Revolt and Revenge; a Double Tragedy
The British called it the Sepoy's Mutiny. Indians called it their First War
of Independence. Whatever the name, the uprising by the Indians and the
soldiers of the East India Company was not an ordinary event. It was a
widespread-armed revolt against a powerful and wealthy Company.
V.S. "Amod" Saxena
Delivered to The Chicago Literary Club
February 17, 2003
In 1857, the Sepoys broke discipline, took up arms and led a violent
uprising against the English. The main cause given by the English historians is
presence of greased cartridge in Enfield rifle. The Indians even today accuse the
British of arrogance and a desire to rob them of their wealth, faith and political
opinions. The event caused death, destruction and human tragedy of enormous
proportions on both sides.
The English, with the recently chartered East India Company, arrived at
the shores of India in 1600. At the time, the powerful Mughal ruled the country.
Its empire was the largest land based empire in the world. It was rich and
thriving. Within one hundred and fifty years, the administrative control of the
country passed from the Mughal to the East India Company. In the process, the
company became powerful and rich. It maintained a dominant military of
several hundred thousand men to protect its holdings. By middle of the
nineteenth century, the Company felt confident that in a country of 150 million
people, it could protect its employees and political and financial interests.
The summer of 1857 changed all that.
In January of that year, small round Chapattis or flat Indian bread
began to appear all over North India. Like a chain letter, the chapattis
traveled in an area of about 200 miles around in a single day. The Indians sent
messages hidden in each chapatti. This method of rapid communication
competed directly with the telegraph, run by the Company. One of the messages
buried in the chapattis read sub lal ho gaea hai meaning that all
has become red. Red color signified the British rule as well as the symbol for
blood. The English suspected that the messages carried warning of approaching
The morning of February 26, 1857 at Berhampore in Bengal, the
19th Native Infantry was on the parade ground for an exercise to fire the newly
arrived Enfield rifles. The cartridges were blank and did not contain animal
grease. When ordered to fire, the soldiers refused.
As a result, the officers arrested the soldiers and tried them for treason.
They disbanded the regiment and sent them to prison for several years of hard
labor. They also denied them pension and right to appeal their punishment. The
disbanding of the soldiers from the regiment occurred in public. This did not go
well with the soldiers and the public. Many soldiers had served the army for
decades with valor and honor. Losing their benefits and worse their dignity
angered the soldiers and the people of North India.
Mungal Pandey, proud and a sensitive man was a high caste Brahman. He
served in the 34th Native Infantry. While participating in an exercise one day
with loaded rifles, he suddenly broke away from his line. With out paying any
attention he urged other soldiers to defy their superiors. He then pointed his gun
at Lt. Baugh riding his horse. Pandey then fired his gun at his horse and
brought it down. He then quickly struck the lieutenant with his sword. There
were twenty Indian guards standing nearby. Only one of them came to help the
officer, the rest just looked on in silence. This one soldier grabbed Mungal
Pandey and held him down while the English officer escaped.
When another officer threatened to shoot the soldier with a revolver,
Mungal Pandey turned the gun towards his own body and shot himself. Though
wounded, he was immediately arrested. The evidence against Pandey revealed
that he had acted alone and under the influence of marijuana and opium.
However, he was found guilty of the treason and was hanged on April 8, 1857.
The sepoys were now getting restless and angry at the English. In spite of
rampant rumors of the sepoys' discontent, the British refused to believe them.
The bond of loyalty and affection that existed between the soldier and the
officers seemed to be disappearing. Compounding this was a suspicion by most
soldiers that the British were preparing to attack them and that they intended to
disarm and dishonor them. There was reason to support the suspicion because
the Company had requested a large reinforcement of troops from outside.
The soldiers were also upset about the punishment and disbanding of the
19th Native Infantry at Barrakpore. In fact, the 3rd cavalry did go to the jail
where the soldier were kept and freed them. When the British officers arrived at
the scene, the soldiers attacked them and killed one Colonel John Finnis. They
then went on a shooting and killing rampage of several officers.
A large scale mutiny struck on May 10, 1857 at Meerut, a city about
forty miles from Delhi. The soldiers continued to plan and communicate with
each other while the English seemed demoralized and seemed incapable of
dealing with the revolt.
The English tried to cool tempers and General Arson in Bengal made a
public statement that greased cartridges would not be used anymore and instead
balled ammunition shall be made up by each regiment for its use'.
The proclamation failed to calm the soldiers and an open rebellion
continued. A cycle of violence and retribution between the soldiers and the
British became a routine. Public executions of the sepoys became a common
On May 25, 1857 the Lieutenant Governor of North West Province tried
to turn the tide by proclaiming; "Soldiers engaged in the late disturbances, who
are desirous of going to their own homes, and who give up their arms at the
nearest government civil or military post, and retire quietly, shall be permitted
to do so unmolested. Many faithful soldiers have been driven into resistance to
government only because they were in the ranks and could not escape from
them, and because they really thought their feelings of religion and honour
injured by the measures of government. This feeling was wholly a mistake; but
it acted on men's minds. A proclamation of the governor general now issued is
perfectly explicit, and will remove all doubts on these points. Every evil-minded
instigator in the disturbance, and those guilty of heinous crimes against private
persons, shall be punished. All those who appear in arms against the
government after this notification is known shall be treated as an open enemy."
Company's Governor General Lord Canning did not like it. He demanded
its immediate withdrawal. He felt that letting the soldiers go free would be
tantamount to a pardon of murderers. The soldiers paid no attention to the
The mutiny now spread from the Afghanistan in the Northwest to the
Burma border in east and from the Nepal border in the North to Nagpur in the
south. This covered over fifty percent of area ruled by East India Company.
One of the most tragic incidents occurred in Cawnpore at the end of June.
Cawnpore was an important and the largest garrison built by the British at the
banks of River Ganges. General Hugh Massy Wheeler commanded the
cantonment. It occupied the southern tip of the city. As a precaution, Wheeler
had dug a wide ditch around the two large barracks. Ten nine-pounder cannons
guarded the encampment. His English force was small in comparison to the
Sepoys. He knew that if the Indians attacked, there would be no safety for his
men and women. Nearest help was at Lucknow where his good friend Henry
Lawrence was the Commanding Officer. Although only sixty miles away, it was
cut off by an unfriendly population and resentful Indian soldiers.
Lucknow was also the capital of Oudh, a large territory ruled by a
Mughal Nawab. The city was rich and well administered. Only a few years
before, Wheeler himself had engineered a revolt against the Nawab resulting in
an insurrection. The Company then reduced his power to a status of a puppet. It
gave the Company rights to levy tax. This had angered the population and
upset the Nawab. The news that Wheeler had requested reinforcement of more
troops confirmed the fears of the sepoys and the people that British had ulterior
motives on their
Wheeler spoke the local language and had adopted their customs. He had
also married an Indian. He was thus confident that the Indians would attack his
He was wrong.
The attack came with vengeance on June 4, 1857. It was started by the
2nd Cavalry and soon followed by the three infantry divisions. There were a
total of 3000 Indian soldiers to only 300 of the English. Wheelers two nine
pounder guns were no match to nine twenty pounders of the rebels. The camp
at the moment had about one thousand people mostly disabled men, women and
children. Majority of them also included people of mixed blood who had come
to the camp for protection. There were about one hundred and fifty sepoys who
remained faithful to Wheeler. Continuous bombardment by the Sepoys disabled
most of the carriages and destroyed the ammunitions inside the entrenchment.
Wheeler wrote Lawrence: "British spirit alone remains but it can not last
The camp was also running out of food and water. The wounded had
problem being taken care of. The heat and flies made living conditions
Governor Cannon had promised Wheeler a regiment of eight hundred
British soldiers from Calcutta. It had not yet arrived and he had no idea when
or if it would arrive. In his letter, he wrote; " The ladies, women and children
have not a safe hole to lie down in and they all sleep in trenches for safety and
coolness. The barracks are perforated are perforated in every direction, and
cannot long give even the miserable shelter which they now do..."
With no help from his headquarter in Calcutta, Wheeler finally made a
fateful decision and asked a prominent Indian citizen for his help in evacuating
the camp to a safer place. The name of the Indian was Dhondu Pant. He was
popularly known as Nana Sahib. He was influential and resourceful in the
community. He was also on friendly terms with Wheeler and several other
However, Nana grudged the British for his own reasons. He was an
adopted son of Bija Rao, a prominent Maratha ruler of a prominent state of
Bithur. In 1851, the British dethroned the ruler by force and took over his state.
They put him on a pension and when he died, they denied his adopted son
Dhondu Pant an annuity which he claimed belonged to him. Nana lived near
Cawnpore and resented the British for denying him his pension. He had fought
long legal battle but lost his case in the Privy Council. Although on surface, he
continued to entertain the English and was polite to them, he desired revenge
against the British, if an opportunity arrived.
Nana agreed to help Wheeler evacuate the camp without any violence
against its inhabitants. Nana also arranged several boats that would take the
people down the river Ganges to Allahabad. It seemed a good and safe plan.
Nana thought that when the British were gone, the victorious sepoys
would need a leader. He expected them to come to him for help. With their help
and his own small army he could easily declare himself the ruler of the area. In
his judgment, being a friend of the British was not in his best interest.
As expected, several regiments of the rebel army contacted Nana and
asked him to join their rebellion. The Sepoys threatened to kill Nana if he
declined to join them. This left Nana no choice but to agree to join them.
The evacuation of the camp proceeded peacefully. Nana's men arranged
for the English to embark boats for their journey down the river to Allahabad.
This area chosen by them was a small landing with steps leading to the river
and was used by the people to bathe and pray in the holy Ganges. It was
popularly known as Satichaura Ghat. The ghat was in a narrow ravine that led
to the water edge where boats could be easily launched. The English were
grateful to Nana for his kindness. The victims had suffered a great deal. They
celebrated their good fortune as they embarked the boats.
The freedom did not last long.
As soon as they had boarded the boats, the sepoys suddenly appeared
with their guns. They opened fire at the boats. Several men, women and
children died in this shooting. Those few who had guns tried to return the fire
but they were outnumbered and out gunned. A few escaped to tell their story
but many died during the gunfire. Most boats caught fire and sank with
passengers still on board. When a few attempted to escape by jumping off the
boats, the Sepoys chased and shot them at close range. Those who reached the
river bank were gunned down too. The river turned red with blood and was full
of floating bodies.
General Wheeler was also killed in this violence.
About one hundred and twenty five women and children survived the
bloodbath. Although, the British later accused Nana of betrayal and murder of
innocent people, no evidence has ever been found to prove it. On hearing about
the news of shooting Nana sent his own troops to bring the survivors to safety.
He ordered his men to take the women and children to one of his houses called
Bibighar, a house meant for women. It was large but not large enough for so
Soon another group of about eighty English women and children joined
victims of Satichaura bloodshed. The rebels had captured them in another town
and had brought them to Nana Sahib as captives. There were now over two
hundred women and children inside this house. Bibighar proved utterly small
and crammed. It was barely furnished with a few pieces of furniture and a few
bamboo mats for people to lie down. For the English women, the summer heat
and high humidity made their life intolerable.
After the rebels defeated the Wheeler's regiment, Nana saw a chance he
had been waiting for. He declared himself the Maharaja of Bithur, his ancestral
title. He now had the title that the Company denied him for so long.
Little did he know that two strong English armies led by General Henry
Havelock and General James Neill were moving towards Cawnpore to attack
Back at the Bibighar, Nana's people had appointed a prostitute Hussaini
Begum to take charge of the prisoner's daily activities. The Begum was harsh
and stern. She put them to hard labor of grinding corn for chapattis. The
meager ration included chapatti and dhal or thin lentil soup.
Hard labor and poor sanitary conditions at Bibighar soon began to take its
toll. The death toll from cholera and dysentery rose at an alarming rate. The
deaths at Bibighar and advancing troops towards Cawnpore alarmed Nana and
his advisors. His spies reported that the British troops led by Havelock and
Neill were committing grotesque and indiscriminate slaughter of several hundred
villagers. The prisoners at Bibighar now posed a burden for Nana's advisors.
They also offered an opportunity to take revenge for the murders of civilians by
the advancing British troops. To do away with the prisoners would also ensure
their silence as witness to the massacre at the Ghat.
Nana himself had not planned to harm the prisoners at Bibighar but his
advisors and the rebel sepoys over ruled him. A few amongst Nana's advisors
had already decided to kill the prisoners at Bibighar; " even one European
remained alive he would continue to be a thorn in his flesh"; one advised Nana.
The women of Nana's household, however, opposed the decision and went on
hunger strike but failed to convince the men around him.
It is not certain who finally gave the orders but the fate of the prisoners
was sealed. They must be killed before the advancing troops reached Cawnpore,
they decided. As the evening wore off on the July 15, the sepoys entered
Bibighar and tried to drag them out of the house. The women grasped the
pillars of the verandah and refused to move. Unable to move them the Sepoys
fired volleys of shots at them. Wounded but still adamant to move, the prisoners
clung to each other. Finally, Sarvir Khan, a tall Pathan from Afghanistan
walked in with four butchers. They were armed with long swords. They began
to swing them wildly at the victims. After almost two hours, the sword-dance of
the butchers stopped and the place became silent.
The sun had already set and it was dark now. The five attackers walked
towards the exit, stepping on the dead bodies. The sweat of hard work of
committing violence made their hands, arms and naked trunk glistened in the
dim light of the burning lamps outside. They silently went home to their
families after a job.
Next day early in the morning, thousands of local citizens gathered
around Bibighar to view the carnage. They could see the bodies of the victims
at a close range, piled one over the other in a heap at the far wall of the room.
The burial party now arrived to dispose off the bodies. Half buried in the
heap were four women who were still alive. They found four women and some
children still alive. As soon as the women saw the men they got up and ran
towards a well outside in the court yard of Bibighar. All women one by one
jumped in to the well to their death. A few children also followed them in to the
well. Those who escaped were immediately killed.
The burial party now re-entered the house and began to clear the place of
the dead. They found it hard to dispose off the bodies in a short time. They
decided then to dump all the bodies in a large fifty feet deep well situated in the
Thus the job of disposing the dead done, the burial party departed for
their respective homes completely tired. Immediately, the crowed that had
gathered at Bibighar began to disperse quietly.
The city now seemed to be in a state of heightened but quiet tension.
Nana's spies, in the meanwhile, returned from their mission brought the news of
a large British reinforcement near by. According to them, Generals Havelock
was leading a large force and that General Neill was in the march. They also
found out that the English troops had defeated rebel forces in Fatehpur, a city
near Cawnpore. The fighting was fierce and that there were a large number of
death and injury on both sides. The victors retaliated against the civilians by
sacking villages, raping women, killing children and hanging hundreds of men.
When the people of Cawnpore heard this, they feared similar retaliation against
them. They quickly started a rapid evacuation of cities citizens.
Finally, Havelock's troops arrived. They had walked and fought their way
without rest or sleep. They were tired and hungry. They found out about the
deaths at the Satichaura Ghat and the murders at Bibighar. As soon as they
arrived in the city, they threw down the rebel flag flying over the police station
and installed the Union Jack. Sherer and Bews, the forward officers tried to
calm the citizens and asked for assistance.
The people did not believe them. They had heard about the horrible
atrocities inflicted on the innocent villagers.
When Shere told Havelock about the dead bodies in the well, he was very
shocked. He was sitting quietly pondering over loss of his own men the day
before in a fierce battle with the rebels. He ordered Shere to fill the well
immediately with dirt to stop the stench so that the nature would take its course
and give them a burial without further indignities.
A fierce fighting broke out between the rebel soldiers and the British
troops. Finally, the English defeated the sepoys. When the English soldiers saw
the well filled with dead bodies of women and children, they became and with
rage and hatred. It did not matter that they had done their own share of
atrocities on their way to Cawnpore. Now they were the victors and they found
a justification for further revenge.
One soldier who came out of the massacre site vowed; "I have spared
many a man in fight, but I will never spare another. I shall carry this with me
in my holsters, and whenever I am inclined for mercy, the sight of it, and the
recollection of this house, will be sufficient to incite me to revenge."
For the rebels and the civilians, the worst was yet to come. The atrocities
against the Indian civilians had already begun even before the English reached
At Fatehgarh, for example, when the English defeated the enemy, their
officers ordered a mass scale killing the rebels and the citizens on the spot.
General Neill had also organized Hanging parties'. The parties made daily
rounds to seek out those that they believed had participated in the rebellion.
This in practice meant whatever the English thought of their victim. No
evidence was sought and none given before executing the victim. Even a
slightest defiance by a person meant immediate death. A description by a soldier
of the 78th Highlanders tells the story of one of such expedition:
"We shouted that he was a sepoy, and to seize him. He was taken and
about twelve more. We came back to the carts on the road, and an old man
came to us, and wanted to be paid for the village we had burned. We had a
magistrate with us, who found he had been harbouring the villains and giving
them arms and food. Five minutes settled it; the sepoy and the man that wanted
the money were taken to the roadside, hanged to a branch of a tree We came
to the village and set it in fire. The sun came out, and we got dry, but soon we
got wet again with sweat. We came to a large village and it was full of people.
We took about 200 of them out, and set fire to it. I saw an old man trying to
trail out a bed .I saw the flames bursting out of a house , and, to my surprise,
observed a little boy, about four years old, looking out at the door. I pointed the
way out to the old man and told him if he did not go I would shoot him."
When the Highlanders moved to another village, they caught about 140
men, women and children. They selected sixty men from the group, forced
them to build the gallows of wooden logs taken from the burning homes. They
then chose ten men of the group hanged them without any evidence or trial. For
others, they had reserved flogging and beating to teach them a lesson. The
women and children; " all crying and lamenting what had been done Oh, if you
seen the ten march round the grove, and seen them looking the same as if
nothing was going to happen to them! There was one of them fell; the rope
broke, and down he came. He rose up, looked all around; he was hung up
again"; an account given by one of the soldiers.
At one of the villages, about two thousand villagers armed only with their
lathis, wooden cane stood turned out in protest. They stood up to face
the Highlanders. The British troops surrounded them and set their village on
fire. The villagers were trapped with fire all around them. The villagers trying
to escape were shot to death. One soldier describes the incident thus; " We took
eighteen of them prisoners; they were all tied together, and we fired a volley at
them and shot them on the spot".
General Neill had another plan also. On his marching map, he marked
those villages that he chose for special treatment. The soldiers would loot, burn
and kill the inhabitants of villages without mercy.
In his book, "Our Bones Are Scattered" Andrew Ward writes:
"Neill appointed commissioners to oversee the retribution, including one
particularly homicidal civilian who on June 28 boasted that we have the power
of life and death in our hands, and I assure you we spare not.' Each day he had
strung up eight and ten men' and after a summary trial' each prisoner was'
placed under a tree with rope around his neck, on the top of a carriage; and
when it is pulled away, off he swings "
Stringing and shooting the men in front of their family was a sport the
troops enjoyed. Watching women stooping and begging for the lives of their
men seemed to thrill the young soldiers and their officers.
The prisoners were made to stand under the hot summer sun for hours till
they fainted. It was easy to flog them when they were half conscience,
otherwise, they would squirm and make it hard to strike. Flogging invariably
ended in killing of the victims.
The English wanted to break the faith of their Hindu and Moslem
prisoners. The prisoners accused of evenly remotely participating in revolt had
to crawl on their four limbs, lick the blood off the floor and forced to eat beef
and pork before being executed. The beef eating was reserved for Hindus and
pork meat for the Moslems before their execution.
Cannon-shows were announced to a whole village. Here, a prisoner
would be tied to the mouth of cannon. The cannon would then be fired blowing
the poor man to pieces. Small bits of flesh mixed with fresh blood exploding in
the air made a spectacular show. The next prisoner was forced to pick the flesh
pieces from the ground, clean the cannon before he was tied to the cannon
mouth. In several cases, a victim would be flogged before being sewn alive in
pigskin and be left in the sun to die of asphyxiation and heat. Such punishment
was meant to demonstrate the military power of the British and to instill fear in
the minds of the public.
The revenge killings went on for several weeks. The Indians now
convinced themselves that it all proved their earlier suspicion that the English
came to India not to trade but destroy their faith. According to Lawrence James:
"The laws of evidence were suspended, age and sex ignored, and those who
carried out the killings were proud of their deeds, which they justified as
revenge for the atrocities at Meerut and Delhi."
Soldiers and officers writing to their families in England used phrases
like; "Lots of blackguards are hanged every morning The more the merrier I
am delighted to see that good folks at home hate the Pandies almost as much as
we do You say Delhi ought to be thoroughly destroyed. We all say the same.
Some 300 or 400 were shot yesterday There are several mosques in the city
most beautiful to look at. But I should like to see them all destroyed. The
rascally brutes desecrated our churches and graveyards and I do not think we
ought to have any regard for their religion." " to my certain knowledge many
soldiers of the English regiments got possession of jewellary and gold
ornaments taken from the bodies of the slain city inhabitants, and I was shown
by men of my regiment strings of pearl and gold mohur which had fallen into
their hands That many of provate soldiers of my regiment succeeded in
acquiring a great quantity of valuable plunder was fully demonstrted soon after
our return to England."
Both Indians and the British troops participated in extensive looting,
robbing and stealing as well as exhorting money and property from wealthier
citizens. However, the English were more systematic and organized in their
approach towards this.. According to one English soldier;
" . they shut him up in a dark celler and fired pistols over his head until
he got into such a state of alarm that he told them where they could find Rs.
50,000 of his own and Rs. 40,000 of a friend of his The next day they got hold
of another corpolent nigger, who however was upto the dodge of the pistols,
and did not even care about knives being thrown all around him .so they loaded
a pistol before his eyes, and sent the bullet through his turban, which he thought
was getting beyond a joke, so he divulged the whereabouts of Rs. 40,000."
No end to the bloodshed of the Indians seemed in sight. Lawrence from
Punjab finally wrote to General Penny, the Commander in Delhi;
"I wish I could induce you to interfere in this matter. I believe we shall
lastingly, and , indeed, justly be abused for the way in which we have despoiled
all classes without distinction I have even heard, though it seems incredible, that
officers have gone about and murdered, natives in cold blood. You may depend
upon it we cannot allow such acts to pass unnoticed. If we have no higher
motives, the common dictates of policy should make us refrain from such
outrages Unless we endevour to distinguish friend from foe, we shall unite all
classes against us."
In spite of Lawrence's call for restrain, the killings, and looting continued
for several more weeks. Hundreds of citizens were shot, hanged or killed by the
sword while the English smoked their cigars'. On several occasions, the British
soldiers bribed the executioners to keep the noose lose enough for the victims to
go slowly towards their death. The English called slow dangling of the body on
a rope, the "Pandies' hornpipe" thus describing a dying man's struggle
on the rope that resembled a hornpipe. It reminded the English of a spirited
fifteenth century folkdance accompanied by the hornpipe, popular in the
nineteenth century Britain.
On November 1, 1858, the peace was declared by the Governor
General of India. The British Government abolished the East India Company
and took over the reigns of India's administration. The Queen's proclamation
also declared that all rebels would be pardoned if they had not murdered any
Europeans and that the religious tolerance would be respected.
One hundred and forty five years have passed since the revolt was
suppressed. Indians have asked the question "What were the English
doing in India in the first place and why did the Indians allow themselves
to be treated in such a manner?" The answers are hard to come by. It
seems certain that the causes of mutiny were several.
By 1850s, the Indians had become deeply dependent upon the East
India Company for their security and economic wellbeing. It controlled
the internal and external trade and affected its economy. The rapid decline
of the Mughal Empire resulted in a power vacuum that the British were
lucky enough to exploit.
Although the Mughal Empire created one of the strongest and most
powerful kingdoms in the world, it remained a land based and isolated.
This was in contrast with the British who had just defeated the Russians
in Crimean War and had sowed the seeds of building an Empire that
would control forty percent of the globe and all sea-lanes. They were the
prime naval power.
The rulers of various Indian states never understood changes
occurring outside their own world. Arguments, dissentions and divisions
between them over succession, division of boundaries and control of
weaker states by the stronger ones made them target of East India
Company. The Company took advantage of the opportunity. Thus, the
East India Company won the day by playing politics, deceit, chutzpah and
During the initial years of the Company's involvement in India,
each ruler raised his own army to protect itself from external and internal
attacks. Once the Company controlled the subcontinent, the need for
multiple armies receded. The Company became the main employer. The
competition in hiring the Sepoys disappeared. It became a monopoly in
recruiting its military needs. It set the price, the pay, the benefits and
conditions of service. The potential soldier and the Sepoy lost his
bargaining power. Once this happened in favor of the Company, the
soldiers became disenchanted and helpless. In this they were no different
than the lettuce growers of California before Chavez organized them.
By 1850s, the English had over 300,000 strong Indian men in
uniform. The Company had only 30,000 English soldiers but in command
over the Indian soldiers,
In the beginning, the relationship between the Indians and the
English was cordial and respectful. The English dressed and ate with the
Indians. They learnt the local language and adopted local customs.
All this changed by the middle of the nineteenth century. Average
Englishman became more educated and increased their standard of living
the Indian standard of living declined. The Company opened special
schools in England to train young men for the Company services. These
young men were different culturally and were brash. At the same time the
Company allowed young women to follow the men. Intermingling
between the Indians and English began to be discouraged. The cordial and
understanding relationship between the English officers and the Indian
soldier declined. Sita Ram Pandey a Brahmin soldier of high cast
describes these feelings:
"In those days the sahibs could speak our language much better than
they do now, and they mixed more with us. Although officers today have
to pass the language examination, and have to read books, they do not
understand our language . The only language they learn is that of lower
orders, which they pick up from their servants, and which is unsuitable to
be used in polite conversation."
Most British officers hardly noticed an Indian face even though they
were surrounded by them. When they did notice, it was to abuse them.
These abuses included calling insulting names and swearing. One British
resident in India once wrote:
" the sepoy is regarded as an inferior creature. He is sworn at. He
is treated roughly. He is spoken as nigger'. He is addressed as suar' or
pig, epithet most opprobrious to a respectable native, especially the
Mussalman, and which cuts him to the quick. The old (officers) are less
guilty But the younger men seem to regard it as an excellent joke, as an
evidence of spirit and praiseworthy sense of superiority over the sepoy to
treat him as an inferior animal."
Several dozen servants or "Khitmutgar" meaning "the one
who serves" served an Englishman regardless of his position in his own
society. An English household had the Khansaama', for
his the kitchen a Mali' for his garden, an Ayah, to
nurse his children and multitude of other servants to do things that an
Englishman loathed to do him. He hardly raised a finger for all his
comfort, little or large.
The English masters demanded complete loyalty from their
servants. These servants were beaten and abused on the slightest mistake.
The treatment of Sepoy was not much different. By 1850's the
relationship of the English officers and the sepoy was that of a ruler and
the ruled. A common belief among the local population that the English
had no respects or regards for the people's religion, culture or local
customs created even more resentment.
Indians felt; "Who were the Feringhis or the foreigners to
tell them how they wanted to live their lives?" For the Moslems it was
even more insulting. For over eight centuries, they ruled the Indian
subcontinent. They felt cheated and deprived.
The Company control of the country brought a horde of Christian
Missionaries to India. Their mission was to "Civilize" the Godless. The
Indians resented their presence. Just before the mutiny, the Company
administration actively participated in conversion of local population to
Christianity of those, they captured as prisoners and those who they
employed. The Company freely distributed copies of the Bible as an
inducement to the prisoners who were at its mercy. Even worse was a
practice by the Company to require that all Moslem prisoners must shave
off their beard. For a Moslem shaving, his beard is blasphemous.
In the hospitals the English doctors, nurses and administrators
confined men, women and children in the same ward regardless of their
feelings. According the Hibberrt, a Subedar named Hedayet Ali laments
that "the intention of the British (was) to take away the dignity and honour
The resentment stayed bottled up and in 1857; then it exploded.
The grease in the cartridge provided the spark. The mutiny surprised and
shocked the English and caught him unawares. To the Indian it was not a
surprise. The massacre at Bibighar was a heinous crime, no doubt. It
occurred because the sepoys and the people heard of the atrocities by the
soldiers of the 78th Highlanders under Havelock and Neills on their way
to Cawnpore. Both the English and the Indians lacked maturity and
dispassion. They took their gloves off and proceeded to kill each other
with no mercy-one in revolt and the other in revenge.
The discipline in the British army broke down completely after their
victory at Cawnpore. Freely available liquor at Nana's warehouse acted as
the fuel to the fire. The English soldiers got drunk and lost their sense of
right and wrong. They went on a rampage, broke down the godowns,
looted them, and drank liquor to their hearts content.
To this day, the English and Indians have their own version of the
gory event. Both defend their points of view evoking strong emotions.
The British were very proud of their Indian dominion. They
convinced themselves that Indians would be grateful of the English rule.
There is a little story that has made rounds in social gatherings and told
by P.J.O Taylor in his book A Star Shall Fall. It goes like this;
"An English superior once asked an Indian subordinate was he not glad to
be under the rule of Queen Victoria.' He seemed to have hesitated, but
when pressed, asked to be excused a direct reply, but would the Sahib
please listen to a little Indian tale?"
"This was the tale.
"There was once a washerman who owned a donkey. Every day he
loaded up the beast with very heavy bundles of dirty clothing and drove
him down to the edge of the river. There the donkey was hobbled and left
to scratch a poor feed from the sparse dry grass on the river bank. The
washerman meanwhile would join his fellows in the shallows and wash
the clothing they had brought"
"One day a thief crept up and un-hobbled the donkey and led it
away. Hours later the washerman discovered his loss, and with help of
villagers tracked down the donkey: the thief fled and was caught. The
washerman was very angry, and took out his displeasure on the donkey,
saying you stupid animal, why did you not bray and call me? I would
have come running atonce!' The donkey replied why should I be pleased
either to stay with one master or go with another? Am I to be better
treated and better fed with one rather than the other? The only
improvement for me would be to have no master at all."
Mughal rule in India by S.M. Edwardes, C.S.I., C.V.O. and
H.L.O. Garrett, M.A. 1930 Oxford University Press, London.
Theories of the Indian Mutiny 1857-59 by S. B. Chaudhury,
World Press Private Ltd., Calcutta, 1965.
The Great Mutiny India 1857 by Christopher Hibbert,
Penguin Books, London, 1978.
The Indian Mutiny 1857 by Saul David, Viking an imprint
of Penguin Books.
What Really Happened During the Mutiny: a Day to Day Account of
The Major Events of 1857-1859, by A.J.O. Taylor
M.A.(Oxen.) Formerly of the Mahratta Light Infantry. Oxford
University Press, Delhi, 1997.
Our Bones are Scattered, the Cawnpore Massacre and the Indian
Mutiny by Andrew Ward, published by Henry Holtand
Company, New York.
Raj-The Making and Unmaking of the British India by
Lawrence James published by St. Martin's Press, New York1997.
The Devil's Wind, Nana Saheb's Story by Manohar
Malgonkar published by the Viking Press, New York, 1972.
9.The Last Empire -- Photography in British India, 1855-1911,
Published by Aperture, Inc,, 1977. 1.
10. The Raj at the Table by David Burton -- A culinary
history of the British in India. Published by Faber and Faber 1993.
11. A Star Shall Fall by P.J.O.Taylor, published by Indus,
an imprint of Harper Collins India Pvt. Ltd 1993.
12. The Last Empire: Photography in British India, 1855-
1911 Published by Aperture Inc., 1976.
13. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's History of the Bijnor
Rebellion Published by Asian Studies Center, Michigan State
University, Michigan. South Asia Series Occasional Paper No.
14. Armies of the Raj, From the Great Mutiny to
15. The Mughal Empire by John F. Richards, Published by
Cambridge University Press, 1993.
16. The Competition Wallah by Sir George Otto
Trevelyan, first published in 1866 and republished by Indus, an
imprint of Harper Collins Publishers India Pvt. Ltd. 1992.
17. We Fought Together for Freedom, Chapters from the Indian
National Movement, edited by Ravi Dayal, Published by
Oxford University Press, Delhi 1998.
18. Aankhon Dekha Ghadar (Eye witness to the revolt) by
Vishnu Bhatt Godshe and translated by Amritlal Nagar from
Maradhi to Hindi. Published by Rajpal and Sons, Kashmir Gate,