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Indian rebellion of 1857

The Indian rebellion of 1857 was a prolonged period of armed uprisings as well as rebellions in Northern and Central 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 (British Raj) of much of the Indian subcontinent for the next 90 years, although some states retained nominal independence under their respective princes.


There is no agreed name for the events of this period, but terms in use include First War of Independence, War of Independence of 1857, Indian Mutiny, the Great Indian Mutiny, the Sepoy Mutiny, the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny, and the Revolt of 1857.

It is probably fair to say that First War of Independence and War of Independence of 1857 have, for the moment, greater prominence in India than elsewhere.

Debate over the national character of the rebellion

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, particularly in India. Arguments against include:

  • A united India did not exist at that time in political terms; 

  • The rebellion remained confined to the ranks of the Bengal Army (which nonethless was the largest of the armies in India) and in North-Central India; 

  • The mutiny was put down with the help of other Indian soldiers drawn from the Madras Army, the Bombay Army and the Sikh regiments; 

  • Many princes and maharajas did not participate in the rebellion. Those that did were basically interested in reviving and reclaiming their own principalities and fiefdoms, not creating a United India. 

  • The Army and the Princes, who were the principal instigators of the rebellion of 1857, played no part in the Nationalist movement as it emerged in the 1880s 

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 infamous Doctrine of Lapse etc.), most of the rebel sepoys set out to revive the old Moghul 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; 

  • There was a widespread popular revolt in many areas such as Awadh, Bundelkhand and Rohilkhand. The rebellion was therefore more than just a military mutiny, 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 mutiny, some contemporary British accounts (Malleson) suggest, patriotic sentiments in the modern sense. 

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

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. 

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 can not be answered decisively.

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. Soon after, 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 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 1853 the leader of the Marathas, 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 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. 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.


Some Indians came to believe that the British intended to convert them either by force or by crooked means (e.g. by making them out-caste in the Hindu society) to Christianity, a view which was perhaps not entirely unfounded, as the British religious fashion of the time was Evangelism, and many Honourable East India Company officers took it upon themselves to try to convert their Sepoys. This was strongly discouraged by the Company, which was aware of the potential for religion to become a flashpoint, but in spite of official disapproval conversion attempts continued unabated. 

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.

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, such as suttee. This caused outrage in some quarters, particularly amongst the population of Bengal. The British abolished child marriage, and claimed to have ended female infanticide, but this claim is doubtful without accompanying demographic data. The suppression of Thuggee was a less controversial reform, although the true nature of Thuggee (whether it was truly a widespread religious cult, or simply dacoity) is still disputed.

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.

The British policy of expansionism (the Doctrine of Lapse) was also greatly resented by the rulers who were displaced, and outraged many if not most of their subjects, particularly in Oudh. In eight years James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India, had annexed a quarter of a million square miles (650,000 km²) of land to the Company's territory.

Many of the Company's modernising efforts were viewed with automatic distrust; for example, it was feared that the railway, the first of which began running out of Bombay in the 1850s, was a demon. 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 [1]. This was not the view taken by the British themselves after 1857: instead they scaled down their programme of reform, and also sought to appease the gentry and princely families, 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.


The British East India Company was a massive export company that was the force behind much of the colonization of India. The power of the Company took nearly 150 years to build. As early as 1693, the annual expenditure in political "gifts" to men in power reached nearly 90,000 pounds. In bribing the Government, the Company was allowed to operate in overseas markets despite the fact that the cheap imports of South Asian silk, cotton, and other products hurt domestic business. By 1767, the Company was forced into an agreement to pay 400,000 pounds into the National Exchequer annually.

By 1848, however, the Company's financial difficulties had reached a point where expanding revenue required expanding British territories in South Asia massively. The Company began to set aside adoption rights of native princes and began the process of annexation of more than a dozen independent Rajas between 1848 and 1854. In an article published in The New York Daily Tribune on July 28, 1857, Karl Marx notes that "... in 1854 the Raj of Berar, which comprise 80,000 square miles of land, a population from four to five million, and enormous treasures, was forcibly seized".

In order to consolidate and control these new holdings, a well-established army of 200,000 Indians officered by 40,000 British soldiers dominated India by 1857. The last vestiges of independent Indian states had disappeared and the Company exported untold quantities of gold, jewels, silver, silk, cotton, and a host of other precious materials back to England every year. This extraordinary quantity of wealth, much of it collected as 'taxes', was absolutely critical in expanding public and private infrastructure in Britain and in financing British expansionism elsewhere in Asia and Africa. In no uncertain terms, this very wealth funded, in large part, the Industrial Revolution.

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. Tariffs were kept low, according to traditional British free-market sentiments, and thus the Indian market was flooded with cheap clothing from Britain. Indigenous industry simply could not compete, and 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 Indians felt that the British were levying very heavy taxation on the locals. This included an increase in the taxation on land.

Political interference

If a landowner did not leave a male heir through natural process i.e. own child, not the adopted one, the land became the property of the British East India Company via the doctrine of lapse carried out by Dalhousie and his successor, Charles John Canning, 1st Earl Canning. Dalhousie used this doctrine to possess a number of Indian kingdoms, most notably those of Pune, Nagpur and Jhansi, causing the disenfranchised rulers of these kingdoms to join sides with the rebellious Indian troops. This was applied to feudal lands as well as to the states.


Sepoys were native Indian soldiers serving in the Bengal army of the British East India Company under British officers trained in the East India Company College, 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. They fielded more troops than the official army of the British Empire. In 1857 there were 257,000 sepoys.

Unlike the Bombay and Madras Armies, which were far more heterogeneous, the Bengal Army recruited almost exclusively amongst the Bhumihar Brahmins and Rajputs of the Ganges Valley; the latter is a traditional warrior caste in the Western part of North India, now Rajasthan. 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. [2] 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 the British troops conquered Awadh and the Punjab, 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. Wheler) had taken to preaching to their Sepoys in the hope of converting them to Christianity [3]. 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.

The Enfield Rifle

The mutiny was, literally, triggered by a gun. Sepoys throughout India were issued with a new rifle, the Pattern of 1853 Enfield Percussion cap rifled musket - a vastly more powerful and accurate weapon than the old smoothbore Brown Bess they had been using for the last several decades. Brown Bess was the standard issue long gun throughout the British army for over a century before finally being phased out in 1838, so that the sepoys were being moved from an obsolete, inaccurate weapon to a modern rifle.

The innovations were that the firing mechanism switched from the old, unreliable Flintlock to Percussion caps, and rifling inside the musket barrel ensured accuracy at much greater distances than was possible with old smoothbore muskets. One thing did not change in this new musket - the loading process, which did not change significantly till the introduction of metallic cartridges a few decades later.

To load the new Enfield, just like the previous muskets they were issued with, 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) or tallow (beef fat) - this was offensive to Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike, who were forbidden by their religions to eat beef or pork respectively.

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 concept of a new drill, pointing out that that they might very well forget and bite the cartridge, not surprising given the extensive drilling that 19th century soldiers received in loading and firing their muskets. This intensive drilling allowed British troops to fire up to 4 rounds a minute, although most units were able to achieve 3 rounds a minute with consistency. However, an integral part of the loading precedure involved biting off the bullet from the cartridge so that one hand can hold the musket steady whilst the other hand pours the charge of powder into the barrel. Of course, this meant that biting a musket cartridge was second nature, and instinctive, 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.

Prophecies, omens and signs

Another rumour that spread was an old prophecy that the Company's rule would end after a hundred years. Their rule in India had begun with the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

Chapaties and Lotus Flowers began to circulate around large parts of India, quoting famous line "Sab laal hoga." (Everything will turn Red.), passed around by people from town to town and village to village, as a symbol of the prophecy and a sign of the coming revolt.

Start of the war

Several months of increasing tension and inflammatory incidents preceded the actual rebellion.

Fire near Calcutta

Fires, possibly the result of arson, broke out near Calcutta on 24 January 1857.

Bengal Native Infantry

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 [4].

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 Muslim soldier called Shaikh Paltu drew back from restraining or arresting Mangal Pandey.

Mangal Pandey., in turn after failing to incite his comrades into an open and active rebellion, tried to take his own life by placing his musket (the very same Enfield that the Sepoys refused to use) 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 back to Awadh with a desire to inflict revenge, as and when the opportunity arose.

April saw fires at Agra, Allahabad and Ambala.

3rd Light Cavalry at Meerut

On 9 May, 85 troopers of the 3rd 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. It has been said that the town prostitutes made fun of the manhood of the sepoys during the night and this is what goaded them. This claim is however not substantiated by historical accounts. 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: 2,038 European troops with twelve field guns versus 2,357 sepoys lacking artillery. 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.

Support and opposition

The rebellion now spread beyond the armed forces, but it did not result in a complete popular uprising as its leaders hoped. 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 some leaders 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.

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

Many Indians supported the British, partly due to their dislike at the idea of return of Mughal rule and partly because of the lack of a notion of Indianness. The Sikhs and Pathans of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province supported the British and helped in the capture of Delhi. The Gurkhas of Nepal continued to support the British as well. These elements were crucial to the British re-conquest of the independent areas.

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.

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.

Initially, the Indian soldiers were able to significantly push back Company forces. The sepoys captured several important towns in Haryana, Bihar, Central Provinces and the United Provinces. The British forces at Meerut and Ambala held out resolutely and withstood the sepoy attacks for several months.

The British proved to be formidable foes, largely due to their superior weapons, training, and strategy. The sepoys who mutinied were especially handicapped by their lack of a centralized command and control system.

Rao Tularam of Haryana 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 [6].


The British were slow to strike back at first but eventually two columns left Meerut and Simla. They proceeded slowly towards Delhi and fought, killed, and hanged numerous Indians along the way. At the same time, the British moved regiments from the Crimean War, and diverted European regiments headed for China to India.

After a march lasting two months, the British fought the main army of the rebels near Delhi in Badl-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 began. The siege of Delhi lasted roughly from the 1st of July to the 31st of August. However the encirclement was hardly complete—the rebels could easily receive resources and reinforcements. Later the British were joined by the Punjab Movable Column of Sikh and Pathan soldiers under John Nicholson and elements of the Gurkha Brigade.

Eagerly-awaited heavy siege guns did not guarantee an easy victory against the numerical superiority of the sepoys. Eventually the British broke through the Kashmiri gate and began a week of street fighting. When 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 slaughtered in retaliation for the Europeans and Indian 'collaborators' that had been killed 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 south Asian 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 Mirza Abu Bakr under his own authority at the Khooni Darwaza (the bloody gate) near Delhi Gate. Their heads were reportedly presented to their father the next day.


In June, sepoys under General Wheeler in Kanpur, (known as Cawnpore by the British) rebelled — apparently with tacit approval of the Nana Sahib — and besieged the European entrenchment. The British lasted 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 requested surrender and Wheeler had little choice but to accept. The Nana Sahib promised them safe passage to a secure location but when the British boarded riverboats, firing broke out. Who fired first is a matter of some debate, but it seems unlikely, in their weakened and exposed position with numerous children and women, that the British instigated the firing.

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 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 escaped. Only four men eventually escaped Cawnpore alive: two privates (both of whom died later during the mutiny), a Lieutenant, and Captain Mowbray Thomson, who wrote a first hand account of his experiences entitled The Story of Cawnpore (London) 1859.

The surviving women and children were led to Bibi-Ghar (the House of the Ladies) in Cawnpore. On the 15th of July, worried by the approach of the British forces and believing that they would not advance if there were no hostages to save, the Nana Sahib ordered their murders. After the sepoys refused to carry out this order four butchers from the local market were ordered into the Bibi-Ghar where they proceeded to hack the hostages apart with cleavers and hatchets. The victims' bodies, some still living, were thrown down a well.

The butchering 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 probably killed trying to escape India.

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. Then they hanged all of the sepoy prisoners. Although 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.


Rebellion erupted in the state of Awadh (also known as Oudh, in modern-day Uttar Pradesh) very soon after the events in Meerut. The British commander of Lucknow, Henry Lawrence, had enough time to fortify his position inside the Residency compound. 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. This action quickly became known as the Siege of Lucknow.

On the 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 the Lucknow in a brief but well commanded campaign in which the numrically small column defeated Mutineer 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 18th of November they evacuated the city, the compound women and children leaving first. They then conducted an orderly withdrawal to now-retaken Cawnpore.


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

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

These events, with significant embellishments, form the basis of John Masters' book, Nightrunners of Bengal.

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 was killed three weeks later at the start of the British assault, when she was hit by a spray of bullets after fleeing Gwalior. The British captured Gwalior three days later.

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.

Retaliation — "The Devil's Wind"

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. The British adopted the old Mughal punishment for mutiny and sentenced rebels were lashed to 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 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 to 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." [7]

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."


The rebellion also saw the end of the British East India Company's rule in India. In August, by the Queen's Proclamation of 1858, power was transferred to the British Crown. A secretary of state was entrusted with the authority of Indian affairs and the Crown's viceroy in India was to be the chief executive. The British embarked on a program of reform, trying to integrate Indian higher castes and rulers into the government and abolishing the East India Company.

Militarily, the rebellion transformed both the 'native' and European armies of British India. The British also increased the number of British soldiers in relation to native ones. Regiments which had remained loyal to the British were retained, and Gurkha units, which had been crucial in the Delhi campaign, were 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. Sepoy artillery was abolished also, leaving all artillery in British hands. The post-rebellion changes formed the basis of the military organisation of British India until the early twentieth century.

The East India Company's European forces in the three presidency armies (of Bengal, Madras and Bombay) were transferred to the Queen's army. This move precipitated the 'white mutiny' of 1859. European troops, who had enlisted for the Company's army and hoped to secure a bounty for re-engagement with the British army or simply to go home, reacted strongly to the change. European troops in Bengal mounted the largest collective protest the British army has ever seen, forcing the Government of India to offer men their discharge, which over 10,000 accepted. The protest left European military force in India in the hands of the Queen's army.

The viceroy stopped land grabs, decreed religious tolerance and admitted Indians into civil service, albeit mainly as subordinates. 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.


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Indian Mutiny".
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