Causes of the Indian Rebellion of 1857

Causes of the Indian Rebellion of 1857

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 had diverse political, economic, military, religious and social causes.

The sepoys (from "shepai", Bengali for soldier, used for native Indian soldiers) of the Bengal Army had their own list of grievances against the Company Raj, mainly caused by the ethnic gulf between the British officers and their Indian troops. The British had issued new gunpowder cartridges that were widely believed to be greased with cow or pig fat, which insulted both Hindus and Muslims. [ Victorian Web] 1857 Indian Rebellion] Other than Indian units of the British East India Company's army, much of the resistance came from the old aristocracy, who were seeing their power steadily eroded under the British.


Some Indians came to believe that the British intended to convert them either by force or by deception (for example by causing them to lose caste) to Christianity. The British religious fashion of the time was Evangelism, and many East India Company officers took it upon themselves to try to convert their Sepoys. This was strongly discouraged by the Company, which was aware of the potential for religion to become a flashpoint.fact|date=June 2007

The Doctrine of Lapse, part of the British policy of expansionism, was also greatly resented. If a feudal ruler did not leave a male heir through natural process, i.e. his own child, not an adopted one, the land became the property of the British East India Company. In eight years, Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General of India, annexed many kingdoms including Jhansi, Awadh or Oudh, Satara, Nagpur and Sambalpur, adding up to a quarter of a million square miles (650,000 km²) of land to the Company's territory. Nobility, feudal landholders, and royal armies found themselves unemployed and humiliated. Even the jewels of the royal family of Nagpur were publicly auctioned in Calcutta, a move that was seen as a sign of abject disrespect by the remnants of the Indian aristocracy. In addition the Bengal army of the East India Company drew many recruits from Awadh; they could not remain unaffected by the discontent back home.fact|date=June 2007

Indians were unhappy with the draconian rule of the British which had embarked on a project of rather rapid expansion and westernisation, that were imposed without any regard for historical subtleties in Indian society. Changes introduced by the British, such as outlawing Sati (the ritual burning of widows) and child marriage, were accompanied with prohibitions on Indian religious customs, seen as steps towards a forced conversion to Christianity. [ [ India Rising: Introduction] website of the British National Army Museum]

The justice system was considered inherently unfair to the Indians. In 1853, the British Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen opened the Indian Civil Service to native Indians; however, this was viewed by some of educated India as an insufficient reform. The official Blue Books — entitled "East India (Torture) 1855–1857" — that were laid before the House of Commons during the sessions of 1856 and 1857 revealed that Company officers were allowed an extended series of appeals if convicted or accused of brutality or crimes against Indians. The Company also practised financial extortion through heavy taxation. Failure to pay these taxes almost invariably resulted in appropriation of property.fact|date=June 2007

Some historians have suggested that the impact of these reforms has been greatly exaggerated, as the British did not have the resources to enforce them, meaning that away from Calcutta their effect was negligible. [ Eric Stokes “The First Century of British Colonial Rule in India: Social Revolution or Social Stagnation?” "Past and Present" №.58 (Feb. 1973) pp136-160 ]

This was not the view taken by the British themselves after 1857: instead they scaled down their programme of reform, increased the racial distance between Europeans and native Indians, and also sought to appease the gentry and princely families, especially Muslim, who had been major instigators of the 1857 revolt. After 1857, Zamindari (regional feudal officials) became more oppressive, the Caste System became more pronounced, and the communal divide between Hindus and Muslims became marked and visible, which some historians argue was due in great part to a British tactic of divide and rule.fact|date=June 2007

Another important reason for the rebellion was the attitude towards the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India at the time, had insulted the Emperor by asking him and his successors to leave the Red Fort, the palace in Delhi. Later, Lord Canning, the next governor-general of India, announced in 1856 that Bahadur Shah's successors would not even be allowed to use the title of the king. Such discourtesies were resented by many of the people and the Indian rulers.fact|date=June 2007

Anger due to social reform by the British

Some Indians were unhappy with the rule of the British and perceived a project of westernisation to be taking place, that, however well-meaning they may have been, they believed were imposed without any regard for Indian tradition or culture. The outlawing of Sati (self-immolation by widows) and child marriage, which to some appeared to be a precursor to an imposition of Christianity, has also been put forward as a reason for the revolt. [ [ India Rising: Introduction] website of the British National Army Museum]


The British East India Company was a massive export company that was the force behind much of the colonization of India. The power of the Company took nearly 150 years to build. As early as 1693, the annual expenditure in political "gifts" to men in power reached nearly 90,000 pounds. In bribing the Government, the Company was allowed to operate in overseas markets despite the fact that the cheap imports of South Asian silk, cotton, and other products hurt domestic business. By 1767, the Company was forced into an agreement to pay 400,000 pounds into the National Exchequer annually.

By 1848, however, the Company's financial difficulties had reached a point where expanding revenue required expanding British territories in South Asia massively. The Company began to set aside adoption rights of native princes and began the process of annexation of more than a dozen independent Rajas between 1848 and 1854. In an article published in The New York Daily Tribune on July 28, 1857, Karl Marx notes that "... in 1854 the Raj of Berar, which comprise convert|80000|sqmi|km2 of land, a population from four to five million, and enormous treasures, was forcibly seized".

By 1857, the last vestiges of independent Indian states had disappeared and the Company exported untold quantities of gold, jewels, silver, silk, cotton, and a host of other precious materials back to England every year. This extraordinary quantity of wealth, much of it collected as 'taxes', was absolutely critical in expanding public and private infrastructure in Britain and in financing British expansionism elsewhere in Asia and Africa. In no uncertain terms, this very wealth funded, in large part, the Industrial Revolution.

The land was reorganised under the comparatively harsh Zamindari system to facilitate the collection of taxes. In certain areas farmers were forced to switch from subsistence farming to commercial crops such as indigo, jute, coffee and tea. This resulted in hardship to the farmers and increases in food prices.

Local industry, specifically the famous weavers of Bengal and elsewhere, also suffered under British rule. Import tariffs were kept low, according to traditional British free-market sentiments, and thus the Indian market was flooded with cheap clothing from Britain. Indigenous industry simply could not compete, and where once India had produced much of England's luxury cloth, the country was now reduced to growing cotton which was shipped to Britain to be manufactured into clothing, which was subsequently shipped back to India to be purchased by Indians.

The Indians felt that the British were levying very heavy taxation on the locals. This included an increase in the taxation on land.This seems to have been the most important reason, keeping in view the speed at which the conflagration spread to the villages where farmers rushed to get back their unfairly grabbed title deeds. [ An article by Dr. Hardiman] .


In order to consolidate and control British territory, the East India Company maintained a well-established army of 257,000 Sepoys (native Indian soldiers, called Sowars in cavalry units), commanded by 40,000 British officers trained at the East India Company College at Addiscombe, the company's own military school in England. The presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal maintained their own army each with its own commander-in-chief. Together, they fielded more troops than the official army of the British Empire.

Unlike the Bombay and Madras Armies, which were far more diverse, the Bengal Army recruited its regular soldiers almost exclusively amongst the landowning Bhumihar Brahmins and Rajputs of the Ganges Valley. Partly owing to this, Bengal Sepoys were not subject to the penalty of flogging as were the British soldiers. Caste privileges and customs within the Bengal Army were not merely tolerated but encouraged in the early years of the Company's Rule. This meant that when they came to be threatened by modernising regimes in Calcutta from the 1840s onwards, the sepoys had become accustomed to very high ritual status, and were extremely sensitive to suggestions that their caste might be polluted. [Seema Alavi "The Sepoys and the Company" (Delhi: Oxford University Press) 1998 p5 ]

As early as 1806, these concerns had led to the Vellore Mutiny, which was brutally suppressed. In 1824, there was another mutiny by a regiment ordered overseas in the First Anglo-Burmese War, who were refused transport to carry individual cooking vessels and told to share communal pots. Eleven of the sepoys were executed and hundreds more sentenced to hard labour. [Michael Edwardes, "Battles of the Indian Mutiny", p. 3"] . In 1851-2 sepoys who were required to serve in the Second Anglo-Burmese War also refused to move, but were merely sent to serve elsewhere. The "Sepoys" were sometimes aggravated when asked to complete tasks outside their caste.

The sepoys gradually became dissatisfied with various other aspects of army life. Their pay was relatively low and after Awadh and the Punjab were annexed, the soldiers no longer received extra pay ("batta" or "bhatta") for service there, because they were no longer considered "foreign missions". Finally, officers of an evangelical persuasion in the Company's Army (such as Herbert Edwardes and Colonel S.G. Wheler of the 34th Bengal Infantry) had taken to preaching to their Sepoys in the hope of converting them to Christianity. [Christopher Hibbert "The Great Mutiny" (London: Allen Lane) 1978 pp51-4] The controversy over the new Enfield Rifle, in the eyes of many Sepoys, added substance to the alarming rumours circulating about their imminent forced conversion to Christianity.

In 1857, the Bengal Army contained 10 regiments of Indian cavalry and 74 of infantry. All the cavalry units and 45 of the infantry units rebelled at some point; and all but 5 of the infantry units which did not rebel (or were disarmed before they could do so) had to be disbanded. Once the first rebellions took place, it was clear to most British commanders that the grievances which led to them were felt throughout the Bengal army and no Indian unit could wholly be trusted, although many officers continued to vouch for their men's loyalty, even in the face of captured correspondence indicating their intention to rebel. [ [ Frederick Roberts, Forty-one years in India. Chapter VI] ] Whether a unit mutinied or not mainly depended on opportunity.

The Bengal Army also administered, sometimes loosely, 29 regiments of irregular horse and 42 of irregular infantry. Some of these units belonged to states allied to the British or recently absorbed into British-administered territory, and of these, two large contingents from the states of Awadh and Gwalior readily joined the growing rebellion. Other irregular units were raised in frontier areas from communities such as Assamese or Pakhtuns to maintain order locally. Few of these participated in the rebellion, and one contingent in particular (the recently raised Punjab Irregular Force) actively participated on the British side. Figures on Bengal Army from Major A.H. Amin, [] ]

The Bengal Army also contained three "European" regiments of infantry, and many artillery units manned by white personnel. Due to the need for technical specialists, the artillery units generally had a higher proportion of British personnel. Although the armies of many Rajas or states which rebelled contained large numbers of guns, the British superiority in artillery was to be decisive in a number of engagements.

There were also a number of units from the British Army (referred to in India as "Queen's troops") stationed in India, but in 1857 several of these had been withdrawn to take part in the Crimean War or the Anglo-Persian War of 1856. The moment at which the sepoys' grievances led them openly to defy British authority also happened to be the most favourable opportunity to do so.

The Enfield Rifle

The rebellion was, literally, started over a gun. Sepoys throughout India were issued with a new rifle, the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifled musket - a more powerful and accurate weapon than the old smoothbore Brown Bess they had been using for the previous decades. The rifling inside the musket barrel ensured accuracy at much greater distances than was possible with old muskets. One thing did not change in this new weapon - the loading process, which did not improve significantly until the introduction of breech loaders and metallic, one-piece cartridges a few decades later.

To load both the old musket and the new rifle, soldiers had to bite the cartridge open and pour the gunpowder it contained into the rifle's muzzle, then stuff the cartridge case, which was typically paper coated with some kind of grease to make it waterproof, into the musket as wadding, before loading it with a ball.

It was believed that the cartridges that were standard issue with this rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as sacred to Hindus. A Hindu who ate cows' flesh would lose caste, with dreadful consequences both in the present life and the next. The sepoys' British officers dismissed these claims as rumours, and suggested that the sepoys make a batch of fresh cartridges, and grease these with beeswax or mutton fat. This reinforced the belief that the original issue cartridges were indeed greased with lard and tallow.

Another suggestion they put forward was to introduce a new drill, in which the cartridge was not bitten with the teeth but torn open with the hand. The sepoys rejected this, pointing out that they might very well forget and bite the cartridge, not surprising given the extensive drilling that allowed 19th century British troops to fire three to four rounds per minute. An integral part of the loading procedure involved biting off the bullet from the cartridge so that one hand could hold the musket steady whilst the other hand poured the charge of powder into the barrel. This meant that biting a musket cartridge was second nature to the Sepoys, some of whom had decades of service in the Company's army, and who had been doing Musket drill for every day of their service.

The Commander in Chief in India, General George Anson reacted to this crisis by saying, "I'll never give in to their beastly prejudices", and despite the pleas of his junior officers he did not compromise.

Prophecies, omens, signs and rumours

Another rumour that spread was an old prophecy that the Company's rule would end after a hundred years. Their rule in India had begun with the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Chapaties and Lotus Flowers began to circulate around large parts of India, quoting the famous line "Sub lal hogea hai." (Everything has become Red.), passed around by people from town to town and village to village, as a symbol of the prophecy and a sign of the coming revolt.Fact|date=February 2007

There was also a rumour that the British were contaminating the sepoys flour with ground up pig and cow bones (despite the fact that it was produced by native contractors).

It was a common belief in the decade after the rebellion, commented on in the British and colonial press, that either the Persians, Chinese or Russians had directly or indirectly influenced the sepoys to revolt.


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