The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857


As with any conflict or controversy there are always two sides 
to the debate, and the events in India during 1857 are certainly no 
exception. Given the situation in India during the nineteenth century 
it is hardly surprising that such a polarisation of opinion exists
regarding the context of the rebellious events during that year. The 
British being in control of the subcontinent and their sense of 
superiority over their Indian subjects, would naturally seek to 
downplay any acts of rebellion. While the Indian subjects on the other
hand would arguably wish to exaggerate and over emphasise the 
importance of these events, as a means of promoting the nationalist 
cause for self determination. The truth of the events themselves, does 
it lie towards the British account or the Indian pro nationalistic 
side, or could there be a certain amount of truth in both sides of the 

 Metcalf in his account cites three indisputable factors behind 
the outbreak of rebellion in 1857. Primarily he sees `accumulating 
grievances of the Sepoy Army of Bengal' as the most important factor. 
The reasons behind this `deterioration of morale' amongst the army lay
with several reasons. Much of the Sepoy army was comprised of 
`Brahmins and other high caste Hindus' who assisted in promoting a 
`focus of sedition'. The `generally poor standard of British 
officers', plus the lack of improvement to the overall position of 
those men serving in the army also increased the level of tension. At 
this point it should be remembered that the `Bengal Army differed from 
those of Bengal and Madras', as the Bombay and Madras armies took no 
part in the rebellion of 1857. But the more pronounced military factor 
was the lack of British troops in the `Gangetic plain' meant that many 
areas were `virtually denuded of British troops'.

 These military grievances which although significant were not 
themselves enough to incite rebellion, as it took a perceived attack 
on the Sepoy religious institutions to trigger of the rebellion. The 
first of these perceived threats was that the British government was
preparing to dismantle the caste system and `convert them forcibly to 
Christianity'. Although not based on fact the actions of some `pious 
British officers did nothing to dispel' the rumours to the contrary. 
Added to this British lethargy was the Brahmins who tended to be 
`peculiarly watchful for potential threats to their religion and 

 Secondly, the introduction in 1857 of the `new Enfield rifle' 
with its distinct ammunition, which required the bullet to be `bitten 
before loading'. Rumours that the grease used on the bullets was 
either from the fat of cattle or pigs, which either proved `sacred to 
Hindus' or `pollution to Muslims', was interpreted as attacking at the 
core of the Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs. These rumours unlike 
those regarding the conversion to Christianity and dismantling of the 
caste system, did prove to have a factual basis, as the British
government `withdrew the objectionable grease'. This belated action 
proved futile as the damage had already been done.

 However this only accounts for the military aspects of the 
uprising which display the version of events `accepted in official 
circles [as] basically army mutinies'. This version preferred by the 
British fails to acknowledge the level of `widespread unrest among the
civilian population', who saw much of the British government's actions 
as amounting to interference and contempt for the `long established 
rules and customs'.

 Disraeli saw the causes of the uprising as not being the 
`conduct of men who were ... the exponents of general discontent' 
amongst the Bengal army. For Disraeli the root cause was the overall 
administration by the government, which he regarded as having 
`alienated or alarmed almost every influential class in the country'.

 Yet other British saw the overall social situation and 
government administration as having no effect in causing the uprising. 
For officials like Sir John Lawrence the `immediate cause of the 
revolt' was the concerns held by Sepoys over the new ammunition for 
the Enfield rifles. However, he sees this as just the trigger 
incident, with the root cause being the long term reduction in 
discipline in the army and the poor standard of officers in command.

 The British standpoint is to regard the events of 1857 as a 
mutiny. This is correct as there was a mutiny by sections of the 
military, yet this fails to include the sections of the civilian 
population who also engaged in civil unrest. For most of the British 
writers and observers of the events, they are agreed in calling it a 
mutiny because of the failings of the army, in terms of discipline and 

 The term mutiny also conjures up images of relatively small, 
disorganised and not very widespread activities of disobedience 
towards British authority. This is a more accurate description of the 
events given that the `whole of India did not participate in the
rebellion'. Added to this the `large bodies of Punjabi Sikh troops 
[who] served under British command' and some `of the Indian princes' 
it seems hard to justify the term used by the Indian nationalists to 
describe the events of 1857.

 Although not accepted by all Indian historians, the traditional 
Indian nationalist view of the events of 1857 are that it was not as 
the British believe, a series of isolated and uncoordinated mutinies. 
It was a war of independence, the first act by Indians to gain self
rule. That year represented a turning point in which the `nationalist 
feelings, long suppressed by the British occupation, flared into 
violence'. For half a century after 1857 the writing on the uprising 
were basically confined to British observers and scholars. 

 The first nationalist interpretation appeared in 1909. Savarkar 
is very passionate in his pro nationalist stance, he treats with 
contempt the British assertion of the greased bullets as sparking the 
`war'. He questions that if the bullets were the cause why did the 
likes of `Nana Sahib, the Emperor of Delhi, the Queen of Jhansi ... 
join in'. To Savarkar the fact that these individuals participated and 
the fighting continued after the `English Governor General issued a 
proclamation' to withdraw the offending greased bullets, shows in his 
mind the fight was for an India free from British rule. To Savarkar 
the real cause was the actions of the British in having `committed so 
many atrocities'.

 As noted by others was the objective of the Indians to stop the 
British in their alleged `wicked desire to destroy our holy religion'. 
The nationalists sought to `restore state protection to Islam and 
Hinduism'. Savakar's rhetoric is of a somewhat ultra nationalist 
standpoint, claiming God on the Indian side and national support to 
repel the European invader from the sub-continent. The ability to 
write years after the event assists in Savakar's ability to utilise 
the nationalist sentiments of his contemporary early twentieth
century campaign to promote this event from half a century earlier as 
the foundations of the nationalist movement.

 Another view by Joshi adds to the nationalist picture of the 
tremendous detrimental effect the British had on India's people and 
civilization. Joshi regards the events of 1857 as certainly being a 
war, but he sees it as being more than a war of independence, it was a
`social revolution'. To both Joshi and Savakar the British were 
suppressing the truth of the uprising, the British `exaggerated and 
deliberately misrepresented the role played' by religious factors. 
They used this argument as a means of further control and repression 
of the Indian people after 1857. Joshi is highly critical of the 
`English educated Indian intellectuals' for maintaining the British 
lie, who he regards as having `swallowed this imperialist thesis 

 One view which leans towards the side if interpreting the events 
of 1857 as a war of independence, rather than a mutiny, is that of 
Gupta. Although he takes a less nationalist and more balanced 
approach. He argued the name of the events, which is what parties for 
both sides have continuously argued over, are entitled to be called 
the `Great Indian Outbreak'. For Gupta the name is not being pro 
Indian nationalist in the description of the events, which he regards 
as having `possessed the hallmarks of a truly national uprising'. He 
sought to equate these events on an equal footing with European events 
of a similar nature. `If the limited and unfruitful results of 1830 
and 1848 in Central and Southern European countries have been regarded 
as national uprisings', Gupta sees the Indians as justifiably giving 
the events of 1857 a similar title.

 The two accounts by Joshi and Savarkar are certainly for the 
pro-nationalist movement, who of course would wish to portray the 
events of 1857 in a light that was directed towards the nationalist 
movement's objectives. Gupta although eluding to this viewpoint is far 
less pro nationalist and more balanced in his approach.

 As Metcalf points out the `most pervasive legacy of the mutiny 
can be found perhaps in the sphere of human relations'. Quite simply 
the way in which the British and Indians interacted, was especially 

the way the British felt towards the Indians altered markedly.
While there is no question concerning the British as the rulers of 
India for a century, the manner of administration prior to the mutiny 
of 1857 was less as the role of overlord. After the mutiny it became 
much sterner with the British acting as `clearly an occupying power,
garrisoning a hostile land'. The British saw the need to reduce the 
risk of a second rebellion and to reduce the prospect the `Government 
of India adopted the policy of creating division and disunion in the 
civil ranks'.

 In terms of interaction the mutiny saw `the romanticism of 
orientalists and the optimism of reformers [giving] way to a 
pessimistic stance that emphasised military security and cautious 
policies'. This saw the British drift `into insular little 
communities'. As part of this different military and administrative 
approach there was a significant restructuring of the military, `the 
Indian element in the army was drastically reduced (from 238,000 in 
1857 to 140,000 in 1863) and the European part increased (from 45,000 
to 65,000)'. As part of restructuring personnel numbers, ratios were 
introduced where in the `Punjab the ratio of British to native troops 
should normally be one to two, ... [while] in Bombay and Madras ...
one to three'. In an attempt to further reduce any chance of another 
mutiny occurring the `native Artillery was abolished ... [and] the 
corps of Bengal, Madras and Bombay Artillery and Engineers were 
amalgamated with the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers'. 

 The decades prior to the mutiny saw no attempts by the British 
to classify the Indians into `racial categories or rank them as 
superior or inferior'. But by the middle of the nineteenth century the 
divisions of `race was a popular topic in Victorian England'. The
concept of superiority and inferiority reached such levels that the 
`concept of permanent racial superiority ... underlay much of 
post-Mutiny British thought about India'. 

 The basis for these views were no longer regarded as simply 
being `emotional sentiment, it was a scientific fact', or more 
accurately pseudo-science. While the theories of racial superiority 
were nothing new to the people of Victorian England. The racially 
based ideas were given much greater credence to those who supported 
them, by the `publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's, Origin of the 
Species [which] accelerated this shift from the commonalities of the 
human race to a differentiation of races'.
 These racially based beliefs in superiority and inferiority were 
the basis, for the supporters of such beliefs, in the reason behind 
the British victory in 1857, as the `white race was dominant because 
it was more advanced and adaptable'. The moves by the British towards 
acknowledging the various racial groups in India and therefore the 
qualities of each was an area which having been neglected before the 
mutiny became an area of keen interest. The `martial races became a 
concern immediately after the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion'. The 
British administration the `Peel Commission concluded ... had been 
unaware of the true martial attributes possessed by various Indian 
ethnic groups'. 

 The willingness of the British to admit to the beneficial 
qualities of certain ethnic groups showed that, although they did not 
regard such groups as being anywhere near the equal of the white race. 
They could be categorised as being the superior members of an inferior 
race. The findings of the inquiry saw the British place certain 
racial groups out of favour, while providing greater acceptance of 

 The Brahmins were characterised as `scheming and dishonest', and 
it was the `high caste Hindus of Oudh and neighbouring areas ... 
adjudged responsible for the undermining of discipline of the sepoys 
of the Native Army'. While others like the `Guhkas, Sikhs, Marathas
and Rajputs ... understood the meaning of honour, and duty', therefore 
the British administrators saw these races as being `India's truly 
martial peoples'. The recruitment into the army of members of these 
social groups was made government policy and `a series of handbooks on 
the martial races [produced] for the benefit of recruiting officers'.

 Aside from the overall deterioration in relations between the 
British and their Indian subjects after the rebellion, there was also 
an impact on the Indians themselves. With the Muslims losing much of 
the influence and power they held before the rebellion, and the
Hindus filling the vacuum left by the Muslims. While the British 
attitude changed radically towards the Indians the `most bitter and 
widespread hostility was reserved for the Muslim community'. They were 
blamed by the British for much of the rebellious activity, which the
British saw as an attempt to `restore the authority of the Moghul 

 Because `Muslims stood prejudiced against western education' 
they `had to remain in the background for some time', while the Hindus 
who were more favourable in the adoption of this western style of 
education and learning English benefited under the government. An 
example which shows how the Muslims declined so heavily and the Hindus 
benefited after the mutiny, is in the case of `judicial positions 
open to Indians'. `Although Muslims comprised only 12 per cent of the 
population in the North Western Provinces, they held 72 per cent of
positions' prior to 1857. The post 1857 effects saw this 
disproportionate share of judicial position diminish to a situation 
where in `1886 they could claim only 9 posts out of a total
of 284'. This situation of a Muslim decline in influence had long term 
effects on the Muslim community right up until the early part of the 
twentieth century.

 As each side of the debate is so fixed in their opinion on this 
subject that no consensus ever seems likely to be reached. For the 
Indians the events assist in enhancing the nationalist theme of 
ridding the sub-continent of the British. To the nationalists the
events of 1857 are the first step in a process that took ninety years 
to achieve the goal of an India ruled by Indians. However the evidence 
of the events clearly comes down on the side of the British opinion. 
The events were not a war of independence but a military and
civilian mutiny.

 Given that the `entire south of India took no part in the 
rebellion' it seems impossible to justify the claim that the events 
were a war of independence. Added to this, the assistance
provided by certain elements of Indian society to the British further 
 reduces the nationalist claims. The lack of central co-ordination 
amongst the rebels hardly inspires confidence in them engaging in a 
conflict to gain independence. Clearly the debate comes closer to the 
British viewpoint of 1857 being a year of mutinies in the Indian
sub-continent, and not the first attempts by the Indians to seek 


Quotes: Search by Author