Timeline History

First War of Indian Independence

The Indian rebellion of 1857 was a prolonged period of armed uprisings as well as rebellions in Northern and Central India against British occupation of that part of the subcontinent. Small precursors of brewing discontent involving incidences of arson in cantonment areas, began to manifest themselves in January. Later, a large-scale rebellion broke out in May and turned into what may be called a full-fledged war in the affected regions. This war brought about the end of the British East India Company's rule in India, and led to direct rule by the British government (British Raj) of much of the Indian subcontinent for the next 90 years, although some states retained nominal independence under their respective princes.
The rebellion had diverse political, economic, military, religious and social causes.
The sepoys (from sipahi, Hindi for soldier, used for native Indian soldiers) of the Bengal Army had their own list of grievances against the Company Raj, mainly caused by the ethnic gulf between the British officers and their Indian troops. Other than Indian units of the British East India Company's army, much of the resistance came from the old aristocracy, who were seeing their power steadily eroded under the British.
Some Indians came to believe that the British intended to convert them either by force or by deception (e.g. causing them to lose caste) to Christianity. This view which was perhaps not entirely unfounded, as the British religious fashion of the time was Evangelism, and many Honourable East India Company officers took it upon themselves to try to convert their Sepoys. This was strongly discouraged by the Company, which was aware of the potential for religion to become a flashpoint.
The jewels of the royal family of Nagpur were publicly auctioned in Calcutta, a move that was seen as a sign of abject disrespect by the remnants of the Indian aristocracy.
Indians were unhappy with the heavy-handed rule of the Company which had embarked on a project of rather rapid expansion and westernisation. This included the outlawing of many religious customs, both Muslim and Hindu, which were viewed as uncivilized by the British, such as sati. This caused outrage in some quarters, particularly amongst the population of Bengal. The British abolished child marriage, and claimed to have ended female infanticide, but this claim is doubtful without accompanying demographic data. The suppression of Thuggee was a less controversial reform, although the true nature of Thuggee (whether it was truly a widespread religious cult, or simply dacoity) is still disputed.
The justice system was considered inherently unfair to the Indians. In 1853, the British Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen opened the Indian Civil Service to native Indians; however, this was viewed by some of educated India as an insufficient reform. The official Blue Books — entitled "East India (Torture) 1855–1857" — that were laid before the House of Commons during the sessions of 1856 and 1857, revealed that Company officers were allowed an extended series of appeals if convicted or accused of brutality or crimes against Indians. The Company also practised financial extortion through heavy taxation. Failure to pay these taxes almost invariably resulted in appropriation of property.
The British policy of expansionism (the Doctrine of Lapse) was also greatly resented by the rulers who were displaced, and outraged many if not most of their subjects, particularly in Oudh. In eight years Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General of India, had annexed a quarter of a million square miles (650,000 km²) of land to the Company's territory.
Many of the Company's modernising efforts were viewed with automatic distrust; for example, it was feared that the railway, the first of which began running out of Bombay in the 1850s, was a demon.
However, some historians have suggested that the impact of these reforms has been greatly exaggerated, as the British did not have the resources to enforce them, meaning that away from Calcutta their effect was negligible [1]. This was not the view taken by the British themselves after 1857: instead they scaled down their programme of reform, increased the racial distance between Europeans and native Indians, and also sought to appease the gentry and princely families, especially Muslim, who had been major instigators of the 1857 revolt. After 1857, Zamindari (regional feudal officials) became more oppressive, the Caste System became more pronounced, and the communal divide between Hindus and Muslims became marked and visible, which some historians argue was due in great part to British efforts to keep Indian society divided. This tactic has become known as Divide and rule.
Sepoys were native Indian soldiers serving in the Bengal army of the British East India Company under British officers trained in the East India Company College, the company's own military school in England. The presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal maintained their own army each with its own commander-in-chief. They fielded more troops than the official army of the British Empire. In 1857 there were 257,000 sepoys.
Unlike the Bombay and Madras Armies, which were far more heterogeneous, the Bengal Army recruited almost exclusively amongst the landowning Bhumihar Brahmins and Rajputs of the Ganges Valley. Partly owing to this, Bengal Sepoys were not subject to the penalty of flogging as were the British soldiers. Caste privileges and customs within the Bengal Army were not merely tolerated but encouraged in the early years of the Company's Rule. This meant that when they came to be threatened by modernising regimes in Calcutta from the 1840s onwards, the sepoys had become accustomed to very high ritual status, and were extremely sensitive to suggestions that their caste might be polluted. [2] In 1851-2 sepoys were required to serve overseas during a war in Burma. Hindu tradition states that those who 'travel the black waters' [[(Kala Pani]]) will lose their caste and be outside the Hindu community. The Sepoys were thus very displeased with their deployment to Burma.
The sepoys gradually became dissatisfied with various aspects of army life. Their pay was relatively low and after the British troops conquered Awadh and the Punjab, the soldiers no longer received extra pay (batta) for service there, because they were no longer considered "foreign missions". Finally, officers of an evangelical persuasion in the Company's Army (such as Herbert Edwardes and Colonel S.G. Wheler) had taken to preaching to their Sepoys in the hope of converting them to Christianity [3]. The controversy over the new Enfield Rifle, in the eyes of many Sepoys, added substance to the alarming rumours circulating about their imminent forced conversion to Christianity.
The mutiny was, literally, triggered by a gun. Sepoys throughout India were issued with a new rifle, the Pattern of 1853 Enfield Percussion cap rifled musket - a vastly more powerful and accurate weapon than the old smoothbore Brown Bess they had been using for the last several decades. Brown Bess was the standard issue long gun throughout the British army for over a century before finally being phased out in 1838, so that the sepoys were being moved from an obsolete, inaccurate weapon to a modern rifle.
The innovations were that the firing mechanism switched from the old, unreliable Flintlock to Percussion caps, and rifling inside the musket barrel ensured accuracy at much greater distances than was possible with old smoothbore muskets. One thing did not change in this new musket - the loading process, which did not change significantly till the introduction of metallic cartridges a few decades later.
To load the new Enfield, just like the previous muskets they were issued with, soldiers had to bite the cartridge open and pour the gunpowder it contained into the rifle's muzzle, then stuff the cartridge case, which was typically paper coated with some kind of grease to make it waterproof, into the musket as wadding, before loading it with a ball.
A rumour spread that the cartridges that were standard issue with this rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) or tallow (beef fat) - this was offensive to Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike, who were forbidden by their religions to eat beef or pork respectively.
The sepoys' British officers dismissed these claims as rumours, and suggested that the Sepoys make a batch of fresh cartridges, and grease these with beeswax or mutton fat. This, not too surprisingly, reinforced the rumour that the original issue cartridges were indeed greased with lard and tallow. Another suggestion they put forward was to introduce a new drill, in which the cartridge was not bitten with the teeth but torn open with the hand.
The sepoys rejected this concept of a new drill, pointing out that that they might very well forget and bite the cartridge, not surprising given the extensive drilling that 19th century soldiers received in loading and firing their muskets. This intensive drilling allowed British troops to fire up to 4 rounds a minute, although most units were able to achieve 3 rounds a minute with consistency. However, an integral part of the loading procedure involved biting off the bullet from the cartridge so that one hand can hold the musket steady whilst the other hand pours the charge of powder into the barrel. Of course, this meant that biting a musket cartridge was second nature, and instinctive, to the Sepoys, some of whom had decades of service in the Company's army, and who had been doing Musket drill for every day of their service.
The Commander in Chief in India, General George Anson reacted to this crisis by saying, "I'll never give in to their beastly prejudices", and despite the pleas of his junior officers he did not compromise.

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