Academic journal article Journal of Political Studies

The Significance of the Different Names Applied by Historians to the Events of 1857

Academic journal article Journal of Political Studies

The Significance of the Different Names Applied by Historians to the Events of 1857

Article excerpt


The nature of the uprising of 1857 has aroused from the very beginning, serious controversy. The official British explanation was that the Bengal Native Army had alone mutinied, and any civil disturbances that occurred after, were natural by-products of the collapse of law and order. A British official, William Muir argued that, 'the character of the affair is that of a military mutiny-a struggle between the Government and its Soldiers, not between the Government and the People'. However, this view has been contested largely by writers and historians who argue that the rebellion of 1857 was not solely a military act but involved individuals from various backgrounds.


Shakespeare once questioned whether a name changed the essence of an object, person, or even an event. Leading academics of Indian history may indeed have his answer. 1857, to this day, equally perplexes and intrigues historians on account of the different causations and implications the events inspire. In this regard, Rawat says:

The memory of 1857, distorted but hallowed with sanctity, perhaps did more damage to the cause of British rule in India than the Revolt itself- whatever might have been its original character (Rawat, 1998:103).

Rawat's remark exemplifies the political nature of the events of 1857, and because of this there are generally four broad categories of terms used to describe it by observers: mutiny, uprising, war of independence, and revolution. Historians subscribing to these terms use distinct discourse to sculpt the events and their significance to whichever title they may uphold. It is my aim here to rationalize the arguments regarding the use of each term and diagnose which provides the most accurate description of events. This will be done by having a detailed autopsy of events that took place during 1857 social and military commotion.

The uprising began with a mutiny against the British by the East India Company's (EIC) army in Bengal, in the north of India. This led to widespread civil and urban unrest in all parts of north India. According to Bates, the unrest in the urban areas was mostly communal, characterized by the rioting of unemployed Muslim artisans critical of the successes of Hindu moneylenders who had been prospering under British rule. He argues that the Company was taken by surprise due to the insurrection which meant the ultimate collapse of British power in the sub-continent creating an increase in the many dissenting groups. This trait is for Bates, the most unique feature of 1857 (Bates, 2007:56-61).

The P-53 Enfield Rifle Cartridge Issue

As is self evident, the term mutiny implies insubordination and rebellion within the military and in order to evaluate this position we must discover if unrest and dissent were limited to issues concerning and the actions of military elements. The oft cited cause of the 1857 sepoy mutiny is the introduction of pig and cow fat greased cartridges for the new muzzle loaded P-53 Enfield Rifle to the blatant disregard for the religious practices of Hindus and Muslims. The loading action required that operators ripped the cartridge with teeth, before insertion. The combination of both pig and cow fat offended the sensibilities of both the Muslim and Hindu sepoys respectively (cow sacred to Hindus, and pig inauspicious for Muslims) and was seen as, 'part of an attempt to forcibly convert the sepoys to Christianity' (Bates, 2007:65). The Enfield rifle cartridges not only undercut religious and caste-system norms, but also degraded Indian society and identity. Upon their refusal to load the rifles, the soldiers were imprisoned. This resulted in a general sense of hostility amongst the mutineers who marched towards Delhi to the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah, establishing him as the head of the revolt (Bose and Jalal, 1998: 90). It is important to note here that although there were other causes of the Uprising, British historiographies tend to stress the issue of the cartridges to highlight the fanaticism and the extent of superstition prevalent in the subcontinent. …

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