Revolt of 1857: A Detailed Study

Revolt of 1857

The revolt of 1857 was previously considered as the First War of Indian Independence. It is also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, the Great Indian Rebellion, the Indian Insurrection, or the Indian Mutiny.

It was initiated by the Indian soldiers or the Sepoys of the Bengal Presidency against the British officers and is marked as the first conscious effort for the independence of India in the fight against colonialism and end of the British East Company's rule in India.

Even though there were many small-scale uprisings all over the country prior to the 1857 revolt like the Vellore mutiny of 1806, the uprising at Bareilly in 1816, Barrakpore mutiny in 1824, 22nd Infantry mutiny in 1849, etc, the uprising of 1857 was the first large scale countrywide uprising against British rule in India.

It raised a patriotic fervor among the Indians and acted as a stepping stone for further uprisings and revolts. That's one of the reasons why it is considered as the "First War of India's Independence" until recently.

Synopsis of the Revolt of 1857

  • Date – May 11, 1857.
  • Place – Meerut.
  • First Martyr – Mangal Pandey.
    • First Female Martyr of 1857 – Pritilata Waddedar (പ്രീതിലത വഡേദാർ, Bengal).
  • Governor-General – Lord Canning.
  • Commander-in- Chief of British Forces – Colin Campbell.
  • Mughal Emperor – Bahadur Shah II. (the last Mughal emperor, later exiled to Rangoon)
  • British EmpressQueen Victoria. 
  • British Prime MinisterLord Palmerston.
  • Symbol of 1857 Revolt – Lotus & Bread (Chapati) 
  • Prominent Leaders:
    • JhansiRani Lakshmi Bhai
    • KanpurNana Sahib
    • GwaliorThantya Tope
    • BareillyKhan Bahadur
    • LucknowBegum Hazrat Mahal & Ahmadullah
    • Jagdishpur (Ara)Kunwar Singh
    • DelhiBahadur Shah II & General Bhakth Khan

Causes for the Revolt of 1857

The revolt of 1857 was the manifestation of several decade-old grudges, resentments, and bitterness that the Indians were harboring against the greed, cruelty, and exploitation of the British East Company.

The main causes of the revolt can be broadly classified into 4 categories. They are:
  1. Socio-Religious Causes:

  2. The British interfered in the religious and cultural aspects of the country through the intervention of Christian missionaries and their efforts of forced religious conversions.

    The introduction of western education (especially to girls and lower caste people) and their open contempt to the idol-worshipping of Hindus highly irked the religious leaders and common people alike.

    Until 1800, the British kept away from interfering in the religious aspect of society. After that, they made various social reforms (good & bad) such as abolishing societal evils like Sati (1829, by Lord William Bentick), child marriage, and encouraged Widow Remarriage (Widow Remarriage Act, 1856;
     by Lord Dalhousie; approved by Lord Canning in 1856). Taxes were imposed for visiting religious places.

    The Charter Act of 1813 (also known as the East India Company Act) & Caste Disabilities Removal Act of 1850 were introduced which shook the pillars of Hinduism.

    Earlier the convert from Hinduism couldn't inherit his father's properties, but with this law, the British suppressed all such laws enabling the convert to inherit his ancestral properties which in turn encouraged religious conversions.

    The introduction of technological innovations like railways and telegraphs created fear among the orthodox sect of the Indian society who firmly believed those were against the practice of Hinduism.

    Racial discrimination of the British against India which was very visible in the society at that time, corruption in the administration & oppression of the poor were other important reasons that created great contempt among the people against the British.
  3. Political & Administrative Causes:

  4. The main political cause for the revolt was the introduction of Doctrine of Lapse put forward by Lord Dalhousie for the annexation of the Indian States and suppression of the local Rajas, Nawabs, and Zamindars through the denial of adoption of heirs. 
    Several leaders who went under this policy were Rani Lakshmi Bhai, Nana Sahib, etc.

    The open disrespect shown by the British towards the Mughal emperor Badshah Zafar II as he was told to relinquish the Red Fort (by Lord Dalhousie) and his heir was denied to have any claim for the throne and the regal title as the Emperor of India (by Lord Canning)

    The Policy of Subsidiary Alliance (indirect subordination) by Lord Wellesley in 1798 allowing the British to disband the armies of the allies, replacing them with British troops and they had to accept certain terms and conditions put forward by the British Resident.

    The annexation of Awadh - Awadh being the strongest alley of British - on the charge of misgovernance, became another cause for the rebellion.

    Lastly, the non-admission of Indians into the legislative and administrative branches of the Government of India and the introduction of several unfair policies like the policy of Trade and Commerce lead to the destabilization of Indian commercial, cottage & handcraft industries and the agricultural sector.
  5. Military Causes:

  6. In Military, racial discrimination, as well as discrimination based on caste and religion, were also very prevalent. The military had a large proportion of native Indians in the British Army, but they were discriminated against in everything from the British in the matters of prospects of promotions, service allowances, pensions, etc.

    The higher ranks in the army were strictly reserved for the British and the Indians were excluded from the responsible high-ranking positions. The sepoys were paid lower salaries (Rs. 7 per month for infantry & Rs 27 for a cavalry) compared to their highly paid British counterparts.

    The General Service Enlistment Act of 1856 by Lord Canning stipulated that every sepoy must be ready to serve anywhere in India or abroad. This was against the principles of Hinduism at that which states when one crosses the ocean, he is bound to lose his religion. So several soldiers opposed this rule.

    The discontent was very visible through various small scale mutinies like the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 (revolt against the replacement of turban by a leather cockade).

    The Barrackpore Mutiny was a result of sepoys opposing the administration for proceeding for the war in Burma, as it was against the religious custom of crossing the sea, resulting in loss of caste.

    Due to these mistreatments during the revolt, out of 132000 native sepoys of the Bengal army, only 8000 remained loyal to East India Company.
  7. Economic Causes:

  8. Before the advent of the East India Company, the economy of India was at its zenith. The trade and industries were flourishing.

    The British's unfair policies in the trade like the introduction of free trade by 1833 and taxation resulted in the systematic destruction of the economy by the ruination of small-scale industries & the agricultural sector and thus a large population of artisans & farmers become unemployed.

    This situation gave rise to approximately 12 famines and scarcities in the period of 1770 - 1857.

    The British drained and looted the wealth of India in various forms like the dividends for the company and the tributes the local Indian rulers had to pay the British, the home charges, ie, India even had to pay the expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State in England.

    Many of the Indian economic resources were exported to England to revolutionize the thriving industries there. Many inhumane taxes were imposed on the Indians such as the Tax on Salt.

    Several revenue settlements were issued by the Govt. which only served the British interests leaving the farmers and zamindars in misery. The Zamindars had to pay a certain amount to retain their lands and estates, on failure their lands were captured by the Govt. This lead to the decline of the landed aristocracy.

    The misery of farmers increased a hundred folds under British rule when they were forced to cultivate Indigo instead of the traditional food corps, as there was a high demand for indigo around the world. The farmers were given loans at a high-interest rate.

    But when they were unable to repay the debt due to the taxes, they were forced to sell their product at a very low rate. So some of them went back to cultivating the traditional corps and paddy, then the planters started destroying & looting of their crops.

    Not only the Govt. did anything to provide support for the farmers but they, in turn, supported the planters.

Immediate Cause for the revolt of 1857

  • Introduction of the ‘Enfield’ rifle and greased cartridge: The cartridge of this rifle was wrapped in the fat of cow and pig. The cartridge had to be bitten off at the top before loading it into the rifle. This went against against religious faith of Hindus and Muslims soldiers and they found it objectionable to use the ‘Enfield’ rifle.
  • Introduction of Doctrine of Lapse.

The Course of the Rebellion

On May 9, 95 sepoys of the 34th Native Cavalry stationed at Meerut refused to touch the cartridges on the parade ground. Out of the 95, 85 were dismissed and sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment.

On May 10, all the sepoys of the Third Cavalry at Meerut rushed to the jail and set free their comrades after killing several high ranking officials.

These soldiers led by Mangal Pandey reached Delhi on May 12 and seized the city and proclaimed 80-year-old Bahadur Shah II as the emperor of India and an army was formed under General Bhakt Khan.
  • Commanding Officer (Merrut) – General Hewitt.
  • Officer-in-charge of Delhi – Lieutenant Willtashby.
After the ascension of the Mughal emperor, the revolt spread to the nearby regions.

In Kanpur, Nana Sahib declared himself as the Peshwa and Azimullah Khan Yusufzai as his chief advisor along with Thantya Tope who did most of the fighting. They defeated General Windham outside Kanpur.

In Lucknow, the revolt was led by Hazrat Mahal, the Begum of Awadh who proclaimed her son Brijis Kadiras the Nawab of Awadh and the British resident was killed as a result.

The revolt in Jhansi was led by Rani Lakshmi Bai who with the help of Thantya Tope and Afghan guards captured Gwalior. Earlier the revolt in Jhansi was suppressed by Henry Lawrence. In Bareilly, Khan Bahadur Khan proclaimed himself as the Nawab and led the revolt.

Kunwar Singh & Maulvi Ahmadullah led the sepoy mutiny in Arrah and Faizabad.

After four months of the attack, on 20th September 1857, Sir John Nicholson recaptured Delhi and Bahadur Shah's sons were shot in front of him by Lt Hodson. Later Bahadur Shah along with his wife was exiled to jail in Rangoon in Myanmar where he died in 1862.

After this incident, the revolt ended quickly. The Kanpur rebels were defeated by General Havelock and Nana Saheb refused to surrender and is rumored to have escaped to Nepal and his death remains unknown.

At Jhansi, Rani Lakshmi Bai was killed on the battlefield by Sir Hugh Rose and he suppressed the revolt and recovered Gwalior. Sir Huge Rose described Rani Lakshmi Bai as "the best and bravest of the military leader of the rebel."

Later all the surrounding revolting areas like Bareilly, Banaras, etc were recaptured by the British Colonial Army.

Reasons for failure:

  • Lack of Unity among the regional leaders.
  • Lack of proper leadership & lack of a fully coherent plan.
  • Lack of Organisation & popular support - Only North & Central India participated, the other presidencies particularly the southern region & Sikhs remained largely uninvolved.

Impact of the revolt

  • Government of India Act of 2 August 1858, in which the British Parliament passed an act ended the rule of the East India Company in India, and power was transferred to the British Crown.
    • Government of India Act was introduced in the British Parliament by then Prime Minister Lord Palmerston.
  • First Secretary of State for India, Charles Wood, and a 15-member body of India Council was appointed.
  • The designation of the Governor-General of India was changed to Viceroy. Lord Canning became the Last Governor-General & First Viceroy.
  • Queen’s Proclamation of 1 November 1858 and cancelation of Doctrine of Lapse.
  • The promise of non-annexure of Kingdoms.
  • The total expense incurred for the suppression of the Revolt had to be shouldered by the Indians.
  • Peel Commission was instituted to re-organize the military the Bengal regiment which rebelled were disbanded and Gurkhas, Sikhs, Rajputs, and Jats were recruited. The presence of Englishmen in the army was increased to one-third.
  • Communal disharmony between Hindus and Muslims and the introduction of Divide & rule policy.

Famous Books on the Revolt of 1857

  • The History of the War of Indian Independence – Vinayak D. Savarkar (1909).
  • Dastanbuy: A Diary of the Indian Revolt in 1857 – Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib.
  • The First Indian War of Independence- 1857-59 – Karl Marx.
  • Awadh in Revolt, 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance – Rudrankshu Mukherjee.
  • The Politics of Popular Uprising: Bundelkhand in 1857– Tapti Roy.
  • A History of Sepoys War in India – Sir John W. Kaye.
  • Great rebellion – Ashok Meta.
  • The Queen of Jhansi – Mahasweta Devi.
  • The Devil's Wind – Manohar Malgonkar (Story of Nana Sahib).

Famous Quotes regarding the Indian Rebellion of 1857

  • ‘National Rising’ – Benjamin Disraeli.
  • ‘A battle of Blacks against the Whites’ – Sir J.W. Kaye.
  • ‘Neither first nor national war of Independence’ – R.C Majumdar.
  • ‘Revolt of 1857 was an extension of social progress the English had already initiate’ – Karl Marx (on New York Tribunal).
  • ‘The outbreak was more a rebellion and rebellion of the people than merely a mutiny of the soldiers’ – John B. Norton ("Topics for Indian Statesmen", 1858).
  • ‘Merely a mutiny of the soldiers, which took the shape of revolt of the people in certain areas’ – Charles Raikes.
  • ‘There was no popular outbreak;even the soldiers would not have mutinied but for the Meerut punishments. I, therefore, think that the mutiny of 1857 was not a popular rebellion’ – Syed Ahmed Khan (1864).

Also Refer:


📝 SideNotes:

  • "Lighthouse of Rebellion" Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah.
  • "Lion of Bihar" Kunwar Singh.
  • Birthplace of Mangal Pandey Uttar Pradesh.
    • Sergeant shot dead by Mangal Pandey Major Hudson.
    • Hanging of Mangal Pandey took place at Barrackpore on May 9,1857.
  • The real name of Jhansi Rani Lakshmi Bai Manikarnika.
  • Guerilla Warfare in 1857 revolt was introduced by Thantia Tope.
  • The revolt started at Dum Dum on Jan 23, 1857.
    • Dum Dum was an altercation between a high born & lower caste Hindu sepoys, the lower caste taunting the high class on biting off the cartridge of Enfield rifle.
  • First British person who admitted that the sepoy mutiny was the first national movement of India Benjamin Disraeli.
  • Modern Indian historian coined the revolt of 1857 as "First War of Indian Independence" V.D. Savarkar.
  • British historian who described the revolt of 1857 as "Sepoy Mutiny" John Lawrence, Earl of Stanley.
  • Mirza Ghalib was an Urdu and Persian poet of the Mughal Emperor's court who witnessed the revolt of 1857 and its impact and kept a diary of the happenings. Even though he sympathized with the Mughal Regime, he was a pensioner of the British Court and kept his musings accordingly.
  • Vellore Mutiny the revolt of 1857(50 years before) on 10th July 1806 in Vellore, Tamil Nadu was against the replacement of turban by a leather cockade and lasted only for a day. It was the first major mutiny organized by the Indian soldiers in the East India Company army.
  • Bibighar Massacre / Satichaura Ghat massacre is associated with – Nana Sahib (in which he killed more than 200 Europeans including women and children in the Cawnpore entrenchment).
  • "A bright spot against a dark background," Who describes Jhansi Rani as such? Jawaharlal Nehru (Previous Year PSC Question – Confidential Assistant, 2015)
Thanks for reading!!!

Comments