The Sepoy War of 1857 – Mutiny or First Indian War of Independence

The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked. Did they not, in India, to borrow an expression of that great robber, Lord Clive himself, resort to atrocious extortion, when simple corruption could not keep pace with their rapacity? While they prated in Europe about the inviolable sanctity of the national debt, did they not confiscate in India the dividends of the rajahs, who had invested their private savings in the Company’s own funds? While they combated the French revolution under the pretext of defending “our holy religion,” did they not forbid, at the same time, Christianity to be propagated in India, and did they not, in order to make money out of the pilgrims streaming to the temples of Orissa and Bengal, take up the trade in the murder and prostitution perpetrated in the temple of the Juggernaut? These are the men of “Property, Order, Family, and Religion.”

The story of the Sepoy (sepáhí) War of 1857, (an attempt at a compromise between two more controversial titles, ‘the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857’ and ‘the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857,’ though “insurgency” might also fit) began long before March of 1857. The history of the war delves deep into the colonization and conquest of India and the cultural and religious oppression imposed on Indians by British rule. Furthermore, the telling of the history of the war is, to this day, an ongoing battle between two competing narratives, the history belonging to the British that won the war, and the history claimed by the Indians who were defeated. In a time when the history of India is being retold everyday, this web page is an attempt to present a history of the Sepoy War that is derived from various points of view, accounting for the context of the histories related, and the points of view of the historians relating them.

The East India Company was a massive export company that was the force behind much of the colonization of India. The power of the East India Company took nearly 150 years to build. As early as 1693, the annual expenditure in political “gifts” to men in power reached nearly 90,000 pounds (Marx 23). In bribing the Government, the East India Company was allowed to operate in overseas markets despite the fact that the cheap imports of South Asian silk, cotton, and other products hurt domestic business. By 1767, the Company was forced into an agreement that is should pay 400,000 pounds into the National Exchequer annually.

By 1848, however, the East India Company’s financial difficulties had reached a point where expanding revenue required expanding British territories in South Asia massively. The Government began to set aside adoption rights of native princes and began the process of annexation of more than a dozen independent Rajes between 1848 and 1854 (Marx 51; Kaye 30). In an article published in The New York Daily Tribune on July 28, 1857, Karl Marx notes that “… in 1854 the Raj of Berar, which comprise 80,000 square miles of land, a population from four to five million, and enormous treasures, was forcibly seized” (Marx 51).

In order to consolidate and control these new holdings, a well-established army of 200,000 South Asians officered by 40,000 British soldiers dominated India by 1857. The last vestiges of independent Indian states had disappeared and the East India Company exported tons of gold, silk, cotton, and a host of other precious materials back to England every year.


Historians like J.A.B. Palmer and John Kaye trace the origins of the soldiers’ rebellion at Meerut, in which South Asian soldiers rose up against their colonial officers, to the Lee-Enfield Rifle. It was developed at the Enfield arsenal by James P. Lee and fired a .303 caliber ammunition that had to manually loaded before firing. Loading involved biting the end of the cartridge, which was greased in pig fat and beef tallow. This presented a problem for native soldiers, as pig fat is a haraam, or forbidden, substance to Muslims, and beef fat is, likewise, deemed inauspicious for certain Hindus. Thus, the revolt occurred as a reaction to this particular intrusion into Hindu and Muslim culture, and then caught on as a national rebellion. Palmer dramatically relates this discovery, according to Captain Wright, commanding the Rifle Instruction Depot: Somewhere about the end of the third week in January 1857, a khalasi, that is to say a labourer, accosted a high Brahmin sepoy and asked for a drink of water from his lotah (water-pot). The Brahmin refused on the score of caste. The khalasi then said, “You will soon lose your caste, as ere long you will have to bite catridges covered with the fat of pigs and cows,” or, it is added, “words to that effect.” (Palmer 15)

Furthermore, historians taking similar positions argue that British legislation that interfered with traditional Hindu or Muslim religious practices were a source of antagonism. Palmer and Kaye also argue throughout their respective work that the prohibition practices such as saathi (often transliterated “sati”), or the ritual suicide of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, became a source of outrage. In other words, the growing intrusion of western culture became the impetus for rebellious soldiers, fearful that their culture was being annihilated.

The long-belabored significance of the Lee-Enfield cartridge is challenged by the work of historians like Marx, Collier, Majumdar, Chaudhuri, and Malleson. These historians argue that the actions of soldiers at Meerut was the “last straw” for South Asians who had been victims of British cultural and class based oppression and antagonism, and discard the notion that religion played an overwhelmingly vital role in fomenting revolt. For them, the root causes of the insurgency cannot be traced to a single, well-defined set of events and causes, but rather stemmed from an on-going set of conflicts.

Divide and Conquer

Col. G.B. Malleson argues that forcing Western ideas on an Eastern people fundamentally backfired, and the “divide and conquer” tactics employed by the British in India ultimately sowed the seeds of the rebellion. He notes, “action of a different character … so dear to the un-travelled Englishman, or forcing the ideas in which he has been nurtured upon the foreign people with whom he has brought into contact, assisted … to loosen the bonds of discipline, which, up to that period, had bound the [Sepoy] to his officer” (Malleson 8). In other words, the Sepoy soldiers found themselves constantly pit against their countrymen in an army governed by what common soldiers came to feel were outside influences. In a colonial setting, this is the prime breeding ground for a coup, (or in this case, a revolt) because any soldier’s allegiance is governed by competition with other soldiers in currying favor and accumulating power, not by discipline or obedience to the orders of superior officers, and he begins to affiliate himself with his own people rather than the military ethics forced on him.


Greater still was the influence of British expansionism on the Sepoy Rebellion. Richard Collier explains how rapidly increasing territorial conquest also intensified Indian unrest: … these annexations were a source of discontent and anxiety to many people besides the sepoys. In eight years, Canning’s predecessor, the despotic Lord Dalhousie, at 35 the youngest Governor-General India had ever known, had annexed over 250,000 square miles– an area three times the size of England and Ireland. The Punjab, Sattara, Nagpur– Dalhousie’s hands had stretched out to embrace them all. ‘An Indian Governor General,’ stormed The Hindu Patriot, ‘is chartered to destroy dynasties with a scratch of his quill.’ Indignities were heaped upon crowned heads: the jewels of the Royal Family of Nagpur were publicly auctioned in Calcutta. (Collier 19)

Partcipating in the military conquest of local authorities, then, and having first-hand knowledge of the effects of British expansionism would have fomented resistance in the Sepoys.

Torture and Oppression

On August 28, 1857, Marx published an article in The New York Daily Tribune in order to “[show] that the British rulers of India are by no means such mild and spotless benefactors of the Indian people as they would have the world believe” (Marx 72). Marx cites the official Blue Books — entitled “East India (Torture) 1855-57”– that were laid before the House of Commons during the sessions of 1856 and 1857. The reports revealed that British officers were allowed an extended series of appeals if convicted or accused of brutality or crimes against Indians. Concerning matters of extortion in collecting public revenue, the report indicates that officers had free reign of any methods at their disposal (Marx 73).

Torture became a financial institution in colonial India, and was challenged by a petition from the Madras Native Association presented in January of 1856. The petition was dismissed on the basis of a lack of evidence, despite the fact that, according to the Marx, “there was scarcely any investigation at all, the Commission sitting only in the city of Madras, and for but three months, while it was impossible, except in very few cases, for the natives who had complaints to make to leave their homes” (Marx 74). Marx also refers to Lord Dalhousie’s statements in the Blue Books that there was “irrefutable proof” that various officers had committed “gross injustice, to arbitrary imprisonment and cruel torture” (76).

In addition to torture, the Company levied extremely large taxes on the Indian people. Collier describes taxes as “a cynical outrage. A man could not travel twenty miles without paying toll at a river ferry, farmed out by the Company to private speculators. Land Tax, often demanded before the crop was raised, was made in quarterly installments … the annual rent for an acre of land was 3s[hillings]., yet the produce of that acre rarely averaged 8s[hillings]. in value.” (Collier 20)

Marx’s position, as illustrated by the introductory quote to this page, is that the Indians were victims of both physical and economic forms of class oppression by the British. In Marx’s analysis, the clash between the soldiers and their officers is the inevitable conflict that is the result of capitalism and imperialism.

The Rebellion

The military history of the rebellion is straightforward. Prior to the “mutiny” at Meerut on May 9th, 1857, fires broke out on January 22nd near Caclutta. An incident occurred on February 25th of that year when the 19th regiment mutinied at Berhampore, and the 34th Regiment rebelled at Barrackpore on the 31st of March. At Berhampore, the regiment allowed one of it’s men to advance with a loaded musket upon the parade-ground in front of a line and open fire on his superior officer; a battle ensued. April saw fires at Allahabad, Agra, an Ambala, but the spark that lit the powder keg went off on May 9th in Meerut.

Members of the 3rd regiment of light cavalry were awaiting sentencing and imprisonment for refusal to obey orders and put the Lee-Enfield .303 caliber cartridge into their mouths. Once imprisoned, the 11th and 20th cavalry assembled and broke rank and turned on their commanding officers. After liberating the 3rd regiment, chaos ensued in Meerut, and the rebels engaged the remaining British Troops. Meerut was the single-most evenly balanced station in India in terms of the numbers of British and Indian soldiers. Troops and rebels were on near-even terms with 2,028 European Troops versus 2,357 sepoys, which certainly made the British side’s capacity to defend its interest and defeat the Sepoys that much more likely. Furthermore, the British had 12 field guns and the sepoys had no artillery. Both Collier and Marx indicate that the rebellion would have ended there had Major-General William Hewitt cut off the rebel army at the bridge between Meerut and Delhi, some 40 miles away, with added weapons. (Collier 40)

As the 38th, 54th, and 74th regiments of infantry and native artillery under Bahkt Khan (c.1797- c.1859) joined the rebel army at Delhi in May. June 1857 marked the battle of Kanpur (Cawnpore). The last Maratha prince, Baji Rao II, decreed his title and 80,000 pound annual pension to his son Nana Sahib (c.1820- c.1859) and was refused twice. Despite Sahib’s attempts to push his claim, Lord Dalhousie refused the Hindu nobleman. Thus, in June 1857, Nana Sahib led the sepoy battalions at Crawnpore against the British. Nana Sahib sent word to Sir Hugh Wheeler, commander of the British forces at Cawnpore warning of the attack, guaranteeing him safe passage. On June 27, Nana Sahib broke the pact and trapped Wheeler in his palace. The events leading up to Wheeler’s surrender and death have been recorded as the Cawnpore Massacre.

The Cawnpore Massacres

In the words of Sir Colin Campbell, leader of the British forces during the war: never was devised a blacker scheme than that which Nena Sahib had planned. Our miserable countrymen were conducted faithfully enough to the boats- officers, men, women, and children. The men and officers were allowed to take their arms and ammunition with them, and were escorted by nearly the whole of the rebel army. It was about eight o’clock a.m. when all reached the riverside- a distance of a mile and a half. Those who embarked first pushed off from the shore; but others found it difficult to get their boats off the banks, as the rebels had placed them as high as possible. At this moment the report of three guns was heard from the Nana’s camp. The mutineers suddenly leveled their muskets, guns opened from the banks, and the massacre commenced. Some of the boats were set on fire, volley upon volley was fired upon the poor fugitives, numbers of whom were killed on the spot … A few boats crossed over to the opposite bank, but there a regiment of native infantry (the 17th), just arrived from Azimghur, was waiting for them; and in their eagerness to slay the “Kaffirs,” rode their horses belly deep into the river to meet the boats, and hack our unhappy country men and women to pieces. (Campbell 112)

Andrew Ward’s historical narrative, Our Bones Are Scattered, also relates an account of the terrible and bloody massacre that followed the rebellion at Cawnpore, as well as Delhi and Meerut. By July, when Nana Sahib had captured Gwalior, he was reinstated as prince.

The Siege of Delhi

The siege of Lucknow lasted roughly from July 1st to August 31st. The commanding British officer, Sir Henry Lawrence, died early on during the siege. By July 25th two-thirds of the British forces had retreated across the river and Delhi had been taken by early September. Bahadur Shah, the last surviving Mogul ruler was installed as ruler and the devastating battle between rebel and British forces for control Delhi ensued. Soldiers faced down the horrific sight of the impregnable walls of Delhi and “more than fifty guns and mortars belching fire at Delhi’s northern walls from the water bastion on the east to the Mori bastion on the west.” (Collier 246)

As the siege wore on the Punjabi forces fighting for the British began to weary and there was talk of a retreat. Under General John Nicholas, Delhi had toppled by September 20th, at the cost of 3,835 soldiers, British and Indian, and 378 horses (Collier 264). Rebel forces retreated to Lucknow where the siege was approaching three months in length. There the war lasted until late November, until the rebels were driven to defeat in the Ganges Valley in December and January by Hugh Rose and Colin Campbell. By July 8, 1858, a peace treaty was signed and the war ended. By 1859, Rebel leaders Bahkt Khan and Nana Sahib had been slain in battle.


Though the Sepoy War has been dismissed as a chaotic, disorganized peasant uprising, several facts go undisputed that offer a counter-argument. The “unorganized peasants” of India fought one of the most powerful empires in the world to near defeat with limited resources and even more limited training. Nevertheless, the lesson of the Sepoy War is not one of victory or justice, but failure. Though the exact cause of the Sepoy War has yet to be agreed upon, and it is likely that there were many complex causes rather than one, it is clear that British interference governments and the oppression of the Indian people, religious and economic, created a bloody revolution. If there is a lesson to be learned from any of this, it is that a people, once pushed into a corner, will fight for nothing more than the freedom to fight, and live, if not for religion then for their basic right to live in freedom. Furthermore, in the desperate vengeance of a people reduced to pure indignity, lives a coldness that rivals that of their oppressors.


Lucknow Mutiny Tour


Kanpur Mutiny Tour