In the 1850’s the British Army introduced a new rifle, to replace the old musket. It seemed an inoffensive and sensible step soldiers would no longer have to fumble with separate bullets and gunpowder to charge their clumsy muzzle-loading weapons, for with the new rifle went ammunition which combined bullet and gunpowder in one cartridge. It was welcomed everywhere except in India. There to the amazement of the Europeans, the arrival of the cartridge set off the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The most explosive incidence of violence in the history of the Empire. The mood of North and Central India - especially in the newly annexed kingdom of Oudh - had been tense and uneasy for some time.
Previously the loyalty of the Indian soldiers - the sepoys - had never been doubted. Incidents in the past were largely the result of sepoy’s fears that over zealous British officers were determined to convert them to Christianity by forcing them to violate the tenets of their own religion. In 1806, the sepoys of Vellore in southern India had revolted because they had been instructed to trim their beards, wear restyled turbans and stop displaying caste - marks. In 1824 a sepoy regiment refused to embark for Burma because travel by sea would have rendered them outcasts. Six of the ringleaders were hanged and hundreds more condemned to 14 years hard labour on the public roads. Five others were later executed and their bodies hung in chains as an example to their followers.
As a result of the new administration brought in by the British, many including princes had been dispossessed of their rights and pensions, landowners found their estates seized. As a result many powerful individuals were hoping to throw the British out in order to regain lost possessions. But it was not only the sepoys, the princes and the great landlords who had been antagonised by the British, ordinary people too had suffered. When great estates were sold up peasants were uprooted. Salt, so essential in a tropical country was a government monopoly its price inflated by tax.
Magical symbols began to appear on the walls. Prophecies were heard through out the land, the agents of the dispossessed moved through out the countryside, spreading rumours of great disasters to come. It was said - by whom nobody knew - that British rule was coming to an end and that it would happen on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey, which had established British rule in Bengal on June 23rd 1757.
The sepoys of Bengal mostly had their homes in Oudh a province seething with discontent since its annexation by the British in 1856. Fears of the British and their inexplicable actions had prepared the sepoys to believe anything. The old order was being destroyed and it was by no means improbable that the white man intended to destroy the old religion as well. The situation was explosive, and required only a spark to set it off. The cartridge for the new Enfield rifle was precisely this.
Resentment of the British rule increased with feverish speed among the sepoys, especially those of Bengal which like Madras and Bombay, the two other presidencies, or major administrative areas of British India had its own army.
The situation had been reported to the Governor-General in his marble palace in Calcutta but none of the advisors took it seriously.
The cartridge contained both gunpowder and a bullet fixed to its base. The top of the cartridge had to be bitten or torn off so that the powder inside could be poured into the rifle. Then the bullet was rammed home, still inside the cartridge, its passage down the barrel eased by a coating of grease round the base. The rumour was that the grease was made out of cow or pig fat. The cow is sacred to the Hindu and the pig is an unclean animal to the Muslim. Therefore whether Hindu or Muslim, they felt that they were being forced into a polluting practise that threatened them with eternal damnation. It is possible that some of the cartridges were in fact made with pig or bullock fat, but the contractors had been instructed to use mutton fat.
In 1853, a Colonel Henry Tucker, Adjutant-General of the Bengal Army, had warned that unless the fears of the natives could be allayed, they should not be issued. His warning was ignored and was not given to the the highest military authorities.
Few senior officers were prepared to ‘buck the system’ one who did was General John Hearsey, Officer Commanding at Barrackpore. In January 1857 he directly warned the Governor-General that trouble was being created among the sepoys and that something must be done, little was. Early in February 1857, Hearsey decided to take action himself. Ordering a parade of sepoys at Barrackpore, the Indian born and native-speaking General addressed his troops. He was one of the few senior officers who respected the sepoys and received in return their respect and affection. If anyone could persuade the sepoys of the good intentions of the government it was Hearsey. His arguments were simple and fluent and the sepoys believed him.
An incident at Berhampur 90 miles to the north of Barrackpore, in which the infantrymen refused to accept an issue of cartridges, the commanding officer, Colonel Mitchell, hurrying to the parade ground threatened to take the regiment to Burma or China.
The sepoys took their commanders threats as proof of all the rumours they had heard and their discipline broke. Mitchell reported the event to Calcutta and it was decided that the unit concerned, the 19th Native Infantry, should be marched to Barrackpore and be disbanded under the eyes of a British regiment. That the British troops had to be brought from Burma for this purpose, merely emphasised how few there were in northern India. Altogether in Bengal, an area as large as France and Germany combined, the British troops amounted to only four infantry battalions and a few individual batteries of artillery.
In a corner stood a group of British officers including the commander of the sepoys regiment - all apparently paralysed by fear. One warned Hearsey “have a care - his musket is loaded”, “Damn his musket” replied Hearsey and added to his son “ If I fall John rush in and put him to death somehow”. As the general rode towards him the sepoy raised his musket then turned it on himself and pulled the trigger. He only succeeded in wounding himself and was later court-martialled condemned and hanged. His name lived on for soon the cry “Remember Mangal Pande” was to become the Indian signal for revolt
The 19th were disarmed and disbanded without incident at the end of March and the Commander-in-~Chief, General George Anson, saw no reason to alter the usual hot-weather routine of the army. Despite continuing reports of insurrection among the sepoys European troops were marched to cooler stations in the foothills of the Himalayas. Officer went on leave. Anson who, had seen no fighting since the Napoleonic Wars retired with his staff to the hill station of Simla nearly 1000 miles away from the governor general and the civil government in Calcutta. There they had no means of knowing it but down on the plains in the great military cantonment of Meerut greater troubles were brewing. 85 sepoys had refused to accept the new cartridge, had been court-martialled found guilty of disobedience and sentenced to death. On Saturday May 9th the whole garrison was paraded to witness the sentences put into effect. The day seemed heavy with foreboding even the weather underlined the menace for it was dark with low clouds and a hot dry wind blew across the parade ground where some 4,000 men were drawn up to form 3 sides of a hollow square . On the fourth open side of the square stood the 85 sepoys in their uniforms but their feet were bare and they carried no weapons. Their comrades rigid at attention carried arms but everyone knew their ammunition pouches were empty by order. The British troops had their rifles, the new Enfields loaded with the cartridges that had caused all the trouble and aimed at the native infantry.
Following the reading of the sentence by a British officer, a party of British soldiers moved down the file ripping the buttons from the uniforms of the 85 sepoys and the coats from their backs armourers with tools and shackles came forward and slowly began to fit fetters on the condemned men, many of whom had served the British government with perfect loyalty through long years and bloody battles. Many were in tears but they could do nothing in the face of the loaded field guns and rifles and glittering sabres of the dragoons and eventually they were marched off and the tension eased.
That evening Gough an officer of the regiment, went to the temporary jail and was deeply moved by the grief of the men who begged him to save them. Later as he sat on the verandah of his bungalow his thoughts were interrupted by a rustle in the darkness. It was a native officer of his own troop who, although stating he had come to discuss troop accounts, seemed frightened and kept carefully to the shadows. Then the real purpose of the visit was revealed. Tomorrow, Sunday, the sepoys would mutiny, all of them even the cavalry, the sahib’s own men they would break open the jail, release their comrades, death was planned for the white soldiers and their families. Upon the departure of the man Gough immediately went to the mess and informed his colonel Sir Michael Smyth. The story was greeted with laughter, “when he had been in India a little longer” they said he would learn not to take such stories seriously. Gough, still not satisfied went to the Brigadier commanding the station Archdale Wilson and was treated with good natured contempt. The next day, may 10th 1857, about 5pm a rumour spread in Meerut bazaar that British troops were coming to seize the sepoys arms. Sepoys in the bazaar hurried back to their barracks as an angry mob of villagers surged out to attack the Europeans bungalows. On the parade ground, sepoys intent on releasing their imprisoned comrades slipped away from white officers who were desperately trying to control them . When Gough went out on his verandah an hour later the horizon was a sea of flame. Galloping down to the cavalry lines he found a thousand sepoys dancing and leaping frantically about calling and yelling to each other and blazing away with their muskets in all directions
The fears of the sepoys were easily played upon by those who hoped to persuade them to turn their guns against the British. There were reports of nocturnal meetings in the barracks. Mysterious fires broke out: burning arrows were shot into the thatched roofs of officer's bungalows, and the telegraph station at the great military barracks of Barrackpore near Calcutta was burned down. Little was done to find the culprits and even less to find out why they had acted so. In the highly centralised system of British administration, everything had to be committed to paper and no action could be taken until it had been approved by a higher authority. This caused a communications jam and a stifling of initiative. “A letter was written where a blow ought to have been struck”.
The Queens forces had already been considerably reduced by the demands of the Crimean War, then raging between Britain, its allies and Russia. In India as a whole there were about 40,000 Europeans in the Company’s and Royal armies as compared with a total strength of about 300,000 Indian soldiers.
The imminent punishment of the 19th, who by refusing the cartridge, had steadfastly remained loyal to their faith had already made a deep impression on Hearsey’s sepoys. Nine days later as he was sat in his bungalow Hearsey received news of a tumult on the parade ground. He sent orders for the British troops to stand by and rode to the scene accompanied by his son John. A shocking sight met his eyes, a young sepoy named Mangal Pande had just gunned down two European officers and was now calling on his comrades to rebel and die bravely for their religion.
It was a city of horror British officers had been cut down by their own men. Two officers wives were murdered in incidents which acquired particular notoriety. One of the a Mrs. Chambers was pregnant, her unborn child was ripped from her womb by a local butcher, the other a Mrs Dawson was recovering from smallpox, to avoid contagion, the mob threw burning torches at her till her clothes caught fire and burned her to death. (Continued below Contents Box)
Bahadur Shah the 19th - and the last - emperor of the 300 year-old Mughal dynasty, was a pensioner of the East India Company, occupied himself writing Persian verse. When the Mutiny broke out, he became a tragic victim of circumstance. An unwilling pawn in the hands of the mutineers, he was unable to declare his loyalty to the British and was imprisoned by them after the fall of Delhi.
A British lady who visited the “King of Kings” in captivity provided this pathetic portrait of him.
“There in this small dirty, low room with whitewashed walls, cowered a thin, small, old man, dressed in a dirty white suit of cotton. He laid aside the hookah he had been smoking, and began salaaming to us in the most abject manner and saying he was “burra kooshee” (very glad) to see us. Bahadur Shah, who's name ironically derived from the Mongolian bator (hero) was exiled to Rangoon where he died in