Today’s episode is a brief introduction to why the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 happened. Why did thousands of previously loyal Indian Sepoys turn against their officers, turn against their employer?
It was a brutal war, and to be honest, even doing the research for this was depressing.
In future episodes, I’ll be looking at some of the key engagements of the war, particularly at Delhi and also in Lucknow.
THE MUTINY BEGINS
The 10th of May 1857 was a hot day in the garrison town of Meerut – 40 miles north east of Delhi.
The Indian Sepoys and the sowers of the cavalry were angry…85 of their colleagues had recently been sent to jail for refusing to follow orders and fire their new Enfield rifles.
Suddenly there was a commotion, men were running, muskets were being gathered.
Sowars of the 3rd Bengal light Cavalry, raced to the prison and set about releasing their comrades.
Gun shots rang out around town. Smoke billowed from the bazaar. Local civilians joined in the chaos and soon a full-scale riot was in progress.
Any Christian unlucky enough to be caught was attacked and many were killed. The British officers, shocked at what was happening, were slow to respond.
By the time the European troops in the town were organised and sent out to confront the mutineers it was too late.
The mutineers were already on the road and heading for Delhi, where they hoped to encourage the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to join them and lead a general uprising against the East India Company.
The war had begun.
But how did we get to this point?…let’s go back a bit…
Over the previous 100 years, since the Battle of Plassey in 1757 – well covered on this site – Britain’s East India Company had been expanding across the sub-continent. They had recently advanced into Sind and the Punjab.
But they had been exposed and embarrassed in Afghanistan during that horrific retreat from Kabul in 1842 – a retreat that saw the Indian Sepoys suffer horrifically. Those men and their families that weren’t killed in the fighting were often sold into slavery by the Afghans.
It’s important to mention this because that retreat and the ineptitude of some of the British officers inevitably had a profound impact on the Bengal army of the East India Company.
It was clear that the Company, and the British, were not invincible and were perhaps on the decline.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Let’s take a quick look at the Sepoys themselves…Who were they?
WHO WERE THE SEPOYS?
Well first, there were three different armies ran by the EIC…There was the Madras army, the Bombay army and the Bengal army. It was the Bengal army that was at the centre of the mutiny, and so it’s the soldiers of that force that I’ll focus on here.
The men of these regiments were mainly recruited from the northern provinces of India – places like Bihar and Awadh.They were generally high-caste Hindus. Strong men, physically imposing and incredibly devout. Their religion was a huge part of their life and was at the heart of everything they did.
We are talking about men so dedicated to their faith that if the shadow of a Christian fell upon their food, they would refuse to eat it.
They would follow an officers orders to the death but wouldn’t share a glass of water with the same man.
And it was this piety that is at the heart of the uprising.
Of course there were other issues too – There low pay, the removal of Batta or hardship pay for service in places like the Punjab or Sind, the slow rate of promotion, and the fact that even the most senior Indian soldier was still inferior to a teenage white ensign fresh from Britain.
You can see how that would wrangle.
The relationship with their white officers had also began to decline.
It seems that many new officers lacked an understanding of their men, spent little time with them, and often struggled to speak Hindi or Urdu.
The recent British annexation of Awadh – the state where the city of Lucknow is situated, had also seen a very negative response.
Many of the Sepoys were from this region and they were livid at the way the Company had deposed their Nawab or King.
There had also been a growing sense over the last few decades that the Company was actively trying to undermine their religion and wanted to convert them to Christianity.
This was something even the most loyal Sepoy would not stand for.
The warning signs should have been clear to the British. There had been several small mutinies over the years – for example, at Vellore in 1806. Well over a hundred Europeans were killed after the sepoys were told they had to wear leather and remove their caste marks.
And more recently, in 1855 – Muslim Sowars of the 3rd native Cavalry had attacked Brigadier Colin Mackenzie with swords after he forbid them from celebrating the Shia festival of Muharram.
But all of these problems came to a head over the issue of a new rifle.
This gets complicated so let me keep it simple.
It was all about the Enfield aka the P53 – a muzzleloading rifled musket.
The rifled musket was an important development for British infantry that gave them improved range and accuracy of fire over the trusty old Brown Bess.
In fact some authors call it the first modern infantry weapon.
At some point, I plan to make an entire video on how this fresh development changed the face of warfare…But for now, let’s keep focused on our story.
The problem with the new weapon was that rumours quickly spread through the Bengal army that the cartridges were greased with cow and pig fat…and as the troops had to bite them to load the weapon, this was clearly a big problem. After all, as we have discussed, the Hindu and Muslim sepoys were incredibly religious and touching pork and beef products was anathema.
When pushed, Even the British officers couldn’t be certain exactly what fat had been used.
In January 1857, several Indian soldiers expressed their concern about the new grease and it was announced that the men could make their own using ghee or wax. A seemingly simple solution.
But it was already too late…the trust was lost and rumours spread that it was all a plot to break the caste of the Hindus and convert the army to Christianity.
Before long, anger grew and more and more sepoys declared that they were unwilling to use the new cartridges.
And so we come full circle and return to Meerut, where, at the end of April 1857, Lt Colonel George Carmichael Smyth decided to put his cavalry sowers to the test and organise a firing parade.
85 of the 90 men who were ordered to fire refused…they were arrested, and it was they who were freed during the eruption of violence that followed two weeks later.
The mutiny – or what many Indians now call the 1st war of independence – had begun.
Here are my key sources for this video:
If you purchase via the amazon links I receive a small percentage of the cost.
From Sepoy to Subedhar – Sita Ram – free on this link
Mutiny – Saul David – purchase via this link – https://amzn.to/40XjF6O
True to their Salt – Ravindra Rathee – amazon link – https://amzn.to/42SAtgO
Our bones are scattered – Andrew Ward – Amazon link – https://amzn.to/3zuUYCV
You can listen to the podcast audio of this article below