The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857
As with any conflict or controversy there are always two sides
to the debate, and the events in India during 1857 are certainly no
exception. Given the situation in India during the nineteenth century
it is hardly surprising that such a polarisation of opinion exists
regarding the context of the rebellious events during that year. The
British being in control of the subcontinent and their sense of
superiority over their Indian subjects, would naturally seek to
downplay any acts of rebellion. While the Indian subjects on the other
hand would arguably wish to exaggerate and over emphasise the
importance of these events, as a means of promoting the nationalist
cause for self determination. The truth of the events themselves, does
it lie towards the British account or the Indian pro nationalistic
side, or could there be a certain amount of truth in both sides of the
Metcalf in his account cites three indisputable factors behind
the outbreak of rebellion in 1857. Primarily he sees `accumulating
grievances of the Sepoy Army of Bengal' as the most important factor.
The reasons behind this `deterioration of morale' amongst the army lay
with several reasons. Much of the Sepoy army was comprised of
`Brahmins and other high caste Hindus' who assisted in promoting a
`focus of sedition'. The `generally poor standard of British
officers', plus the lack of improvement to the overall position of
those men serving in the army also increased the level of tension. At
this point it should be remembered that the `Bengal Army differed from
those of Bengal and Madras', as the Bombay and Madras armies took no
part in the rebellion of 1857. But the more pronounced military factor
was the lack of British troops in the `Gangetic plain' meant that many
areas were `virtually denuded of British troops'.
These military grievances which although significant were not
themselves enough to incite rebellion, as it took a perceived attack
on the Sepoy religious institutions to trigger of the rebellion. The
first of these perceived threats was that the British government was
preparing to dismantle the caste system and `convert them forcibly to
Christianity'. Although not based on fact the actions of some `pious
British officers did nothing to dispel' the rumours to the contrary.
Added to this British lethargy was the Brahmins who tended to be
`peculiarly watchful for potential threats to their religion and
Secondly, the introduction in 1857 of the `new Enfield rifle'
with its distinct ammunition, which required the bullet to be `bitten
before loading'. Rumours that the grease used on the bullets was
either from the fat of cattle or pigs, which either proved `sacred to
Hindus' or `pollution to Muslims', was interpreted as attacking at the
core of the Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs. These rumours unlike
those regarding the conversion to Christianity and dismantling of the
caste system, did prove to have a factual basis, as the British
government `withdrew the objectionable grease'. This belated action
proved futile as the damage had already been done.
However this only accounts for the military aspects of the
uprising which display the version of events `accepted in official
circles [as] basically army mutinies'. This version preferred by the
British fails to acknowledge the level of `widespread unrest among the
civilian population', who saw much of the British government's actions
as amounting to interference and contempt for the `long established
rules and customs'.
Disraeli saw the causes of the uprising as not being the
`conduct of men who were ... the exponents of general discontent'
amongst the Bengal army. For Disraeli the root cause was the overall
administration by the government, which he regarded as having
`alienated or alarmed almost every influential class in the country'.
Yet other British saw the overall social situation and
government administration as having no effect in causing the uprising.
For officials like Sir John Lawrence the `immediate cause of the
revolt' was the concerns held by Sepoys over the new ammunition for
the Enfield rifles. However, he sees this as just the trigger
incident, with the root cause being the long term reduction in
discipline in the army and the poor standard of officers in command.
The British standpoint is to regard the events of 1857 as a
mutiny. This is correct as there was a mutiny by sections of the
military, yet this fails to include the sections of the civilian
population who also engaged in civil unrest. For most of the British
writers and observers of the events, they are agreed in calling it a
mutiny because of the failings of the army, in terms of discipline and
The term mutiny also conjures up images of relatively small,
disorganised and not very widespread activities of disobedience
towards British authority. This is a more accurate description of the
events given that the `whole of India did not participate in the
rebellion'. Added to this the `large bodies of Punjabi Sikh troops
[who] served under British command' and some `of the Indian princes'
it seems hard to justify the term used by the Indian nationalists to
describe the events of 1857.
Although not accepted by all Indian historians, the traditional
Indian nationalist view of the events of 1857 are that it was not as
the British believe, a series of isolated and uncoordinated mutinies.
It was a war of independence, the first act by Indians to gain self
rule. That year represented a turning point in which the `nationalist
feelings, long suppressed by the British occupation, flared into
violence'. For half a century after 1857 the writing on the uprising
were basically confined to British observers and scholars.
The first nationalist interpretation appeared in 1909. Savarkar
is very passionate in his pro nationalist stance, he treats with
contempt the British assertion of the greased bullets as sparking the
`war'. He questions that if the bullets were the cause why did the
likes of `Nana Sahib, the Emperor of Delhi, the Queen of Jhansi ...
join in'. To Savarkar the fact that these individuals participated and
the fighting continued after the `English Governor General issued a
proclamation' to withdraw the offending greased bullets, shows in his
mind the fight was for an India free from British rule. To Savarkar
the real cause was the actions of the British in having `committed so
As noted by others was the objective of the Indians to stop the
British in their alleged `wicked desire to destroy our holy religion'.
The nationalists sought to `restore state protection to Islam and
Hinduism'. Savakar's rhetoric is of a somewhat ultra nationalist
standpoint, claiming God on the Indian side and national support to
repel the European invader from the sub-continent. The ability to
write years after the event assists in Savakar's ability to utilise
the nationalist sentiments of his contemporary early twentieth
century campaign to promote this event from half a century earlier as
the foundations of the nationalist movement.
Another view by Joshi adds to the nationalist picture of the
tremendous detrimental effect the British had on India's people and
civilization. Joshi regards the events of 1857 as certainly being a
war, but he sees it as being more than a war of independence, it was a
`social revolution'. To both Joshi and Savakar the British were
suppressing the truth of the uprising, the British `exaggerated and
deliberately misrepresented the role played' by religious factors.
They used this argument as a means of further control and repression
of the Indian people after 1857. Joshi is highly critical of the
`English educated Indian intellectuals' for maintaining the British
lie, who he regards as having `swallowed this imperialist thesis
One view which leans towards the side if interpreting the events
of 1857 as a war of independence, rather than a mutiny, is that of
Gupta. Although he takes a less nationalist and more balanced
approach. He argued the name of the events, which is what parties for
both sides have continuously argued over, are entitled to be called
the `Great Indian Outbreak'. For Gupta the name is not being pro
Indian nationalist in the description of the events, which he regards
as having `possessed the hallmarks of a truly national uprising'. He
sought to equate these events on an equal footing with European events
of a similar nature. `If the limited and unfruitful results of 1830
and 1848 in Central and Southern European countries have been regarded
as national uprisings', Gupta sees the Indians as justifiably giving
the events of 1857 a similar title.
The two accounts by Joshi and Savarkar are certainly for the
pro-nationalist movement, who of course would wish to portray the
events of 1857 in a light that was directed towards the nationalist
movement's objectives. Gupta although eluding to this viewpoint is far
less pro nationalist and more balanced in his approach.
As Metcalf points out the `most pervasive legacy of the mutiny
can be found perhaps in the sphere of human relations'. Quite simply
the way in which the British and Indians interacted, was especially
the way the British felt towards the Indians altered markedly.
While there is no question concerning the British as the rulers of
India for a century, the manner of administration prior to the mutiny
of 1857 was less as the role of overlord. After the mutiny it became
much sterner with the British acting as `clearly an occupying power,
garrisoning a hostile land'. The British saw the need to reduce the
risk of a second rebellion and to reduce the prospect the `Government
of India adopted the policy of creating division and disunion in the
In terms of interaction the mutiny saw `the romanticism of
orientalists and the optimism of reformers [giving] way to a
pessimistic stance that emphasised military security and cautious
policies'. This saw the British drift `into insular little
communities'. As part of this different military and administrative
approach there was a significant restructuring of the military, `the
Indian element in the army was drastically reduced (from 238,000 in
1857 to 140,000 in 1863) and the European part increased (from 45,000
to 65,000)'. As part of restructuring personnel numbers, ratios were
introduced where in the `Punjab the ratio of British to native troops
should normally be one to two, ... [while] in Bombay and Madras ...
one to three'. In an attempt to further reduce any chance of another
mutiny occurring the `native Artillery was abolished ... [and] the
corps of Bengal, Madras and Bombay Artillery and Engineers were
amalgamated with the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers'.
The decades prior to the mutiny saw no attempts by the British
to classify the Indians into `racial categories or rank them as
superior or inferior'. But by the middle of the nineteenth century the
divisions of `race was a popular topic in Victorian England'. The
concept of superiority and inferiority reached such levels that the
`concept of permanent racial superiority ... underlay much of
post-Mutiny British thought about India'.
The basis for these views were no longer regarded as simply
being `emotional sentiment, it was a scientific fact', or more
accurately pseudo-science. While the theories of racial superiority
were nothing new to the people of Victorian England. The racially
based ideas were given much greater credence to those who supported
them, by the `publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's, Origin of the
Species [which] accelerated this shift from the commonalities of the
human race to a differentiation of races'.
These racially based beliefs in superiority and inferiority were
the basis, for the supporters of such beliefs, in the reason behind
the British victory in 1857, as the `white race was dominant because
it was more advanced and adaptable'. The moves by the British towards
acknowledging the various racial groups in India and therefore the
qualities of each was an area which having been neglected before the
mutiny became an area of keen interest. The `martial races became a
concern immediately after the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion'. The
British administration the `Peel Commission concluded ... had been
unaware of the true martial attributes possessed by various Indian
The willingness of the British to admit to the beneficial
qualities of certain ethnic groups showed that, although they did not
regard such groups as being anywhere near the equal of the white race.
They could be categorised as being the superior members of an inferior
race. The findings of the inquiry saw the British place certain
racial groups out of favour, while providing greater acceptance of
The Brahmins were characterised as `scheming and dishonest', and
it was the `high caste Hindus of Oudh and neighbouring areas ...
adjudged responsible for the undermining of discipline of the sepoys
of the Native Army'. While others like the `Guhkas, Sikhs, Marathas
and Rajputs ... understood the meaning of honour, and duty', therefore
the British administrators saw these races as being `India's truly
martial peoples'. The recruitment into the army of members of these
social groups was made government policy and `a series of handbooks on
the martial races [produced] for the benefit of recruiting officers'.
Aside from the overall deterioration in relations between the
British and their Indian subjects after the rebellion, there was also
an impact on the Indians themselves. With the Muslims losing much of
the influence and power they held before the rebellion, and the
Hindus filling the vacuum left by the Muslims. While the British
attitude changed radically towards the Indians the `most bitter and
widespread hostility was reserved for the Muslim community'. They were
blamed by the British for much of the rebellious activity, which the
British saw as an attempt to `restore the authority of the Moghul
Because `Muslims stood prejudiced against western education'
they `had to remain in the background for some time', while the Hindus
who were more favourable in the adoption of this western style of
education and learning English benefited under the government. An
example which shows how the Muslims declined so heavily and the Hindus
benefited after the mutiny, is in the case of `judicial positions
open to Indians'. `Although Muslims comprised only 12 per cent of the
population in the North Western Provinces, they held 72 per cent of
positions' prior to 1857. The post 1857 effects saw this
disproportionate share of judicial position diminish to a situation
where in `1886 they could claim only 9 posts out of a total
of 284'. This situation of a Muslim decline in influence had long term
effects on the Muslim community right up until the early part of the
As each side of the debate is so fixed in their opinion on this
subject that no consensus ever seems likely to be reached. For the
Indians the events assist in enhancing the nationalist theme of
ridding the sub-continent of the British. To the nationalists the
events of 1857 are the first step in a process that took ninety years
to achieve the goal of an India ruled by Indians. However the evidence
of the events clearly comes down on the side of the British opinion.
The events were not a war of independence but a military and
Given that the `entire south of India took no part in the
rebellion' it seems impossible to justify the claim that the events
were a war of independence. Added to this, the assistance
provided by certain elements of Indian society to the British further
reduces the nationalist claims. The lack of central co-ordination
amongst the rebels hardly inspires confidence in them engaging in a
conflict to gain independence. Clearly the debate comes closer to the
British viewpoint of 1857 being a year of mutinies in the Indian
sub-continent, and not the first attempts by the Indians to seek