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Indian rebellion of 1857

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18571858 was a period of armed uprising and rebellions in northern and central India against British colonial rule on the subcontinent. The war caused the end of the British East India Company's rule in India, and led to a century of direct rule of India by Britain: the British Raj.

The events of this period are known to Indians as the First War of Independence and the War of Independence of 1857 and to the British as the Indian Mutiny, the Sepoy Mutiny, the Sepoy Rebellion, the Great Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857. Indian rebellion of 1857 is a modern name for the conflict.

The history of the rebellion is, to this day, an ongoing battle between two competing narratives, the history claimed by the British, who won the war, and the history claimed by the rebellious Indians, who were defeated. The fact that both sides committed atrocities during the conflict only adds to the controversy.



The British East India Company won the powers of Diwani in the Bengal after winning the 'Battle' of Plassey in 1757. Their victory in the Battle of Buxar in 1764 won them the Nizamat of Bengal as well. After this the British East India Company started to expand its area of control in India.

In 1845 the British East India Company extended control over Sindh province. In 1848 the Second Sikh War took place and the British East India 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 British East India Company. Bahadur Shah Zafar was told that he would be the last Emperor and the Mughal Empire would end after him.


The rebellion had diverse religious, social, political and economic causes. The sepoys (from sipahi in hindi for soldier, used for native Indian soldiers) 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 Company's army, most of the resistance came from the old aristocracy, which feared that under British rule they would become irrelevant and replaced by a new comprador class.


Due to missionary activity some Indians came to believe that the British intended to forcibly convert them to Christianity.

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 dissatisfied with the heavy-handed rule of the British East India Company who had embarked on a project of rather rapid westernization. This included the outlawing of many antiquated customs and religious rites of both Muslims and Hindus which caused outrage amongst the Indian populations. The British abolished child marriage, Sati (the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands), and hunted down the Thuggees. 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.

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

The British policy of expansionism was greatly disliked by the Indians. 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 British East India Company's territory.


If a landowner did not leave a male heir, the land became the property of the Company via the doctrine of lapse carried out by Lord Dalhousie and his successor, Charles John Canning, 1st Earl Canning. This applied to feudal lands as well as to the states.

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.

British rule in India was unfair to the local industry which was subjected to much heavier tariffs than its British counterparts. So the local products cost more than the products imported from Britain and hence lost their competitive edge in the market.

The Indians felt that the British were levying very heavy taxation on the locals. This included an increase in the taxation on land.


Sepoys were native Indian soldiers serving in the army of the 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.

The Company also recruited Indians of other castes than the Brahmin and Rajputs; the latter is a traditional warrior caste in India. In 1856 sepoys were required to serve overseas which, to them, would have meant the loss of caste.

The sepoys were 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 for service there, because they were no longer considered "foreign missions". Sepoy soldiers found themselves constantly pitted against their countrymen in an army governed by what common soldiers came to feel were outside influences. In a colonial setting, this is the prime breeding ground for a conflagration.

The Pattern 1853 Enfield (P/53) rifle was introduced into India. Its cartridge was covered by a greased membrane which was supposed to be cut by the teeth before the cartridges were loaded into the rifles. There was a rumour that the membrane was greased by cow or pig fat. This was offensive to Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike, who considered tasting beef or pork to be against their respective religious tenets. The British claimed that they had replaced the cartridges with new ones not made from cow and pig fat and tried to get sepoys to make their own grease from beeswax and vegetable oils but the rumour persisted. The Commander in Chief in India, General the Honourable 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.

Some began to spread the rumour of a 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.

Start of the war

The preceding months held tensions and several serious events but they failed to cause as big a conflagration as those at Meerut. Fires broke out near Calcutta on 22 January 1857. On 25 February 1857 the 19th Regiment mutinied at Behrampore and the regiment allowed one of its men, named Mangal Pande to advance with a loaded musket upon the parade-ground in front of a line and open fire on his superior officer; a battle ensued. On 31 March 1857 the 34th Regiment rebelled at Barrackpore. April saw fires at Agra, Allahabad and Ambala .

In March 1857, Mangal Pande of the 34th Native Infantry attacked his British sergeant and wounded an adjutant. General Hearsay, who says Pande was in some kind of "religious frenzy", ordered a jemadar to arrest him but the jemadar refused. Mangal Pande then turned the gun against himself and used his foot to try to pull the trigger to shoot himself. He failed and was captured, along with the jemadar he was hanged on 7 April. The whole regiment was dismissed as a collective punishment and because it was felt that they would harbour feelings against their superiors after this incident. The other sepoys thought of this as harsh punishment.

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.

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 killed all the Europeans and Indian Christians they could find, including women and children, and burned the houses. The rebelling 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.

On 11 May the rebels reached Delhi, where they were joined by other Indians from the local bazaar, and attacked and captured the Red Fort (Lal Qila), killing five British, including a British officer and two women. Lal Qila was the residence of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II and the sepoys demanded that he reclaim his throne. At first he was reluctant but eventually he agreed to the demands and became the leader of the rebellion. The sepoys proceeded to kill every European and Christian in the city.

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 Marhatta 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, Kanpur, Jhansi and Bareilly were the main centres of conflict. The Marhattas, 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, often not cherishing the idea of return of Mughal rule, and these very forces were crucial to the British re-conquest of the independent areas. 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.

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 but by doing this they kept away from the cause of the Indian side, a grievance still aired by some South Asians.

Initial stages

Bahadur Shah Zafar proclaimed himself the Emperor of the whole of India. The civilians, nobility and other dignitaries took the oath of allegiance to the Emperor. The Emperor issued coins in his name (In India this the way of asserting your 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 push back the British forces. The Indian army captured the important towns in Haryana, Bihar, Central Provinces and the United Provinces. The British forces at Meerut and Ambala held out resolutely and held back the Indian Army for several months.

The British proved to be a formidable foe. They had the superior weapons and much better training and strategy. The mutinous sepoys lacked all of these things. Most of all they lacked 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 at the Crimea, but he died on the way.


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 soldiers and elements of Gurkha Brigade.

Eagerly-awaited heavy siege guns did not guarantee an easy victory against the numerical superiority of the sepoy. 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 British proceded to loot and pillage the city. A large number of the citizens were slaughtered to avenge the Europeans killed by the Indians. Artillery was set up in the main mosque in the city and the neighbourhoods within the range of artillery were shot down. These were the homes of the Muslim nobility from all over India. These houses 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 arrested Bahadur Shah later and the next day British officer William Hodson shot his sons Mirza Moghul, Mirza Khizr Sultan, and Mirza Abu Bakr under his own authority. Their heads were presented to their father the next day.


In June, sepoys under General Wheeler in Kanpur (Cawnpore) rebelled — apparently with tacit approval of Nana Sahib — and besieged the European entrenchment. The British lasted three weeks of siege with little water, suffering constant casualties. On the 25th of June Nana Sahib requested surrender and Wheeler had little choice but to accept. Nana Sahib promised them safe passage to a secure location, but the British were given a taste of their own medicine. When the British boarded riverboats, their pilots fled, setting fire to the boats, and the rebellious sepoys opened fire on the British, soldiers and civilians. One boat with 4 men escaped.

The surviving women and children were led to Bibi-Ghar (the house of the women) in Cawnpore. On the 15th of July, three men entered it and killed everyone with knives and hatchets and hacked them to pieces. Their bodies were thrown down a well.

The British were aghast and the pro-Indian proponents lost all their support. Cawnpore became a war cry for the British soldiers for the rest of the conflict. Nana Sahib disappeared.

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.

1857 - Cawnpore - The detailed story (Source Not Authenticated)

The Massacre at Cawnpore It was Cawnpore that came to symbolize the horror of the mutiny for the British and without doubt what transpired there in the summer of 1857 was a major factor in the thirst for vengeance which seemed to drive the British troops as they fought to reverse the mutineers initial successes. Till the end of the mutiny, British troops going forward with the bayonet shouted "Cawnpore! Cawnpore!" as their warcry and punishments meted out to captured mutineers were executed with Cawnpore in mind.

Cawnpore was a major crossing point of the Ganges and an important junction where the Grand Trunk Road and the road from Jhansi to Lucknow crossed. In 1857 it was garrisoned by four regiments of native infantry and a European battery of artillery and was commanded by General Sir Hugh Wheeler. Wheeler had served in India most of his life, had an Indian wife and a gross overconfidence in the loyalty of the sepoys under his command. When the news of Meerut reached Cawnpore nothing happened and Wheeler felt it inappropriate to disarm his sepoys. His trust in his men would surely be returned in kind and, after all, hadn't he always been stern but fair with them? For a week life continued as normal but the British and Indians started to look apprehensively at each other. Wheeler was not so blind that he neglected to take any precautions whatsoever and outside the city around a complex of two barracks he built a fortified position as a possible refuge for the European community in the eventuality that trouble should in fact break out. He didn't really think it would be needed though and consequently didn't fortify it very strongly or provision it very thoroughly.

It was then that Nana Sahib, the dispossessed heir to the throne of the Mahrattas, appeared. Years before the British had abolished the title of Peshwa, the last of the great Hindu dynasties and the rulers of the now defunct Mahratta confederacy. Nana Sahib, carrying the Peshwa bloodline, was simply the Maharajah of Bithur, a dusty little statelet not far from Cawnpore. He had been refused a pension by the British and if this had embittered him he took pains not to show it. He came to Cawnpore with his personal guard and offered Wheeler his assisstance. Wheeler declined Nana Sahib's offer to take the English ladies under his protection and instead suggested that Nana Sahib add his men to the guard on Cawnpore's treasury. This he promptly did. In early June Wheeler's informants indicated that a rising was in danger of breaking out at any minute and all the Europeans made for the entrenchment. Almost simultaneously the sepoys rose, released the convicts in the town jail, brushed past Nana Sahib's men, looted the treasury and started down the road to Delhi. Not far from Cawnpore they turned round and came back and soon Nana Sahib was leading them. We do not know if he had been in league with the sepoys from the start or if he simply took an opportunistic chance of recovering his family's past power. His choice, however, would ensure him pride of place in the Victorians' rogues' gallery.

The Siege Unlike Lucknow, the siege of Cawnpore was not a protracted affair. It lasted just over three weeks, but it took place in June when the Indian sun is at its most merciless. The entrenchment had almost no shade and contained only one serviceable well. This, the only source of water was in an extremely exposed position, covered by enemy fire. Many men died trying to get water. Inside the position were about a thousand Britons, including 300 women and children. Ammunition, at least, was plentiful but the food supply was dangerously small. The mutineers never actually took the place by storm though they made a few half-hearted attacks. They could, however, cover almost every inch of the entrenchment with their muskets and kept up a constant stream of fire into the British position. The British could get no rest and their movement was severely restricted. Still they held on, hoping for relief from Lucknow to the north-east or Allahabad downstream on the Ganges. They waited in vain and every day the number of dead and wounded increased. Some went mad from the heat or the tortures of thirst and when Wheeler's son was killed by a roundshot, the general seemed to give up all hope. On June the 25th Nana Sahib sent a message to Wheeler offering safe conduct to the Ganges for all inside the entrenchment and boats to take them down to Allahabad. The negotiations took place outside the entrenchment on the 27th and Wheeler had little choice but to accept. Though the British in their colonial wars sometimes did fight to the last man, it was usually when they were overrun and had no choice. The women and children, moreover, must have weighed heavily on Wheeler's mind. One last concession he won, however; the British troops would be allowed to take their sidearms and sixty rounds apiece.

The Massacre Ghat Nana Sahib sent some elephants and palanquins to assist the British in their ignominious withdrawal. They were followed by a crowd of sepoys and the ubiquitous sightseers that attend any event in India. At the ghat, the steps leading down to the water where Hindus take their ritual baths, a fleet of country boats awaited. Painfully the British loaded the women, children and wounded into the wooden craft. The last man aboard was a Major Vibart, helped up solicitously by the sepoys formely under his command. Barely had his feet touched the deck when things started to go wrong. The Indian boatmen, instead of pushing-off, jumped overboard and made for the shore. The British opened fire on them. Perhaps it was all a terrible mistake, but from prepared positions on the riverbanks the sepoys showered the boats with a storm of grapeshot and musketry. Women screamed, the boats caught fire, the river turned red and corpses floated downstream. Indian cavalry troopers rode into the shallows and slashed at the wounded with their sabres. Only one boat managed to extricate itself and carrying a few survivors drifted away. Days later, after a nightmarish journey, they came across a British outpost upstream from Allahabad and the only four men to escape from Cawnpore found safety.

The surviving men back at what later became known as the 'Massacre Ghat' were immediately put to the sword. The women and children were led away to the aptly named Bibi-Ghar ( the house of the women) a former residence of a British officer's Indian mistress. On July 15th, a group of men, including the town butchers, from a specific community entered the Bibi-Ghar armed with knives and hatchets and hacked all the women and children to pieces. Their bodies were thrown down a well.

When news of the slaughter at the Bibi-Ghar reached Britain, it sent a shiver of horror through the nation. In Victorian Britain women and children had achieved an elevated status and it was a widely held belief that they had a right to special protection. It was during the reign of Victoria that the idea of 'women and children first' in a shipwreck became the norm and parliamentary legislation had ensured that women and children were protected from the worst abuses of the factory system. The seeming treachery of Nana Sahib at the massacre ghat was nought when measured against the unspeakable atrocities of the Bibi-Ghar. However, whether Nana Sahib was in connivance during the episodes of massacre or not; was never ascertained; most of his involvement was presumed; him being the leader of mutineers by default. Vengeance was required and even more stern-faced than the Old Testament judges of the Bible, the British wanted more than just an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. When the British later pushed up the valley of the Ganges and Cawnpore once more fell into their hands, they took their sepoy prisoners to the Bibi-Ghar and forced them to lick the blood-encrusted floors clean. Then they were taken out and hanged. Regiments newly arrived from Britain were routed through Cawnpore and shown round the site of the massacre. If it was intended to stiffen the troops resolve and harden their hearts against the mutineers it was probably unnecessary. Their hearts were hard enough already.

The Bibighar - House of the Ladies Nana Sahib disappeared to some unknown fate and despite great efforts the British never captured him. As late as the end of the 19th century reports would come in that some zealous subaltern in some remote corner of India had arrested him. They were all cases of mistaken identity though and his ultimate end remains a mystery.


The state of Awadh (also known as Oudh, in modern-day Uttar Pradesh) went into rebellion very soon after events in Meerut. British commander of Lucknow, Henry Lawrence, had enough time to fortify his position inside the Residency compound. He had 1700 men, including loyal sepoys. The rebels initial assaults were not successful and they begun 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 25th of September a thousand soldiers of the Highlanders under General Sir Henry Havelock joined them, in what was known as 'The First Relief of Lucknow'. In October another Highlander unit under Sir Colin Campbell came to relieve them and on the 18th of November they evacuated the compound women and children first. They fled to now-retaken Cawnpore.


Jhansi was a Maratha-ruled princely state in Bundelkhand. When the Raja of Jhansi died without an 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 probably might have occurred without the Rani's consent the British suspected her of complicity in the crime.She protested both her innocence and her loyalty to Britain, still she stood accused by the British.

In September and October 1857, the Rani led the successful defense of Jhansi from the invading armies of the neighbouring rajas of Datia and Orchha. In March 1858, the British Army advanced on Jhansi, and laid siege to the city. The British captured the city, but the Rani escaped the city 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 Sindhia rulers, who were British allies. The Rani died three weeks later at the start of the British assault, when she was hit by a spray of bullets after making it away from Gwalior, and after her favourite horse collapsed overworked near Kalpi, some 100 miles away from Jhansi. 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 British.


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.

Due to the bloody start of the rebellion, and the violence perpetrated upon the Europeans by the Indian forces especially after the apparent treachery of Nana Sahib and butchery in Cawnpore, the British believed that they were justified in using similar tactics. 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 it Devil's Wind.

The last rebels were defeated in Gwalior on 20 June 1858. By 1859, rebel leaders Bakht Khan and Nana Sahib had been slain in battle. 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 can only be described as barbarism.


The rebellion also saw the end of the East India Company's rule in India. In August, by the Act for the Better Government of India, 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.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, the British government decided to take India under the direct control of Crown under the rule of British Raj. A Viceroy was appointed to represent the Crown. 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.

They stopped land grabs, decreed religious tolerance and admitted Indians into civil service, albeit mainly as subordinates. They also increased the number of British soldiers in relation to native ones and allowed only British soldiers to handle artillery. In 1877 Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India on the advice of her Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Bahadur Shah was exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862, finally bringing the Mughal dynasty to an end.

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Last updated: 08-16-2005 23:11:49