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'Indian Mutiny'

Part II Paper 26 Essay Topic 5: 1857 and Peasant Rebellions in the 19th Century. Third essay of Lent term 2009-2010. I was supervised by Leigh Denault at Churchill.

‘A typical peasant rebellion writ large’ or ‘the first war of Indian independence’? Why have the events of 1857-58 been elusive to characterise?

1857-58 has become a key date in both Indian and British history, hinting immediately at a broad and convoluted historiography. A rebellion which began as a ‘military mutiny’ has since been framed as a war of independence by Indian historians with nationalist sympathies such as S. N. Sen and S. B. Chaudhuri. Other historians, particularly those who subscribe to Marxist theory, have suggested that the rebellion was, in fact, a peasant uprising against oppression. Yet it is not just the intricacies of historical interpretation which has made the events of 1857-58 difficult to characterise. There has not even been agreement on what the events of 1857-58 should be referred to as; what remains the ‘Indian Mutiny’ in Britain is typically the ‘first war of independence’ in India, the former term being deemed offensive. In recent years it has become increasingly accepted that whatever took place was not coherent and organised as such overarching labels suggest. Instead it was the spilling over of local tensions. This essay shall seek to outline some of the issues that have hindered an easy characterisation of the events, and suggest that the huge discrepancy in the actual reality of what took place on a regional basis is the key issue.

May 1857 saw an initial mutiny of sepoys in Meerut, sparked by the East India Company policy of using lard or tallow to grease the cartridges of the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifles. Men refusing to use the cartridges, judged by Hindu and Muslim beliefs to now be contaminated and unclean, were court martialled and imprisoned by the British. Sympathetic sepoys rose up against the British officials and released them, leading to a swift breakdown of British control in the region. The rebels, as they were now styled, marched on to Delhi and took charge of the city. Bahadur Shah, the last of the Mughal emperors, provided a figurehead around which discontent could rally. News of the events in Delhi spread quickly, with rebellion breaking out in many regions. Stokes claims that in 1857 there were 450,000 European troops in India. But the army was slow to react, misjudging the number of men needed and failing to bring the rebellion to a swift conclusion. By this time the empire was a matter of British national pride, it is clear that they would have a vested interest in shaping the way it was remembered when they regained control.

In some areas the rebellion stretched on for months, the fates of those in the besieged cities of Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow were followed closely in the British press. A planned evacuation of the British from Kanpur descended into mayhem, huge numbers being killed. The survivors, along with other hostages, were held by the Nana Sahib until it became clear the European forces were going to regain control. In a last show of defiance a mass execution of the hostages, numbering around two hundred women and children, was ordered, an act which was later to be described as a massacre. It was this violence which was to shape much of the immediate evaluation of what had happened in 1857-58, and indeed has continued to play a large part in how historians have framed events. From a British perspective it changed the way Indian society was understood, and provided a basis for justification of British rule. Similarly it has occupied Indian historians as they attempt to provide explanations for what became seen as mindless acts of violence.

During the rebellion itself and in its immediate aftermath it was accepted that there were a number of contributing factors. Disraeli told Parliament in July 1857 that they were witnessing ‘a national revolt’, giving credence to the idea that this was a war of independence. The rallying of support behind traditional leaders such as Bahadur Shah further suggests that the rebels wanted an end to British rule. Roy claimed that the rebels of Bundelkhand had a relatively uniform vision in that they wanted to remove European oppression, and an 1858 British enquiry into the events at Lucknow concluded that: “the object of the mutineers was… not so much to disgrace our name, as to wipe out all traces of Europeans, and of everything connected with foreign rule.” However this was evidently not the case everywhere; many native rulers remained loyal. In Bengal, where British presence was comparatively very influential, there was little unrest, suggesting that resentment of European rule was not intense across India.

This is not to say that the rebellion of 1857 was in fact a ‘peasant rebellion writ large’. Other reasons brought forward suggest that the reality was far more complicated. In Muzaffarnagar Stokes points to widespread resentment of the landowning money-lenders. In Bhukaheri for example 23,000 acres were parted with in the run up to the rebellion, 18,000 acres of this land was bought up by the money-lenders. Stokes says that, here, rebellion “bore the outward and immediate signs of tax rebellion.” In the countryside surrounding Delhi however the violence centred around factionalism, and the fight for control by local elites like the Meos and the Gujars. Many British officials singled out religion as the main factor. Dalhousie’s reforms, such as the widow remarriage act of 1856, were thought to have been an imposition on native religion which led to hostility. Yet the Hindoo Patriot, an English language paper of the native Bengali elite, pointed the finger of blame at British annexing of Oudh and land settlement of the North Western provinces. What emerges from these contradictory claims is that there was no single explanation for the rebellion. What for one rebel was a fight for freedom from British rule was, for another, an opportunity to reclaim land from neighbouring elites or simply a chance to air local grievances concerning tax or living conditions.

Take for example the issue of religion. The British governors had been placing a lot of emphasis on English language schooling, institutions which often had heavy involvement of missionaries and evangelicals. Although religious instruction was strategically ignored at these schools, conservative Indians feared the British were attempting to force conversion to Christianity upon them. The widow remarriage act seemed to confirm this as it undermined a basic principle of the Hindu faith. In the aftermath of the rebellion the act was widely cited as a contributing factor to unrest. However between the passage of the act and the outbreak of rebellion only 16 women had actually made use of it, most of these living in or on the outskirts of Calcutta. In addition the main source of religious conflict came from Muslims rather than Hindus, the former uniting against the British. This shows that even with an issue that at first seemed straightforward, here religious tension caused by British interference, was actually more complex and based on a variety of local affairs.

Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century the British continued to describe the rebellion as a ‘military mutiny’. This implies a small scale disturbance, confined only to one sector of society. Whilst this was true of the very initial stages of the unrest in Meerut, it denies the reality of the situation as it developed and expanded. However by consistently framing the rebellion as a military matter, perhaps it helped to exonerate the British of any heavy handed punishments that were dispensed. The sepoys were punished for their actions, rather than Indian society as a whole. 1857 became a matter of British national pride, the bravery of British citizens behind enemy lines applauded. The British thus had a vested interest in portraying the rebellion as a mutiny, rather than the beginnings of a nationalist movement, something which would make Indian actions during the rebellion ideologically justifiable.

As time passed the events of 1857-58 took on an almost mythical quality. For the British it remained hugely significant, both as a cautionary tale of strict rule, and as a way of justifying the continued British presence in India. Any poor treatment of Indian nationals was believed to be a result of the events of the rebellion, rather than something that had incited it. However in the early twentieth century 1857 began to be appropriated by the Indian Nationalist movement. The nationalist poet V. D. Savarkar framed the rebellion as a war of independence in 1909 for example. Historians began to re-examine the rebellion and identified resentment of foreign rule and the fear of enforced Christianity as the driving factors behind it. S. N. Sen made the link explicit in his 1957 official sponsored history, claiming that “what began as a fight for religion ended as a war of independence.” The British wanted to downplay the role of nationalism, India was keen to exploit it above all other factors. This display of political motivation provides an obvious reason why there is little agreement over how best to characterise the events of 1857-58.

This level of emotional investment in the rebellion can be seen in the dispute between Barbara English and Rudrangshu Mukherjee over the Kanpur massacres in Past and Present. English accused Mukherjee of attempting to justify the massacre, to excuse the actions of Nana’s army. She claimed that Mukherjee over emphasised the mistreatment of Indian sepoys by the British before the rebellion for example. Mukherjee in retaliation accuses English of being overly critical of his evidence, and of refusing to accept what is widely known to have been the case. That this correspondence took place in the 1990s gives a little indication of how volatile the issue was in the past, when the events at Kanpur were not quite so distant. By imbuing the historiography of 1857-58 with nationalism (from both sides) it made it difficult for historians to look at events objectively and remain detached from motivations that had later been ascribed.

The historiography has been made more complicated still by the work of historians who ascribe to alternative historical models. Socialist and Marxist historians have looked to the role of economics in the rebellion, rather than nationalist sentiment. It was not until Stokes explicitly drew attention to the regional differences in the rebellion that these overarching frameworks began to be abandoned as a means of explanation for the events of 1857-58. The likes of Mukherjee have drawn attention to the fact that the surviving documentation is British, something which possibly obscures true motivation from us as the British sought a single answer for what had occurred. Subaltern theorists continued to work with this new model of diversity. This has served to prove that there is no single explanation for the rebellion.

In conclusion the events of the 1857-58 rebellion have been difficult to characterise for a number of reasons. Firstly, the rebellion whilst initially starting as a military mutiny quickly expanded and mutated. In some areas, such as the recently annexed Oudh, it became a fight against unwanted British rule. In others, like Muzaffanargar, it evolved into disputes over land and taxation. This regional diversity meant that any single explanation for the rebellion would never be comprehensive. In addition the way the events were to be remembered became a political issue. As Indian nationalist sentiment grew 1857-58 was appropriated from the British. No longer was it an example of British courage in the face of adversity, but an example of British oppression; the uprisings the first steps towards a true Indian consciousness. It is only in recent years, thanks to the work of Stokes and that of Subaltern theorists that it has become accepted that there is no neat way to characterise the events. Instead it is recognised that 1857-58 was a series of regional rebellions, each with its own goals and reasons.


  • Mutiny on the Margins: Essays and Primary Sources. [ ]
  • Stokes, Eric. “Traditional Resistance Movements and Afro-Asian Nationalism: the Context of the 1857 Mutiny Rebellion in India.” Past & Present 48, no. (1970): 100-18. 
  •  Stokes, Eric and C. A. Bayly. The Peasant Armed: The Indian Revolt of 1857, Oxford, Clarendon, 1986. 
  • Bayly, C. A. Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire, chapter 4. 
  • Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter Insurgency”, ch. 11 in Dirks, Nicholas B., Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner. Culture/Power/History: A Read in Contemporary Social Theory, Princeton University Press, 1994. 
  • Roy, Tapti. “Visions of the Rebels: A Study of 1857 in Bundelkhand.” Modern Asian Studies 21, no. (1993): 205-28. 
  • Metcalf, Thomas R. The Aftermath of Revolt: India 1857-1870. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964. 
  • English, Barbara. “The Kanpur Massacres in India in the Revolt of 1857.” Past & Present no. 142 (1994): 169-78. 
  • Mukherjee, Rudrangshu. “”Satan Let Loose Upon Earth”: The Kanpur Massacres in India in the Revolt of 1857.” Past & Present no. 128 (1990): 92-116. 
  • Mukherjee, Rudrangshu. “The Kanpur Massacres in India in the Revolt of 1857: Reply.” Past & Present no. 142 (1994): 178-89. 
Supervision Comments: This is your strongest essay yet, you write and argue persuasively that 1857 has been difficult to characterise precisely because, from the first, the 'meaning' of the rebellion was deeply controversial. It might be useful to focus a bit more on both the longer-term socio-economic reasons for the revolt (the rebel's manifesto) and on the aftermath - Queen Victoria's speech is a telling commentary on the Crown's opinion of Company rule. Mukherjee is representative of a new trend, in examining not only the British deaths, but the massive Indian loss of life during and immediately after the uprising. This perspective is captured in the harrowing early photographs of Italian Felice Beato, who documented the punitive mass executions that followed the rebellion. Overall, good work in sorting through a demanding historiography - your task for revision will be to try to bring some of the sources that we do have back into the story.


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