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READ: 1857 Indian Uprising

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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Who ruled much of India in 1857?
  2. What was the doctrine of lapse?
  3. Where did most of the East India Company’s soldiers come from? How did the EIC treat them?
  4. What was the “spark that lit the fire” for the 1857 uprising?
  5. What, according to the author, were some of the other explanations for the uprising?
  6. What was the outcome of the uprising?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

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At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Why does it matter whether historians call the 1857 uprising a “mutiny,” a “revolt,” or a “war of independence”? Why do titles matter?
  2. This revolt failed, but some historians think that it was the beginning of the Indian national independence movement. Why do you think the memory of this revolt would have lived on in the minds of Indians living under direct British rule?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

1857 Indian Uprising

By Whitney Howarth
In 1857, uprisings and rebellions ended the British East India Company's (EIC) control in India, then it became an official British colony. Historians continue to debate the nature of these uprisings.
In 1783, Great Britain, stinging from the American Revolution and loss of 13 promising colonies, took a closer look at the Indian subcontinent. The British East India Company (EIC) intensified its efforts to collect taxes and dominate territories in this vast, populous region. Sometimes simply called "the Company" the EIC was indeed a business that did international trade. But it also conquered and ruled over an increasing number of Mughal territories and independent princely states, so its "business" was pretty much imperialism. Under a policy called the Doctrine of Lapse, the EIC took control over more than 25 states in India in the 1800s. This policy meant that if the British deemed the rulers of those states "incompetent," or if they lacked a proper heir, the EIC could just take over the territory and rule it directly themselves. Any resistance to EIC control was met with a military response. That included British troops as well as thousands of locally recruited Indian troops called sepoys. Let's look at the expansion of British control on the Indian subcontinent and the differing perspectives of the 1857 uprising by Indians against "the Company."

Sepoy soldiers

If you were a young man in India needing an honest job that paid well, joining the Company army as a sepoy would have been appealing. However, once employed you would soon be faced with racial discrimination and your religious beliefs would be challenged by EIC policies. Whether Muslim or Hindu, you and your fellow sepoys would be expected to adapt your religions and culture to the needs of the army. Also, you could forget about ever being promoted to higher ranks in the army, because only your British co-workers would get those jobs. Sepoys helped expand the domination of the East India Company across South Asia and were shipped abroad to expand the British Empire overseas. By the 1800s, the Mughal Empire was a much smaller and weaker state, whose authority was recognized only by some princes and local governors. Most stopped supporting the Mughal army and paying taxes. The central authority of the Mughals was so weak they could offer little resistance to the East India Company and its increasingly massive sepoy army.
By the mid-1800s, many Indians, including a number of sepoys, were frustrated with living under EIC control. Excessive taxation, mismanagement, racist regulations, and the continuing disrespect for local and religious customs were becoming intolerable. In 1857, a series of uprisings broke out in and around several military stations. These rebellions expressed various outrages that had troubled many communities for decades.

The spark that lit the fire

The first of these uprisings was in May 1857, at a cantonment (military station) called Meerut, 40 miles outside the capital city of Delhi. Interestingly, the most heated issue—among many—had to do with how you loaded your gun. Stories had been spreading that the new bullet cartridges for their new Enfield rifles were being greased with animal fat derived from pigs and cows. The greased cartridges had to be opened by biting off the top with your teeth. However, nearly every sepoy was either Muslim—a religion that forbids eating the fat or any other part of a pig, or Hindu—where the same rule applies to cows. The British in India had long showed insensitivity for cultural and religious traditions, and that disturbed both the sepoys and civilians. Many worried that the foreigners wanted to forcibly convert them to Christianity. When some of the sepoys, in religious observation, disobeyed orders to sink their teeth into the fat-greased ammunition, they were sentence to prison.
As several sepoys rose up to free their comrades, some British officers were killed. Violence quickly spread and several European women and children were also killed. Crowds in Meerut attacked and killed off-duty military officers as well as several non-British servants who tried to protect their British masters. The next day, the sepoys reached Delhi and mobbed the British arsenal and the home of former Mughal Emperor. Rebel soldiers and anti-British civilians called for the reinstatement of the old Mughal Emperor who reluctantly agreed to their demands.
News spread fast, inspiring more mutinies in other garrison1 towns and disturbances in districts across the north and northeast of India. By the end, over 50,000 sepoys had died or were executed later, whether or not they were guilty of participating in the revolt. Another 100,000 civilians were killed by British efforts to put down the rebellion and take revenge. The chaos that followed also contributed to a major famine that killed even more people.
English engraving from 1857 showing mutinous sepoys dividing up spoils. Public domain.
That doesn't mean all of India was rebelling. Many sepoys and garrisons remained loyal to the British and helped to put down the rebellion while supporting British troops that were shipped in. From Punjab to Nepal, people of different religions and languages joined the rebellion. When the Mughal emperor's sons were captured by the British outside Delhi, they were executed without a trial. These and other atrocities of vengeance continued across India as the British sought to punish rebels and terrify communities that had sheltered them. The British sought to create a campaign of fear and terror to make sure no one would challenge British authority again.
It took a full year for the British to put down the revolt and re-establish its control over Indian society. By 1858, the East India Company no longer governed India and the East India Company was dissolved by the British. The British Queen Victoria became the sole sovereign of the subcontinent and India became an official colony of the British Empire for nearly 100 more years.

Mutiny, revolt, or war of independence?

The revolts that took place in 1857-1858 continue to interest historians. Many debate the causes, consequences, and what to even call these events. Was it a war for independence by the Indians? A mutiny of sepoy soldiers against the British? A larger rebellion against the East India Company and Great Britain? Each answer represents a point of view.
A political cartoon from the British magazine Punch from 1857 showing the British perspective of the 1857 uprising with “Britannia”—representing Great Britain—killing the natives, justice as revenge! Public domain.
Some Indian nationalists say this was an organized revolution to gain independence from British rule. It was seen as a singular revolt of colonial subjects against foreign imperialists. However, many scholars of Indian history see these events differently, arguing that India wasn't a nation yet. It had never been a fully unified state with a singular system of government nor was there a common national identity with well-defined boundaries.
We know that there were many reasons people rebelled against the British EIC. Some fought to protect the markets of cotton cloth weavers, some fought to end the heavy tax burdens for landlords, and still others fought in response to new land laws which forced the eviction of poor peasants from lands. Some rebels also fought to stop the annexation of their princely states—the "doctrine of lapse" referred to in the introduction—while others fought to cease the increasing influence of Christian missionaries.
In fact, scholars have long debated the role of religion in the events of 1857. While most agree that this uprising was not motivated by religious freedom, religion still mattered. One group of rebels put forth a proclamation in August of 1857 asking Hindus and Muslims to join together. The plan was to overthrow the British and re-instate Mughal imperial authority.
At the same time, the British failed to acknowledge the widespread economic problems caused by de-industrialization. This was the process by which, under British rule, India began to produce less and have fewer jobs in manufacturing, while at the same time Britain was industrializing rapidly. This lack of jobs led to great suffering across the region.
In addition, British responses to the uprising were often racist, characterizing Indian troops as inferior and violent. British accounts from the period tended to paint Hindus and Muslims as religious fanatics, and also regarded Indian violence as a primitive impulse, rather than a response to oppression. British sources—both then and now—often refer to the 1857 events as The Sepoy Mutiny. They focus primarily on the discontent of sepoys in the East India Company army and their rebellion against their commanding officers. While these explanations usually do acknowledge that some peasants and landlords supported the rebel troops, they generally frame these events as a military matter that impacted a few others.

Outcomes and legacies

Although the East India Company lost its authority in India and was later dissolved, the racial abuses and economic hardships that Indians experienced did not improve. Britain would continue its rule, but no longer through the EIC. Queen Victoria issued a proclamation to the peoples and princes of India in 1858 promising no further interference in religious traditions or matters relating to succession. Nevertheless, the British continued to distrust native peoples, especially Muslims, whom they blamed for the rebellion. This led the new governing authorities to create policies that insured inequality and supported racist justifications for colonial rule, or more accurately, misrule.
Communities who had remained loyal in 1857 were labeled "martial races" by the British government and recruited heavily for the Indian Army. Yet they were not given much independence in the ranks, and were always under the authority of a larger number of British officers. Most Indians were kept from advancing into higher posts within the military and civilian services. The British created a new system of urban planning that focused on the segregation of whites from native people. The bureaucracy of the state was expanded with new government offices and more policing, surveillance, and regulation of native peoples. In the years to come, Western-educated native elites would struggle for recognition and representation within the military and civil service. The British were hesitant to give representation or autonomy to people they deemed "savage" at worst, and at best "unworthy" of self-governance.
Author bio
Whitney Howarth, is an Associate Professor of History at Plymouth State University where she specializes in modern world history and the history of India. Dr. Howarth has taught world history at the college level since 1999 and was, for nearly a decade, a research fellow at Northeastern’s World History Center, where she assisted in the research, design and creation of professional development programs for high school world history teachers, hosted seminars by top world historical scholars, and produced multi-media publications (1995-2004).

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Langer, Avey
    Why does it matter whether historians call the 1857 uprising a “mutiny,” a “revolt,” or a “war of independence”? It matters because Some Indian nationalists say this was an organized revolution to gain independence.
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      A mutiny need not be mounted for the purpose of independence. It occurs when persons contracted to serve under some sort of a command act to put the commander out of service and take control themselves. So, the employees of Starbucks can not mutiny against the boss, because they are free to leave. The passengers on a ship cannot mutiny against the captain, because the passengers are not under contract to obey. Only the crew of a ship, or the soldiers in a company, can mutiny against the commanders. In India it was both an uprising and a mutiny, because the soldiers had sworn obedience to the army.
      (3 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user George Washington
    Does anyone know how many Sepoys were fighting against the British on May 10, 1857? I need this for a school project so accurate answers, please. Thx
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user GeorgeR
    top WORLD historical scholars
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user Rishita
    Khan Academy staff, I'm writing a research paper on the Indian Uprising of 1857 and found this article really helpful! I was wondering, can I ask you for the sources used in this article?
    Thank you!
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user ZariyahL
    One conclusion a reader could make after reading the article is that Indians reacted in different ways to the uprising.

    Which of the following statements accurately paraphrases evidence from the article to support the conclusion?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Putiros
    In which cities did the rebellion happen?
    (0 votes)
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