What were the causes and effects of the Indian Rebellion? - British Empire 1815-1914

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What were the causes and effects of the Indian Rebellion of 1857?

The Cawnpore massacre

British retribution was harsh

The Rani of Jhansi

The recapture of Delhi by the British

The relief of Lucknow

The Reverend Jennings arrives in India on a mission
In 1852 the Reverend John Jennings  arrived in Delhi in 1852 on a mission to convert as many people as he could to Christianity. He was just one of many Christian evangelicals who had come to India in the years since the 1820s to convert Indians to Christianity. In 1813 the East India Act forced the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) to allow missionaries into India which hitherto they had not. Two years later the first of many societies, the Church Missionary Society, established a presence in India which was to lead to an influx of missionaries. Like many of his contemporaries, Jennings combined his job of administering to the English community in Delhi with doing what he could to convert Indians to Christianity.
There should be no compromise with false religions
Jennings believed that the British should be doing what they could to conquer the sub-continent for Anglicanism and the one true God. There should be no compromise with false religions as far as he was concerned. Jennings was just one of many such evangelicals committed to the destruction of local ideas and customs. In Calcutta the Reverend Edmunds believed that the Company should use its position to bring about the conversion of India to a Christian country.  In Peshawar, Herbert Edwards believed that the Empire had been given to Britain because of the virtues of English Protestantism.
The HQ of the Church Missionary Society in London
He wrote: 'The Giver of Empires is indeed God and He gave the Empire to Britain because England had made the greatest efforts to preserve the Christian religion in its purest apostolic form'. It seemed that the chief purpose of the Indian government was to spread western culture. With fundamentalist evangelicals having more and more influence in Britain, and with the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Delhi in particular there had to be a reckoning at some time.
India was being changed by the British
The introduction of missionary societies was just one of the many ways in which India was changing in the early years of Victoria's reign. The introduction of metalled roads and then the building of a network of railways and telegraph system as well as schools and colleges were ways in which Indians could see their country changing. Even if most Indians never saw a British person in their life, they heard rumours and had to pay taxes.
The HEIC's in the 1850s had an income of about £30 million of which over half, £16 million came from land taxes, mostly paid by small peasant farmers. To exert this tax, the Company had a vast network of tax collectors. These taxes may have funded schools, roads and railways but they  came from farmers who were living a hand to mouth existence.

Indian land was annexed if there was no direct heir
By the 1850s the British ruled all the Indian sub-continent. Although the HEIC only directly ruled less than half the territory, they indirectly ruled the remainder as a result of treaties agreed to by the local Princes. Governor Dalhousie enabled the Company to increase the land under direct British rule by introducing a Doctrine of Lapse in 1848. Under the terms of the Doctrine the British could annex any territory that belonged to a Prince who died without a direct heir or who was considered incompetent.

Oudh was annexed because the heir was ‘debauched’
The annexations often produced resentment among the Indian people as it was common Hindu practice for adopted sons to inherit. This was often to prevent an incompetent eldest son from inheriting. In February 1857 the British annexed the kingdom of Oudh as they considered its ruler, 'excessively debauched'. This move to annex a very prosperous kingdom unsettled the sepoy army as many sepoys were from high caste families in Oudh which had sent many sons over many generations to fight in the Company's armies. The Company also antagonised these same sepoys by changing their conditions of service so that they might have to go overseas which many considered would undermine their notion of caste.

Discontent amongst the sepoys was simmering
The simmering discontent amongst the sepoy army was to boil over in 1857 and ignite what became the Indian rebellion. The events of 1857 have been called 'The Indian Mutiny'  but although many sepoys did mutiny, many more did not and the armies based in Madras and Bombay did not mutiny. The rebellion of the sepoys in Oudh did though encourage many in the area who had grievances with the British to join the rebellion.

The rebellion itself started as a result of a couple of rumours. That it spread so quickly indicated the level of dissatisfaction with the Company's government. The Company had decided to introduce a new rifle which was more accurate and had a longer range than existing rifles but required quantities of grease to push the ball down the barrel. A rumour took root that the grease was made from a mixture of beef and pork fat which was offensive to the majority of Hindus and Muslims. Moreover there was also a rumour that their flour was being contaminated with the grinded bones of cows and pigs. The grease was quickly changed to one of ghee and beeswax but it was too late. Many sepoys also believed that this was a deliberate policy on the part of the Company to break down the caste system of the Sepoys.
The 1853 Lee Enfield and cartridge, left
The disarming of sepoys
Mangal Pandy and Meerut
The first incident of disaffection took place at Barrackpore, near Calcutta on 29 March 1857 when Mangal Pandy was hanged for shooting two officers. By the end of May the trouble spread to Meerut, north of Delhi, when the 3rd Light Infantry refused to fire the cartridge of the new rifle. The leaders of this refusal were arrested, tried and sentenced to ten years penal servitude.


The evening of the 9 May saw placards being raised in Meerut calling on all true Muslims to rise up and slaughter the Christians. Already the mutiny of soldiers had begun to draw in those who had other grievances. One native cavalry and three infantry regiments  suddenly rebelled on May 9 in Meerut and ransacked the cantonment which contained the families and men of the Europeans. Several officers and their families were murdered before the insurgents moved on Delhi where they arrived early on the morning of May 11. The rebels persuaded the Emperor Bahadur  Shah Zafar to give them his tacit support  and then set about looking for Europeans and for loot from the shops of Delhi.
Bahadur Shah
Agra, Delhi, Cawnpore and Lucknow were besieged
The British at the time had just 45,000 white to the 232,000 sepoy soldiers in India. There were 23,000 white soldiers in northern India but just four white battalions in the regions affected by the uprising. These white battalions based in Agra, Delhi, Cawnpore and Lucknow withdrew behind makeshift defences. The countryside was too dangerous for troops to risk gong to the aid of those in Delhi so the white troops stayed where they were. The uprising spread from Meerut and Delhi to Agra, Cawnpore, Lucknow, Benares, Jhansi and Gwalior with rebel sepoys attacking European families when they could. They were joined by  civilians who had their grievances against the government and leaders emerged who themselves felt aggrieved by the actions of the British. Prominent amongst these leaders was Rana Sahib who had had his inheritance in Oudh taken away from him by the British. Another person who emerged as a prominent leader was the Rani of Jhansi who had asked for protection when her fort had been threatened by the rebels and when the British refused her any help went over to the rebel side becoming one of the Indian heroes of the age.

British authority collapsed
Within six weeks, the authority of the British collapsed throughout the Ganges valley. In that time the rebels focused their attention in laying siege to the towns  into which the British had withdrawn. In Agra, Lucknow and Cawnpore British forces were besieged whilst outside Delhi a small British force itself besieged a much larger Indian force that was within the city. Once the rebellion had begun the British made every effort to divert more troops into the affected areas from the Punjab and from those troops on their way to China This would take time and gave the rebel forces time to capitalise on their position of strength. They did not take this opportunity though and were content to maintain the sieges of the beleaguered towns. Part of this was due to the fact that the Indians lacked real leaders or firm objects. Different groups wanted different things and this lack of cohesiveness meant that the rebellion eventually ran out of steam and  direction. No ideology or leader united the rebels. It was an outpouring of resentment against the British with no alternative being put forward.

From the end of July 1857 more and more British troops began to arrive in the area and they were helped by numbers of Sikhs and Ghurkas. The difficulty of moving men and supplies around in the hot season limited the options for the British commanders: casualties from sunstroke and dysentery took a heavy toll. There was a general revulsion by the British troops at what had happened, particularly at Cawnpore,and this gave the British soldiers the determination to march long distances.

The attack on the British as they were attempting to flee Cawnpore
Massacre at Cawnpore
Events at Cawnpore fuelled this desire for revenge. Here 125 women and children were taken prisoner  only to be butchered and thrown into a well. Nana Sahib's forces in Cawnpore were subsequently defeated by General Neill who vowed that he would punish most fiercely the people who had been responsible for the murders.
Officers and men surveyed the horrible scenes of murder, picking up stray strands of human hair and sometimes becoming hysterical with rage and pity. General Neill decided that every drop of British blood should be cleared up and wiped out previous to  the execution of those found to be responsible.
The retribution at Cawnpore
The victim before being hanged was to have his caste defiled by having to kneel down and lick clean a square foot of the floor of the murder scene whose floor had been moistened with water by natives of the lowest caste. The Highlanders took an oath that for every one of those murdered, 100 of the enemy should bite the dust. Garnet Wolseley admitted that his sword was thirsty for revenge and that he would have, ''Blood for blood, not drop for drop, but barrels and barrels of the filth which flows in these nigger's veins for every drop of blood which marked the floors and walls of  that fearful house.''

Delhi retaken
On 19 September with the arrival of reinforcements from the Punjab, the British outside of Delhi stormed the city and took Delhi after much hand to hand fighting in its alley ways. Meanwhile Generals Havelock and Outram had relieved Lucknow but in doing so had so weakened their forces that they had to stay there until further reinforcements arrived which they did in November.
British retribution was harsh
In 1858 all the remaining resistance was dealt with. Campbell advanced on Lucknow in March with 20,000 men and relieved the town and for the remaining months of the year, smaller forces scoured the countryside for rebels and dealt out summary justice. The British revenge was harsh and the events of the rebellion together with the way rebels were afterwards treated had a huge impact on the way the British saw themselves and the Indian people.
The HEIC blamed in Parliament
There was much soul searching into why the rebellion had happened and in Parliament steps were taken to try and ensue it would never happen again. Scapegoats were needed and In Parliament Disraeli in a three hour speech on 27 July 1857 blamed everything on the way India had been governed. He claimed that reforms had been forced on the Indians, that the princes had been devalued with their lands and privileges taken away, and the people had had their religion and property rights tampered with.
The East India Company took the brunt of the criticism but the Church also came in for a lot of criticism against which they retaliated saying there was not a case of too much Christianity in India but too little. The Prime Minister, Palmerston, decided to end the Company's position and replace its government of India with the Crown.

India brought under the control of the government
The India Act of 1858 introduced two sources of power: a Secretary of State for India who answered to Parliament, and a Viceroy who oversaw everyday administration and law making. The Viceroy presided over a cabinet in India which consisted of the heads of the Indian departments of state and co-opted councillors, including Indian princes. Under the Viceroy was a myriad array of officials including: provincial governors, collectors, commissioners, deputy commissioners, judges, magistrates, police superintendents etc.

The new regime was required  to govern with much more sensitivity to the feelings of Indians and to take account of their wishes. To emphasise this,  on 1 November 1858, the aims of this new state was made known by the Queen's Proclamation which was read out throughout India. Programmes of reform were introduced. Competitive examination which  was begun in 1854 continued but the British still saw themselves as India's benefactors. The Edinburgh Review told its readers that ''it was the glorious destiny of England to govern, civilise, to educate and to improve the innumerable races whom Providence had placed beneath her sceptre''.

A legacy of fear
In the literature which followed the rebellion, much of it was in the form of memoirs and gave the impression that it was merely a military rebellion i.e. a mutiny and that the vast majority of the Indian peasants had been loyal, thus contributing to the idea amongst British people that natives of every colony welcomed the British as the bringers of civilisation. The Mutiny left behind though a fear that it could happen again and encouraged many to believe that the Indian people were incapable of embracing western civilisation.
The British in India became more suspicious and more distant
Despite the best intentions of several Governors to improve relations with the Indian people, the suspicion towards them remained and would never go away. The British could never reconcile themselves to treat the Indian people as they would their own kith and kin. Although the British were gradually to involve more and more Indians in their own government, this was often resented by the British,. the Bengal 'babu' clerk became a figure of fun but was the result of the British making it clear to Indian that they, the British were there for their own good and that the British were a superior race and if the Indian people spoke English and adopted a British way of life they would become better people.

Those Indians though who went to British universities and acquired British clothes and played cricket were never to be regarded as the equals of the British. After the Rebellion, with more and more British women coming to India, the British more and more created their own version of England in the cantonments where they lived. The sport, food, clothes, social life and architecture reminded the British of home and with their class system brought to India a system of caste and class operated to sustain the Raj.

Peter Crowhurst, August 2016

Further reading:
The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, 1978
Raj The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James, 1977
The Defence of Lucknow, a memoir by TF Wilson, 2007
Britain's Empire by Richard Gott, 2011
The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon, 2007
Victoria's Wars by Saul David, 2007
The Indian Mutiny by Saul David, 2003
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