Indian Mutiny

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Indian Mutiny

Indian Mutiny, 1857–58, revolt that began with Indian soldiers in the Bengal army of the British East India Company but developed into a widespread uprising against British rule in India. It is also known as the Sepoy Rebellion, sepoys being the native soldiers.

Causes of the Mutiny

In the years just prior to the mutiny many factors combined to create a climate of social and political unrest in India. The political expansion of the East India Company at the expense of native princes and of the Mughal court aroused Hindu and Muslim alike, and the harsh land policies, carried out by Governor-General Dalhousie and his successor, Lord Canning, as well as the rapid introduction of European civilization, threatened traditional India. In 1853, Nana Sahib, leader of the Marathas, was denied his titles and pension by the British, and the aged Bahadur Shah II, last of the Mughal emperors, was informed that the dynasty would end with his death.

The Indian soldiers were dissatisfied with their pay as well as with certain changes in regulations, which they interpreted as part of a plot to force them to adopt Christianity. This belief was strengthened when the British furnished the soldiers with cartridges coated with grease made from the fat of cows (sacred to Hindus) and of pigs (anathema to Muslims). The British replaced the cartridges when the mistake was realized; but suspicion persisted, and in Feb., 1857, began a series of incidents in which sepoys refused to use the cartridges.

Revolt

On May 10 the sepoys revolted at Meerut; they captured Delhi and proclaimed Bahadur Shah II the emperor of all India. The mutiny spread rapidly through N central India, and, by the end of June, Cawnpore (Kanpur) had fallen to the sepoys of Nana Sahib, and Lucknow was besieged. In repressing the rebellion the British were aided by the loyalty of the Punjab (the Sikhs did not wish to see the restoration of Mughal rule) and the passivity of the south. Troops (largely British) under generals Colin Campbell and Henry Havelock accomplished the reconquest. Delhi was recaptured in Sept., 1857, and Lucknow (which had been abandoned in Nov., 1857) was retaken in Mar., 1858. The rebellion was marked by atrocities on both sides, the British taking savage reprisals for the massacres perpetrated by the rebels.

The Beginning of Reform

Despite the army's sometimes savage reconquest, the British government did recognize the urgent need for reform, and in 1858 the East India Company was abolished and rule assumed directly by the British crown. Expropriation of land was discontinued, religious toleration was decreed, and Indians were admitted to subordinate positions in the civil service. However, the rebellion was long remembered with bitterness by the British. Military precautions against further uprisings included increasing the proportion of British to native troops and restricting artillery service to Britons. Although it is too much to say that the mutiny constituted a nationalist uprising, it was at that time that the first stirrings of active Indian nationalism began to be felt.

Bibliography

See Sir John Kaye and G. Malleson, History of the Indian Mutiny (6 vol., 1896); T. P. Holmes, History of the Indian Mutiny (3 vol., 1904–12); A. T. Embree, ed., 1857 in India (1963); S. B. Chaudhuri, Theories of the Indian Mutiny (1965).

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