like and certainly not becoming.” Anne reasoned finding strength to control her voice and reprimand her daughter.
“Sorry…..” Julia replied despondently.
“Susan explained to me who she was. As I have already mentioned Isabella has become attached to Gregory and this woman is Gregory’s mother, who is desperately trying to marry off her son, but of course to the right family. She has no knowledge of Gregory’s attachment to Isabella. They are, Susan says, very much in love, however, Gregory has once before tried to suggest Isabella as a potential wife, but apparently his mother replied that a better match could be found. I am only guessing, but I have reason to believe, and with good reason, that Gregory flowered this reasoning up, so not to hurt Isabella’s and her family’s feelings. I can only begin to imagine what she might have said to dissuade Gregory from choosing Isabella. But despite his mother’s opinions he continues to court Isabella, and hopes to marry her one day, regardless of his mother’s objections. It is all rather messy, and I hope with all my heart that it can be resolved, and that nasty hag of a woman will not get her own way with regards to her son’s marriage prospects.”
At the end of this the girls sighed, they too hoping that everything will be resolved, for there is nothing like a bit of romance to brighten anyone’s day, and for several days afterwards both Georgina and Julia kept floating around the household, and every now and again sighing, “Oh Isabella” or “Oh Gregory”, as if they were the centre of the lovers’ plight and as if they could feel the true emotion of the love felt between the two lovesick heroes of the story.
After other tales of London had been told and after stories of events back in Agra had been shared, the remaining family members came to join them for a spot of dinner. Charles, the youngest sibling, who was constantly reminded of his youth and therefore longed to grow up, came into the dining room, where his parents and Georgina and Julia were already seated, with his chest pushed out and head held high, he walked over to his mother, successfully suppressing the strong desires to rush over to her and show her how much she had been missed. His insides leapt up and down in boyish excitement yet his exterior remained calm and collected, and after softly kissing his mother softly on the cheek took his place at the table. Julia stared at the door awaiting the arrival of her husband Edward, who was a tall, lanky, dark-haired man, with a striking jaw line and a somewhat arrogant posterior and he sauntered into the dining-room and immediately took his seat besides Julia, hardly responding even when Julia planted a large kiss on his prickly cheek. Anne and George’s first son Henry entered the dining room soon after Edward, pacing stoutly through the open doors, buttoning up his waistcoat over his expanding middle, he simply took his seat, pushed his glasses up his nose, leaving a greasy fingerprint on his left lens.
When everyone was seated the Greene family enjoyed a light lunch of pea soup, followed by ham, bread and fruits, finishing with sweets and coffee. Only the sound of eating well-received food could be heard, for all the family were delighted to be back together again enjoying each other’s company. No more words were needed.
A Straight Path is to be published in early 2013.