Britain and India – A loving romance or a regrettable affair?

Part Two – Mutiny

When told to bite the bullet you or I will allow our pride to take a minor bump and reluctantly do what we would rather not. But to Indian soldiers serving in the East India Company’s army it had darker connotations. ‘Biting the bullet’ meant biting open the cartridge of ammunition before placing it in a rifle. The problem? It was sealed with either beef or pork fat which was simply unacceptable for Hindus and Muslims respectively. The order to ‘Bite the Bullet’ sparked what started as a mutiny and ended as open rebellion across the Indian sub-continent.

What in 1600 was a few remote trading outposts was by 1800 a company which influenced the land, government, military and religion of India. Ironically the British policies on religion stood in stark contrast to their economic ones. Trade and markets were under no circumstances to be tampered with (As the Irish found out with disastrous consequences when potato blight led to famine in the 1840s) however missionaries were given free reign to impose Christianity where necessary in all British colonies.

The Indian tradition of the Sati prompted the British to act. This was the tradition of a recently widowed woman burning herself to death on her late husband’s funeral pyre. In 1829 a ban was introduced across the colonies, which attracted the support of Bengali reformers as well as European colonists. However there were those who resented the ban for religious reasons alongside the principal that the British were meddling in native affairs.

Among the general population there were three groups who resented the British presence in India. The feudal nobility who had their land and power taken away under Company rule threw their weight behind any insurrection; rural landowners who had their land redistributed under reforms; and lastly peasants who resented paying increasingly high taxes to the British. What must be noted here is that these taxes were to implement Dalhousie’s reforms which were to upgrade or create telegraphs, railways, the postal service, universities and ports as well as digging the Ganges canal which would irrigate huge swathes of central India.

The keg had been filled with gunpowder but a spark was needed to light it. This came in the form of Sepoy (Private) Mangal Pandey who rebelled as he found the grease on the cartridges on the new Enfield rifle repugnant to his Hindu beliefs. In a rage Pandey refused to obey orders and desperately tried to incite others to rebel. When several had tried to restrain him, he put his musket to his chest and pulled the trigger with his toe. He did not die, but was hung on 8th April 1857 two days after his court martial. Opinion among Hindu and Muslim sepoys was that the British had deliberately used animal fat to force the spread of Christianity; the British countered this by developing cartridges sealed with animal fat. Motivations aside, sepoys across India wanted revenge for the execution of Pandey.

Two weeks later an unforgiving British Lieutenant Colonel in Meerut ordered 90 of his men to parade and fire their Enfield rifles. All but 5 refused. The guilty were sentenced to ten years imprisonment with hard labour. The next day, a Sunday, the Indian troops broke into full revolt. The powder keg has exploded. The imprisoned sepoys and 800 other prisoners were freed as a mob captured and killed 50 European men, women and children.

A mere forty miles away in Delhi, the ancient capital and current seat of the Mughal emperor, open rebellion had broken out. The British soldiers there destroyed there arsenal, killing some of their own as well as unfortunate Indians nearby, to prevent it falling in to rebel hands. It was a case of slamming the stable door when the horse had bolted. The Mughal Emperor held his first formal court as up to 50 Europeans in the city were hunted by the mob.

As the British across the country heard of the drastic situation many fled with their families while others tried to level with sepoys under their command. Delhi was quickly followed by Cawnpore, Lucknow and Jhansi. What must be noted however is that the rebels were not by any means united. There were various disagreements between the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs and although the Mughal emperor joined the rising, most Indian princes did not. Most of the Bengal army mutinied with 54 out of 75 regiments casting off their shackles, however only 3 of the 29 regiments in the Bombay army mutinied and all of the Madras army remained loyal to the British.

By the end of 1857 the East India Company had finally managed to wrestle control of the giant colony back. In many cases the reprisals were brutal. Hundreds of sepoys were bayoneted or fired from cannons in a frenzy of vengeance whipped up by the British press. A young British man recalled the extent of the retaliations:

It was literally murder… I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful…

When the dust had settled 100,000 Indians were killed in both the uprising and in the aftermath although some have argued that in the next decade millions could have been killed. During the rebellion itself no more than 11,000 Europeans lost their lives, mostly to disease and sun-stroke.

The East India Company, perhaps over confident of the strength of their position on the sub-continent, were no longer trusted to rule the colony. In 1858 their ownership was passed to the newly created India Office led by the Secretary of State for India. However at a local level Indians were drafted into government across the colony. In a cunning move, new universities were created in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras with the aim of creating a new class of western educated Indians with little ties to their past. Unsurprisingly the ratio of British to Indian soldiers in the armed forces was increased and several regiments disbanded. In 1877 on the cunning advice of Disraeli, Queen Victoria adopted the title Empress of India. Although initially reluctant she was reminded that her grand-daughter would soon become an empress of ‘All the Russias’ and that perhaps her majesty should beat her to the post…

So what of the legacy of the rebellion of 1857? Some have argued that it sowed the seeds of independence; others than it was simply a series of opportunistic events led by various brands of communal resentment. Britain was quickly learning that you find to get the correct balance of ruling a colony. Neglect could lead to catastrophic famine yet too much meddling could lead to open rebellion. It was a lesson they were happy to learn as soon the race for Africa and the personal ambitions of one man would gift almost a quarter of the continent to the Empress of India…

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