Part 2 of a 5-part series.
The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 can be attributed to many factors, but foremost was the British persistence in attempting to alter the traditional culture of India, particularly the ‘civilizing’ efforts of modernizers and evangelical Christian missionaries.
The three practices of female infanticide, thagi (a supposed cult of assassin-priest highwaymen), and sati (ritual self-immolation by a widow) were the most heinous in the eyes of British. While these attempts at eradication did not even enjoy the pretense of East India Company legitimacy, it was nevertheless believed by many Indians that every Briton had come to stamp out Hinduism and Islam alike.
It is ironic, as Niall Ferguson points out, that “a shot began a conflict before it had even been loaded, much less fired.” The Enfield rifle, introduced into India to replace the unrifled Brown Bess musket, was a muzzle-loading weapon. To facilitate its movement down the barrel, the base of each bullet was coated in grease. The bullets were manufactured at an arsenal in Dum-Dum by Indians, and in January of 1857, a lower-caste Lascar asked a Brahmin sepoy for a drink. He was refused, the Brahmin claiming that the Lascar’s lips would contaminate his water. In return, the Lascar warned that soon the sepoy would “lose his caste altogether,” as the cartridges being assembled were using beef and pork fat for the grease.
The rumor spread like wildfire, and as cows are sacred to Hindus and pigs unclean to Muslims, the tale carried with it tones of outrage and horror. Murmurs of dissent grew among nearly every Indian Army unit across the country, and while the British had no clear picture as to what was happening, they could tell that something was about to unfold. Captain Martineau of the Ambala Musketry Depot wrote in a letter that:
Feeling…is as bad as can be and matters have gone so far that I can hardly devise any suitable remedy. We make a grand mistake in supposing that because we dress, arm and drill Hindustani soldiers as Europeans, they become one bit European in their feelings and ideas. I see them on parade for say two hours daily, but what do I know of them for the other 22? What do they talk about in their lines, what do they plot? … I know that at the present moment an unusual agitation is pervading the ranks of the entire native army, but what it will exactly result in, I am afraid to say …. Everywhere far and near, the army under some maddening impulse, are looking out with strained expectation for something, some unseen in visible agency has caused one common electric thrill to run thro’ all …. If a flare-up from any cause takes place at one station, it will spread and become universal.
Not only did the ‘flare-up’ spread, but it permanently ended the mandate of the East India Company as the trustee of British India.
The first to mutiny was the 19th Bengal Infantry Regiment in Berhampur, who refused to accept the new cartridges, and were immediately disbanded in February 1857. When 85 men of the 3rd Light Cavalry did the same in Meerut, they were jailed, but this time the Indians were not so willing to stand idly by. Fellow soldiers in the Light Cavalry stormed the jail where the mutineers were being held, and after everyone imprisoned there had been set free (including the felons and petty criminals), the “native infantry fell upon and massacred their British officers, and butchered all the women and children in a way that you cannot describe.”
The revolt spread to Delhi, to Benares, to Allahabad and Cawnpore, and along the way the mutineers gathered an astonishing strength. The force that reached Delhi consisted of the 3rd Light Cavalry, the 11th Native Infantry, and the 20th Native Infantry. All the British had to face them with was the 54th Native Infantry. Unable to hold their own, the 54th mustered everyone it could before heading away from the city, leaving its fate in the hand of the mob that had just overrun Meerut.
The grand heroic tale of the Sepoy Mutiny is the Siege of Lucknow. For nine months, a garrison of 1,700 in the British Residency managed to stave off their besiegers, though not without suffering casualties on the order of two-thirds. 7,000 men, women, and children had taken shelter there, but while the Mutiny at first appears to be a classic example of ‘race war’, the statistics prove otherwise.
700 of the soldiers at Lucknow were sepoys, and half of all the refugees there were Indian. Between May 1857 and July 1859, over 11,000 Britons were killed (though reports estimate that perhaps as many as 9,000 of these were due to disease), as well as innumerable Indians. Even more puzzling, however, is how many Indians remained loyal.
The retaking of Delhi marked a real end to the fighting, but while it was taken by the ‘British’, a third of the officers and more than 80 percent of the enlisted casualties were classified as ‘native’. A ‘race war’ the Mutiny was decidedly not. It was certainly a chance for mending past wrongs, however.
All the ancient enmities of the subcontinent were re-aired: remnants from the Khalsa army, which had been defeated by the sepoys, were more than willing to join with the British. Pathans, Afridis, Baluchis—from all across India, the “barbarians” came to sack Delhi. Britain was also able to draw on its other colonial forces across the world, including a contingent from Cape Colony and another diverted from its Chinese destination. The atrocities committed by the British and their remaining allies (particularly Gurkhas and Sikhs) were appalling. Ferguson writes:
In Cawnpore Brigadier-General Neill forced captured mutineers to lick the blood of their white victims before executing them. At Peshawar forty were strapped to the barrels of cannons and blown apart, the old Mughal punishment for mutiny. In Delhi, where the fighting was particularly fierce, British troops gave no quarter. The fall of the city in September was an orgy of slaughter and plunder … In a moment of singular imperial ruthlessness, the King of Delhi’s three sons were arrested, stripped, and shot dead by… the son of a clergyman.
As the dust from the Mutiny settled, it had become clear that the East India Company had outlived its usefulness. The British government stepped in, and over the course of the next several decades formal control was gradually ceded to the Crown. The standing British military presence was also increased considerably, with a commensurate drawdown in the number of ‘native’ troops, and by 1876 there were 60,000 British soldiers commanded by 3,000 officers, and 123,000 sepoys under 3,400 officers.
The experience of the Mutiny led to dramatic changes in the command structure, as well. Prior to 1857, Indian battalions had been commanded by an Indian, but there was also a British captain and two subalterns imposed on top of that position. By the time of the Mutiny, there were as many British officers in an Indian battalion as there were Indian officers, in a highly redundant organization. As all British officers were automatically superior to any Indian, the top-heavy nature of the battalion proved too unwieldy for the system to handle.
After the rebellion had been dealt with, the flaws of this plan which had been made so patently obvious were rectified. Rather than continue to impose a British model unsuitable for the circumstances, a command structure that fully took into consideration the particulars of Britain’s needs in India was established. James Lawford writes:
The number of British officers was reduced to six…[and] successively increased to…thirteen [by] 1901. In [the] final establishment the post of commanding officer, second-in-command, [and] company commander…all became British … The senior Indian rank was that of Subedar Major. In theory he was junior to all British officers, but he wore the badges of rank of a major and was personal adviser to the commanding officer on all administrative matters connected with the Regiment and particularly those relating to Indian customs. His position might appear to resemble that of a British Regimental Sergeant-Major, but in practice, with perhaps only five or six British officers actually present in a unit, he wielded considerably more power and, after the commanding officer, was probably the most important member of the Regiment.
Note that now the senior Indian officer is only “in theory” junior to all British officers and that one of his primary advisory roles is on matters “relating to Indian customs.” While the army had certainly played no role in proselytizing for Christianity, the grease rumor that set off the Sepoy Mutiny tarnished it to some degree among the local population. The East India Company’s insistence on wearing particular styles of European dress uniform, regardless of its appropriateness for the climate (or for the religious practices of some soldiers) had serious adverse effects on the morale and effectiveness of the colonial troops. Now those were also rescinded.
The post-Mutiny reforms indicated a fundamental shift in the attitudes towards the Indian Army: now all soldiers in the Queen’s service were treated as equals.
More than ever, though, the Indian Army had begun to fully incorporate the various warrior peoples of the Indian Subcontinent. The Sikhs were especially beloved and respected; the “martial memories of Ranjit [Singh]’s day and earlier fed courage in a new cause, or courage for its own sake. Proudly telling an English private a story of twenty-one Sikhs holding a frontier post until all were wiped out, a Sikh soldier added: ‘surrender is a world we do not know or use’.” Like most of the colonial troops of the British Empire, as long as they fought well, the Sikhs were held in high regard.
Another highly respected unit, the Gurkhas, continue to serve in the British Army up to this day. In 1814, the King of Gorkha (modern Nepal) launched a series of raids on the East India Company territories, only to have war declared on him and a series of bloody battles fought until a peace treaty was signed in 1816. From that point on, the treaty gave the Company the right to recruit battalions of Gurkhas for service in Bengal, a tradition that lives on. The Gurkhas are known as “the happy warriors,” and are “cheerful men, proud and content to be soldiers, and capable of finding humour in the direst of circumstances … Those who have served alongside them have usually been delighted, if at times baffled by the experience, while developing a great respect for them.” With hardy colonials such as the Gurkhas, the Sikhs, and many, many others, the British went on traipsing their way throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Continued in part 3.