1857 - the Background

The Red Fort, Delhi. Home of the last Moghul emperor.

The Indian (John Company's) Army

For more than 150 years the Honourable East India Company (John Company) had raised its own armed forces. The three administrative areas of India, the Presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal each maintained their own army with its own commander-in-chief. The CinC Bengal was regarded as the senior officer of the three. These armies were paid for entirely out of the Company's Indian revenues and together were larger than the British Army itself. All the officers were British and trained at the Company's military academy in England. There were a few regiments of European infantry but the vast majority of the Company's soldiers were native troops. These sepoys, as they were called, were mostly high caste Hindus and a great many of them, especially in the Bengal army, came from Oudh in what is now Uttar Pradesh state in northern India. They were organised in numbered regiments and drilled British style. The sepoy regiments were officered by Europeans, with a stiffening of European NCO's, and were treated with great affection and trust by their regimental commanders.

Attached to this formidable force were Queen's regiments, actual units of the British Army lent by the Crown to the East India Company. Though relations between the two parts of the army in India were polite, they were never cordial. Company officers thought Queen's officers to be snobbish and in return the Queen's regiments tended to view their colleagues in the Company army as rather second -rate kind of people. That most of the best appointments, especially the post of CinC Bengal, were reserved for Queen's officers was a source of never ending irritation to Company officers and men.

In 1857 the total number of soldiers in India was 34,000 Europeans of all ranks and 257,000 sepoys.

The Causes

There had been a British presence in India for more than 200 years before the rising of 1857 took place. The British had started as merchant venturers and their initial toeholds on the sub-continent had been perilously small. Over the years they had expanded, building larger trading stations and forts to protect them. Eventually, to ensure the stability that an uninterrupted flow of trade required, they had raised forces of their own and become an active power in the politics of 18th century India. Clive, with his great victory at Plassey, had ended French pretensions to an Indian empire and firmly established the British as one of the arbiters of India's fate. A generation later, Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) and his galloping guns had crushed the power of the Peshwas and Britain no longer had any serious rivals to its Indian paramountacy.  Sometimes by design, sometimes almost by accident the area controlled by the British increased, until by 1857 everything from the borders of Afghanistan in the west to the jungles of Burma in the east, from the Himalayas of Nepal to the beaches of Ceylon were, if not directly under the Company's rule, very definitely in its pocket.

Somewhere along the way the Britsh seemed to lose touch with their Indian subjects. Some blamed the advent of steamships that so reduced the journey times from Britain to India that it was now possible for officers to go home on leave and for wives and children to come out and live with their menfolk. Before officers had spent all their time with their sepoys or with Indian mistresses; now a re-creation of English domestic bliss awaited them when their hours of duty were over. The closeness of the British and the Indians so apparent in the early days of the British presence started to fade and by 1857 it was a gulf. The arrival of missionaries had also caused great unease among the Indians. Evangelical Christians had little understanding of, or respect for, India's ancient faiths and the attitude of scrupulous non-interference in religious affairs that had characterised British rule in the 18th century was forgotten by a native populace that came to believe the British wished to convert them. On the political stage, the annexation of the state of Oudh by Lord Dalhousie and the doctrine of lapse, which decreed that the lands of any Indian ruler dying without a male heir would be forfeit to the Company, struck directly at the heart of India's traditional ways of life and were widely condemned and hated throughout the sub-continent.

Against this backdrop of Indian unease muttered rumours and tales of old prophecies began to circulate. There was talk of magical chappattis (the unleavened bread of India) being secretly passed from regiment to regiment on the stations of the Grand Trunk Road, which led from Calcutta to Peshawar. People whispered of the old prophecy which stated that 100 years after the battle of Plassey, the rule of 'John Company' would end. Plassey had been in 1757 and in the hundredth year after the battle it seemed everyone was awaiting a spark.When it came, it came in the shape of a new cartridge.

The projectile for the new Enfield rifle was part of a self-contained paper cartridge that contained both ball and powder charge. It required only the end to be bitten off and the cartridge then rammed down the muzzle of the weapon. To facilitate this process the cartridge was heavily greased - with animal fat. Sepoys heard and quickly passed on the rumour that the grease was a mixture of cow (sacred to Hindus) and pig (abhorrent to Moslems) fat. Biting such a cartridge would break the caste of the Hindu sepoys and defile the Moslems. The British realised their mistake and tried to have the sepoys make up their own grease from beeswax or vegetable oils, but in the atmosphere of distrust that prevailed in 1857 the damage had been done. The stage was set for a great tragedy to unfold.

The Spark

It began at Barrackpore at the end of March 1857. Mangel Pande, a young sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry, shot at his sergeant-major on the parade ground. When the British adjutant rode over, Pande shot the horse out from under him and as the officer tried to extricate himself Pande severely wounded him with a sword. Drawn by the commotion the commanding officer of the station, General Hearshey, galloped to the scene accompanied by his two sons. The sepoy panicked and instead of shooting at the general, turned his rifle on himself and pulled the trigger. He survived this suicide attempt and was later court-martialled and hanged. As a collective punishment the 34th Native Infantry was disbanded; its shameful fate being publicly proclaimed at every military station in British India. Pande achieved a certain kind of immortality in that his name entered British military slang as the general nickname for a mutineer and eventually a derogatory term for any Indian. Unfortunately for the British, the 34th Native Infantry were considered by the majority of sepoys to have been unjustly treated and soon came to be regarded as quasi-martyrs.


The next act in the tragedy followed only a few weeks later when 85 troopers of the 3rd Light Cavalry in Meerut refused orders to handle the new cartridges. They were arrested, court-martialled and sentenced to 10 years hard labour each. At an appalling ceremony in front of the whole Meerut garrison, they were publicly humiliated: their uniforms were stripped from them, they were shackled with leg and arm irons and led off to imprisonment. The following day was a Sunday and as Britons prepared for church parade, Meerut exploded. Enraged sepoys broke open the town gaol and released their comrades. Then accompanied by a mob from the bazaar poured into the cantonment where the Europeans lived and murdered any Europeans or Indian Christians they could find. Whole families, men, women, children and servants, were slaughtered. Some sepoys tried to protect their officers but they were in the minority. The cantonment was put to the torch and after a few hours of mayhem the sepoys, fearing retaliation as the British recovered and organized the European forces, fled down the main road to Delhi and the Palace of Bahadur Shah, the last of the Moghuls.

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