The sepoys were local soldiers, the majority Hindus or Muslims, who were recruited into the India Tea Company’s army. Just before the rebellion, there were over 300,000 sepoys in the army, compared to about 50,000 British.
After the annexation of Oudh (Awadh) by the East India Company in 1856 under the Doctrine of Lapse, many sepoys were disquieted both from losing their perquisites, as landed gentry, in the Oudh courts, and from the anticipation of any increased land-revenue payments that the annexation might bring about. Some Indian soldiers, interpreting the presence of missionaries as a sign of official intent, were convinced that the Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. However, changes in the terms of their professional service may have created resentment. As the extent of the East India Company’s jurisdiction expanded with victories in wars or annexation, the soldiers were now expected not only to serve in less familiar regions, such as in Burma, but also to make do without the “foreign service” remuneration (money) that had previously been their due. There were also grievances over the issue of promotions, based on seniority. This, as well as the increasing number of European officers in the battalions, made promotion slow, and many Indian officers did not reach commissioned rank until they were too old to be effective.
The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle. These rifles used paper cartridges that came pre-greased. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The grease used on these cartridges was rumoured to include tallow derived from beef, which would be offensive to Hindus, and pork, which would be offensive to Muslims. At least one Company official pointed out the difficulties this may cause, unless it be proven that the grease employed in these cartridges is not of a nature to offend or interfere with the prejudices of caste, it will be expedient not to issue them for test to Native corps. Company officers became aware of the rumours through reports of an altercation between a high-caste sepoy (a caste is a social status to Hindus) and a low-caste labourer at Dum Dum. There had been rumours that the British sought to destroy the religions of the Indian people, and forcing the native soldiers to break their sacred code would have certainly added to this rumour, as it apparently did. The Company was quick to reverse the effects of this policy in hopes that the unrest would be quelled.
On 27 January, Colonel Richard Birch, the Military Secretary, ordered that all cartridges issued from depots were to be free from grease, and that sepoys could grease them themselves using whatever mixture “they may prefer”. This however, merely caused many sepoys to be convinced that the rumours were true and that their fears were justified. Additional rumours started that the paper in the new cartridges, which was glazed and stiffer than the previously used paper, was impregnated with grease.
The civilian rebellion was more multi leveled. The rebels consisted of three groups: the feudal nobility, rural landlords called taluqdars, and the peasants. The nobility, many of whom had lost titles and domains under the Doctrine of Lapse, which refused to recognise the adopted children of princes as legal heirs, felt that the Company had interfered with a traditional system of inheritance. Rebel leaders such as Nana Sahib and the Rani of Jhansi belonged to this group; the latter, for example, was prepared to accept East India Company supremacy if her adopted son was recognised as her late husband’s heir. The second group, the taluqdars, had lost half their landed estates to peasant farmers as a result of the land reforms that came in the wake of annexation of Oudh. As the rebellion gained ground, the taluqdars quickly reoccupied the lands they had lost, and paradoxically, in part because of ties of kinship and feudal loyalty, did not experience significant opposition from the peasant farmers, many of whom joined the rebellion, to the great dismay of the British. The civilian rebellion was also highly uneven in its geographic distribution, even in areas of north-central India that were no longer under British control.
The Bengal Army
Each of the three “Presidencies” into which the East India Company divided India for administrative purposes maintained their own armies. Of these, the Army of the Bengal Presidency was the largest. Unlike the other two, it recruited heavily from among high-caste Hindus and comparatively wealthy Muslims. The Muslims formed a larger percentage of the 18 irregular cavalry units within the Bengal army, whilst Hindus were mainly to be found in the 84 regular infantry and cavalry regiments. The sepoys were therefore affected to a large degree by the concerns of the landholding and traditional members of Indian society. When these customs and privileges came to be threatened by modernising regimes in Calcutta from the 1840s onwards, the sepoys had become accustomed to very high ritual status and were extremely sensitive to suggestions that their caste might be polluted.
The sepoys also gradually became dissatisfied with various other aspects of army life. Their pay was relatively low as well the junior European officers becoming increasingly estranged from their soldiers, in many cases treated them as their racial inferiors. In 1856, a new Enlistment Act was introduced by the Company, which in theory made every unit in the Bengal Army liable to service overseas. Although it was intended to apply to only new recruits, the serving sepoys feared that the Act might be applied retroactively to them as well. A high-caste Hindu who travelled in the cramped conditions of a wooden troop ship could not cook his own food on his own fire, and accordingly risked losing caste through ritual pollution.
On 29 March 1857 at the Barrackpore parade ground, near Calcutta, 29-year-old Mangal Pandey of the 34th BNI, angered by the recent actions of the East India Company, declared that he would rebel against his commanders. Informed about Pandey’s behaviour Sergeant-Major James Hewson went to investigate, only to have Pandey shoot at him. Hewson raised the alarm. When his adjutant Lt. Henry Baugh came out to investigate the unrest, Pandey opened fire but hit Baugh’s horse instead. After failing to incite his comrades into an open and active rebellion, Mangal Pandey tried to take his own life, by placing his musket to his chest and pulling the trigger with his toe. He managed only to wound himself, and he was court-martialed on 6 April and hanged on 8 April.
The Jemadar Ishwari Prasad was sentenced to death and hanged on 22 April. The regiment was disbanded and stripped of its uniforms because it was felt that it harboured ill-feelings towards its superiors, particularly after this incident. Sepoys in other regiments thought these punishments were harsh and the disgruntled ex-sepoys returned home to Awadh, desiring revenge.
The next day was Sunday. Some Indian soldiers warned off-duty junior European officers that plans were afoot to release the imprisoned soldiers by force, but the senior officers to whom this was reported took no action. There was also unrest in the city of Meerut itself, with angry protests in the bazaar and some buildings being set on fire. In the evening, most European officers were preparing to attend church, while many of the European soldiers were off duty and had gone into canteens or into the bazaar in Meerut. The Indian troops, led by the 3rd Cavalry, broke into revolt. European junior officers who attempted to quell the first outbreaks were killed by the rebels. European officers’ and civilians’ quarters were attacked, and four civilian men, eight women and eight children were killed. Crowds in the bazaar attacked the off-duty soldiers there. About 50 Indian civilians, some officers’ servants who tried to defend or conceal their employers, were also killed by the sepoys. The sepoys freed their 85 imprisoned comrades from the jail, along with 800 other prisoners. Some sepoys (especially from the 11th Bengal Native Infantry) escorted trusted British officers and women and children to safety before joining the revolt.
Trying to gain the King’s support
Early on 11 May, the first parties of the 3rd Cavalry reached Delhi. From beneath the windows of the King’s apartments in the palace, they called on him to acknowledge and lead them. Bahadur Shah did nothing at this point, apparently treating the sepoys as ordinary petitioners, but others in the palace were quick to join the revolt. During the day, the revolt spread. European officials, Indian Christians and shop keepers within the city were killed, some by sepoys and others by crowds of rioters. In the afternoon, a violent explosion in the city was heard for several miles.
The news of the events at Delhi spread rapidly, provoking uprisings among sepoys and disturbances in many districts. In many cases, it was the behaviour of British military and civilian authorities themselves which precipitated disorder. Learning of the fall of Delhi by telegraph, many Company administrators hastened to remove themselves, their families and servants to places of safety. Bahadur Shah Zafar was proclaimed the Emperor of the whole of India. In spite of the significant loss of power that the Mughal dynasty had suffered in the preceding centuries, their name still carried great prestige across northern India. The civilians, nobility and other dignitaries took the oath of allegiance to the emperor. The British, who had long ceased to take the authority of the Mughal Emperor seriously, were astonished at how the ordinary people responded to Zafar’s call for war.
What followed was several sieges of major India regions including Delhi and Cawnpore:
Siege of Delhi
The British Army established a base on the Delhi ridge to the north of the city and the Siege of Delhi began. The siege lasted roughly from 1 July to 21 September. However, the encirclement was hardly complete, and for much of the siege the Company forces were outnumbered and it often seemed that it was the Company forces and not Delhi that was under siege, as the rebels could easily receive resources and reinforcements. For several weeks, it seemed likely that disease, exhaustion and continuous sorties by rebels from Delhi would force the Company forces to withdraw, but the outbreaks of rebellion in the Punjab were forestalled, allowing the Punjab Movable Column of British, Sikh and Pakhtun soldiers to reinforce the besiegers on the Ridge on 14 August. An eagerly awaited heavy siege train joined the besieging force, and from 7 September, the siege guns battered breaches in the walls and silenced the rebels’ artillery. An attempt to storm the city through the breaches and the Kashmiri Gate was launched on 14 September. The attackers gained a foothold within the city but suffered heavy casualties. The British commander wished to withdraw, but was persuaded to hold on by his junior officers (the lowest operational commissioned officer). After a week of street fighting, the British reached the Red Fort. Bahadur Shah Zafar had already fled to Humayun’s tomb. The British had retaken the city.
The troops of the besieging force proceeded to loot and pillage the city. A large number of the citizens were killed in retaliation for the Europeans and Indian civilians that had been slaughtered by the rebels. During the street fighting, artillery was set up city’s main mosque, neighbourhoods within range were bombarded; the homes of the Muslim nobility that contained innumerable cultural, artistic, literary and monetary riches destroyed.
The British soon arrested Bahadur Shah, and the next day the British agent William Hodson had his sons Mirza Mughal, Mirza Khazir Sultan, and grandson Mirza Abu Bakr shot under his own authority at the Khooni Darwaza (the bloody gate) near Delhi Gate. On hearing the news Zafar reacted with shocked silence while his wife Ninat Mahal was content as she believed her son was now Zafar’s heir. Shortly after the fall of Delhi, the victorious attackers organised a column and pressed on to Cawnpore, which had also recently been retaken.
Siege of Cawnpore
In June, sepoys in Cawnpore (Kanpur) rebelled and besieged the European entrenchment. The besieged endured three weeks of the Siege of Cawnpore with little water or food, suffering continuous casualties to men, women and children. On 25 June Nana Sahib (An Indian Aristocrat) made an offer of safe passage to Allahabad. With barely three days’ food rations remaining, the British agreed provided they could keep their small arms and that the evacuation should take place in daylight on the morning of the 27th. Early in the morning of 27 June, the European party left their entrenchment and made their way to the river where boats provided by the Nana Sahib were waiting to take them to Allahabad. After the European party had largely arrived at the dock, which was surrounded by sepoys positioned on both banks of the Ganges, with clear lines of fire, firing broke out and the boats were abandoned by their crew, and caught or were set on fire using pieces of red hot charcoal. The British party tried to push the boats off but all except three remained stuck. Towards the end rebel cavalry rode into the water to finish off any survivors. After the firing ceased the survivors were rounded up and the men shot. By the time the massacre was over, most of the male members of the party were dead while the surviving women and children were removed and held hostage. Only four men eventually escaped alive from Cawnpore on one of the boats: two private soldiers, a lieutenant, and a Captain.
The surviving women and children were taken to the Nana Sahib and then confined first to the Savada Kothi and then to the home of the local magistrate’s clerk (The Bibigarh). Overall five men and two hundred and six women and children were confined in The Bibigarh for about two weeks. Meanwhile, a Company relief force that had advanced from Allahabad defeated the Indians and by 15 July it was clear that the Nana Sahib would not be able to hold Cawnpore and a decision was made by the Nana Sahib and other leading rebels that the hostages must be killed. After the sepoys refused to carry out this order, two Muslim butchers, two Hindu peasants and one of Nana’s bodyguards went into The Bibigarh, armed with knives and hatchets. The dead and the dying were thrown down a nearby well. The killing of the women and children hardened British attitudes against the sepoys. The British public was aghast and the anti-Imperial and pro-Indian proponents lost all their support. Cawnpore became a war cry for the British and their allies for the rest of the conflict. Nana Sahib disappeared near the end of the Rebellion and it is not known what happened to him.