The Indian Mutiny

"The Sepoy revolt at Meerut," from the Illustrated London News, 1857

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was preceded by a Sepoy mutiny in Vellore in 1806, caused largely by the insensitive handling of Indian religious traditions. Following a brief uprising in which local Europeans were massacred, British troops put down the rebellion. The governor of Madras was recalled and it seemed for a time that lessons had been learned.

By 1857 those lessons had been forgotten. Resentment over changes to the terms under which Sepoys served were manipulated by agitators who spread rumors throughout the cantonments of enforced conversions to Christianity. Throughout the early months of 1857 a series of arson attacks should have been a warning but many of the British officers had a paternal faith in their troops and found it hard to believe that they would revolt.

The introduction of new cartridges for the 1853 Enfield rifles was the unlikely spark of the revolt. The grease was widely believed to be either cow or pig fat and as the end of the cartridge had to be bitten off when loading, both Hindu and Muslim Sepoys believed they would be defiled. The British took the problem seriously and offered to withdraw all existing cartridges and issue replacements without grease although this was claimed to be proof that the rumors were true.

In March a Sepoy named Mangal Pandey attempted to shoot a British officer and was subsequently hanged along with an Indian NCO who refused to disarm him. His regiment was stripped of their uniforms and discharged.

In April the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, stationed in Meerut, refused to drill with the new cartridges and were led away in shackles. The next day Indian troops opened the jail and turned their fury on the Europeans. As it was Sunday many British soldiers were spending their off duty time in the local bazaars and were chased down and killed.

By the time the British tried to engage the rebels it was too late, they had already departed to spread the uprising in Delhi.

The Indian Mutiny had begun.

The Sepoy Revolt Spreads

The Meerut Sepoys reached Delhi and proclaimed the local ruler, Bahadur Shah to be Emperor of all India. Rioting spread throughout the city although many Sepoys took no part in the slaughter of the Europeans, they refused orders to intervene. Fearing that the large stores of arms would fall into rebel hands, British officers blew up the arsenal. The explosion prompted the remaining Sepoys to join the revolt. The surviving Europeans took refuge in the Flagstaff Tower where news of the uprising was relayed throughout India.

The mutiny spread through the Bengal Army while the armies of Bombay and Madras remained loyal as did Sikh troops and Gurkhas. For the British who survived the initial massacres the following weeks were spent in trying to contain the rebellion and to defend themselves. Uncertainty over the loyalty of remaining Sepoy regiments and the relatively few European soldiers meant the rebels were able to take over several areas while the British were in no position to counter attack. The diversion of British regiments en route to China and the arrival of reinforcements from England and Crimea eventually restored the balance.

The Suppression and Collapse of the Sepoy Rebellion

The revenge of the British was terrible and brutal. Enraged by often fabricated stories of rape and murder the Redcoats were in no mood to take prisoners. They were encouraged in this by their officers who largely shared their feelings. Whole villages suspected of being loyal to the rebels were destroyed.

The recapturing of Cawnpore was especially important as the British garrison had been attacked after agreeing to terms of surrender which should have allowed them to depart in safety. The surviving men were executed and the women and children imprisoned before being hacked to death. In July Cawnpore had been recaptured by Company forces amid terrible reprisals and the truth about the fate of the Europeans discovered.

By now the British felt strong enough to move against the rebels in Delhi which was eventually retaken after a bitterly contested siege on September 21st. The Emperor Bahadur Shan was arrested and his sons executed.

Following several abortive attempts to reach the besieged Lucknow garrison, Company troops managed to break through but due to the numbers of casualties were unable to withdraw as planned. The defenders who had already endured almost 3 months of siege conditions now found themselves under siege for a second time along with their rescuers before finally being relieved in mid November.

As 1857 drew to a close the Sepoy Revolt was all but over.