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The Causes of the Indian Mutiny

The Mutiny began with a series of military revolts. It was only after some of these were successful that a civil rebellion started whose estent is still a matter of debate. Revolt was not a new phenomenon in the Bengal Army. Amiya Barat in her Bengal Native Infantry (Calcutta, 1962) has a long chapter summarising the precursors of the revolts of 1857. One of the last of these in 1855 is the subject of Brigadier Colin Mackenzie's Narrative of the Mutiny at Bolarum (1856)

In the first months of 1857 there was widespread unrest in the Bengal Army. General Hearesey was hard pressed to contain the 19th the 34th regiments at Barrackpore. It was a Barrackpore sepoy, Mangal Pende, whose name was to enter the English language as 'pandy', a proper noun denoting any rebel sepoy. Mangal Pande, like many others of the Barrackpore sepoys, believed that the cartridges whose ends he was required to bite off were greased with cow fat. Activated by this and by what he perceived as other threats to his caste, he became increasingly excitable and finally discharged his mukset at the adjutant. Colonel Wheler of the 34th ordered his arrest but was ignored. It was only when Hearsey himself appeared on the parade ground that the jemadar of the guard consented to obey orders. Mangal Pande was subsequently executed, and both disaffected regiments were disbanded.

The greased cartridges were a novelty made necessary by the introduction of the new Enfield Rifle. When the Enfield was first suggested for the Indian Army in 1853, Colonel Tucker had foreseen the difficulties the cartridges might cause and had warned against issuing them without first ascertaining the exact composition of the grease. According to Malleson in the Mutinyh of the Bengal Army by one who has served under Sir Charles Napier (1858) otherwise known as The Red Pamphlet this warning was deliberately suppressed by the Military Secretary. In 1856 and 1857 Major Bontein who commanded the Dum Dum Musketry Depot where the new rifles were being tested reported that many sepoys were objecting to the new cartridges. In response to Bontein's warning the Military Secretary telegraphed the Adjutant General proposing that cartridges be issued free from grease and that the men be instructing to use materials of their own chosing. There was a drawback to this apparently sensible solution. Some sepoys were already armed with Minie rifles and were already required to use mutton fat for their cartridges, and the Adjutant General feared that the proposed order would make them think that the use of any sort of grease somehow involved offence to caste. Precisely what was or wasn't done after this is open to question. G. Crawshay in The Immediate Cause of the Indian Mutiny (1858) was one of several writers who castigated the authorities for inaction. A different story is told in the parliamentary papers where for example are printed the Governor General's agreement with a proposal to allow the sepoys to pinch off the ends of the cartridges rather than to bite them.

Too little too late is perhaps a fair summary of government's response to the cartridge imbroglio. Government reiterated its assertion that the cartridges were greased only with the approved mixture of tallow made with mutton fat and bees' wax which the Court of Directors had ordered to be used. After 29 January 1857 when the Inspector General of Ordnance reported that "No extraordinary precaution appears to have been taken to insure the absence of any objectionable fat" it is a fair bet that such precautions were taken off and that the Brahmin contractor for the tallow mended his ways. But it is of little immportance whether government's assertions were honest or otherwise since the plain fact is that few of the sepoys believed a word of them. This isn't altogether surprising since even their British officres had their doubts. Lord Roberts, recalling his days as a subaltern in Forty One Years in India (1897), writes of the cartridges that when the sepoys "were solemnly assured by their officres that they had bene greased with a perfectly unobjectionable mixture ... nothing was easier for the men belonging to the regiments quartered near Calcutta to ascertain, from the low-caste native workmen ... at the Fort William arsenal that the assurances of their officres were not in accordance with facts."

The sepoys' refusal to accept the word of their officers about the cartridges was symptomatic of a deeper malaise. There had been widespread agreement throughout the 1850s tha tsomething was amiss inthe Indian army. More old officers than usual found it incumbent on them to propose reforms. John Jacob reprinted four of his own and nine other 'Tracts on the Native Army of india' in 1858. While the writers of these pamphlets differed widely as to the remedies to be adopted,,they were agreed on their diagnosis: where there had once existed a sense of common purpose there was now a growing gulf between officers and men.

This breakdown in trust was mirrored in Indian society at large. Sayad Ahmed Khan, a subordinate judge who saved many British lives at Bijnur during the Mutiny, and who was one of very few Indians able to write freely about the Mutiny, claimed in his book The Causes of the Indian Revolt (Calcutta, 1860) that the British had forfeited the popularity they had enjoyed in the early years of the Company and wrote that "the natives very generally say that they are treated with contempt." Sir Richard Temple who provided a preface for Sir Sayad's book admitted that "much of our old popularity had departed."

The departure of British popularity was connected with the wholesale importation into India of British values. The choleric old colonel with his kedgeree and his Indian mistress was less foreign to the Indians than were the readers of Punch who replaced him. Increasingly and increasingly consciously the British in India adopted a British way of life. In part this was simply because there were more of them. It had something to do also with the arrival in large numbers of British women who made of the British quarters a world apart.

It is tempting to attribute this disdain for the Indian way of life to British insensitivity. John Jacob deplored the lack of moral tone amongst many young officers. J.G. Medley, a newcomer to India, notes in A Year's Campaigning in India (1858) how "subalterns, fresh from school, often called natives 'niggers'..." Likewise William Howard Russell and any number of other observant visitors. Grossness of this kind didn't help of course but far more damaging to the relationship between British and Indians was the behaviour of the best rather than the worst of the British.

The best of the British came out to India with a profound belief in the virtues of progress. Political economy was all the rage at Haileybury where the Company's civil servants were trained. These men conceived it their duty to put an end to ancient customs they considered immoral. One of their targets was the taluqdars, the intermediaries between the village communities and the ultimate owners of the land. Many of the taluqdars wree unable to prove title to fiefs they had acquired in the first place by the right of the sword. In 1852 the Inam Commission examined 35,000 Maratha estates and confiscated three fifths of them when title could not be proved. Robert Knight in The Inam Commission Unmasked (1859) argued that new property laws had proved an incitement to rebellion. As Sir John Kaye wrote, "To oust a Tasluqdar was held by some young settlement officers to be as great an achievemtn as to shoot a tiger". It was certainly the case that many taluqdars were violent and oppressive and given to money lending at exorbitant rates of interest. On the other hand taluqdars were not only feudal overlords but also in many cases heads of tribes able to call on abiding ties of tribal kinship. As Dr Sen observes in Eighteen Fifty Seven (Calcutta, 1957) when Martin Gubbins, Financial Commissioner of Oudh, asserted in An Account of the Mutinies of Oudh (1858) that "the worst British government in India is preferred by the people generally to a native rule" he might have reflected that the Mutiny had proved that the native rule was not so unpopular after all.

Although many sepoys were in fact land owners, it was the British attack on religion that alarmed them more. There was a widespread perception tha tGovernment was planning to convert the population of India ot Christianity. In Edwardes and Merivale's Life of Sir Henry Lawrence (1876) can be found one of his letters to Lord Canning where he wrote, "I had a conversation with a Jemadar of the Oude artillery ... and was startled by the dogged persistence of the man ... in the belief that for ten years past Government has been engaged in measures for the forcible, or rather fraudulent, conversion of the natives." Colour was given to such beliefts by government's rather reluctant support of missionaries who were protected (thought not as much as the missionary societies wished) when they spoke in public.

The sepoys tended to object most to what they perceived as attacks on their own religion. One of the causes of the rising at Bolarum was that a garrison order had been issued that inadverdently prohibited processions on a festival day. Evidence for sepoy hostility to preachers of th egospel is harder to find. Sita Ram mentions it in From Sepoy to Subedar (Lahore, 1873) though how much of Sita Ram is Sita Ram and how much is his translater, Colonel Norgate, is a vexed question. Colonel Wheler of the 34th at Barrckpore was much given to preaching. His biographer H. M. Conran (1866) aims to counter "the claamour about his preaching to the sepoys in 1857". By and large Conran succeeds so far as 1857 is concerned though he has more difficulty explaining away the revolt of Whelter's regiment at Ferozepore in 1844 and the repeated complaints by other Europeans about his preaching.

What is more obvious is that the British believed the activities of the preachers to have been a main cause of the Mutiny. The outbreak of the Mutiny sparked a vigorous debate in England on the desirability or otherwise of the conversion of India. Ladendorf lists forty or fifty pamphlets on the subject. At one extreme, W. R. Aikman in The Bengal Army - popular ideas concerning the origin of the Mutiny refuted (1858) condemned the interference of Christian missionaries and pointed a finger at supposed Russian intrigues. James Dixon in The Sword of the Lord in the Indian Crisis (1857) put a different spin on the same idea. So far as Dixon was concerned, the introduction of Christianity was highly desirable and the Mutiny was a plot against it organised by Nana Sahib.

The notion that Nana Sahib should have been involved in a plot against Christianity is particularly far fetched. Nana Sahib was the adopted son of Baji Rao who enjoyed a government pension. The pension was discontinued on Baji Rao's death and Nana Sahib made continued appeals to have it restored. He had a grievance than agains tgovernment, but was so far from being a plotter that, after the outbreak of Mutiny, he first came to Cawnpore with the intention of assisting the British and was only then carried away by the tide of events. John Lang, who had stayed with Nana Sahib for several days in the 1850s, has difficulty in his book Wanderings in India (1859) reconciling the mediocrity he remembers with themonster of duplicity of British invention. He remarks in passing "he seemed far from a bigot in matters of religion." According to Private Henry Metcalfe he used to accompany the 32nd to church on Sundays.

The germ of the idea of conspiracy existed in several early British reactions to the Mutiny. It infected Sir John Kaye whose powerful History of the Sepoy War (1864-1876 and continued by Malleson) is by far and away the most influential narrative history of the Mutiny. Kaye had a constant tendency to find links between disparate alienated Indian groups. Excellenty written and informed by this guiding idea Kaye's history has bedevilled Briitsh historiography ever since. Oddly enough the conspiracy theory was given a powerful fillip by one of the Indian National Congress leading lights. V. D. Savarkar's Indian War of Independence by an Indina Nationalist (1909) is a farrago of nonsense presenting the Mutiny as a patriotic revolt. Savarkar was holy write and it wasn't until 1957 that an Indian scholar, R. C. Majumdar in Sepoy Mutiny, dared to attack the notion that the Mutiny was in some way organised.

Many of the factors discussed above came together at Meerut in May 1857. What was exceptional about the revolt at Meerut was its success and the subsequent march of the rebels to Delhi which provoked dozens of other rovolts. Events at Meerut are described in detail in J.A.B. Palmer's The Mutiny Outbreak at Meerut (Cambridge, 1966). Perhaps at the end one should come down to personalities. Colonel G. Carmichael-Smyth was commander of the 3rd Cavalry which took the lead in the revolt. His unpopularity with the sepoys is detailed in appendix W of T.R. Holmes' History of the Indian Mutiny (1904 fifth edition). In his Memorandum (Meerut, 1857) Carmichael-Smyth provides his own explanation for the outbreak: "The chief cause was the petting and pampering of the sepoy ... I believe the abolition of flogging to have been the next great cause".

Reproduced from 'Soldiers of the Queen', issue 82

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