By Coohill, Joseph
History Today , Vol. 57, No. 5
THE INDIAN REBELLION--or Mutiny--of 1857 was one of the most significant events in the history of the British Empire. Indian soldiers in the army of the East India Company in Bengal rose up against their officers, captured and killed many civilians, and nearly overthrew British rule in northern India. Although there is an abundance of first-hand narratives of the year-long Rebellion from Britons and other Europeans, Indian historical voices are largely silent. Apart from official proclamations from the Rebellion's leaders, few original Indian accounts survive, and many historians have pointed out that this is an obvious example of history being written by the victors.
The handful of surviving Indian narratives tell us a great deal about the rebellion, however. They shed light on the condition of the rebels' armies and encampments, the nature of their fighting tactics, the extent and importance of oral communication and rumour in this whole episode, and the great personal difficulties of remaining loyal to the British. The sources are highly individual and relate almost exclusively to the personal experiences of the narrators, usually confined to what they see and their immediate concerns. There is very little comment about the wider rebellion and about its diverse meanings, except that they sketch out some native conceptions and understandings of British rule in India, and the extent to which the British government (and even Parliament itself) was directly involved in creating the conditions which led to the mutiny and then to the wider rebellion.
There were many causes of the Indian Rebellion. The traditional explanation of the offensive rifle cartridges causing the initial outbreak of mutiny is only part of the story. Many native infantrymen (sepoys) believed that these new cartridges introduced in early 1857 had been greased by cow and pig fat. The sepoys were required to bite open the cartridges, and would come into direct contact with the cow and pig grease, which was insulting to Hindus and Muslims respectively. But the cartridges were only the catalyst for a revolt that was based on long-standing grievances.
Sepoys in the East India Company army had seen their pay (and therefore their status) decline in recent years, and many felt that the new officers serving in the Company army since the 1840s did not have the same respect and sympathy for sepoys that had been a hallmark of the previous generation of Company officers. Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of India (1847-56) introduced the so-called Doctrine of Lapse, a formula which allowed the East India Company to extend its control into Indian territory when a native ruler died without what the Company considered a legitimate heir. Indian tradition held that adopted children had the same inheritance rights as birth children. But the Company did not recognize adopted heirs. In Oudh, the application of the Doctrine was considered a final outrage of British conquest. Oudh was such a rich and historic part of India that this seizure was seen as a cultural insult. The outbreak of hostilities in the army would not have spread so quickly or gained much-needed local support had not the sepoys' grievances been echoed by discontent in many parts of Bengal, both rural and urban.
Sita Ram was a sepoy in the Bengal army and remained loyal to the British throughout 1857 1858. On the urging of his commanding officer, Ram set down his experiences of the rebellion in 1873, and it is from him that we get perhaps the strongest opinion about the causes of the mutiny. He argued that the annexation of Oudh in 1856 under the Doctrine of Lapse, rather than the introduction of greased rifle cartridges, was the major insult that started the widespread discontent among the sepoys and other native soldiers. According to Ram, 'this seizing of Oudh filled the minds of the sepoys with distrust and led them to plot against the Government,' because it was received as a unjust exercise of British hegemony over a traditional northern Indian kingdom, and because it would affect the local social and economic standing of the many sepoys who came from that region. …