The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 Shook British Rule in India

The Sepoy Mutiny was a violent and very bloody uprising against British rule in India in 1857. It is also known by other names: the Indian Mutiny, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, or the Indian Revolt of 1857.

In Britain and in the West, it was almost always portrayed as a series of unreasonable and bloodthirsty uprisings spurred by falsehoods about religious insensitivity.

In India it has been viewed quite differently. And events of 1857 have been considered the first outbreak of an independence movement against British rule.

The uprising was put down, but the methods employed by the British were so harsh that many in the western world were offended. One common punishment was to tie mutineers to the mouth of a cannon, and then fire the cannon, completely obliterating the victim.

A popular American illustrated magazine, Ballou's Pictorial, published a full-page woodcut illustration showing the preparations for such an execution in its issue of October 3, 1857. In the illustration, a mutineer was depicted chained to the front of a British cannon, awaiting his imminent execution, as others were gathered to watch the grisly spectacle.

Background

Bitter fighting in the 1857 revolt.
Bitter fighting between British troops and Indian sepoys during the 1857 revolt. Getty Images

By the 1850s the East India Company controlled much of India. A private company which first entered India to trade in the 1600s, the East India Company had eventually transformed into a diplomatic and military operation.

Large numbers of native soldiers, known as sepoys, were employed by the company to maintain order and defend trading centers. The sepoys were generally under the command of British officers.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, sepoys tended to take great pride in their military prowess, and they exhibited enormous loyalty to their British officers. But in the 1830s and 1840s tensions began to emerge.

A number of Indians began to suspect that the British intended to convert the Indian population to Christianity. Increasing numbers of Christian missionaries began arriving in India, and their presence gave credence to rumors of impending conversions.

There was also a general feeling that English officers were losing touch with the Indian troops under them.

Under a British policy called the "doctrine of lapse," the East India Company would take control of Indian states in which a local ruler had died without an heir. The system was subject to abuse, and the company used it to annex territories in a questionable manner.

And as the East India Company annexed Indian states in the 1840s and 1850s, the Indian soldiers in the company's employ began to feel offended.

A New Type of Rifle Cartridge Caused Problems

The traditional story of the Sepoy Mutiny is that the introduction of a new cartridge for the Enfield rifle provoked much of the trouble.

The cartridges were wrapped in paper, which had been coated in a grease which made the cartridges easier to load in rifle barrels. Rumors began to spread that the grease used to make the cartridges was derived from pigs and cows, which would be highly offensive to Muslims and Hindus.

There is no doubt that conflict over the new rifle cartridges sparked the uprising in 1857, but the reality is that social, political, and even technological reforms had set the stage for what happened.

Violence Spread During the Sepoy Mutiny

Indian sepoys being disarmed by their British officers.
Indian sepoys being disarmed by their British officers. Getty Images

On March 29, 1857, on the parade ground at Barrackpore, a sepoy named Mangal Pandey fired the first shot of the uprising. His unit in the Bengal Army, which had refused to use the new rifle cartridges, was about to be disarmed and punished. Pandey rebelled by shooting British sergeant-major and a lieutenant.

In the altercation, Pandey was surrounded by British troops and shot himself in the chest. He survived, and was put on trial and hanged on April 8, 1857.

As the mutiny spread, the British began called mutineers "pandies." And Pandey, it should be noted, is considered a hero in India, and has been portrayed as a freedom fighter in films and even on an Indian postage stamp.

Major Incidents of the Sepoy Mutiny

Throughout May and June 1857 more units of Indian troops mutinied against the British. Sepoy units in the south of India remained loyal, but in the north, many units of the Bengal Army turned on the British. And the uprising became extremely violent.

Particular incidents became notorious:

  • Meerut and Delhi: In a large military camp (called a cantonment) at Meerut, near Delhi, a number of sepoys refused to use the new rifle cartridges in early May 1857. The British stripped them of their uniforms and put them in chains.

    Other sepoys revolted on May 10, 1857, and things quickly became chaotic as mobs attacked British civilians, including women and children.

    Mutineers traveled the 40 miles to Delhi and soon the large city erupted in a violent revolt against the British. A number of British civilians in the city were able to flee, but many were slaughtered. And Delhi remained in rebel hands for months.

  • Cawnpore: A particularly horrific incident known as the Cawnpore Massacre occurred when British officers and civilians, leaving the city of Cawnpore (present day Kanpur) under a flag of surrender were attacked.

    The British men were killed, and about 210 British women and children were taken prisoner. A local leader, Nana Sahib, ordered their death. When sepoys, abiding by their military training, refused to kill the prisoners, butchers were recruited from local bazaars to do the killing.

    The women, children, and infants were murdered, and their bodies thrown into a well. When the British eventually took back Cawnpore and discovered the site of the massacre, it inflamed the troops and led to vicious acts of retribution.

  • Lucknow: At the town of Lucknow about 1,200 British officers and civilians fortified themselves against 20,000 mutineers in the summer of 1857. By late September British forces commanded by Sir Henry Havelock succeeded in breaking through.

    However, Havelock's forces did not have the strength to evacuate the British at Lucknow, and were forced to join the besieged garrison. Another British column, led by Sir Colin Campbell, eventually fought through to Lucknow and were able to evacuate the women and children, and ultimately the entire garrison.

The Indian Revolt of 1857 Brought the End of the East India Company

English woman defending herself during the sepoy mutiny.
Dramatic depiction of an English woman defending herself during the sepoy mutiny. Getty Images

Fighting in some places continued well into 1858, but the British were ultimately able to establish control. As mutineers were captured, they were often killed on the spot. And many were executed in dramatic fashion.

Outraged by events such as the massacre of women and children at Cawnpore, some British officers believed that hanging mutineers was too humane.

In some cases they used an execution method of lashing a mutineer to the mouth of a cannon, and then firing the cannon and literally blasting the man to pieces. Sepoys were forced to watch such displays as it was believed it set an example of the horrific death that awaited mutineers.

The grotesque executions by cannon became even became widely known in America. Along with the previously mentioned illustration in Ballou's Pictorial, numerous American newspapers published accounts of the violence in India.

The Mutiny Brought the End of the East India Company

The East India Company had been active in India for nearly 250 years, but the violence of the 1857 uprising led to the British government dissolving the company and taking direct control of India.

Following the fighting of 1857-58, India was legally considered a colony of Britain, ruled by a viceroy. The uprising was officially declared over on July 8, 1859.

Legacy of the Uprising of 1857

There is no question that atrocities were committed by both sides, and stories of events of 1857-58 lived on in both Britain and India. Books and articles about the bloody fighting and heroic deeds by British officers and men were published for decades in London. Illustrations of events tended to reinforce Victorian notions of honor and bravery.

Any British plans to reform Indian society, which had been one of the underlying causes of the revolt, were essentially set aside. And religious conversion of the Indian population was no longer viewed as a practical goal.

In the 1870s the British government formalized its role as an imperial power. Queen Victoria, at the prompting of Benjamin Disraeli, announced to Parliament that her Indian subjects were "happy under My rule and loyal to My throne."

Victoria added the title "Empress of India" to her royal title. And in 1877, outside Delhi, essentially in the spot where bloody fighting had taken place 20 years earlier, an event called the Imperial Assemblage was held.

In an elaborate ceremony, Lord Lytton, the serving viceroy of India, honored a number of Indian princes. And Queen Victoria was officially proclaimed as Empress of India.

Britain, of course, would rule India well into the 20th century. And when the Indian independence movement gained momentum in the 20th century, events of the Revolt of 1857 were viewed as having been an early battle for independence. And individuals such as Mangal Pandey were hailed as early national heroes.