Modern India Module 1: The Revolt of 1857 (Part 1)

  • The revolt of 1857 started on 10th May when the Company’s Indian soldiers at Meerut rebelled. The Mutiny spread rapidly in eastern and northern India.
  • This rebellion was a major anti-colonial movement against the aggressive imperialist policies of the British. It was called the Sepoy Mutiny by the British.
  • The introduction of greased cartridges was the immediate cause for the 1857 revolt.
  • The rebels marched towards Delhi, where they were joined by the local infantry and the common people.
  • The rebels captured Delhi and killed many British officers. They declared the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah as the emperor of India. The revolt then spread to other parts of the country.
  • Lord Canning was the British Governor General during the revolt of 1857.
  • The important centers of the revolt were:
    • Patna, Arrah – Bihar
    • Gwalior – Madhya Pradesh
    • Bharatpur – Rajasthan
    • Roorkee – Uttarakhand
    • Azamgarh, Allahabad, Gorakhpur, Faizabad, Fatehpur, Jhansi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Etawah, Fatehgarh, Shahjahanpur, Agra, Rahilkhand, Mathura, Meerut, Bareily – Uttar Pradesh
    • Delhi



  • The political causes of the revolt may be traced back to the British policy of expansion through the Doctrine of Lapse, subsidiary alliance and direct annexation.
  • A large number of Indian rulers and chiefs were dislodged, thus arousing fear in the minds of other ruling families who apprehended a similar fate.
  • A large section of the population was alarmed by the rapid spread of Western Civilization in India.


  • The abolition of practices like sati and female infanticide, and the legislation legalizing widow remarriage, were considered as threats to the established social practices.
  • Widows Remarriage Act was introduced by Lord Dalhousie, but it was approved by Lord Canning in 1856. The Hindus saw it as a sequel to the abolition of Sati and took it as a threat to Hinduism.
  • They had an aversion to overseas services, as travel across oceans meant loss of caste for them. But the General Service Enlistment Act of 1856 required sepoys to serve overseas if ordered. This infuriated them.
  • The spread of Christianity and patronage to Christian missionaries and made the people believe that the Government was in collusion with the missionaries to eradicate their religion and convert them to Christianity.


Doctrine of Lapse introduced by the British denied the legal right of adopted sons of rulers to inherit the property or receive the pension which was granted to them by the British. In this way Lord Dalhousie annexed the Maratha States of Satara (1848), Nagpur, Jhansi, Jaipur, Sambalpur, Bhagat, Udaypur and several other minor kingdoms. On the death of Baji Rao II, the last Peshwa of Maratha Empire, the pension granted to him was abolished and the claim of his adopted son, Nana Sahib, to receive this pension was denied to him.


  • In rural areas, peasants and zamindars resented the heavy taxes on land and the stringent methods of revenue collection followed by the Company.
  • Many among these groups were unable to meet the heavy revenue demands and repay their loans to money lender, eventually losing the lands that they had held for generations.
  • Large number of sepoys were drawn from the peasantry and had family ties in village. So the grievances of the peasants affected them as well.
  • The disruption of the traditional Indian economy and its subordination to the British economy affected the lives of millions of Indians.
  • The economic decline of peasantry and artisans was reflected in 12 major and numerous minor famines from 1770 to 1857.


  • The Revolt of 1857 started as a sepoy mutiny. It was only later on that other elements of society joined the revolt.
  • Indian sepoys formed more than 87 per cent of the British troops in India. But they were considered inferior to British soldiers. An Indian sepoy was paid less than a European sepoy of the same rank. Besides, an Indian sepoy could not rise to a rank higher than that of a Subedar.


  • The government decided to replace the old-fashioned musket, ‘Brown Bess’ by the ‘Enfield rifle’.
  • The loading process of the Enfield rifle involved bringing the cartridge to the mouth and biting off the top.
  • A rumour spread that the cartridge of the new Enfield rifles were greased with the fat of cows and pigs. Both Hindu and Muslim sepoys refused to use them.
  • The sepoys were now convinced that the introduction of greased cartridges was a deliberate attempt to defile Hindu and Muslim religion and their religious feelings.
  • The name of the Enfield Rifle, one of the major cause for the revolt of 1857, was Pattern 1853 Enfiled or P 1853. William Pritchett developed the Pattern 1853 Enfield in the 1850s.
  • It was issued for the first time in India to the 60th Queens Royal Rifles in Meerut.


  • On 29th March 1857, at Barrackpore Mangal Pandey a sepoy of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry had refused to use the cartridge and attacked his senior officers.
  • He attacked Adjutant B. H. Baugh Baugh and Sergeant-Major James Thornton Hewson. Later Mangal Pandey was captured under the orders of Major General J.B. Hearsey, who then galloped to the ground with his two officer sons.
  • Mangal Pandey was court-martialed and hanged to death on 8th April 1857. He thus became the first martyr of the revolt of 1857.
  • Another officer, namded Jamedar Iswari Prasad was hanged on 21st April 1857 for not obeying his superiors’ orders to arrest Mangal Pandey.
  • One Paltu Khan was promoted for his active duty towards stopping Mangal Pandey.
  • The news of Mangal Pandey very soon reached other parts of the country.
  • On 9th March, 1857, the sepoys of the 19th Bengal Native Infantry at Behrampur refused to accept the greased cartridges. A court martial was done and the regiment was disarmed.
  • On 23rd March 1857, General George Anson, commander-in-chief in India issued an order suspending the use and firing of the greased cartridges throughout India until a special report is received from Meerut.
  • On 10th May, 1857, 85 soldiers of the 20th and 11th Bengal Infantry and 3rd Indian Light Cavalry mutinied and refused to use the new rifle and were sentenced to 2-10 years imprisonment.
  • The sepoys started an open rebellion, shouted the slogan ‘Delhi Chalo’ and proceeded to Delhi to over-throw the British rule and massacred any European that came their way.
  • They entered the Red Fort and proclaimed the aged and powerless Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II, as the Emperor of India.
  • Col. Ripley was killed at Delhi and the public welcomed the soldiers and supported the revolt.
  • The son of Bahadur Shah II, Mirza Zahiruddin was declared commander in chief, without having any military experience.
  • Later the command at Delhi was taken by Bakht Khan, the nominal commander in chief of the rebels at Delhi, who later died in the battle in 1859.
  • From Delhi the revolt spread to other places. During May-June, the mutiny turned into a general revolt of the people.
  • In Kanpur, Nana Sahib was declared the Peshwa. His troops were commanded by Tantia Tope and Azimullah Khan.
  • At Lucknow, Begum Hazrat Mahal was assisted by Maulvi Ahmadullah. In Jhansi, Rani Lakshmi Bai and in Arrah, Kunwar Singh led the revolt. Khan Bahadur Khan was the leader in Bareilly.
  • They seized armories and plundered the treasury. They then attacked government buildings – the jail , telegraph office, record room, bungalows – burning all records.
  • Proclamations in Hindi, Urdu and Persian were put up in the cities calling upon the population, both Hindus and Muslims, to unite, rise and exterminate the firangis (meaning foreigners)


  • Before sending out troops to recapture North India, the British passed a series of laws to help them quell the insurgency.
  • By a number of Acts, passed in May and June 1857, not only was the whole of North India put under martial law but military officers and even ordinary Britons were given the power to try and punish Indians suspected of rebellion.
  • The British used military power on a gigantic scale. To recover their lost prestige they took help of the loyal forces from Punjab.
  • The siege lasted four months and Delhi was finally recaptured under John Nicolson on 10th September 1857. The fighting and losses on both sides were heavy. One reason for this was the fact that rebels from all over North India had come to Delhi to defend the capital.
  • The old Emperor Bahadur Shah along with his two sons was taken prisoner. After a trail he was deported to Rangoon. His sons were shot dead at Delhi without a trial.
  • Awadh was brought under control only in March 1858 after protracted fighting.
  • Many landholders died fighting the British or they escaped into Nepal where they died of illness or starvation.
  • It took another ten months of fighting before the Governor-general, Lord Canning, could proclaim the end of the Mutiny on 8th July 1858.


  • British Prime Minister : Lord Palmerston
  • Governor General : Lord Canning
  • British Queen : Victoria
  • Commander-in-Chief : George Anson, Colin Campbell (after Anson’s death)


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