Major Causes and Effects of the Indian Mutiny of 1857

Major Causes and Effects of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 – aka the First War of Independence. Image: 7th Hussars, charging a body of the Mutineer’s Cavalry, Alambagh, Lucknow

The Indian Rebellion, also known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857, was a major revolt orchestrated by Indians to oppose the authority of the British East India Company (EIC), a multinational trade company that ruled large parts of the Indian subcontinent beginning around 1757. This widespread revolt was arguably the highest threat to British colonialism in India until the country’s independence in 1947.

Spanning about two years (from May 10, 1857 to July 8, 1859), this historic uprising came to be known as the First War of Independence or the Great Rebellion. Many Indians believe the uprising was their country’s first real violent action against British rule. Basically, the mutiny was aimed at reclaiming the territories that the British East India Company (EIC) had seized for many decades. Both Indian civilians and soldiers fought against the British troops during the rebellion.

On the other hand, the British refer to the uprising as the Indian Mutiny or the Sepoy Mutiny. They use these terms for the uprising since they believe it only broke out because Sepoys (i.e. Indian soldiers serving under the British EIC) began to challenge their British commanders.

It’s often said that the Sepoys were the biggest drivers of the rebellion. A fierce confrontation broke out between the Sepoys and British officers in 1857 when the former refused using guns made of pig and cow extracts. In the two years that followed, close to a quarter of a million lost their lives during the mutiny.

The British were the victors of the rebellion. However, the immediate effect of it was that the British ended the rule of the EIC in India, and rule of India was transferred (under the Government of India Act 1858) to the British Crown, which at the time was Queen Victoria.

Having learnt a great deal from the two-year mutiny, the British gradually began to involve Indians in policy-making and the administration of the county. This led to the creation of several legislative acts that favored the Indians.

Below, we take an in-depth look at the other major causes and effects of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

But first, here is a quick summary of how the EIC came to wield such enormous power on the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Southeast Asia.

How the British East India Company came to rule large parts of the Indian subcontinent

The East India Company was undoubtedly the largest trade company in the 18th century, accounting for about half of the world’s trade. At it’s peak, the EIC could boast of more than a quarter of a million forces, which at the time dwarfed the British army itself. Image: Flag of the British East India Company

The political landscape of India from the 16th century to the 19th century shared minimal similarity with modern-day India. It was neither a nation-state nor was it similar to the country of India as it is now known. Instead, it existed as a territory of many ethnic groups governed by different kings and rulers. Moreover, the territories of ethnic groups and kings were always under threat of being conquered by external forces.

Having emerged on the scene in India in the mid-18th century, it took the EIC less than 50 years to control more than 17 territories in India. At its greatest extent, around the mid-19th century, the EIC could boast of more than a quarter of a million forces, which at the time dwarfed the British army itself. It’s said that the EIC conducted about half of the world’s trade. This made the company not only wealthy but also extremely influential across the globe. The EIC had its tentacles in a host of commodities, including sugar, spices, tea, opium, and cotton.

Although the Company’s initial mission was to conduct business with India and Southeast Asia in the “Indian Ocean trade,” it eventually entered into the business of imperialism. The EIC conquered many princely states and Mughal areas and governed more than half of the Indian subcontinent. It’s massive army was divided into three: Bengal, Bombay, and Madras. For close to century, the EIC remained the dominant force on the subcontinent: they conquered every opposition to its imperialism with military brutality.

From 1820, the EIC began making many changes to India’s legal system as well as introducing new ideas and technology to boost its trading fortunes in the region. Over time, some of those super-imposed structural and cultural changes began to fly in the face of many local customs and practices. Tensions then began to mount as many Indians, especially the Sepoys, felt their culture was under threat from the EIC. And so the Sepoys began to make their voice heard by openly resisting the EIC.

Major Causes of the Indian Mutiny of 1857

Between May 1857 and November 1858, Indian natives and soldiers embarked on one of the most widespread rebellions against the British East India Company (EIC), a gargantuan trade company that began ruling large parts of the Indian subcontinent in the mid-18th century.

Resent started building in a number of sepoy companies of the Bengal army of the East India Company. The company had completely disregarded the religious values and customs of the sepoys when they used cow and pig fat to grease their new gunpowder cartridges. To Muslims, pig is seen as an unsavory (haram), while the Hindus view cow as a sacred animal that should not be eaten.

Aside from the Sepoys’ opposition to EIC, there were several other varied events and interconnected causes for the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Below are details of the causes and events that led to the uprising.

Alleged British insensitivity to the local religions and customs

During the rule of the EIC, missionaries increased their activities across the length and breadth of India. The EIC is said to have actively encouraged those missionaries to expose Hindus and Muslims to Christian teachings.

The tensions surrounding religious differences between the natives of the Indian sub-continent and the European rulers were always a going to morph into a conflict in the region.

However, the tensions were heightened in the early 19th century when the East India Company (EIC) began imposing religious boundaries on native religions.

Although the EIC made some positive changes in native Indian culture, such as prohibiting child marriage and widowhood suicide practice (sati), they introduced them without regarding the sensitivity of religious matters in the region.

The Widows’ Remarriage act of 1856, passed by Lord Dalhousie, abolished sati or suttee – a Hindu practice which sees the burning of a widow at her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. The practice was popular among elite Hindu Rajput clans in western India. Image: A 19th-century painting depicting the act of sati

Furthermore, the EIC backed the religious and custom changes with legal provisions. A typical example was the Charter Act of 1813, which allowed many Christian missionaries and Hindus who had turned Christians to occupy the region and own the locals’ properties. As a result, many natives felt the EIC and the other new religious groups were taking away their way of life. As tensions rose, an uprising against the EIC and British rule became inevitable.

The reforms of James Ramsey that drastically changed the socio-economic structure of India

James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie served as Governor-General of India from 1848 to 1856. He stepped down from his position in February, just a few months before the Indian Mutiny broke out. He was succeeded by Charles Canning, 1st Earl Canning

James Ramsey, also known as the Earl of Dalhousie, was India’s governor-general from 1848 to 1856. During his tenure as governor-general, he introduced unprecedented developmental projects in India, including constructing railways, electric telegraphs, postal systems, ports, and cultivating tea plantations. He also made considerable investments in developing the country’s educational system.

Unfortunately, the cost of this investment put a heavy strain on the nation’s economy, such that its long-term benefits seemed unrealistic. In effect, the Indians were not impressed with Ramsey’s strategies and steadily began protesting against British rule.

Economic challenges and high taxation

In the mid-19th century, many Indians believed that the EIC and British had placed undue taxes on them. The rulers increased the taxes on land and gave authority to the “Inam Commission” to seize the lands of some locals. These actions severely affected the living conditions of the locals as many farmers and village heads had their lands confiscated and sold to wealthy foreign merchants.

The taxes on land and the confiscation of land from the natives was the main reason for the quick, widespread nature of the uprising.

Rapid advancement in technology

Many sepoys and locals were against the various technological advancements in India in the 19th century. In some areas, steam machines, trains, ports, and new communication systems were viewed as an affront to their religion and nature itself.

The new technologies were threats to the existing businesses of the locals. For example, many local boatmen lost their jobs when the British introduced better transport systems, and many local farmers lost some revenue due to the expansion of ports and importation.

In effect, the local economy was strained by technological advancements that were brought to make it better. This was because locals were not comfortable using the new technologies.

Additionally, the British were focused on only making profits from the latest machines and did not care about collapsing locals’ businesses.

The causes of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 were multifaceted and interconnected. Britain’s quick advancement of technology was one of the main reasons why Indians rebelled against them in 1857. Image: Sepoy officers of the EIC

Immense discontent among Sepoys

Beginning around the mid-19th century, British officers started treating the sepoys (Indian soldiers) badly with great insensitivity. They abused them racially, denied them promotions and pensions, and reduced their payments.

Interestingly, the Sepoys formed most of the EIC’s army during this period. As a result, the Sepoys felt their large numbers would help them end the unjust British power if they began an uprising against their officers.

In addition, the Company’s attempt to recruit Muslims, Sikhs, and lower-ranked Hindus in the army caused a lot of concern among the sepoys, who considered those groups as inferior classes.

The Doctrine of Lapse

The “Doctrine of Lapse” was a policy that gave the EIC the right to inherit the throne of any dead Indian king who had no immediate successors or a king who was incapacitated.

The EIC believed this policy was the best way to expand their territory on the subcontinent without facing confrontations and using military force. In addition, they felt that the natives cared less about who ruled them and would have nothing against a British ruler.

British annexation took place in Nagpur (1854), Baghat (1850), Satara (1848), Jhansi (1854), and several other Hindu states. The policy was seen as a less confrontational way to expand the company’s territories, especially rich ones. This was evident in the EIC’s annexation of rich states like Awadh.

Typical of many policies of the Company back then, this policy did not go through a lot of consultation with the locals. Hence, many Indian princes and their ancient nobilities were disturbed and outraged about these territorial expansions and annexations. Their resentment caused unrest in the region which significantly contributed to the outbreak of the uprising in 1857.

Animal fat-laced cartridges & the Enfield rifle

In 1853, the EIC’s army received a new rifle, the “Enfield pattern 1853 rifled musket,” which had higher power and accuracy than their previous rifle (smoothbore Brown Bess). However, loading the new rifle remained the same as the old weapon.

It was alleged that the new cartridges were coated with tallow and needed to be bitten open before the gun could be loaded. Unfortunately, a mixture of pork fat (lard) and beef was used to make the tallow.

As a result, the Muslim and Hindu soldiers were upset with the British since they considered consuming pork meat and beef, respectively, taboo in their religion.

In addition, the native troops felt the British had disrespected their religion and deliberately forced them to go against their beliefs. In effect, many Sepoys refused to use the new Enfield rifle when the British officers ordered them.

Eventually, the EIC replaced the pork fat in the tallow with vegetable fat in subsequent rifles they produced. However, the Sepoys refused to use the new rifles due to the earlier decision.

Opposition to the animal fat-laced cartridges began in full force at a military station at Berhampur. On February 27, the commanding officer, Colonel Mitchell, threatened the 19th Native Infantry to take the entire regiment to Burma if they continued protesting against the cartridges.

The Sepoys’ refusal was misconstrued as a kind of insubordination. Those who refused to use the weapon were jailed. On May 9, sentences were handed to about 85 sepoys for refusing to accept the new cartridges.

The Enfield rifle ended up being very unpopular among Indian troops as the cartridges had pig and cow fat on them. Image: Pattern 1853 Enfield rifled musket.

Reforms to the Bengal Army

The Bengal Presidency was famed for having very brave native soldiers who won many battles against a number of north Indian states and the Sikhs.

The Bengal Army, especially its infantry (i.e. the Bengal Native Infantry), were not a diverse group of people, as most of them came from the landowning Bhumihars and Rajputs of the Ganges Valley. For example, as of 1856, about 80% of the BNI were Hindus.

Surprisingly, they were not paid as much as those in the Bombay and Madras Armies. The Company preferred rewarding them with intrinsic things like battle honors. Regardless, the Bengal Army continued to be loyal for many decades. That began to change when the Company started introducing a number of reforms, including the increased recruitment of Sikhs and Gurkhas. The Bengal army reduced recruitment of high-cast Awadhi, Bengali and Bihari Hindu.

The native troops perceived those reforms as attempt to dilute their caste. In 1806 for example, the Vellore Mutiny was quickly suppressed. The mutiny, which erupted in the Indian city of Vellore in what is now the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, lasted for about one day. Over 200 British troops either died or got wounded, while 350 mutineers died and 100 were later executed.

Also tensions rose from the new dress code the Company introduced. The native troops considered the code as ignoring the sensibilities of their customs.

Removal of Batta

Another significant change came in the form of the removal of the batta (i.e. extra pay) for native soldiers that refused to serve. The sepoys who refused to serve were replaced by Gurkha soldiers.

Basically, the EIC was seen by native troops as having lost touch with the local people. For example, British officers during the early years of the EIC’s rule in India were known for speaking the Indian languages as well as taking part in many religious ceremonies. However, with the passage of time, that all changed as the new British officers acted distant and intolerant. This fueled a lot of distrust and welfare of troops dropped.

Some say, those changes occurred as a result of the changes in leadership. In 1848, Lord William Bentinck was replaced with Lord Dalhousie, whom many considered to be somewhat arrogant.

The General Services Enlistment Act of 1856

In the second half of the EIC’s rule India, more and more expeditions were made to Burma and the Middle East. This meant that Indian troops had to be shipped off to those territories when the need arose.

However, those troops had the belief that overseas trips could break their kala pani rule. The rule states that sea voyages affected one’s social respectability and posterity. The offence is known as “Sagarollanghana” or “Samudrolanghana”, and according to the Dharma Sutra of Baudhayana the traveller loses their social status (i.e. varna) when separated from the regenerating powers of the Ganges River.

Britain’s insistence on those native troops to serve overseas was seen as a disrespect to the customs of the Indians.

How did the British crush the Indian Mutiny?

The uprising began on May 10, 1857, in Meerut when about Sepoys rebelled against their British officers for the execution of Mangal Pandey, the first Sepoy who was arrested for attacking his superiors in March 1857.

The mutineers first freed the 85 Sepoys that had been jailed  before unleashing terror on the British officers and their family members. Afterward, there were more mutinies and civil uprisings, primarily in central India.

New of the mutiny reached Britain reached Britain and 30,000 troops were deployed to support the efforts in quelling the rebellion. The number of British troops stationed in India was a bit low as many had been sent to join the Crimean War (1853-1856).

Indian Mutiny 1857

A telegram sent to General George Anson (1797-1857), the commander-in-chief of the Bengal Army, on May 12. The major-general died (on May 27) of cholera during a march against the Rebellion at Delhi

Soon, the rebellion swiftly spread to Delhi and other cities. After the rebels seized Delhi, they proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar, an 81-year-old Mughal king, as the Emperor of India. He was seen as a symbol throughout the entire rebellion.

The Indian mutineers would go on to conquer vast portions of the EIC-controlled Awadh (Oudh) and the North-Western Provinces.

Upon the death of General George Anson in May, command passed on to Sir Henry Barnard, who also died in July. Initially, the British forces suffered from an inadequate number of troops and proper leadership.

Indian Mutiny 1857

Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, was crowned Emperor of India by the Indian troops that mutinied in 1857

The East India Company was quick to react to the situation. They expeditiously called for reinforcements, and by late September 1857, they managed to take back Delhi and Kanpur from the Sepoys.

During the siege of Delhi, the British used more than 45 wagons of ammunition. On September 14, they were able to break into Delhi as more reinforcements arrived. Six days later, they successfully brought the city under their control. What ensued was massive bloodshed and plunder.

However, the Sepoys and many Indian civilians continued the rebellion in Awadh, Lucknow, and Jhansi.

It should be noted that although many Indians fought against the EIC, many also fought for them. For example, many Sikhs in Punjab and a number of Indian princes supported the British by releasing their soldiers to fight for them. In addition, they also helped the British with food supplies and weapons.

Some say that the reason the Sikhs supported the British was because they did not want to India to return to Mughal rule.

On the contrary, princely states such as Raiputana, Mysore, Kashmir, Travancore, and Hyderabad were neutral and stayed out of the rebellion.

Charles Canning, the Governor-General of India during the rebellion.

In totality, the uprising was a failed adventure and rebellion for the Indians. Its failure was due to the rebels lacking an ultimate leader and a clear strategy to defeat the foreigners. .

On June 20, 1858, the British defeated the rebels brutally in Gwalior and finally brought them under their control again. Subsequently, a treaty was signed on July 8, 1859 to officially mark the end of hostilities.

Slowly but surely British troops, along with a sizable number of native soldiers, crushed the rebellion. Image: The Sepoy revolt at Meerut, wood-engraving from the Illustrated London News, 1857

Atrocities & casualties on both sides

During the rebellion, all participating parties committed horrendous crimes and atrocities. It’s said that neither side spared the lives of civilians.

It was estimated that by the end of the uprising, about 11,000 British soldiers were killed, and 6,000 British civilians who were residents of India were murdered.

On the Indian side, out of the estimated 150,000 Indians killed in the rebellion, 100,000 were civilians, with the rest being Sepoys and other fighters.

Bibigarh house where British women and children were killed and the well where their bodies were thrown into. The Massacre at Cawnpore in July 1857 was one of the most horrific events of the Indian Mutiny.

Many British soldiers were furious after learning of the rebels’ sexual abuses and slaughter of British citizens (mainly women and children) at Cawnpore. In response, when they captured mutineers at Cawnpore, they publicly hanged them or sentenced them to the infamous “blown from cannon.” It involved tying the rebels over cannon openings and blowing them to bits when the cannons were shot. The British were bent on exacting the highest form of revenge on the mutineers and their supporters.

Brigadier-General James Neill encouraged the execution of mutineers by blowing them from a cannon

The British also committed severe cruel acts against the Indians at Cawnpore, such as making Muslim and Hindu rebels consume pork meat and licking newly bloodied buildings. In addition, they tortured the rebels with hot irons, pinners, and red chilies. As a result, the Indians named the period in which the British committed those atrocities “The Devil’s Wind.”

Following their recapture of territories from the Sepoys, British soldiers also sexually abused Indian women and children.

Aftermath and Legacy of the Rebellion

Despite failing as a movement for independence, the Indian Mutiny significantly altered the Indian society.

The rebellion left many scars on the subcontinent. North India was covered with desolate fields and burnt and destroyed cities and villages. The nation also had to deal with significant debts and difficulties with restoration.

However, in Britain, the rebellion produced a surge of panic and a thirst for brutal revenge for the murders of their citizens in India. It also made British politicians realize that they would earn more from India if the British Crown was given complete control of the region instead of co-administrating with the EIC. As a result, British authorities ended the Mughal Empire, disbanded the East India Company, and issued a proclamation establishing Queen Victoria as India’s new Empress on November 1, 1858.

The proclamation issued by Queen Victoria on 1 November 1858

One of the earliest changes the British embarked on after the 1857 rebellion was reorganizing their army in India. Before the rebellion, Sepoys carried the highest number of soldiers in Britain’s army in India. The ratio of British soldiers to Sepoys in the army was 1:90. The British recognized this as a threat and cut the number of Sepoys by about 40% while increasing the number of British soldiers in the army by 50%. Soon, the ratio of Sepoys to the British in the army became 1:3.

Additionally, in 1861, the British took control of all the main forts, cantonments, and armories of the army that the Sepoys previously held.

Furthermore, they modified the recruitment process of Sepoys after the rebellion. The British realized that many rebellions originated from Rajput and Hindu Brahim communities, from which they recruited many Sepoys. As a result, they moved the recruitment to towns such as Sindh, Punjab, Assam, and Tripura, where natives appeared to show loyalty and respect to the British.

After the rebellion, huge investments were made in India’s infrastructure and educational systems. Education developed slowly, but after a while, an English-speaking middle class in India emerged. These people eventually founded nationalist organizations and continued the fight for independence. In addition, the improved education system helped many natives to secure better careers, such as doctors, engineers, and lawyers.

The passage of the Ilbert bill in 1884 marked another significant transformation after the rebellion. The bill required Indians to be given equal treatment as other British or Europeans in India. Additionally, its provisions loosened restrictions on British subjects and permitted Indian judges with advanced status to serve on the courts.

However, the British vehemently opposed these provisions. As a result, the bill’s passage intensified hostility between Britain and India and served as a precursor to the Indian National Congress’ establishment in 1885.

Indians also witnessed a positive outcome from their rebellion after the British began to consult with them on the country’s development and administration. Thus, before the rebellion, only Europeans made up the Legislative Council of 1853; however, after the rebellion, the new Legislative Council of 1861, which gave a voice to Indians in legislation procedures, was formed.

In 1909, the Indian Councils Act was passed, providing the specifications for the number of positions Indians could hold in the legislative councils.

It is a fact that the rebellion sparked independence-related ideas in the various Indian religious and political groups. However, although both Muslims and Hindus fought for India’s independence from the British, they were also engaged in internal battles with each other. This was because they both wished to govern the independent Indian state. By 1916, they realized that collaborating was the best strategy to conquer the British and secure India’s independence.

In December 1916, the two sides signed the Lucknow Pact, in which they agreed on the various representations in India’s legislature. Once foes, Muslims and Hindus began working together and prepared for their ultimate goal of securing independence for India.

Other interesting facts about the Indian Mutiny of 1857

Here a few more facts about the Indian Mutiny, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny or the Great Rebellion:

  • The Indian Mutiny began on May 10, 1857 in Meerut, which is about 40 miles northeast of Delhi.
  • To the British, the event was definitely a mutiny, and it was carried out by many regiments of the Bengal army. The other two armies – the Bombay army and Madras army – were relatively calm
  • Many Indian nationalists see the Indian Mutiny as India’s First Nationalist Uprising – representing a time when Hindus and Muslims stood together in an unlikely alliance to resist British rule. This is why the Indian Mutiny is sometimes called the First War of Independence or the Indian Rebellion.
  • The Indian Mutiny largely occurred in Northern India and Bengal. Many of the mutineers hoped for a general India uprising. Unfortunately, their wishes could not manifest as the mutineers could not properly coordinate their actions.
  • Contained in the proclamation issued by Queen Victoria in November 1858 was an amnesty to all rebels that took part in the rebellion.
  • It is a known fact that many Sikh princes in Punjab offered their support to the British during the quelling of the rebellion.
  • Places like Kashmir, Hyderabad, and Travancore chose not to join the rebellion.
  • The reason why some Muslim and Hindu aristocrats joined the rebellion was because EIC’s policies were aimed at gradually removing the Muslim and Hindu aristocrats from power. For example, land annexations by the Company did not sit well with those native aristocrats.
  • Before the mutiny began, British general Hearsey tried his hardest to reassure Indian troops of the Company’s continued respect and support for the native troops. He informed the anxious sepoys that the British officers were only coming to Barrackpore – which is about 90 miles away from Berhampur – to disband the 19th Native Infantry.
  • Angered by decades of conversion of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity by many Protestant religious societies, the mutineers took to killing many Christian converts, including Chaman Lal, a personal doctor of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.
  • Per the reorganization that took place after the mutiny, the proportion of Indian troops to British troops was set at two to one. It was also decided that the artillery and principal forts be placed in the hands of the Queen’s regiment. The regiments of the Indian troops were reduced from 146 to 72. By 1861, there were 70,000 British troops compared to 135,000 native troops.

A bleak prophecy of the demise of the EIC

In 1857, there was a widespread rumor about an ancient prophecy that foretold that the rule of the EIC in India would collapse after a century (1857) since it began in 1757.

In addition, there were several conspiracy theories that reported that some “righteous men” were distributing lotus and chapatis to Sepoys, urging them to rebel against the EIC.

The prophecy and conspiracy theories were frequently echoed, causing many Indians to believe it was time to end the Company’s authority in the region.

Who was Mangal Pandey?

Mangal Pandey was the first Indian soldier to point a loaded gun at a British officer. Image: A 1984 Indian stamp depicting Mangal Pandey, the first Indian soldier to aim his loaded weapon at a British officer in 1856

Mangal Pandey – the Indian soldier (sepoy – Indian infantryman) who first fired a loaded gun at a British officer in the lead up to the Indian Revolt in 1857. A member of the 5th Company of the 34th regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry, Mangal was court martialed, sentenced to death, and executed on April 8 for his mutinous action. He was found guilty of shooting two British officers as well as refusing to stand down.

During his court martial, Pandey claimed that he was high on bhang (a narcotic substance) and opium. He said that he was not conscious of his actions of March 29.

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