Inside India #22: The Indian Mutiny – how a bullet cartridge ignited a rebellion

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

29 March 1857. At Barrackpore, near Calcutta, an Indian soldier named Mangal Pandey, of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry, brazenly announces his intention to rebel against his British commanding officers. Having got wind of Pandey’s plan, a Sergeant-Major James Hewson arrives on the double to investigate, only to find bullets flying in his direction. Several of Pandey’s comrades join in the protest, but refrain from attacking the British officer. 

This then is the beginning of the so-called Indian Mutiny.

What caused the uprising? And what effect did it have on how the British operated in India in the years to follow?

Photo attribution: Photo NA54586. Public. Resource. Org. Creative Commons 2.0.

The immediate catalyst for Pandey’s act of rebellion: a bullet cartridge.

That spring, Indian troops had been issued with the new Enfield rifle. Rumours had swiftly spread throughout Pandey’s unit that the cartridges accompanying the rifle were greased with pig and cow fat, thus making them offensive to both Muslims and Hindus. The blindness to local sensibilities lent credence to existing fears that the British were intent on forcing Indian troops to convert to Christianity. Underlying factors for discontent also included poor terms of service for Indian soldiers, low pay, and a marked racial insensitivity by their British officers, few of whom interacted with their Indian subordinates or made any attempt to understand them or their lives. 

This, then, was the touchpaper that lit the Indian Mutiny, which properly began six weeks later, on 10th May 1857, when eighty-five members of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, who had been jailed for refusing to use the new cartridges, were broken out of prison by their comrades. They immediately went on the rampage, ransacking a nearby military outpost, and putting to death any Europeans luckless enough to cross their path. 

In the days that followed, the situation rapidly escalated, with mutinies springing up in various locations outside of Bengal state. 

The rebellion quickly reached Delhi, where the Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was declared Emperor of Hindustan. His reign was to be short-lived.

The British East India Company – at the time the de facto rulers of the subcontinent – responded with overwhelming force, and Delhi was retaken by the end of September, but not before barbaric acts of cruelty, perpetrated by both sides, had left their mark on the national psyche. 

One of the worst such incidents took place at Kanpur, in the infamous Siege of Cawnpore, as it was then known.

Rebelling sepoys at Cawnpore besieged the European settlement there for three weeks, inflicting numerous civilian casualties. On 25th June, they made an offer of safe passage, ostensibly seeking to bring hostilities to an end. On the morning of 27th June, the European party left their entrenchment and made their way to the river where boats waited to take them to Allahabad. 

But, once they arrived at the dock, firing broke out. 

In the ensuing carnage, almost all of the Europeans were killed. The surviving women and children – some two hundred individuals – were held hostage in the home of the local magistrate – a place known as the Bibighar. Once word arrived that British military reinforcements were due to arrive at any moment, and it became clear Cawnpore could not be held, the hostages were murdered in bloody fashion, hacked to death by locals armed with knives and hatchets, and their bodies thrown into a well. 

The Bibighar Massacre hardened British attitudes against the mutineers. 

Cawnpore became a rallyingcry, galvanising the British armed forces to end the Indian Mutiny, a goal that was pursued with a bloody-mindedness (including the razing of several Indian villages and slaughter of all residents) that is still reflected in historical accounts today.

It took a further year for the mutiny to be fully brought to an end.

On 1st November 1858, the British granted amnesty to all rebels – at least, those not involved in murder – though they did not declare the hostilities to have formally ended until 8th July 1859.

As for the man who started it all… After failing to incite his comrades into open rebellion, Mangal Pandey tried to take his own life, by shooting himself in the chest with his own rifle. Alas, he managed only to wound himself. 

He was court-martialled on 6th April 1857, and hanged two days later. 

In spite of his ignominious end, Pandey’s act of rebellion has gone down in Indian folklore, inspiring countless retellings, including books, and a major Bollywood movie. The man may have become a myth, but the mutiny he inspired remains one of the bloodiest periods of the British time in India. In the immediate aftermath, the British government decided to remove the East India Company from its position of power and opt for direct rule. A policy of greater consultation with Indians at a political and legislative level was adopted, in the hope that future insensitivities leading to conflict might be averted. 

For the Indian population, the failure of the mutiny – and the fact that it had failed to galvanise either the masses or the ruling class – would hold back the progress of nationalism until the turn of the century.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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