Sepoy Mutiny
Sepoy Mutiny
Started On :
10 May 1857 at Bengal, Jhanshi
Ended On :
1859 at Bengal, Jhanshi

The Revolt in India (Source : Karl Marx in the New-York Tribune 1857)

On the 8th of June, just a month had passed since Delhi fell into the hands of the revolted Sepoys and the proclamation by them of a Mogul Emperor. Any notion, however, of the mutineers being able to keep the ancient capital of India against the British forces would be preposterous. Delhi is fortified only by a wall and a simple ditch, while the hights surrounding and commanding it are already in the possession of the English, who, even without battering the walls, might enforce its surrender in a very short period by the easy process of cutting off its supply of water. Moreover, a motley crew of mutineering soldiers who have murdered their own officers, torn asunder the ties of discipline, and not succeeded in discovering a man upon whom to bestow the supreme command, are certainly the body least likely to organize a serious and protracted resistance. To make confusion more confused, the checkered Delhi ranks are daily swelling from the fresh arrivals of new contingents of mutineers from all parts of the Bengal Presidency, who, as if on a preconcerted plan, are throwing themselves into the doomed city. The two sallies which, on the 30th and 31st of May, the mutineers risked without the walls, and in both of which they were repulsed with heavy losses seem to have proceeded from despair rather than from any feeling of self-reliance or strength. The only thing to be wondered at is the slowness of the British operations, which to some degree, however, may be accounted for by the horrors of the season and the want of means of transport. Apart from Gen. Anson, the commander-in-chief, French letters state that about 4,000 European troops have already fallen victims of the deathly heat, and even the English papers confess that in the engagements before Delhi the men suffered more from the sun than from the shot of the enemy. In consequence of its scanty means of conveyance, the main British force stationed at Umballah consumed about twenty-seven days in its march upon Delhi, so that it moved at the rate of about one and a half hours per day. A further delay was caused by the absence of heavy artillery at Umballah, and the consequent necessity of bringing over a siege-train from the nearest arsenal, which was as far off as Phillour, on the further side of the Sutlej.

With all that, the news of the fall of Delhi may be daily expected; but what next? If the uncontested possession by the rebels during a month, of the traditionary center of the Indian Empire acted perhaps as the most powerful ferment in completely breaking up the Bengal army, in spreading mutiny and desertion from Calcutta to the Punjaub in the north, and to Rajpootana in the west, and in shaking the British authority from one end of India to the other, no greater mistake could be committed than to suppose that the fall of Delhi, though it may throw consternation among the ranks of the Sepoys, should suffice either to quench the rebellion, to stop its progress, or to restore the British rule. Of the whole native Bengal army, mustering about 80,000 men — composed of about 28,000 Rajpoots, 23,000 Brahmins, 13,000 Mahometans, 5,000 Hindoos of inferior castes, and the rest Europeans — 30,000 have disappeared in consequence of mutiny, desertion, or dismission from the ranks. As to the rest of that army, several of the regiments have openly declared that they will remain faithful and support the British authority, excepting in the matter in which the native troops are now engaged: they will not aid the authorities against the mutineers of the native regiments, and will, on the contrary, assist their “bhaies” (brothers). The truth of this has been exemplified in almost every station from Calcutta. The native regiments remained passive for a time; but, as soon as they fancied themselves strong enough, they mutinied. An Indian correspondent of The London Times leaves no doubt as to the “loyalty” of the regiments which have not yet pronounced, and the native inhabitants who have not yet made common cause with the rebels.

“If you read,” he says, “that all is quiet, understand it to mean that the native troops have not yet risen in open mutiny; that the discontented part of the inhabitants are not yet in open rebellion; that they are either too weak, or fancy themselves to be so, or that they are waiting for a more fitting time. Where you read of the ‘manifestation of loyalty’ in any of the Bengal native regiments, cavalry or infantry, understand it to mean that one half of the regiments thus favorably mentioned only are really faithful; the other half are but acting a part, the better to find the Europeans off their guard, when the proper lime arrives, or, by warding off suspicion, have it the more in their power to aid their mutinous companions.”

In the Punjaub, open rebellion has only been prevented by disbanding the native troops. In Oude, the English can only be said to keep Lucknow, the residency while everywhere else the native regiments have revolted, escaped with their ammunition, burned all the bungalows to the ground, and joined with the inhabitants who have taken up arms. Now, the real position of the English army is best demonstrated by the fact that it was thought necessary, in the Punjaub as well as the Rajpootana, to establish flying corps. This means that the English cannot depend either on their Sepoy troops or on the natives to keep the communication open between their scattered forces. Like the French during the Peninsular war, they command only the spot of ground held by their own troops, and the next neighborhood domineered by that spot; while for communication between the disjoined members of their army they depend on flying corps, the action of which, most precarious in itself, loses naturally in intensity in the same measure that it spreads oiler a greater extent of space. The actual insufficiency of the British forces is further proved by, the fact that, for removing treasures from disaffected stations, they, were constrained to have them conveyed by Sepoys themselves, who, without any exception, broke out in rebellion on the march, and absconded with the treasures confided to them. All the troops sent from England will, in the best case, not arrive before November, and as it would be still more dangerous to draw off European troops from the presidencies of Madras and Bombay – the Tenth regiment of Madras Sepoys, having already shown symptoms of disaffection – any idea of collecting the regular taxes throughout the Bengal presidency must be abandoned, and the process of decomposition be allowed to go on. Even if we suppose that the Burmese will not improve the occasion, that the Maharajah of Gwalior will continue supporting the English, and the Ruler of Nepaul, commanding the finest Indian army, remain quiet; that disaffected Peshawur will not combine with the restless Hill tribes, and that the Shah of Persia will not be silly enough to evacuate Herat — still, the whole Bengal presidency must be reconquered, and the whole Anglo-Indian army remade. The cost of this enormous enterprise will altogether fall upon the British people. As to the notion put forward by Lord Granville in. the House of Lords, of the East India Company being able to raise, by Indian loans, the necessary means, its soundness may be judged from the effects produced by the disturbed state of the north-western provinces on the Bombay money market. An immediate panic seized the native capitalists, very large sums were withdrawn from the banks, Government securities proved almost unsalable, and hoarding to a great extent commenced, not only in Bombay but in its environs also.

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Causes of the rebellion (Source :

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 occurred as the result of an accumulation of factors over time, rather than any single event. The sepoys were local soldiers, the majority Hindu or Muslim, that were recruited into the Company’s army. Just before the Rebellion there were over 200,000 sepoys in the army, compared to about 50,000 British. The forces were divided into three presidency armies: Bombay, Madras, and Bengal. The Bengal Army recruited higher castes, such as "Rajputs and Brahmins", mostly from the Awadh (near Lucknow) and Bihar regions and even restricted the enlistment of lower castes in 1855. In contrast, the Madras Army and Bombay Army were "more localized, caste-neutral armies" that "did not prefer high-caste men." The domination of higher castes in the Bengal Army has been blamed in part for initial mutinies that led to the rebellion. In fact, the role of castes had become so important that men were no longer "selected on account of the most important qualities in a soldier, i.e., physical fitness, willingness and strength, docility and courage, but because he belonged to a certain caste or sect".

In 1772, when Warren Hastings was appointed India’s first Governor-General, one of his first undertakings was the rapid expansion of the Company’s army. Since the sepoys from Bengal – many of whom had fought against the Company in the Battles of Plassey and Buxar – were now suspect in British eyes, Hastings recruited farther west from the high-caste rural Rajputs and Brahmins of Awadh and Bihar, a practice that continued for the next 75 years. However, in order to forestall any social friction, the Company also took pains to adapt its military practices to the requirements of their religious rituals. Consequently, these soldiers dined in separate facilities; in addition, overseas service, considered polluting to their caste, was not required of them, and the army soon came officially to recognize Hindu festivals. "This encouragement of high caste ritual status, however, left the government vulnerable to protest, even mutiny, whenever the sepoys detected infringement of their prerogatives."

It has been suggested that after the annexation of Oudh by the East India Company in 1856, many sepoys were disquieted both from losing their perquisites, as landed gentry, in the Oudh courts and from the anticipation of any increased land-revenue payments that the annexation might bring about. Others have stressed that by 1857, some Indian soldiers, reading the presence of missionaries as a sign of official intent, were convinced that the Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. Although earlier in the 1830s, evangelists such as William Carey and William Wilberforce had successfully clamored for the passage of social reform such as the abolition of sati and allowing the remarriage of Hindu widows, there is little evidence that the sepoys’ allegiance was affected by this.

However, changes in the terms of their professional service may have created resentment. As the extent of the East India Company’s jurisdiction expanded with victories in wars or with annexation, the soldiers were now not only expected to serve in less familiar regions (such as in Burma in the Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1856), but also make do without the "foreign service" remuneration that had previously been their due. Another financial grievance stemmed from the general service act, which denied retired sepoys a pension; whilst this only applied to new recruits, it was suspected that it would also apply to those already in service. In addition, the Bengal Army was paid less than the Madras and Bombay Armies, which compounded the fears over pensions.

A major cause of resentment that arose ten months prior to the outbreak of the Rebellion was the General Service Enlistment Act of 25 July 1856. As noted above, men of the Bengal Army had been exempted from overseas service. Specifically they were enlisted only for service in territories to which they could march. Governor-General Lord Dalhousie saw this as an anomaly, since all sepoys of the Madras and Bombay Armies (plus six "General Service" battalions of the Bengal Army) had accepted an obligation to serve overseas if required. As a result the burden of providing contingents for active service in Burma (readily accessible only by sea) and China had fallen disproportionately on the two smaller Presidency Armies. As signed into effect by Lord Canning, Dalhousie’s successor as Governor-General, the Act required only new recruits to the Bengal Army to accept a commitment for general (that is overseas) service. However, serving high-caste sepoys were fearful that it would be eventually extended to them, as well as preventing sons following fathers into an Army with a strong tradition of family service.

There were also grievances over the issue of promotions, based on seniority. This, as well as the increasing number of European officers in the battalions,[16] made promotion a slow progress, and many Indian officers did not reach commissioned rank until they were too old to be effective.

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Some Aspects Of The 1857 Rebellion In Bihar (Source :

Ram Swaroop

THERE has been a long-drawn controversy with regard to the nature of the 1857 rebellion. Scholars have expressed diverse views about it. Whether or not this rebellion was broad-based like the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, and had the willing support and cooperation of the civilian population at large is a disputed question. It is true that the entire civilian population of the British Indian empire did not come forward to side with the revolting sipahis. It would not however be true to hold that throughout the period of the revolt the rebel soldiers stood absolutely divorced from the sympathy and support of the common people. The people joined the sipahis for diverse reasons in most of the areas where troops rebelled.

The revolt that began at Meerut on May 10, 1857 very soon spread to large parts of northern India, including Bihar. There were three major developments in Bihar during July 1857. At Patna there was an uprising led by Pir Ali and his associates (Pir Ali was a book-seller); the mutiny at Danapur (Dinapur); and the assumption of leadership of the revolt in the region by Kunwar Singh. On July 25 three regiments stationed at the major cantonment of Danapur on the outskirts of Patna rebelled. Most of the troops crossed the Son river into Shahabad, where they joined the rebels under Kunwar Singh who were then besieging a small European community at Arrah.

At the time of the revolt the Bihar province (or, rather, Patna division) of the Bengal presidency consisted of the following six districts: Patna, Bihar, Saran, Shahabad, Tirhut and Champaran. It needs to be underlined that these, along with Bengal and Orissa, were the earliest large-scale territorial conquests of the East India Company. Bihar had enjoyed considerable importance in the trading activities of the European companies since the seventeenth century. Indigo production played a significant role in the colonial exploitation of the region (opium was the other major commodity of the colonial economy of Bihar). Under the East India Company a system of forced cultivation of indigo, and exploitation of the cultivators by European indigo planters and indigenous zamindars, was imposed in the countryside.

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While many zamindars and local leaders were with the government, others were sympathisers of the agitated masses and openly participated in the rebellion and became its leaders. The most important of them was Kunwar Singh who was generally looked upon as a ‘natural’ leader by most rebels in Bihar. When some Bihar rebels were being tried in September 1857, one of them declared, ‘the supremacy of the English and the Company is at an end, and it is now Koonwar Singh’s reign’. Thus, the rebels of Danapur, Chhotanagpur, Manbhum, Singhbhum and Palamau wanted to carry on the struggle together under his common leadership. Jadunath Sahi (the son-in-law of Kunwar Singh’s brother Dayal Singh) who had taken a leading part in the rebellion in Ranchi, was located as a follower of Kunwar Singh. Raja Arjun Singh of Singhbhum as well as Arjun Singh’s brother, along with many local leaders, were keen to fight under Kunwar Singh’s leadership. Many of them sought to help Kunwar Singh by sending their forces to join him.

Kunwar Singh moved from place to place fighting the British with the help of local chiefs and the common people. However, at a critical juncture the British were saved by Major Eyre, who defeated Kunwar Singh’s forces at Bibiganj on August 3. This was a great relief for the British garrison. But this did not mark the end of Kunwar Singh’s struggle. He shifted out of Bihar, moving to Mirzapur, Rewa, Banda, Lucknow and Kanpur.

Kunwar Singh adopted the unique method of attacking the weakest positions of the English, while keeping his men mobilised for any eventuality. This perhaps explains why the rebellion could be sustained for such a long time. Avoiding fixed positions, Kunwar Singh moved around extensively in areas like Rewa, Banda and Kalpi, along with his comrade-in-arms Nishan Singh. He was joined by the Gwalior troops and then proceeded to take part in the battle of Kanpur. Next he marched to Lucknow and then to Azamgarh. The governor-general ordered the re-occupation of Azamgarh as Kunwar Singh had seized it, which forced the latter to march towards Ghazipur. By April 23, 1858 Kunwar Singh was back at Jagdishpur. He had lost an arm, but his determination to fight the English had not weakened. He defeated the English force in an important engagement but died very soon after this. In a rare tribute to Kunwar Singh, George Trevelyan, a prominent British politician who had served in India during the 1860s, wrote:

For long past Coer Singh had been watching the course of events with keen interest and a definite purpose. This remarkable man came in for an abundant share of the abuse so indiscriminately dealt out to all those who took part against us at the crisis. Coer Singh was described in the contemporary journals as a devil whose villainy could be accounted for only on the theory that he was not of “human flesh and blood”. The time for shrieking and scolding has gone by and we can afford to own that he was not a devil at all but the high-souled chief of a warlike tribe who had been reduced to a non-entity by the yoke of a foreign invader. … Surely a people whose favourite heroes are Lochiel and Rob Roy Macgregor may spare a little sympathy for the chieftain, who at eighty years old bade fill up his brass lotah, saddle his elephants and call out his men … ; who inflicted on us a disaster complete and tragical; who exacted from the unruly mutineers an obedience which they paid to none other; who led his force in person to Lucknow and took a leading part in the struggle which decided the destinies of India; who after no hope was left for the cause north of the Ganges did not lose heart but kept up his men together during a long and arduous retreat in the face of a victorious enemy; and as the closing act of his life by a masterly manoeuvre, baffled his pursuers and placed his troops in safety on their own side of the great river, when friend and foe alike believed their destruction to be inevitable. On that occasion a round shot from an English gun smashed his arm as he was directing the passage of the last boat full of his followers…. It was uncommonly lucky for us that Coer Singh was not forty years younger (The Competition Wallah, 1866 edition, p.74).
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The first major incident in Bihar during the revolt was the Patna uprising of July 3, with Pir Ali at its forefront. On this date the Deputy Opium Agent of the Patna Opium Agency, Dr Lyell, was killed. This was as an attack on a major source of colonial revenue. Gangetic Bihar, together with the Banaras-Ghazipur region was the main area of opium production in the East India Company’s territories. It is significant that this entire tract was engulfed by the upheavals of the revolt.

Pir Ali was charged with Lyell’s murder, convicted and hanged. William Tayler was the Commissioner of Patna division at this time (Tayler carried out the operations against Pir Ali and his associates and was distinguished by his sadistic brutality. Yet, writing of Pir Ali’s valiant conduct on the eve of his execution he was forced to remark: ‘… he is the type of a class with many of whom we have, in this country to deal, men whose unconquerable fanaticism renders them dangerous enemies and whose stern resolution entitles them in some measure to admiration and respect’! Apart from Ali, sixteen more rebels were hanged for their participation in the Patna uprising another seventeen were imprisoned with hard labour, and two were transported to penal settlements.

After the rebellion in Patna, sipahis of three of the regiments in Danapur mutinied on July 25, 1857. This may be said to mark the beginning of a widespread revolt in Bihar, which lasted for more than a year. On July 26 the troops reached Shahabad in an effort to organise themselves under the leadership of the octogenarian Kunwar Singh, raja of Jagdishpur, who had already launched a movement against the British. Kunwar Singh gathered a large number of followers, who included his brothers Amar Singh and Ritnarain Singh; his nephews Nishan Singh and Jai Krishna Singh; Thakur Dayal Singh and Bisheswar Singh. It may be mentioned here that whereas a section of the landlords of Bihar, including some very prominent zamindars, took part in the revolt, the bulk of the big landlords remained loyal to the colonial government and helped it in crushing the movement. Nevertheless the uprising was fairly widespread in the region, and did have strong popular support in several areas.

In Patna and Chhotanagpur divisions the soldiers and civil population fought together against the British government. In Shahabad the rajputs rose in arms under the leadership of Kunwar Singh. The rebel troops in Gaya were strengthened by a large number of disaffected villagers and Bhojpuri rebels under the leadership of Jeodhar Singh and Haider Ali Khan. In Hazaribagh the Santhals, and some local leaders, launched a movement against the British. The activities of Nilambar and Pitambar in alliance with the Chero zamindars made Palamau a centre of serious popular agitation during the revolt. Singhbhum witnessed a struggle of the sipahis in conjunction with the Kols and other tribes of the district under the leadership of Arjun Singh. In Manbhum the sipahis, the Santhals, and the raja of Panchet estate, Nilmoni Singh, rose in revolt against the government. In Sambalpur the mutinous sipahis in their struggle against the British were led by Surendra Sahi, Udwant Sahi, and other leaders from amongst the civilian population. In Patna the Wahhabis played a leading role in the revolt. The Danapur mutiny also had an impact on the Muzaffarpur area, where too an uprising took place in the wake of the events at Danapur. The mutiny of the 12th Irregular Cavalry at Sugauli on the Indo-Nepal border eventually led to the outbreak of a revolt in Champaran and Saran. Purnea rose in revolt under the influence of the Jalpaiguri mutineers. The contagion of the Danapur mutiny and the provocation of the detachments of the Ramgarh battalion provoked the Hazaribagh revolt that had its echoes in Ranchi and Sambalpur.

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Kunwar Singh inspired the leaders in Chhotanagpur, the Santhal Pargannas, and other parts of Bihar to carry on the struggle. After his death his brother Amar Singh led his followers, who held out bravely in different parts of Bihar. Their activities continued to be a cause of serious concern for the East India Company’s administration. The forest area of Jagdishpur was the base of Amar Singh’s military campaign. The struggle between Amar Singh and the British force under Sir E Lugard in the first half of 1858 assumed epic dimensions. Engels took note of Amar Singh’s military acumen in an article in the New York Daily Tribune (October 1, 1858): ‘These impenetrable forests [in Jagdishpur] of bamboo and underwood are held by a party of insurgents under Ummer [Amar] Singh, who shows rather more activity and knowledge of guerrilla warfare; at all events, he attacks the British wherever he can, instead of quietly waiting for them. If, as it is feared, part of the Oude insurgents should join him before he can be expelled from his stronghold, the British may expect rather harder work they have had of late. These jungles have now for nearly eight months served as a retreat to insurgent parties, who have been able to render very insecure the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Allahabad, the main communication of the British’. In other words, Engels saw in Amar Singh the one great hope of the continuation of the revolt. After the retreat of Nana Sahib into Nepal, Amar Singh went over to the terai region to assume the leadership of Nana’s troops, but was captured in December 1859. He was imprisoned by the British at Gorakhpur, but died of illness at Gorakhpur on January 3, 1860 before he could be placed on trial.

The indigo planters got an opportunity to prove their loyalty to the raj in 1857. They fought against the rebels, protected government treasuries and guarded settlements of Europeans from possible attacks. Such help in the severest crisis that the raj had to face in Bihar gave the government full confidence in them. And in return they began to seek all possible support from the government machinery for the cultivation of indigo in the post-1857 period. Since popular participation of the common people in the revolt threatened the foundations of the empire, the colonial administration was in search of a common ally to buttress British rule. Thus the appeasement of the landed aristocracy became the hallmark of British policy after the revolt. In order to exercise control over the raiyyats it was necessary to form a joint front with the local zamindars. Since the planters had ready cash, they began to pay higher rents to the zamindars. The zamindars therefore preferred to enter into arrangements with the planters rather than the raiyyats when it came to leasing land. Thus, during the latter half of the nineteenth century a ‘triple’ alliance was formed in the Bihar countryside to exercise control over tillers of the soil.

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