The Indian Revolt of 1857

The Storming of Delhi
British Library / Robana via Getty

In May 1857, soldiers in the army of the British East India Company rose up against the British. The unrest soon spread to other army divisions and towns across north and central India. By the time the rebellion was over, hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—of people had been killed, and India was changed forever. The British government disbanded the British East India Company and took direct control of India, bringing an end to the Mughal Empire. This seizure of power initiated a period of rule known as the British Raj.

Origin of the Mutiny

The immediate cause of the Indian Revolt of 1857, or Sepoy Mutiny, was a seemingly minor change in the weapons used by the British East India Company's troops. The Company had upgraded to the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle, which used greased paper cartridges. In order to open the cartridges and load the rifles, soldiers (known as sepoys) had to bite into the paper and tear it with their teeth.

Rumors began to spread in 1856 that the grease on the cartridges was made from a mixture of beef tallow and pork lard. Eating cows, of course, is forbidden by Hinduism, while consumption of pork is forbidden by Islam. Thus, by making one small change to its munitions, the British managed to greatly offend both Hindu and Muslim soldiers.

The sepoys' revolt began in Meerut, the first area to receive the new weapons. British manufacturers soon changed the cartridges in an attempt to calm the spreading anger among the soldiers, but this move backfired. The switch only confirmed, in the minds of the sepoys, that the original cartridges had indeed been greased with cow and pig fat.

Causes of Unrest

As the Indian revolt gained energy, people found additional reasons to protest British rule. Princely families joined the uprising due to changes to the inheritance law which made adopted children ineligible to assume the throne. This was an attempt by the British to control royal succession in the princely states that were nominally independent from the British.

Large landholders in northern India also rose up, since the British East India Company had confiscated land and redistributed it to the peasantry. Peasants were none too happy either, though—they joined the revolt to protest heavy land taxes imposed by the British.

Religion also prompted some Indians to join the mutiny. The East India Company forbade certain religious practices and traditions, including sati or widow-burning, to the outrage of many Hindus. The company also tried to undermine the caste system, which seemed inherently unfair to post-Enlightenment British sensibilities. In addition, British officers and missionaries began to preach Christianity to the Hindu and Muslim sepoys. The Indians believed, quite reasonably, that their religions were under attack by the East India Company.

Finally, Indians—regardless of class, caste, or religion—felt oppressed and disrespected by the agents of the British East India Company. Company officials who abused or even murdered Indians were seldom punished properly; even if they were tried, they were rarely convicted, and those who were convicted could avoid punishment by filing endless appeals. A general sense of racial superiority among the British fueled Indian anger across the country.

Aftermath

The Indian revolt lasted until June 1858. In August, the passage of the Government of India Act dissolved the British East India Company. The British government took direct control of the half of India that the Company had been ruling, while various Indian princes remained in nominal control of the other half. Queen Victoria became the Empress of India.

The last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was blamed for the revolt (though he played little role in it). The British government exiled him to Rangoon, Burma.

The Indian army also saw huge changes after the revolt. Instead of relying heavily on Bengali troops from the Punjab, the British began to recruit soldiers from the "martial races"—those considered particularly warlike, including the Gurkhas and the Sikhs.

Unfortunately, the Indian Revolt of 1857 did not result in freedom for India. In fact, Britain reacted to the rebellion by taking even firmer control of the "crown jewel" of its empire. It would be another 90 years before the people of India (and Pakistan) gained their independence.