The Indian Rebellion of 1857, often known as the First War of Indian Independence and the Indian Mutiny,was a prolonged period of armed uprisings in different parts of India against British occupation of that part of the subcontinent. Small precursors of brewing discontent involving incidences of arson in cantonment areas began to manifest themselves in January. Later, a large-scale rebellion broke out in May and turned into what may be called a full-fledged war in the affected regions. This war brought about the end of the British East India Company's rule in India, and led to direct rule by the British government of much of the Indian subcontinent for the next 90 years, although some states retained nominal independence under their respective Rajas, or kings.

The History

In 1845 the Company managed to extend its control over Sindh province after a gruelling and bloody campaign (of Napier's '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 India Army won a hard-fought victory against the Khalsa Army, who were betrayed by the Kashmiri Dogra Ministers Lal Singh and Gulab Singh (who were not Sikhs). Lal Singh was a Sikh and not a Dogra while Gulab Singh was not a minister of the Lahore government but hereditary ruler of Jammu, an allied princely state. None of the other Sikh pincely rulers assisted the Lahore government. To show their appreciation the British made Gulab Singh the Maharaja of Kashmir which was part of Punjab. Gulab Singh was already a maharaja of Jammu and Ladakh and the British sold him the province of Kashmir for 75 lakhs. In 1853 the adopted son of Baji Rao the last Maratha Peshwa, Nana Sahib was denied his titles and his pension was stopped. In 1854 Berar was annexed into the Company's domains. In 1856 the state of Awadh/Oudh was also annexed by the Company.


The rebellion or the war for independence had diverse political, economic, military, religious and social causes. The sepoys (from sipahi, Hindi for soldier, used for native Indian soldiers) of the Bengal Army had their own list of grievances against the Company Raj, mainly caused by the ethnic gulf between the British officers and their Indian troops. It was also rumoured that the British had started to issue new gunpowder cartridges that had cow and pig fat on them, which insulted both Hindus and Muslims. Other than Indian units of the British East India Company's army, much of the resistance came from the old aristocracy, who were seeing their power steadily eroded under the British.

The Doctrine of Lapse, part of the British policy of expansionism, was also greatly resented. If a feudal ruler did not leave a male heir through natural process i.e. their own child, not an adopted one, the land became the property of the British East India Company. In eight years Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General of India, had annexed many kingdoms including Jhansi, Awadh or Oudh, Satara, Nagpur and Sambalpur, adding up to a quarter of a million square miles (650,000 km²) of land to the Company's territory. Nobility, feudal landholders, and royal armies found themselves unemployed and humiliated. 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.

In addition the Bengal army of the East India Company drew many recruits from Awadh; they could not remain unaffected by the discontent back home. Indians were unhappy with the heavy-handed rule of the Company which had embarked on a project of rather rapid expansion and westernisation. This included the outlawing of many religious customs, both Muslim and Hindu, which were viewed as uncivilized by the British. This included a ban on sati (suicidal widow burning) though it should be noted that the Sikhs had long ago abolished sati and the Bengali reformer Ram Mohan Roy was campaigning against it. These laws caused outrage in some quarters, particularly amongst the population of Bengal. The British abolished child marriage, and claimed to have ended female infanticide.

The justice system was considered inherently unfair to the Indians. In 1853, the British Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen opened the Indian Civil Service to native Indians; however, this was viewed by some of educated India as an insufficient reform. 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 Company also practised financial extortion through heavy taxation. Failure to pay these taxes almost invariably resulted in appropriation of property. However, some historians have suggested that the impact of these reforms has been greatly exaggerated, as the British did not have the resources to enforce them, meaning that away from Calcutta their effect was negligible. This was not the view taken by the British themselves after 1857: instead they scaled down their programme of reform, increased the racial distance between Europeans and native Indians, and also sought to appease the gentry and princely families, especially Muslim, who had been major instigators of the 1857 revolt.

After 1857, Zamindari (regional feudal officials) became more oppressive, the Caste System became more pronounced, and the communal divide between Hindus and Muslims became marked and visible, which some historians argue was due in great part to British efforts to keep Indian society divided. This tactic has become known as Divide and rule. Another important reason for the rebellion was the unfair attitude towards the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India at the time had insulted the Emperor by asking him to leave the Red Fort. The governor-general also said that his successors would also have to leave the Red Fort. 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 the king. Such discourtesies were resented by the people and the Indian rulers. Sepoys Sepoys were native Indian soldiers (also called Sowars in cavalry units) serving in the armies of the British East India Company under British officers trained in the East India Company College at Addiscombe, the company's own military school in England. The presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal maintained their own army each with its own commander-in-chief. Together, they fielded more troops than the official army of the British Empire. In 1857 there were 257,000 Indian troops. Unlike the Bombay and Madras Armies, which were far more diverse, the Bengal Army recruited its regular soldiers almost exclusively amongst the landowning Bhumihar Brahmins and Rajputs of the Ganges Valley. Partly owing to this, Bengal Sepoys were not subject to the penalty of flogging as were the British soldiers.

Caste privileges and customs within the Bengal Army were not merely tolerated but encouraged in the early years of the Company's Rule. This meant that when they came to be threatened by modernising 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. In 1851-2 sepoys were required to serve overseas during a war in Burma. Hindu tradition states that those who 'travel the black waters' (Kala Pani) will lose their caste and be outside the Hindu community. The Sepoys were thus very displeased with their deployment to Burma. The sepoys gradually became dissatisfied with various 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) for service there, because they were no longer considered "foreign missions". Finally, officers of an evangelical persuasion in the Company's Army (such as Herbert Edwardes and Colonel S.G. Wheeler) had taken to preaching to their Sepoys in the hope of converting them to Christianity.

The controversy over the new Enfield Rifle, in the eyes of many Sepoys, added substance to the alarming rumours circulating about their imminent forced conversion to Christianity. In 1857, the Bengal Army contained 10 regiments of Indian cavalry and 74 of infantry. All the cavalry units and 45 of the infantry units mutinied at some point; and all but 5 of the infantry units which did not mutiny (or were disarmed before they could do so) had to be disbanded. Once the first mutinies took place, it was clear to most British commanders that the grievances which led to it were felt throughout the Bengal army and no Indian unit could wholly be trusted. Whether a unit mutinied or not depended on opportunity. The Bengal Army also controlled, sometimes loosely, 29 regiments of irregular horse and 42 of irregular infantry. Some of these units were raised in frontier areas to maintain order locally. Others previously belonged to states absorbed into British-administered territory. Of these, two large contingents from the states of Awadh and Gwalior readily joined the growing rebellion.

On the other hand, few of the frontier units did so, and two groups in particular (the few Gurkha units from Nepal and the recently raised Punjab Irregular Force) actively participated on the British side. The Bengal Army also contained three "European" regiments of infantry, and many artillery units manned by white personnel. Due to the need for technical specialists, the artillery units generally had a higher proportion of British personnel. There were also a number of units from the British Army (referred to in India as Queen's troops), but in 1857 several of these had been withdrawn to take part in the Crimean War. The moment at which the sepoys' grievances led them openly to defy British authority also happened to be the most favourable opportunity to do so.

The Enfield Rifle The mutiny was, literally, triggered by a gun. Sepoys throughout India were issued with a new rifle, the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifled musket - a more powerful and accurate weapon than the old smoothbore Brown Bess they had been using for the previous decades. The rifling inside the musket barrel ensured accuracy at much greater distances than was possible with old muskets. One thing did not change in this new weapon - the loading process, which did not improve significantly until the introduction of breach loaders and metallic, one-piece cartridges a few decades later. To load both the old musket and the new rifle, soldiers had to bite the cartridge open and pour the gunpowder it contained into the rifle's muzzle, then stuff the cartridge case, which was typically paper coated with some kind of grease to make it waterproof, into the musket as wadding, before loading it with a ball. A rumour spread that the cartridges that were standard issue with this rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as sacred to Hindus. A high-caste Hindu who ate cows' flesh would lose caste, with dreadful consequences both in the present life and the next. The sepoys' British officers dismissed these claims as rumours, and suggested that the sepoys make a batch of fresh cartridges, and grease these with beeswax or mutton fat. This, not too surprisingly, reinforced the rumour that the original issue cartridges were indeed greased with lard and tallow.

Another suggestion they put forward was to introduce a new drill, in which the cartridge was not bitten with the teeth but torn open with the hand. The sepoys rejected this, pointing out that they might very well forget and bite the cartridge, not surprising given the extensive drilling that allowed 19th century British troops to fire three to four rounds per minute. An integral part of the loading procedure involved biting off the bullet from the cartridge so that one hand could hold the musket steady whilst the other hand poured the charge of powder into the barrel. This meant that biting a musket cartridge was second nature to the Sepoys, some of whom had decades of service in the Company's army, and who had been doing Musket drill for every day of their service. The Commander in Chief in India, General George Anson reacted to this crisis by saying, "I'll never give in to their beastly prejudices", and despite the pleas of his junior officers he did not compromise.

Mangal Pandey On March 29, 1857 at the Barrackpore (now Barrackpur) parade ground, near Calcutta, Mangal Pandey of the 34th BNI attacked and injured the adjutant Lt. Baugh with a sword after shooting at him, but instead hitting his horse. 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. 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.

In 9 May, 85 troopers of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry at Meerut refused to use their cartridges. They were imprisoned, sentenced to ten years of hard labour, and stripped of their uniforms in public. Malleson records that the troops were constantly berated by their imprisoned comrades while processing on a long and humiliating march to the jail. It was this insult by their own comrades which provoked the mutiny. The sepoys knew it was very likely that they would also be asked to use the new cartridges and they too would have to refuse in order to save their caste, religion and social status.

Since their comrades had acted only in deference to their religious beliefs the punishment meted out by the British colonial rulers was perceived as unjust by many. When the 11th and 20th native cavalry of the Bengal Army assembled in Meerut on 10 May, they broke rank and turned on their commanding officers. They then liberated the 3rd Regiment and attacked the European cantonment where they are reported to have killed all the Europeans they could find, including women and children, and burned their houses. There are however some contemporary British accounts that suggest that some sepoys escorted their officers to safety and then rejoined their mutinous comrades. In Malleson's words: "It is due to some of them [sepoys] to state that they did not quit Meerut before they had seen to a place of safety those officers whom they most respected. This remark applies specially to the men of the 11th N.I., who had gone most reluctantly into the movement. Before they left, two sipáhís of that regiment had escorted two ladies with their children to the carabineer barracks. They had then rejoined their comrades". Some officers and their families escaped to Rampur, where they found refuge with the Nawab.

Despite this, at the time wild rumours circulated about the complete massacre of all Europeans and native Christians at Meerut, the first of many such stories which would lead British forces to extremely violent reprisals against innocent civilians and mutinous sepoys alike during the later suppression of the Revolt. The rebellious forces were then engaged by the remaining British forces in Meerut. Meerut had the largest percentage of British troops of any station in India. Some commentators believe that the British forces could have stopped the sepoys from marching on Delhi, but the British commanders of the Meerut garrison were extraordinarily slow in reacting to the crisis. They did not even send immediate word to other British cantonments that a rebellion was in process. It seems likely that they believed they would be able to contain the Indians by themselves. This misjudgment would cost them dearly.

Cawnpore (Kanpur)

In June, sepoys under General Wheeler in Cawnpore, (now known as Kanpur) rebelled and besieged the European entrenchment. 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 the Nana Sahib told British troops to surrender and Wheeler had little choice but to accept[citation needed]. The Nana Sahib promised them safe passage to a secure location but when the British boarded riverboats, firing broke out. Who fired first has remained a matter of debate. 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[citation needed]. After firing began the boat 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, however, this boat later grounded, was caught by mutineers and pushed back down the river towards 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 mutiny), a Lieutenant, and Captain Mowbray Thomson, who wrote a firsthand account of his experiences entitled The Story of Cawnpore (London) 1859.

The history sections of Cawnpore based college libraries with majorly native literature (printed clandestinely by nationalist press during British rule and inducted into institutions after independence) however, explain it differently. They say that Nana Sahib had agreed to let the besieged British to leave and arranged for the boats. They 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. coming straight out of the cantonment, still had their arms and ammunition and they fired shots at these boatmen. Rebels lost all their 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. Remaining men were, however, killed to ensure no further unrest. 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 15th of July, after noticing the approach of the British forces and believing that they would not advance if there were no hostages to save, their murders were ordered. The other motive to order these killings was to ensure no information was leaked to British garrison after the fall of Cawnpore. After the sepoys refused to carry out this order, four butchers from the local market went into the Bibi-Ghar where they proceeded to hack the hostages down with cleavers and hatchets[citation needed]. The victims' bodies, were thrown down a 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 and was never heard of again.

The misinterpretation that British retaliation was ghastly only after Cawnpore & Bibi Ghar is deliberate. Sherer, JW, Daily Life during the Indian Mutiny, 1858, clearly mentioned that Lt. Colonel Neil, officer incharge of Allahabad while ordering his troops to move towards Cawnpore, had explicitly ordered them to clear every single village that came by on the roadside (G.T.Road). The method employed was so ghastly that villages were first identified and marked and later burned. Villagers were collected by the roadside, and hanged on the trees with a loop on their necks, hands tied back, and then driving the bullock carts tied with the other end of ropes away from the tree. Ramson, Martin & Ramson, Edward, The Indian Empire, 1858; specified that these events happened two weeks before Bibi-Ghar. "Our bones are scattered - The Cawnpore massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1757" by Andrew Ward, published by John Murray, 1996; also gives ghastly descriptions of the killings and rapes that were done by Neil's advancing forces on his explicit orders. In contrast, the behaviour of rebel soldiers was credible. '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[citation needed]. 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.


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. In September and October 1857, the Rani led the successful defence of Jhansi from 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. Other areas On 1 June 1858, Rani Lakshmi Bai and a group of Maratha rebels captured the fortress city of Gwalior from the Scindia rulers, who were British allies. The Rani died on the 17th of June, the second day of the Battle of Gwalior probably by a carbine shot flying from the 8th Hussars, according to the account of three independent Indian representatives.

The British captured 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. The Rohillas centred in Bareilly were also very active in the war and this area was amongst the last to be captured by the rebels.

Sankalp Unit