First Indian War of Independence
First Online: January 08, 1998
Page Last Updated: April 04, 2014
First War of Independence, termed Sepoy Riots by the
British was an attempt to unite India against the invading British
and to restore power to the Mogul emperor Bahadur Shah. The
resistance disintegrated primarily due to lack of leadership and
unity on the part of Indians, as also to cruel suppression by the
British Army. It was a remarkable event in Indian history and
marked the end of the Mogul empire
and sealed India's fate as a British colony for the next hundred years.
Indians working for the British Army, due to
their deep traditions and faith faced numerous social barriers. In
1856 it was rumored that additional troops were to be recruited
for service in Burma, where they could not follow all their
religious rules, and that Christian missionary efforts among the
troops were to receive official encouragement. The Zamindars (land
owners) of the time wanted to protect their interests in the wake
of land reforms by the British and funded anti-English activities.
The insurrection was triggered when the British introduced new
rifle cartridges rumored to be greased with oil made from the fat
of animals. The fat of cows was taboo to Hindus (see: Holy
Muslims were repelled by pig fat.
The violence started on May 10, 1857 in Meerut,
when Mangal Pandey, a soldier in the Army shot his commander for forcing
the Indian troops to use the controversial rifles. Indians
constituted 96% of the 300,000 British Army and the violence
against British quickly spread (hence the name Sepoy Mutiny).
The local chiefs encouraged scattered revolts in hopes of
regaining their lost privileges.
Siege of DelhiBahadur Shah II, by now the pensioned descendant of the Mogul
dynasty, was popularly acclaimed as the leader of resistance. On June 8 a British
relief force defeated an army of mutineers at Badli Sari and took
up a position on the famous ridge, overlooking the city of Delhi.
Nominally the besieging force, they were themselves besieged by
the mutineers, who made a daring attempt to intercept their train.
The arrival of more British reinforcements finally led to the
defeat of the mutineers by John Nicholson, commander of the relief
force. After six days of street fighting, Delhi was
recaptured. This action was the turning point in the
campaign and is known as Siege of Delhi. Bahadur Shah was captured and was exiled to Burma.
The Attack of Mutineers, July 30, 1857
"One of their leaders waving his sword, shouted 'Come on my braves!"
Illustration from London Printing Company Limited
British Take Control
In spite of the loyalty of the Sikh troops,
conquered only eight years before, and of the Gurkhas, the British
commander, Sir Colin Campbell, had a difficult task. In addition
to quelling the disturbance, he also had to protect the Ganges
Valley and all of Hindustan against possible attacks from central
India, to the south. Forces were dispatched from Madras and
Bombay. However, the revolt had quickly spread to Kanpur and
Lucknow. Kanpur, a city controlled by British on the Ganges 250 miles southeast of Delhi,
surrendered to the Indian soldiers on June 28, 1857, and was the scene
of a massacre before it was recaptured by the British on July 16.
Lucknow, forty-five miles to the northeast, had been immediately
besieged by the mutineers and was relieved by Henry Havelock's
troops on September 25, five days after the final reoccupation of
Delhi, the other chief center of the mutiny. However, Havelock's
forces, even when joined by those of James Outram, were not
strong enough to disarm and remove the enemy garrison, and they
had to be relieved on November 16 by troops under Colin
Campbell. The civilians of Lucknow were evacuated, but not until
the siege of Mar. 9-16, 1858,
had enough British troops massed to defeat the rebel army.
K.L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri
Indian Soldiers Being Executed by British Canons
The aftermath of India's First War of Independence, 1858
The final stage of the mutiny took place in central India,
which was aroused by a roving band of rebels under the Maratha
General Tatya Tope. After his capture and execution in April 1859,
the leaderless Indians were soon pacified.
Why the Rebels Failed
Many native Indian states, influenced by the example of powerful
Hyderabad, did not join the rebels.
Sikh soldiers of the Punjab area remained loyal to the
British throughout. The Sikhs were a strong, well trained
army, who the British had conquered using Indian soldiers.
The aging Bahadur Shah was neither a brave general, nor an
astute leader of the people
In England, the mutiny proved the last straw on the
heavy load of criticism and opposition which the East India
Company had carried for some time. In August 1858, by the Act for
the Better Government of India, its political authority was
entrusted to a secretary of state. In August 1858 the
British crown assumed control of India from the East India
Company and in 1877 Queen Victoria was crowned as the Empress of
India. The mutiny played a pivotal role in Anglo-Indian history.
The British afterward became cautious and defensive about their
empire, while many Indians remained bitter and would never trust
their rulers again.
It was not until the emergence of Indian
National Congress and Mahatma
Gandhi that Indians re-gathered their
momentum for home rule.
- J.T. Wheeler, India and The Frontier States of Afghanistan,
Nipal and Burma, P.F. Collier,1899
- Microsoft Encarta, 1996