How did the Indian Mutiny or Rebellion (1857) change history?

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Introduction

One of the most important events in all of Indian history was the Indian Mutiny of 1857, also known as the Indian or Sepoy Rebellion. This was the single greatest threat to British control of the sub-continent before 1947. The mutiny which was in reality a war of Independence and it profoundly changed the British administration of India. While the revolt was ultimately suppressed it transformed the colonial system in India. After the ‘Mutiny’ the British were forced to administer the sub-continent directly and they ended the control of the East India Company, over the territory. The Europeans were also obliged to undertake a number of reforms to pacify the Indians and they helped to modernize the vast country. Most importantly of all the great Indian rebellion was to pave the way for the Independence of the sub-continent in 1948.

A painting of fighting during the Mutiny

India before the Mutiny

India was not formerly a colony of Britain in 1857 but in fact, it was dominated by the British. The East India Company had been set up as a trading company in India and over a matter of centuries had come to dominate the sub-continent. This company had its own large army and was supported by the British government, which was technically the sovereign power in the territories. [1]. The British via the East India Company were able to dominate India by 1820 and they ruled the sub-continent by what were known as ‘subsidiary alliances’ with local rulers, including both Hindus and Muslims. British officials had begun a policy of land seizures and they began to replace the old Hindu and Muslim elites. Increasingly when a Hindu Prince died his lands were confiscated by the British, using a variety of stratagems of doubtful legality[2]. This alienated many of the old elite who had often been independent rulers even during the heyday of Mughal power. Moreover, the decline of the Hindu princes meant that many Brahmins were unable to secure financial supports. What united both Hindus and Muslims was a dislike for the Western Missionaries whom they saw as imposing a foreign religion on the people. Many of the reforms of the British governor Lord Dalhousie were also bitterly resented and they were seen as an attack on traditional beliefs and value such as the caste system [3]. There were also economic issues, the East Indian Company was accused of imposing oppressive taxes on the Indian population and impoverishing many. Moreover, the introduction of free-market reforms resulted in many Indians losing their lands to moneylenders.

The last Mughal

The Indian Mutiny 1857-1858: the Rebellion

The rebellion broke out in the army of the East India Company. The British were reliant on native soldiers or Sepoys to maintain their grip over the country. However, many Indian soldiers in the army, both Hindu and Muslim were very dissatisfied and resented the Europeans. The revolt began when a new rifle was introduced and soon there was a rumor, among the Sepoys that the cartridges were smeared with pigs and cows’ fat. The cartridges had to be bitten before they could be loaded, and this was anathema to many Hindus and Muslims. Biting the cartridges meant that they were eating beef or pork which was unacceptable in their religion. There is no evidence that beef and pork lard was ever used to grease the cartridges and it seems that it was only a wild rumor. It may even have been deliberately spread to stir unrest in the ranks of the Sepoys, who would have been outraged at the idea and would have seen it as an attack on their religion. Some argue that the revolt broke out because it was only in the military that Indians were organized [4]. It appears that the British suffered a complete intelligence failure and were unaware of the discontent among the native troops. In March 1857 a Sepoy attacked some British officers and he was later shot by a firing squad. Some weeks later some Indian troopers refused to use the cartridges and they were imprisoned. This led to some of their comrades killing their officers and marched on Delhi and restored the old Mughal Emperor to power [5]. As a result of this bold action, there was a series of mutinies throughout northern and central India. The revolt typically involved the Sepoys killing any European soldiers and often civilians. There were many instances when Indian rebels besieged British soldiers and civilians across the north of India, most famously Lucknow. No one is agreed as to the aims of the mutineers’ but it is apparent that many wanted to expel the British from India. The Sepoys initially made great advances and easily defeated the loyal troops of the East India Company and they seized many cities and towns. However, many of the Indian Princes stayed loyal to the British and some ethnic groups such as the Sikhs cooperated with the British. London rushed regular forces to India and these, together with loyal Sepoys, began the counterattack. Their first objective was to recapture Delhi which was bombarded heavily before it fell [6]. Then the British, under Sir Colin Campell retook Agra and later relieved the siege of Lucknow, after some bitter fighting. The British committed many atrocities and killed rebels and their supporters in cold blood. Once the cities held by the mutineers were captured the rebels continued to attack the British. There was a bloody campaign to eradicate the last vestiges of the rebellion and this resulted in many districts experiencing famine. Some commentators believe that hundreds of thousands of Indians died as a direct or indirect result of the rebellion. The fighting continued throughout 1858 and it was only in 1859, that the last of the rebels were suppressed.

Indian Sepoy soldiers

Empress of India

Bahadur Shah Zafar was the Mughal Emperor ruled in Delhi and had no real power outside the city. He had become the titular leader of the rebellion. Because of his support of the rebels, he was imprisoned and tried in a military court [7]. He was charged with helping the rebels to kill a number of Europeans and for this, he was exiled to Burma where he died. His trial and banishment to Burma was the effective end of the Mughal dynasty who once ruled nearly all of the sub-continent, since the 17h century. In 1877 Queen Victoria on the advice of her imperialist Prime Minister Disraeli, took the title of Empress of India. This was to symbolize British authority and power in India and its growing involvement in the sub-continent. Successive British monarchs, held the title of Emperor of India until 1948, after Victoria’s death.

Reorganisation of Indian government

Prior to the mutiny, the government of Indian was technically in the hands of the East India Company and they were responsible for many aspects of the state. The Sepoy rebellion showed that the Company was no longer able to cope with the demands of ruling such a vast and diverse area. Under the government of India Act (1858) the company was stripped of its remaining power, its army disbanded, and its assets liquidated. London was to directly govern India and the office of the Viceroy of India was established. The law also set up the Indian civil service and reorganized the old East India Company military forces, which was incorporated into the regular British Indian army. After the defeat of the rebels, the British recruited more men from minorities such as the Gurkhas and the Sikhs, as they believed that they would be more dependable and loyal than Muslims and Hindus. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the reforms in the aftermath of the Mutiny or rebellion was that the British were more willing to cooperate with the traditional native elites. Increasingly they were willing to allow the Hindu and Muslims princes to stay in power as long as they were loyal to the colonists [8]. After the Mutiny the Princely states were integrated into the system of government and they retained a great deal of autonomy. No longer was their land threatened and the right of their heirs to succeed them was implicitly recognized. The British opened up a number of Universities to educate high-caste Indians, who later became civil servants. However, there were limits to this policy and the civil service continues to be dominated by white Europeans. There was also a deliberate policy of refraining from free-market reforms and of respecting the traditional economic elite. This was done to win the support of members of the elite, but it may have resulted in slow economic growth and increasing poverty[9].

A drawing of a scene from the siege of Lucknow

End of attempts at Westernisation

Prior to the rebellion of 1857, the British had attempted to impose western beliefs, customs, and values. Many Governor- Generals had imposed western laws on Indians without regarding traditional customs and values [10]. There were laws that granted Indian women rights that were similar to those enjoyed by Western women, which were greatly resented by many conservatives. Moreover, many traditions were outlawed such as that which forbade a Hindi widow to remarry. In particular, the introduction of western education was resented. The British after the Mutiny were very wary of enacting policies that could have been considered to be western. Prior to the rebellion the East Indian Company and British officials supported the activities of Western Christian Missionaries, which was very controversial. In the aftermath of the Mutiny the British were reluctant to do anything to offend the religious feelings of the Indians [11].

The road to independence

The Indians never staged a revolt on the scale of the Mutiny again, possibly because of the British army’s brutal repression and the immense loss of life between 1857 and 1859. In the wake of the rebellion, London was clearly deeply worried about its position in India after the defeat of the Sepoy Rebellion. The British were a tiny minority in the sub-continent and the revolt demonstrated to them how weak was their control over the country. Queen Victoria on the advice of her government-issued the proclamation to the "Princes, Chiefs, and People of India’ (1858). This stated that Indians were to have the same rights and parity of esteem with the Empire’s other subjects. In effect, Indians were offered equality with Britain’s other subjects. This helped to win over many Indians and they quietly collaborated with the British. However, the Europeans did not treat the Indians as their equal and the natives were still treated as inferior and subject people. The failure of the British to honor the terms of the proclamation was to anger many Indians’ and this was to play an important role in the growing calls for independence that were becoming louder by the 1890s. The Mutiny is very important in the history of the Indian independence movement. Nationalists were later inspired by it and saw it as a precursor of their own struggle. Many in particular were inspired by the fact that Muslims and Hindus fought the colonists and had a common aim.

Conclusion

The Indian Mutiny was perhaps the greatest challenge to British rule during the Raj, and it shook their confidence in their ability to control the sub-continent. In the aftermath of the conflict that could have cost tens of thousands of lives, there were great changes to the way that the British administered India. The East India Company was dissolved, and direct rule was initiated, and this was by Queen Victoria’s adoption of the title Empress of India. The British overhauled the government of India and willing more willing to collaborate with local elites. They also were very careful to appear not to be imposing western norms and values on Indians. This policy did reconcile many Indians to the foreigner. The Mutiny or the First War of Indian Independent as it is known in India became a symbol that inspired many to seek national determination.

Further Reading

Herbert, Christopher. War of no pity: the Indian mutiny and Victorian trauma. Princeton University Press, 2008.

Blomfield, David. Lahore to Lucknow: The Indian Mutiny Journal of Arthur Moffat Lang. Pen and Sword, 1992.

Kaye, John William. History Of The Indian Mutiny Of 1857-8–Vol. II [Illustrated Edition]. Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014.

References

  1. Bandyopadhyay, Sekhara (2004), From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India, New Delhi: Orient Longman, p. 523
  2. Bandyopadhyay, 121
  3. Hibbert, Christopher (1980), The Great Mutiny: India 1857, London: Allen Lane, p. 472
  4. Hibbert, 1980
  5. Hibbert, p. 87
  6. Hibbert, 1980
  7. Dalrymple, William, The Last Mughal. London: Viking Penguin, p. 123
  8. Hibbert, 1980
  9. Hibbert, 1980
  10. Bandyopadhyay, p. 321
  11. Washbrook, D. A., "India, 1818–1860: The Two Faces of Colonialism", in Porter, Andrew (ed.), Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteenth Century, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press (2002), pp. 395–421
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