The Sepoy Rebellion and the Threat to British India

From the lecture series: Victorian Britain

By Patrick N. Allitt, PhD, Emory University

The Sepoy Rebellion—an uprising of thousands of Indian soldiers—was the single greatest threat to British India since the Battle of Plassey in 1757. But this uprising was much more than a simple military mutiny or nationalist uprising.

Painting of  Sepoy Mutiny, 1857
 Sepoy Mutiny, 1857 (Image: By Granger/Public domain)

The Indian Mutiny and Great Uprising of 1857 to 1858 was known as the Sepoy Rebellion, after the Persian word for soldier, sipahi. To better understand this period, it’s important to know the context of the time.

Sketch of Sepoy officers
Two Sepoy Officers and one Sepoy Private. (Image: By Unknown/Public domain)

The sources of alienation can be best understood against the historical background— massive change in India from the 1820s through the 1850s. The events of 1857 and 1858 were far more complex, layered, and colored by class, caste, and region than simple labels imply.

Understanding the external and internal factors will grant us a better understanding of the Uprising, and see how it should be seen as an inevitable outcome of the way the Company ruled India—with its fiscal obligations impeding its political responsibilities as a political sovereign in India.

This is a transcript from the video series Victorian Britain. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Religious Resentment

Religious and cultural resentments ran throughout the country. The period of “liberal reform” by British officials, missionaries, and observers had critiqued India like never before. Indians of many stripes started to resent British meddling in their religious, cultural, and social matters.

The religious grievances were the most pronounced. The steady stream of missionaries after the 1810s theologically assaulted Hinduism and Islam to an unprecedented degree. Many Indians, including the sipahis who served the Company, felt their religions were “under attack.”

It didn’t help that some British officers who were sympathetic with evangelical Christianity allowed missionaries to preach in the barracks. Since their methods were confrontational and polemical, many Indians and sipahis felt, “Not only is our country being changed, but the British want to make us Christian.” Or as it was sometimes said, “The Company has plundered our lands, and now wants to plunder our souls.”

Since this was happening at a highpoint of British imperial and global might, the British were slow to understand this reaction and were often blinded by their own arrogance. There were also economic grievances. The continual shoring up of debts affected Indian soldiers. To cut costs, high-caste sipahis saw their pay bonuses, or battas, cut. The Company’s military and political ambitions were always greater than its fiscal resources; loyal Indian soldiers were now being asked to foot the bill.

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Economic Discontent

Add this to the wretched situation of the agrarian economy, of peasants and cultivators, and we can see in hindsight that the economic discontent was real and felt by many. There were also political grievances that had been building up. First, there was the symbolism of alien rule. Company rule and reform after the 1820s brought visibly “modernizing” effects: Law courts, government offices, the telegraph, railways, and British commerce.

There was also a spat of rapid annexations from the late 1830s which started to unsettle many regions the British had not yet touched. Due to the financial debts the Company was constantly trying to recover, the period between 1833’s loss of trading monopoly and the 1856 annexation of Awadh was a Janus-faced one. The “liberal improvement” of India was also the height of the Company’s most militant expansionism. It was no irony that the Company was the most aggressive when it was fiscally the reddest.

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The Events of the Uprising

Sketch of Mangal Pandey from "Heroes of the Indian mutiny; stories of heroic deeds" by Gilliat, Edward, 1841-1915
In 1857, Mangal Pandey fired at Lieutenant Baugh, starting the series of events that led to the uprising. (Image: By Gilliat, Edward/Public domain)

It began in Barrackpore in March of 1857, just before the summer heat of Hindustan arrived. Mangal Pandey, of the 34th Native Infantry, ran amok one evening, high off bhang (marijuana mixed with milk). He tried to raise a religious revolt against the British and attacked his British officers. He was arrested, then hanged. After this event, the term “pandy” was used by the British to describe any mutineer or rebel.

Yet the events really took off in Meerut two months later, in May. The Company had introduced a new Enfield rifle for soldiers sometime in April, yet there were rumors that their cartridges were greased with swine and cow fat. Furthermore, the ends of the cartridges needed to be bitten off to fire properly, which of course would necessitate oral contact. This offended both Hindus and Muslims.

Even though the cartridges were likely greased with linseed oil and beeswax, it didn’t matter. Hindu and Muslim soldiers interpreted this as a clandestine plot to convert India to Christianity, or at least to undermine their beliefs. You can see why it would have made sense, given the steady accumulation of grievances. Many sipahis refused to load the new cartridges, leading to many being court-marshaled.

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On the 10th and 11th of May, the 11th Native Cavalry Regiment mutinied throughout the evening and early morning. They quickly overran their British officers and looted the armory.

Tapping into existing resentment, the sipahis soon overran most of North India with arms. Company authority quickly disappeared in large areas of North India. The sipahis and others marched to Delhi and proclaimed the aged Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, as “Emperor of Hindustan.” One mutineer told him bluntly: “Old man, we have made you king!”

Lithograph showing "Capture of Delhi, 1857." by Bequet Freres after R de Moraine, published by E Morier, Paris, 1858
The sipahis and others marched to Delhi. (Image: By Coloured lithograph by Bequet Freres after R de Moraine/Public domain)

Why would they rally around the Mughal emperor? Weren’t the Mughals more or less out of business? The Mughal Emperor was still the symbol of sovereignty and one that could mobilize the masses. The sipahis and those who joined them absorbed many tracts of rural countryside west of Delhi. There, they found support among peasants, cultivators, and displaced weavers, who all felt the economic pains associated with British rule.

Recently-annexed Awadh was in outright revolt. People in cities and villages suddenly had something in common. They were joined by zamindars and peasants, and the newly-installed British administration of Awadh was gone… like that.

Common Questions About the Sepoy Rebellion

Q: What events led to the Sepoy Rebellion?

The Sepoy Rebellion developed from the British East India Company’s crude treatment of the cultural identity of the Indian soldiers. They were offensively insensitive and had zero respect for the Hindu and Muslim cultures and Indian traditions, and because the British were in power, the Indians could foresee their culture being eradicated. Thus they rebelled.

Q: What did the Indians do during the Sepoy Rebellion?

During the Sepoy Rebellion, the Indians refused to accept new munitions cartridges as they had animal fats that they culturally did not ingest. They were shackled, and when their comrades came to rescue them, mutiny and violence broke out.

Q: How long did the Indians rebel?

The Sepoy Rebellion started on May 10, 1857, and officially ended on July 8, 1859. It was a short-lived though major uprising; however, it ultimately failed as the British East India Company took control again afterward.

Q: Why did the Sepoy Rebellion fail?

The Sepoy Rebellion failed due to a couple of key elements. One of the major reasons was that the two Indian groups, the Muslims and the Hindus, were not friendly. Even though they had a common enemy, their basic grudge against each other led them to fight instead of merge. Additionally, there was little to no planning. Rather than a planned revolt, it was mostly a chaotic uprising.

This article was updated on December 10, 2020

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