The Great Rebellion (1857)


In 1793, the Empire’s rulers had imposed a `Permanent Settlement’ on India which privatised the land and dispossessed the peasants. The Empire took 50-60% of the peasants’ income in tax, more than the Mughal Emperors had taken, forcing the peasants into debt and then to sell their land to the bunyahs, the moneylenders. India’s wealth was pillaged and her agriculture starved, in order to rack profit and rent up. The profits went to British investors, the rents to the Empire’s allies, the landlords and princes. The British enquiry commission of 1832 admitted, “The settlement fashioned with great care and deliberation has to our painful knowledge subjected almost the whole of the lower classes to most grievous oppression.” Charles Ball, a historian of the revolt, wrote, “in Bengal an amount of suffering and debasement existed which probably was not equaled and certainly not exceeded, in the slave-sates of America.”

The Players

The Empire’s rule was vicious. Governor-General Lord Dalhousie wrote in 1855,“torture in one shape or other is practised by the lower subordinates in every British province.” The Report of the Commission for the Investigation of Alleged Cases of Torture at Madras, 1855, admitted `the general existence of torture for revenue purposes’. Torture was also normal police practice. The conflict, the cumulative effect of several causes developing for a hundred years, was complex in character. These causes arose largely out of the British policy of westernisation which accelerated markedly in the decade after 1848 during the regime of the Marquess of Dalhousie, the young, authoritarian and impetuous Governor-General. The main causes could be described broadly as political, economic, social, military and geographical in nature. Politically, the most serious issue arose out of the British introduction of the British ‘Doctrine of Lapse.’ This doctrine permitted the British to extend their imperial domain at the expense of Indian princes by forbidding the inheritance of states by persons who were not natural heirs; it was also extended to pensions and princely titles. The result was that several states – Udaipur, Jhansi and Nagpur and, finally in 1856, the state of Oudh – lapsed into British sovereignty. Imperialist, expansionist, the epitome of British rule in India. These are perhaps the most apt adjectives for Lord Dalhousie, appointed Governor General of India in 1848.In his eight years at the helm, James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie, better known as Lord Dalhousie, was all that and more. He expanded Britain’s empire in India by fair means and foul and held total sway over the vast realm. He was known for his overbearing self-confidence, centralising activity and reckless annexations.  

However, history has also attributed far-reaching reforms to Dalhousie. Among his major reforms were those in the fields of education, public works, post and telegraph. Above all, he will always be remembered for introducing the railways in India. It was during his tenure as Governor General that on April 16, 1853, at 3.35pm, the first train in India left Bombay for Thane. Trains were started the next year in the Calcutta area and work began on the Madras-Arcot line in the South. Lord Dalhousie’s famous Railway Minute of April 20, 1853 laid down the policy that private enterprise would be allowed to build railways in India but that their operation would be closely supervised by the government. He was also responsible for introducing the 5′ 6″ gauge for railways in India and the initial lines all used this gauge. Lord Dalhousie favoured 6′ and 5′-6′ was the compromise agreed to. It was only after the departure of Lord Dalhousie that other gauges were also introduced in the country.

 Rani of Jhansi was largely gifted, possessed great energy and a lady oh high character, much respected by everyone at Jhansi. Under Hindu law she had the right to adopt an heir to her husband when he died childless in 1854. Lord Dalhousie refused to her the exercise that right, and declared that Jhansi had lapsed to the paramount power. In vain did the Rani dwell upon the services which in olden days the rulers of Jhansi had rendered to the British Government. Lord Dalhousie was not to be moved. With the stroke of the pen he deprived this high-spirited woman the rights which she believed, and which all the people of India believed, to be hereditary. That stroke of the pen converted the lady, of so high a character and so much respected, into a veritable tigress so far as the English were concerned. For them, thereafter she would have no mercy. There is reason to believe that she, too, had entered into negotiations with the Maulavi and Nana Saheb before the explosion of 1857 took place.

Nana Saheb was the adopted son of the Peshwa Baji Rao. This Peswa had been by virtue of his title, the lord of the Maratha princes. Of all the Peshwas, Baji Rao had been loyal to the British. Tempeted, however in 1817, by the rising of Holkar and the war with the Pindaris, and hoping to recover the lost influence of his house, he had risen, had been defeated, and, in 1818, had thrown himself on the mercy of the British. He was deprived of his dominions, and granted a pension for life of eight lakh of rupees. He took up his residence at Bithor, near the military station of Kanpur, adopted Nana Saheb, and lived a quiet life till his death in 1851. The Government of India permitted his adopted son, whose name was Dhundu Pant, but who was generally known as Nana Saheb, to inherit the savings of Baji Rao, and they presented to him the fee-simple of the property of Bithor. But Nana Saheb had to provide for a very large body of followers, given to his care by Baji Rao, and the two British Commissioners who, in succession, superintended the administration of the estate supported the proposal made from Bithor that a portion of the ex-Peshwas allowance should be reserved for the support of the family. They had some reason for their suggestion, for when, some little time before his death, Baji Rao had petitioned the Home Government that his adopted son might succeed to the title and pension of Peshwa. Lord Dalhousie declared the recommendation made by the two commissioners in his favour to be  ‘uncalled for and unreasonable’. He directed that ‘the determination of the Government of India may be explicitly declared to the family without delay’.

Nana Saheb appealed to the Court of Directors against the decision of the Governor-General of India. His appeal was couched in logical, temperate and convincing language. He asked why the heir to the Peshwa should be treated  differently from other native princes who had fallen before the Company. He instanced the case of Delhi & Mysore. This argument had no effect whatsoever on the minds of the western rulers who governed the country from the Leadenhall Street in England. Their reply emulated in its curtness and its rudeness the answer given by Lord Dalhaousie. They directed the Governor-General to inform the memorialist ‘that the pension of his adoptive father was not hereditary, that he has no claim whatever to it, and his application is wholly inadmissible’. The date of reply was May 1853. It bore its fruits at Kanpur in June 1857.

The players were not wanting to the occasion. There was a large amount of seething discontent in many portions of India. In Oudh, recently annexed; in the terrtories under the the rule of the Lieutenent-Governor of the North-west Provinces, revolutionised by the introduction of the land-tenure system of Mr. Thomason. Suddenly shortly after the annexation of Oudh, this seething discontent found expression. Who all the active participants were may probably never be known. One of them, there can be no question, was he who, during the progress of Mutiny, was known as the Maulavi. The Maulavi was a very remarkable man. His name was Ahmad-Ulla, and he hailed from Faizabad in Oudh. He was tall,lean, and muscualr, with large deep-set eyes,beetle brows, a high aqualine nose and lantern jaws. Sir Thomas Seaton, who enjoyed, during the suppression o the revolt, the best means of judging him, described him ‘as a man of great abilities, of undaunted courage, of stern determination, and by far the best soldier among the rebels.’  Such was the man selected by the discontended in Oudh to sow throughout India the seeds which, on a given signal, should spring to active growth. Very soon after the annexation of Oudh by the British, he travelled over the North-west Provinces on a mission which was a mystery to the European authorities; tahe he stayed sometime at Agra; that he visited Delhi, Mirath, Patna and Calcutta; that , in April 1857, shortly after his return he circulated seditious(according to the British) papers throughout Oudh; that the police did not arrest him that the executive at Lucknow, alarmed at his progress, despatched a body of troops to seize him; that taken prisoner, he was tried and condemned to death; that, before the sentence could be executed, the Mutiny broke out; that escaping, he became the confidential friend of the Begum of Lucknow, the trusted leader of the rebels.

The Plan

It is possible that, whilst the Maulavi was in Calcutta, he constantly in communication with the Sipahis satationed in the vicinity of that city, discovered the instrument which should act with certain effect on thier already excited natures. It happened that, shortly before, the Government of India had authorised the introduction of the newEnfield Musket in the ranks of the native army with a new cartridge, the exterior of which was smeared with fat.   These cartridges were prepared in the Goverment factory at Dum-Dum near Calcutta. The practice with old paper cartridges, used with the old musket, the ‘Brown Bess’, had been to bite off the paper at one end previous to ramming it down the barrel. When the players suddenly lighted upon the new cartridge, not only smeared, but smeraed with the fat of the pig or the cow, the one hateful to the Muslims, the other the sacred animal of the Hindus, they recognised that they had found a weapon potent enough to rouse to action the armed men of the races which professed those religions

 The Gathering Storm (Barrackpore)

 At Barrackpore near Calcutta on the 29th of March, Sunday afternoon, it was reported to Lieutenent Baugh, Adjutant of thr 34th N.I. (Native Infantry), that several men of his regiment were in very excited condition; that one of themMangal Pandey by name, was striding up and down in front of the lines of the regiment, armed with a loaded musket, calling upon the men to rise, and threatening to shoot the first European he should see. Baugh at once buckled on his sword, and putting loaded pistol in his holsters, mounted his horse, and galloped down to the lines. Mangal Pandey heard the sound of the galloping horse, and taking post behind the station gun, which was in fron of the quarter-guard of the 34th, took a deliberate aim at Baugh, and fired. He missed Baugh, but the bullet struck his horse in the flank, and horse and rider were brought to the ground. Baugh quickly disentangled himself, and, seizing one of his pistols, advanced towards the mutinous sipahi and fired. He missed. Before he could draw his sword Mangal Pandey, armed with a talwar with which he had provided himself, closed with the adjutant, and, being the stronger man, brought him to the ground. He would probably have despatched him but for the timely intervention of Muhammadan sipahi, Shaik Paltu by name.

The Outbreak (Meerut)